By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Warpaint’s live show is enough to inspire a pants-off dance-off
A demonstration of the powers of Warpaint: One night in San Francisco, these three girls and one guy (who sometimes drums in drag just to joke about the all-girl band Warpaint used to be) were pouring out enough reverb to rattle rivets from the rafters, and finally one young man who’d arrived fully and respectably dressed couldn’t help himself. Song by song he stripped—shirt and undershirt and any further abdominal accessories—until he was naked to the waist and swaying hypnotized in the lights. And then suddenly the Warpaint set was finished. (Thankfully, while his pants were still fastened.) Says the guy to guitarist/singer Emily Kokal: “I know I was probably freaking you out, but I was just feeling it.” Says us to Emily: Lucky you didn’t play any more songs.
But if your band can mesmerize a man into getting half-naked, who knows what glories await you in the future? With the long-promised debut EP Exquisite Corpse just out and a just-finished Spaceland residency that left the band tighter and closer than ever, LA’s Warpaint are primed for further exposure. In Exquisite Corpse’s five songs, they try 50 small and subtle things—shy ravels of guitar or stuttered polyrhythms by drummer Dave Orlando, tense basslines by Jen Lindberg that would win approving salute from Jah Wobble, or melodies that stall and dive like a bird interrupted in flight. They positively effervesce atmosphere, beginning songs with barely more than bass and breath, and then roaring toward orbit; they evoke as much “lush” the adjective—heat and fog and a gentle threat of sensory overload—as Lush the band, whose ghostly vocals find respectful echo in Kokal and singer/guitarist Theresa Wayman. There’s even their reverent appropriation of a verse from Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” which adds new fire to the smoky stand-out “Billie Holiday.” (Used with permission, adds Lindberg.)
For a bit past 20 minutes, Corpse cascades through dub and dissonance and girl-group melodrama—the Slits tangled with the Shangri-Las—and finishes with “Burgundy,” which trickles into one last murmured melody before disappearing. It’s a dynamic like a vintage photograph; detail developing under liquid into clarity. Says Orlando, whose stints at Dub Club and Punky Reggae Party made him one of the most respected dub DJs in Southern California, “I like it when you can just understand the words that sneak through. I don’t like the real obvious stuff.”
When the band started in 2004, the four original members had a connection that was either “practically family” or “actually family.” Kokal and Wayman met in choir class at Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene, Oregon, walking to school singing together every day. (“Best friends since,” says Lindberg; “Siamese twins!” says Theresa.) Lindberg and Orlando met years ago through Lindberg’s sister—A Knight’s Tale actress Shannyn Sossamon, who was Warpaint’s original drummer even as her Hollywood career lifted off. Their very first practice was in Orlando’s studio, rehearsing some of the songs that would officially surface on Exquisite Corpse. When Orlando finally joined Warpaint this year after Sossamon’s amicable departure—his first chance to be in a band with Lindberg, whom he describes as “a little sister”—he found the band crackling with energy.
Exquisite Corpse (available directly from the band online at myspace.com/world wartour) shares a title with the surrealist exercise where one artist blindly completes a hidden drawing another artist has started. “Emily’s idea!” says Lindberg, and if that’s a metaphor for the way Warpaint works, it seems to fit. Every member laughs about the notoriously contentious rehearsal sessions. Even after four years together, nobody backs down from a good idea—to the point where there might have to be calming walks afterward? “Sometimes,” says Orlando.
“The dynamic between four girls could be pretty trippy,” says Lindberg. “We’re all strong forces, and we’ve all got something to say, and we all wanted what we had to say to be done. There’s no compromise on the songs—they’re everything all of us wanted.”
Was that an intense situation for Orlando to wander into?
“Yes, it was!” answers Lindberg helpfully. “But he keeps us balanced.”
“I usually just make paper cut-outs while the girls argue,” Orlando says. “I keep the paper and scissors next to me so I can reach over.”
In a matter of weeks, they’ll be recording the new songs they’ve been writing with Orlando, who brings his own momentum to the band. This new foursome moves more fluidly than ever, says Lindberg, and Orlando’s crack drumming lends even more power to a potentially irresistible live set. Now, Lindberg says, Warpaint are even hypnotizing themselves. After a song like “Elephants,” she’ll open her eyes to an audience she forgot was even there. But instead of losing control like a certain San Franciscan concert-goer, she simply turns back toward her amp, and lets her last note wobble home.