When it came to recording their second album, Warpaint had a simple, effective strategy.
"We leant towards things we thought were sexier," says guitarist and vocalist Theresa Wayman. "It was an actual adjective we would use, like, 'Oh, that's sexy' or 'I think it would be sexier if we did this…' That actually happened quite a bit."
It's the sort of mantra that would bring a smile to any slick-haired Belstaff-sporting record exec, yet the sound of Warpaint, the eponymous follow-up to the band's widely acclaimed debut The Fool, is not your standard kind of sexy. Woozy, dreamy and rich, it's an album that drags you in until you're enraptured, but there's not much in the way of guttural grunts or cock-waggling guitar solos. As a sidenote, there are no cocks in this particular band neither.
Born from the lifelong friendship between Wayman and fellow singer and guitarist Emily Kokal, Warpaint formed in 2004. In a complicated genesis, the pair, who had grown up in Oregon but were living in New York, were summoned to California by the actor Shannyn Sossamon (also a drummer) who was looking to form a band with her sister, Jenny Lee Lindberg. Young, glamorous and well-connected they may have been but music took a while to gestate, a debut EP only arriving four years later (recorded under the direction of Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante, who was dating Kokal at the time). In 2010, however, with the itinerant Sossamon replaced by mouthy Aussie Stella Mozgawa, the band signed to Rough Trade records and released The Fool. It sold 60,000 copies in the UK alone and allowed the band to experience the customary trifecta of critical praise, profiles in glossy magazines and a massive, massive touring schedule.
While it might be the sort of experience that every band dreams of, we all know what follows. Egos come to the fore, constitutions are frazzled and someone gets addicted to heroin. Or maybe Haribo. Then there's the small challenge of recording the difficult second album. In keeping with a band that had developed at their own pace from the start, Warpaint chose to do things differently.
Firstly, they took their time, touring for longer and using their gigs as a sounding board. Wayman, who turns up for our interview dressed for summer rather than the soggy winter's day we're meeting on, took that process seriously. "I'd notice that we'd hit on certain moments in our songs and you'd see people moving around and really enjoying it," she says. "I would be so happy, but I knew that in about 20 seconds we were going to throw a curveball at them! I realised I wanted to have some more consistency and take people with us. Sometimes I think we just did things in order to keep us interested."
'Sometimes being the provocateur meant actually trying to get people to be a little more straightforward. It was new territory for us, to not be so unpredictable'
At the beginning of the recording process, the band decamped to the Joshua Tree National Park and worked on ideas. While everything on the Exquisite Corpse EP and The Fool had essentially derived from the partnership of Kokal and Wayman, for Warpaint everyone got a say. "If you're in a band you have to go through a lot of growing pains, trying to find the way that you fit together," says the platinum blonde Kokal, the most emotive member of the band and the heart to Wayman's head. "You want your needs met as an individual while considering the group. You have to be able to express things or you feel stuck. I think that's a primary function of the band, putting everything in the pot and then sculpting it together."
This sculpting took a specific form, with everyone bringing ideas, but one member of the band adopting the role of provocateur, challenging the ideas and elements of a song. "Sometimes being the provocateur meant actually trying to get people to be a little more straightforward or 'formulaic'," says Wayman. "I think that was actually new territory for us, to not be so unpredictable. To find a part that actually works and go 'OK, let's repeat this'. Let's take the best point of the song and let it happen more than once."
Thus the "sexy" principle was born. And by the time the record was finished, sexy was everywhere. The experience of listening to Warpaint the album is a distinctly sensual one, like being lost in someone's dopamine rush. "Absolutely," says Kokal at the suggestion. "I think that's something we have an unspoken ability to communicate, perhaps because we are four women. If you listen to the lyrics, a beat or a bassline it will reflect that sensuality."
Take the song Biggy for example. It began with Mozgawa toying with different drum patterns. "The original demo was pretty spastic compared to how it is now," she says. "It was probably like six times faster. But then it turned into something that became… I had a very sexual image when we were recording it. It had that quality to it."
"That song, to me, is about the sensuality of love being life," says Kokal. "I think that when you feel at odds with yourself or your surroundings, when life is difficult and oblique, it's when you're not surrendering to love. That's why people take drugs and that's why people take relationships. They do everything they can to experience that connectedness. This song was about getting inside my own private sexual experience and my love and talking about that feeling. If you want to talk about religion or God that's what I believe in."
'Playing, it's the same space as when you are with a lover. You can see guitar players as being in the same ecstatic moment as when they're alone with someone'
Reading this on mobile? Click here to viewThis idea is one that animates Wayman, too. For her, music itself is a means of creating a communion. "What else are you doing it for?" she says. "Whether you're actually witnessing someone listen to your music or they're listening to the album alone in their car, the plan is to share an emotion, an experience and feel connected. That's what I got out of music the most when I was younger and I still do. You know when you're young and your parents are listening to music, you're going along with it and think you like it. But then, all of a sudden, you get to this moment when it means so much to you. It's this thing that people create because it really connects to something deep inside someone else who's going to hear it. All of a sudden you don't feel alone any more.
"I don't know if this is TMI or something," she continues, "but if you really fall into music while you're playing, it's the same space as when you are with a lover. You can see guitar players in the way that they're playing that they're in some ecstatic moment and it could equally be a sexual moment where they're alone with someone. So if I were to actually put it all into a pot and think about it, playing music can take you closer to that same kind of state of ecstacy as an orgasm. Sometimes that can be very alarming if you're onstage."
Talking with a band before they release a new album catches them at their best, fired up with new material and ready to go again. Over the course of the interview, conversation turns to the quality of the dialogue in Gravity (not great, says Mozgawa), synaesthesia (Kokal claims that Warpaint, to her, is "deep purple – not the band") and whether Kanye West is as horrible in person as on record (Wayman met him once and thinks not).
Next up, though, will be another year or three of performance. That's a challenge that applies particularly keenly to Wayman, who is in a relationship with Mercury Prize-winner James Blake. "Last time we would meet up around the world at various festivals all the time," she says. "It was amazing. This time around we haven't released albums at the same time, and I'm kind of apprehensive. I do feel, though, that when we are together we can focus on each other and push each other forward so when we go away we have all this fuel for our fires."
A group that works as a collective, an album that's inspired by communion and rock stars who are actually in love. Now that's sexy.
Warpaint is out in the UK on 20 Jan
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Cillian Storm