It was past midnight in Hasselt, Belgium in 2016, and I was standing in the front row with other drowsy festival-goers, waiting for Warpaint to hit the stage. When they emerged for their soundcheck – Emily Kokal wearing an oversized tee with a huge weed print and Theresa Wayman in her trademark tartan skirt – a woman near me started sobbing.
“I love you!” she screamed at the band. I learned that, like me, she had hopped onto a plane from another country just to see Warpaint. To my right, a Pukkelpop-regular who had been trailing me for the past couple of acts uninvited, sneered. “They’re an all-girl band, but they still need men to help them move their gear.”
These are the sort of comments that Warpaint has been dealing with since day one. On the one hand, there are the reviewers raving about their psychedelic, dreamy music (“a bewitching sensuality”, said Consequence of Sound) and the fans who have been with them since their MySpace days. Warpaint released their first EP, Exquisite Corpse, in 2008; they soon signed with Rough Trade Records, and three full-length albums later they have accumulated a first underground, then global following.
And then there are dismissive critics—or worse, those who are unable to untangle the band from the constellation of legends that surrounded them. In the early days, Warpaint’s myth was intertwined with names such as actor Heath Ledger and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, who were friends with the girls and an ex-boyfriend of Kokal’s respectively.
This still haunts them: in a live session with Seattle’s KEXP radio in 2014, the host seemed unable to get through the interview without mentioning all the men the band had worked with. “We’re lucky girls,” Wayman said, almost offhandedly.
But it was a lot more than luck or their acquaintances that got the band where they are now. Wayman and Kokal – both guitarists and vocalists – were recently voted as Best Alternative Guitarists by Music Radar / Total Guitar readers, while drummer Stella Mozgawa graced the cover of Modern Drummer magazine in 2016. Bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg dropped her solo album in 2015 and collaborated with Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn and Danish producer Trentemøller.
Meanwhile, they toured the world fiercely, leaving in their wake a trail of hypnotic vocals, cheeky lyrics (“a clit cut, a clit cut, a clit cut, a cut what?” in “Composure”), seductive basslines and solid drumming that music critics struggle to categorise.
Now, they’re coming back to Hong Kong, having first performed here over four years ago. On May 5, they’ll be in town as a special guest of ex-One Direction’s Harry Styles. The band made the announcement on social media with a meme, as though they themselves were laughing at the incredulity of the pairing. Last year, they had played with very different musicians—electronic veterans Depeche Mode.
Wayman does not see this as problematic in any way. “I love that we’re playing with all kinds of people, that we’re playing in front of audiences – a large spectrum of audiences – and I don’t find any fault in that,” she told HKFP. Instead, she appreciates that there is a combining of different types of music: it showed that “people are more and more open-minded in enjoying music” and that maybe listeners have become “more accepting” in some ways.
In 2016, when Warpaint released a teaser for their latest album, Heads Up, some fans claimed that they had gone “mainstream.” For alternative bands, this is often either a death knell that sees them losing the majority of their original fan base, or an opportunity to tap into a whole new crowd.
But Warpaint’s decision to go the most dance-y they have yet, with the bubbly “New Song” or the funky “So Good,” was never a deliberate decision to embrace any particular genre or appeal to a certain group of listeners. They just wanted to bump up the beats per minute and make an album they could move to; it was as simple as that.
The album almost didn’t happen. The band revealed that, after touring their acclaimed self-titled album, Warpaint (2014) — they nearly broke up. Thankfully, they did not: instead, they threw caution to the wind, abandoning their long, sometimes agonising sessions of writing music together and struggling to reach a compromise, for a more carefree production-style that saw Heads Up completed in months. (Some older tracks, such as fan favourite “Jubilee,” never had an official release due to their perfectionistic tendencies, although Wayman promised me she would get the band to work on it “in honour of this conversation.”) Meanwhile, their relationship with each other emerged stronger than ever.
Warpaint formed on February 14, 2004 – Valentine’s Day. A fitting occasion, perhaps: it is no secret that the band are very close, and the sisterly affection they have for each other — of which sometimes fans get glimpses on their Instagrams — adds to the band’s charm. In the music video for “New Song”, we see the girls goofing around with each other in New York City at night, dancing on the streets, juggling fruit in supermarkets and watching a sunrise.
This bond between the bandmates is much more than a marketing facade; it is genuine. Long before Warpaint was a band, they were already part of each other’s lives: Kokal and Wayman have been friends since they were 11 years old; together they moved to LA from Oregon, and met Lindberg when the pair were 19. After Mozgawa entered the picture, the puzzle was completed, and they have been inseparable since. Recently, Kokal announced that she had become a homeowner, and she was quick to acknowledge the people who made it happen. It was, she says on social media, “thanks to my girls and the music we create together.”
Wayman – who has a pre-teen son – told HKFP that although she tries to spend as much time as possible at home when she wasn’t on tour, “[i]f I do go out or do anything… it’s usually with them; we’re all pretty attached.”
But touring takes its toll, and Wayman feels the difficulties especially acutely—so much that, in a search for a cathartic release of those emotions, she wrote a series of songs for a solo record that will be out in May.
The album, titled LoveLaws, is a tribute to how she “had to come to terms” with her longing for romance and partnership, complicated by the fact that she is a mother, constantly touring—and how she’s “unavailable in so many ways.” She could meet someone on the road, she says, and all of a sudden it’s over because she and her partner could not always be together physically, and there was no way to develop a relationship.
In the two songs Wayman released so far under the moniker “TT,” she has not been subtle with these struggles. In “Love Leaks,” she sings: “Feel like we’re failing, I feel like I’m waiting on you. Reasons are locked up, I feel like we’re out of touch.” And in “I’ve Been Fine” — a segment of which she had premiered four years ago in a Guitar Power video on YouTube—she asks: “Why can’t you be next to me?”
“It’s such a cliche for being this woman who’s yearning for a partner… like, I should be living for myself more,” she said. Instead of hating an aspect of herself she wasn’t comfortable with, like every good songwriter—and a romantic, she half-jokes—she has channeled this into her creative process, which helped her to understand herself, be more patient, and move on.
“And now,” she laughs, “I have issues in the opposite direction; I kind of just don’t want anyone to disrupt the flow of what I’m doing for myself and my son.”
Just as Lindberg’s solo album had been dripping with her Warpaint signature style: atmospheric, post-punky, anchored in raw vocals and distinctive basslines—Wayman’s sweet yet haunting voice gliding across trip-hop beats and dark, arresting hooks in the LoveLaws songs is reminiscent of her work in the band such as “Hi” and “By Your Side.”
While it remains to be seen what surprises Wayman has in store with the upcoming release, audiences will know what to expect with their May 5 performance. Ethereal vocal harmonies weaving into layers of mesmerising guitars and a fiery rhythm section —and the girls looking like they’re having the time of their lives.