Atmosphere is everything when it comes to a live performance. It could be the lights, the stage, the mood of the crowd or the tall guy in front of you who’s blocking your view. Whatever it is, the band sets it. And when it comes to all-female L.A. dream-rock quartet Warpaint, their music and energy alone sets them apart from any band out there today.
Warpaint first arrived on the scene in 2004 when bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and sister/actress Shannyn Sossamon met childhood friends Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal. Playing in the Los Angeles music scene for three years before debuting their first EP Exquisite Corpse in 2008, they were already on their way to becoming indie-rock girl heaven.
The girls opened with some dreamy numbers at the historic Fillmore theater in San Francisco earlier this month, keeping their focus on the music as songs intertwined and drifted from melody to melody. Old favorite “Bees” allowed us to become mesmerized by the familiar ghostly vocals of Wayman and Kokal, while the danceable, tasty bass lines and infectious smile of Lindberg stole the whole room. Drummer Stella Mozgawa laid down beats that were powerful, rhythmic and incredibly driving, as songs began to wallow in our hearts or get us moving to upbeat percussive sounds.
Old and new songs were heard, as the early “Beetles” and “Elephants” won the crowd over and the more recent, highly danceable “New Song” got the crowd moving.
The energy of their live performance is incredibly raw, as we visibly see the girls get lost in sound and allow the songs to go where they may. Wherever the mood went, they went there. And we as the audience got to join in on this raw, sometimes fragile musical energy.
Often described as dream-pop with psychedelic rock and a tinge of post-punk, there really is no way to describe Warpaint’s music in one. Their music can oftentimes be droning, wallowing in loud, rhythmic drum beats and heavy bass lines that make the girls’ unintelligible whispers and wails sound even more moody. Other times, their music is swift and rhythmic, lending way towards feelings of release and resentment (as in “Love Is To Die” as Wayman sings, “I’m not alive without you”). We aren’t given structured power chords or catchy hook lines, but rather sounds that fill the room and continue with the flow of a beat. A persistent bass line here; a glittery guitar there; whispers heard back and forth there. The occasional upbeat percussion track also forces Wayman to let go of her guitar, bounce back and forth to the beat as she twirls a microphone in her hand.
The fact that Warpaint is an all-female band — a novelty in the highly male-dominated music industry — makes them intriguing already. But when they can actually play their own instruments and sing their own songs, trying to impress no one but to just make music that feels good and true to them, that is Warpaint’s charm.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, the girls reflected on their take on being female rockers in a highly-saturated male industry.
“When we became a band,” Kokal revealed, “we were like, ‘Well, if we really play our instruments well, we kind of have this in the bag, because there really isn’t anything else going on like this.’ There’s a million guys in rock, and a million bands out there, and it’s over-saturated, everywhere. For us, just being the sex that we are happened to be enough of a niche that we could do what we wanted, and be ourselves.”
The intuitive, emotional nature of women was also highlighted by Wayman and Lindberg, as they noted the highly expressive nature of women to share and communicate — something that shows in the band’s atmospheric, “freeing” take on letting the music go where it goes.
With the band’s third album Heads Up released just this past September, the girls have much less to prove but more to experiment, detail and offer to their listeners. And if their live performance was any indicator of their future — still rooted in instrumental jams full of tight drum beats, billowing bass lines and dreamy harmonies that produce overwhelming waves of sound and harmony — their music has shown a growing sense of maturity and creativity.
It was only my first time seeing Warpaint live and if there was anything I learned from leaving this sold-out show, it is that these girls can play. It doesn’t matter if you can offer a catchy hook or powerful vocal, because Warpaint is here to show you that music can be entirely transformative and freeing if you let it. Rather than preach, they let you feel. And I think that goes a lot further.