Being in a band involves a lot of emotional labor—not just the blood, sweat and tears that go into making meaningful art, but the effort it takes to keep a group of people happy enough to keep working together in tight quarters. Being a member of Warpaint, according to guitarist/vocalist Theresa Wayman, is like being “in a four-way marriage, essentially. It can be really complicated.”
Wayman’s not the first person to compare the experience of being in a band to being in a multi-partner romantic relationship, but the solution that she, guitarist/vocalist Emily Kokal, bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Stella Mozgawa have come up with syncs nicely with their L.A. future-hippie vibe. When it started to become clear that exclusivity wasn’t working for them, they embraced creative polyamory, with each member taking on at least one project on the side. Lindberg recently released a solo album under the name jennylee, Wayman’s working on her own material, Kokal’s scoring films and Mozgawa is one of indie rock’s most in-demand session drummers, backing the likes of Kurt Vile and Jamie xx.
When it came time to start working on a follow-up to 2014’s self-titled album, which had helped elevate the group from cult popularity to the level of indie stardom where obsessively curated fan sites start popping up on Tumblr, they decided to keep things casual. They’ve always avoided the kind of intra-band hierarchy that governs some groups, but the four-way free-for-all creative process that guided their first two LPs didn’t seem like the right fit anymore. For Heads Up, out today on Rough Trade, members worked alone or in pairs to write and record basic tracks, which then made their way back to the band as a whole. “It was simpler from the get go,” Wayman says. “It was good just to have us all doing thing outside of the group mind. It lends itself to more individual voices being heard.”
“As we become better songwriters, we’re realizing how much we love hooks and groove and structure.
Over the span of 12 years and two albums, Warpaint had developed a sound that emphasized lush, shadowy abstraction and trance-inducing rhythms, connecting the rainy-day aesthetics of the British label 4AD and L.A.’s native strain of psych rock. It earned them a reductive but not entirely inaccurate portrayal in the music press as “witchy,” as well as a fan base that extends well outside the usual bounds of goth-dom. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante bought the band their first P.A., and Wayman calls Flea one of their biggest supporters.
Those longtime fans might be surprised by Heads Up. While it’s got plenty of the reverb, electronic noise and hypnotic vocals that defined their first two albums, it also finds the band stepping out of its trademark gloom to show off a well-honed pop side.
“I love a lot of pop music,” Wayman says. “As we become better songwriters, we’re realizing how much we love hooks and groove and structure. I like that we don’t totally succumb to that, but that those elements mixed in with our tendency to be sort of long-winded and impressionist. They’re a really great combination. Being more vivid was really exciting.”
Heads Up is definitely vivid. The hooks are hookier than they’ve ever been, the vocals are pushed up in the mix and many of the songs—like the instantly addictive disco-pop lead single “New Song”—snap to structures that have more in common with Taylor Swift than Robert Smith. More than ever, you can pick up on how much fun the band has making music together. You can even imagine like “New Song” and the beat-heavy “Dre” working on dance floors at places that aren’t goth clubs.
If Heads Up sounds more upbeat than their past efforts, it might be because Warpaint has a lot to be happy about. After putting themselves twice through the grueling cycle of recording albums and touring behind them for years, the band’s found a happy level of popularity, abetted by regular appearances at major festivals and high-profile gigs like anchoring a Calvin Klein ad campaign, that can sustain what they’re doing—without the enroaching madness, paranoia, bitterness and vice most successful bands face. “We got big off the first album,” Wayman says, “but we never got huge. We weren’t like the Strokes after Is This It came out, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs after ‘Maps.’ I think that our trajectory is great. I’m really comfortable with it.”
Warpaint’s about to hit the road, this time for a few months rather than a couple years, and the hangout mood of the recording seems like it will carry over into the tour. “We’re lucky enough to be doing bus tours,” Wayman says. “Bus tours are still tricky because there’s not a lot of space–you’re basically living in a one-bedroom apartment with a barely-working bathroom and a toaster and a tea kettle for your kitchen. It’s still great.”
“We’re all buddies,” she says. “We know each other.”