Gigs Don’t Lie: Warpaint are most dynamic, underrated live act

Music Tastes Good

Five states. Six festivals. A headlining show at Irving Plaza. That’s how many times I saw the frenetic foursome Warpaint perform live over two months. And it was never the same show twice.

They hypnotized longtime fans at Coachella back-to-back weekends. They mesmerized with a daytime Shaky Knees slot in Atlanta. At Hangout Fest and Bonnaroo, they delivered compelling, robust performances that made no one who attended second guess skipping Chance the Rapper in their favor. At Governors Ball, their set meshed perfectly with the rain — which provided them a perfect backdrop for their ethereal soundscapes.

Warpaint is the quintessential “You’ve gotta see them live” band. As much as I love their records, there’s something even more extraordinary about their live shows. The seamless transitions. The seemingly out-of-nowhere jam outs. The aura. The vibe.

Theresa Wayman, Emily Kokal, Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa have the kind of chemistry that suggests they’ve played together for decades — but Mozgawa joined forces with the other three as their full-time drummer less than 10 years ago. Mozgawa and Lindberg make up arguably the most dynamic rhythm section in rock music right now and Kokal and Wayman’s dual vocals are and guitar-playing match them blow-for-blow. But it’s the fact that they can just throw each other knowing looks in order to change direction mid-song that separates them from their peers.

“I think it’s because we’ve been touring for so long together,” Lindberg told Pass The Aux hours before the band played Hangout Fest, where they’d go head-to-head against Chance the Rapper and pull in a respectable crowd.

“We’ll have sets that are really tight and they’ll work and we have transitions in between each thing,” Lindberg explained. “So before we go on tour, we usually go and we rehearse and we say, ‘Let’s have a couple of different setlists so that we don’t just do the same thing every night,’ so it’s not monotonous. But it’s nice to have a flow with your set. It’s nice to be able to have transitions and kind of just keep it going. So what we do is we have maybe a couple of different setlists that we use and then just depending on our mood, we are really good at just improvising and being goofy and whatever. And Stella and I oftentimes will go off in some weird jam and then Theresa will join in and then Emily. We’ve been playing with each other for awhile so I feel like we’re all pretty in tune with what’s going on on stage, so we can just kind of throw things out there if we’re in the mood to do so.”

Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal flash each other smiles at Governors Ball

“We’ve been playing with each other for awhile so I feel like we’re all pretty in tune with what’s going on on stage, so we can just kind of throw things out there if we’re in the mood to do so.” — Bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg

I was at the front of pretty much every Warpaint crowd I was part of during these last two months, and I never saw the same exact show. I go to on average four or five shows a week, and it’s disappointing how eerily similar a band’s set can be from show to show, down to the banter in between songs. But Warpaint’s shows aren’t like that — they’re fluid.

I talked to dozens of people while waiting for the band to take the stage each night I saw them. One common thread as to why they chose to spend their time watching them over other bands at these festivals was the amount of fun they have on stage — that it’s palpable and carries into the crowd. Not only do they have fun with each other, Theresa and Emily are often looking into the crowd and connecting with people. They feed off the energy of the crowd as much as any band.

“For us I think the most important thing is to make it exciting for us so we’re having a good time up there, we’re having fun, so that we can be giving that energy to the people who come to see us play,” Lindberg agrees.

More often than not, you’ll see Emily flash a smile at Theresa, or Stella snap out of a trance and start laughing in the direction of Jenny as they beef up the tempo. The four took some time apart after touring extensively in support of 2014’s self-titled record to work on other projects. Clearly the time away did them good — they’re playing arguably the best shows of their career, perhaps with a newfound appreciation for how special they are as a team.

Warpaint’s live shows are so strong that if you search their videos on YouTube, you’ll find an insanely dedicated fan base that will exclaim things like “This is the best version of ‘Beetles’ I’ve ever heard” or “That transition was savage” when talking about “Heads Up” into “Krimson” [SPOILER ALERT: It is fucking savage].

One of the first times I saw Warpaint live was at Coachella 2014. They played a nine-and-a-half minute version of “Elephants” — one of their breakthrough tracks from their 2007 debut Exquisite Corpse. I remember turning to my friend with my jaw dropped as they jammed out the song until it was just Theresa on a lone guitar, before it all came back around again. It was one of those holy shit moments that makes you savor live music — and how some bands just have infinite amounts of chemistry.

It was one of those holy shit moments that makes you savor live music — and how some bands just have infinite amounts of chemistry. (Warpaint playing “Elephants” at Coachella 2014)

“It happens as an improvisation at first and then we end up going, ‘Oh shoot, we really like that, that was really cool, what did you do last night?’ and then we will kind of do different variations of it,” Lindberg said about their many jams and improvs. “But it usually happens for the first time when we’re on stage. And then we kind of keep it and start adding to it and making it a little different. Some songs that we have have been written like that on stage.”

Take for instance the title track from their 2016 masterpiece Heads Up. The band has been using one of the key guitar riffs from the song as an intro to “Krimson” as far back as 2011. Their ability to mix it up and play the same dozens of different ways makes it so surprising that the band has never officially released any live cuts — until now.

Warpaint has often been described as witchy and brooding, which if you’re going off their earliest work, that’s a fair description. Last year’s Heads Up was said to be inspired in part by rap music — and it’s an element that’s been present in their live show for years. There’s a flow that’s reminiscent of ’90s West Coast hip-hop, and a swagger to match it. The way they’ve adapted older songs from their catalog to match the tempo and vibe of the new material is impressive.

Take a song like “Disco//Very” for instance — the album cut moves at a slightly slower rhythm than it does in their live set. On stage, the guitar and bass parts are more prominent than in the recorded version, and it has a beefier intro. It transforms into a real bouncy tune in their set.

A photo book commemorating the band called US / THEN is being released July 1 via Setanta Books and was assembled by the band’s longtime photographer and tour manager Robin Laananen. The book comes with a special 7″ single featuring live versions of “Bees” and Heads Up cut “Whiteout”. That this is the first time the band is putting out live cuts is surprising, and there’s a chance we could see more someday. As someone who has a couple of Warpaint bootlegs that I listen to regularly in rotation, I asked Lindberg if they’ve ever considered a full live record.

“Yes — we’ve recorded so many shows and we definitely — yes, we have, for sure,” Lindberg said. “And I think what would end up happening is making — if we were to do anything now — I feel like we would pick songs from different shows instead of actually just recording a full-on live album. I think it would be live songs from different tours even and make a compilation at this point in time. … Pretty much we record every single night. It’s always there if we want it.”

That’s exciting news — this coming from someone who has listened to a bootleg of their Coachella 2017 weekend one set nearly 100 times.

Warpaint may not yet be a household name — I’m often very surprised what bands they are billed lower than on festival lineups considering their elite musicianship — but they’ve got the respect of their peers and also some legendary acts. They were just recently picked to support Depeche Mode, which includes four sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl this October.

“When I heard that we were even being considered as an option for that tour, I was blown away,” Lindberg said excitedly. “Even just the thought of being considered made me so happy. I’ve been a fan of their band for a really long time. When we got it, it was just like, what? How the heck did that happen.”

Warpaint will also tour as support to Harry Styles of all people across Asia in early 2018. They’ve also toured in support of Nick Cave, as well as The xx. The last time the band played the Bowl, they got 20 minutes as part of a massive bill featuring Arctic Monkeys and TV On the Radio. This is also the first time a band has played the Bowl four straight sold-out nights, meaning Warpaint will technically be the first band to do it, since they open the show.

Los Angeles fans will get an additional opportunity to see Warpaint, as they play a free show August 17 at the Santa Monica Pier as part of the Twilight Concert Series. They’ll also rejoin the festival circuit with stops at Lollapalooza and Outside Lands after returning from the UK.

It’s safe to say you’ll have your fair share of chances to see Warpaint play live in the coming months — I highly advise you do your best to catch a band at their live peak.

Emily Kokal singing in the rain at Governors Ball 2017

Other stellar Warpaint live videos from over the years: