Stella Mozgawa on vintage tones and programmed beats
It’s hard for me to just play drums with Warpaint and then leave the room,” says Warpaint workaholic Stella Mozgawa. “I would feel like that is not the point of being in a band.” Since joining the Californian art-rock foursome in 2009, the affable Australian drummer has certainly made herself indispensable to the cause. She has achieved this by getting involved in the guts of the music, helping to co-produce records and leading the band’s experimentation with electronic beats.
In that time she has also made a mark on the session world, not least by appearing on the solo record by Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Helen Burns, and touring with Jane’s Addiction offshoot Satellite Party. Not a bad CV for someone who has only just turned 30.
It’s a list of credits that could provide the launchpad to a comfortable career backing up big names in the planning on hitting the session scene in search of her fortune.
“I like playing with people who have integrity,” Stella admits, “and if someone like that wants me to play bassoon on their record… well I can’t do that but I will try [laughs]. If I don’t like the music I’m playing on a session then what’s the point?
“If I need to make money I could just go drive an Uber or something. Someone could send me some demos and pay me $20 and if I love what they’re doing I’d rather do that than spend a week in the studio making a ton of money playing music that I think is s**t. That attitude will leave me poor for the rest of my life, but what can you do?”
Thankfully for Stella, what else she could do is stick to her guns with Warpaint, and that is exactly the option that she has grasped with both hands. The band are about to release their third album, Heads Up. Not only is it their most ambitious record to date, it is also Stella’s crowning glory. Filled with beautiful electronic soundscapes interspersed with intelligent, mature playing, this record shows Stella as a talented technician and song arranger.
First take feels
Turns out that Heads Up is also the quickest album that the band has ever made. Tired of the same old situation of recording sessions dragging on as deadlines became stretched, the band opted to take a new approach. Instead, they decided to eschew the usual song and dance of heading into a far-flung studio, opting to track a little closer to home.
“We recorded all of it in our rehearsal place,” Stella explains. “Instead of having those two worlds as separate entities we converted our rehearsal place into a studio, hired in the gear, brought in some people to help produce and engineer.
“It was faster than we were used to but it also felt natural because we were in this comfortable space with people that we knew well. It was one of the more unique experiences we’ve had making an album.” Stella reveals that the decision was a creative masterstroke and allowed the band to cut out any to-ing and fro-ing with material.
“If you fail to establish a deadline for yourself creatively you can allow a lot of things to get in the way of finishing something,” Stella explains. “That then becomes a habit. If you decide to record over the span of six months and record while you mix there is so much room to change every part of each song several times and make last-minute amendments. That is counter-intuitive creatively sometimes and you find yourself just floating. This time for whatever reason we just went, let’s do it quickly.’”
The time constraints played right into Stella’s hands. Here is a drummer that prefers not to labour over beats, instead opting for the irreplaceable feel of a first take.
This album though was in the spirit that I enjoy. I like first-take feels.
“I’ve worked with people that work on things for far longer, people who are a little more languid and particular in how they want things,” she says. “This album though was in the spirit that I enjoy. I like first-take feels. I always feel like my first take might be a bit flawed but everything after that is a conscious effort to replicate what you did in that first innocent moment. I like an album to be a snapshot of time rather than a perfect expression of oneself.”
Stella adds that the quick-fire process didn’t just work a treat for her one-take drum parts, but it also benefited the band, and the record, as a whole.
“The good thing about making something that quickly is that there is a wonderful freedom to that limitation,” she continues. “You have a finite amount of time to make the initial idea and then a finite amount of time to do the overdubs. You start making decisions a different way and more out of your comfort zone. That is perhaps more natural than making a record over the course of a year. This way is a lot more relevant.”
The bionic drummer
There was far more to this record, however, than just blasting out some one-take tracks and then clocking off. Heads Up is Warpaint’s most dynamic and ambitiously layered album to date. Tracks like By Your Side and Don’t Wanna find Stella pushed to her limits as she integrates acoustic and electronic beats to sublime effect. She admits that throughout the record she embraces the challenge of translating electronic parts to an acoustic kit.
“It is my dream as a drummer to be a little bit bionic,” she says. “My favourite thing is to program a beat and then try to replicate not just the rigidity of what is happening but also the stuff that seems impossible to play.” She admits that in the majority of cases it is impossible to replicate the initial programmed idea note for note, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, that is where the fun really starts.
“Even if you get close to it but you can’t nail it you will come up with something interesting and I like that a lot,” she says. “I like to play along with drum machines and programmed beats. I find that is really interesting, you don’t think about what kinds of fills you can do and you don’t overload the song with options.
“Instead you’re doing what a drummer should do in that you’re propelling a song but you’re also challenging yourself to be a little bit of a robot. If you take away the drum machine from the song it will have this flawed human feel to it along with the impossibility of what had come from the machine. I’m not a terribly technical player, I prefer working from concepts like that instead. Using samples can open up a more melodic world.”
Stella nominates The Stall as one of her proudest achievements on the record, a track that perfectly encapsulates her approach to the kit. “You can hear a 606 running in the mix on that song,” she says. “I programmed that beat and we wrote the song to that. Instead of playing around that beat or filling in the gaps I just tried to replicate it as well as possible.”
All about those vintage tones
But it’s not all electro Stella also loves vintage acoustic kits and rich, warm tones. That much is evident from her fascination with vintage Slingerland and Ludwig gear and her love of C&C kits, which she sees as a bridge between retro tones and modern reliability. When it came time to track Heads Up, vintage was the only way Stella was ever going to go and so out came a forgotten old friend.
“I used the same kit for most of the record and that kit was a surprise,” she says. “It was a small jazz kit that I don’t usually use. It was an old ’60s Slingerland with roto toms and minimal cymbals. We used that kit throughout the album, it was more a case of playing with the studio and outboard gear when we wanted to change the tone.”
Therein lies another example of Stella and Warpaint’s ongoing maturity. First off they got straight to business and cut their recording time, and then Stella stripped her kit right back. The latter sparked the drummer’s creativity and got her out of a habit of adding more and more to her rig.
“When I was younger it was all about how many cymbals I could fit on the kit, it was like a badge of honour,” she explains. “This time I wanted less to play with so I could use what’s there in a more creative and interesting way. A lot of drummers go through this process. Also, I don’t want to lug a massive drum kit and loads of cymbals, that is a nightmare to me, I just want the essentials.”
That Stella’s musical stamp – from electronic beats and stripped back kits to lush vintage tones – is found throughout the album brings us back to the fact that she has immersed herself in Warpaint’s world. She has no interest in tracking her drums and heading home. Instead, she is rooted deep within the band’s core, playing a pivotal part in everything from writing and arranging to production.
“Being in a band is four people expressing themselves and collaborating,” she says. “If I was just playing drums it would feel like I was trying to lift all of my groceries from the car just using my pinky finger. If I want to play a session with an artist that I respect then I am happy to let them order me around and play just what they are looking for, but when it comes to playing in a band that is not relevant for me to just be a drummer.”
Now with US, European and UK tours coming thick and fast through the rest of the year and beyond, all that’s left for Stella to do is to work out how she’s going to make the record’s rich layering of acoustic and electronics translate and work on the live stage.
If I was just playing drums it would feel like I was trying to lift all of my groceries from the car just using my pinky finger.
“For the last record it was just an SPD-S and some triggers,” she says. “We don’t play to tracks live. Playing this record live though I imagine it will be a little more involved with electronics. I would love to avoid playing to a track and a click as much as possible. It would be more interesting to get creative and find another way around that.
“I will probably be playing along to the beats that were programmed on the record because there’s a lot of layering. It’s a puzzle that I’m going to have to solve. I can’t imagine it getting too involved though, I won’t be having a crazy synth cave at the back of the stage. I’ll keep it as minimal as possible.”