(Left to Right) Stella Mowzga, Jenny Lee Lindberg, Emily Kokal And Theresa Wayman. Photo by Richard Ramirez, Jr.

Warpaint Comes Home

Lead singer Emily Kokal is back in the place she fell in love with music

Emily Kokal’s favorite show her indie rock band Warpaint has ever played was in a thunderstorm at Desert Daze in 2018. She says the lightning made the stage look electric, and the crowd (and thunder) roared. They were supposed to be the warm-up before Tame Impala, but the storm forced the psychedelic music project out of the lineup, leaving Warpaint as the headliner. 

“It was just insane,” Kokal says. “We accidentally headlined Desert Daze.”

It’s difficult to describe Warpaint. Its sound is dreamy but not boring in the slightest. Its vocal harmonies are hypnotizing; its lyrics deeply personal and there is a level of synergy among the musicians that entrances the listener.

Other than Desert Daze’s incredible thunderstorm, Kokal’s other favorite show was playing at the Oregon Country Fair in 2011. The Eugene native says it was special sharing this place she used to go to as a kid with her bandmates. Freshly signed by the legendary indie rock label Rough Trade Records, Warpaint was coming home for one of the first times as a band. 

And now Warpaint is making a pilgrimage back to Kokal’s home again next Wednesday, May 15 to play some new songs, some old songs, and mostly to play music with her best friends in the town she believes may be partially responsible for her artistic sensibilities. 

“I was just doing so much of that as a kid,” Kokal says of art, “that I think finding myself in a touring band was just totally in the cards because that’s what I was used to.” 

Kokal recalls her Eugene childhood filled with tie-dye shirts, Saturday Market visits and live music. 

She says, “My mom had this voracious love of music to the point where she would be playing music in the car on the way to school, and I’d be like ‘Can you turn it down?’” Kokal adds, “She would listen to the radio and write down everything that was on KRVM that she thought was cool.”

An admitted “theater kid” at South Eugene High School, Kokal loved performing in front of a crowd, but she says her whole life changed when she picked up a guitar and started writing music. 

“I remember playing my first solo acoustic show and people having an emotional reaction, that kind of full circle moment of connecting to someone’s inner world,” she says. “I wasn’t just like making someone laugh. It was such a contrast from musical theater.”

Kokal was never classically trained in piano and never took guitar lessons. In fact, she was “diabolically opposed to somebody telling me how to play music” from a very young age. She instead preferred learning tablature from her mom’s boyfriend’s Beatlemania book and banging on piano keys until a composition came from it. 

Inspired by Cat Power and Elliott Smith’s deeply personal and emotional songs, Kokal wanted to write something that resonated with people in a similar way. She says, “When I was at South, I would write these deeply emotional and weird songs.”  

The older Kokal gets the more she’s begun to realize that the songs she finds to be too personal are the ones people gravitate towards the most. She says, “That’s what’s so beautiful about music, because the things that you think maybe I don’t want to admit or I don’t want to show are the parts that people say, ‘That’s where you got me.’”

Kokal says her bandmates, who have doubled as her best friends over the last 20 years, have allowed her to explore that emotional space. She met future Warpaint guitarist Theresa Wayman at Roosevelt Middle School, and they have been “inseparable” ever since. The two of them met bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Shannyn Sussman in Los Angeles a year after graduating from high school in 1998.

“We got together on Valentine’s Day because apparently none of us had any hot dates,” Kokal says. “And, we, like, did our first just jamming out and we had a real synthesis.” She recalls the four of them jamming on just four chords for a very long time that day until it would morph into a song. 

This ritual of jamming for hours on end lasted for four years. “We were sitting on music for a long time,” Kokal laughs. “We had friends that were like, ‘You need to leave the garage and play somewhere.’”

Not long after Warpaint started putting themselves out there, a millennial musician’s dream came true, and they were discovered on MySpace by Rough Trade Records. 

Since then, producer Stella Mowzga has joined the band as a drummer. They’ve put out four albums with one on the way. They’ve played festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella. They’ve toured with Depeche Mode and opened for Harry Styles’ Love on Tour in 2022. 

She says, “We’ve reached a sweet spot where we get to do all of these cool things, but we also almost have this kind of cult-like status with the people who really love us, loving us while also still being a little under the radar.”  

Since the pandemic, Kokal has had a child and moved back to Eugene after living in L.A. since she was 19. The band no longer lives a car ride away from one another, but Kokal says that time and distance have only made them better. 

“We’re all a bit more fortified in our own identities now,” Kokal says. “We’re mothers now and we’re in long-term relationships now. We have children now. There’s a maturity and strength that comes with that. Obviously, there’s puberty, but there’s something else that happens when you get to this point in life, and I find it really interesting.”

Kokal adds that she is excited to embrace the wisdom that comes with this stage of life and apply that musically. “There’s not very many all-women bands, especially at our age,” Kokal says. “I think growing older is only making our music more refined.” 

Warpaint plays McDonald Theatre, 1010 Willamette Street, at 7 pm Wednesday, May 15. General admission floor is $44.50 and balcony is $29.50. To buy tickets go to Mcdonaldtheatre.com or call 541-345-4422.