Playing the machines as a human, Istanbul cymbals, and Warpaint’s new album Head’s Up
With a love of early ’90s pop music and an embrace of modern electronic style, Sydney native Stella Mozgawa approaches the drums in quite a unique way. She joined the American indie rock band Warpaint for their debut studio album, The Fool, in 2010. Six years later, having finished the band’s third full-length record, Mozgawa looks back on where her love for the drums started—and where she sees the craft heading.
Drums, the forbidden fruit.
Spending the afternoon with Guitar Center at Warpaint’s rehearsal space in downtown Los Angeles, Mozgawa remembers, “I think I started to play drums because it was the forbidden fruit for me. It’s a lot easier to have guitar and bass and keyboards in the house when you’re younger, than it is to have a full drum kit blaring … my parents kind of said ‘no’ until they absolutely couldn’t hold off anymore. I just nagged them … I’m not sure if it was out-and-out rebellion, I think it was a case of when you’re a kid, and someone tells you that you shouldn’t do something, or you can’t do it, or they would prefer it if you didn’t, that’s all that you can think about.
“Funnily enough, the first drummer that I saw on television that was the catalyst for my passion for drums was Zac Hanson, from Hanson,” she laughs. “For most people, I think, who are maybe 10 years my senior, [it] was watching Tommy Lee on MTV, or any of those hair metal drummers, but for me, it was Zac Hanson because he was the only kid my age. He was like 11 or 12, and that’s when I started playing the drums. And he was on TV, he was rockin’ out … he was very relatable. Oh man, I loved Hanson, I loved ’em. I loved the Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Spice Girls, [you] couldn’t get me away from it.
“I think generally, there was a point in time—I can’t even say when—but, I felt like I transitioned from the athletic element of drumming to the musical,” says Mozgawa. “At first, when you start playing, and you’re at an age where you want to feel industrious, you’re kind of competitive, and so you want to be the fastest, you want to nail that song, you want to be the kid in school who knows how to play all of Ænima, or a Primus song, or something like that, and later on, you just realize that that doesn’t really have a real-world use. At all. It’s not practical … there was a point where it was more about the practicality and the creativity than it was about the speed and agility, and all those things.”
Mozagawa recalls the progression of her setup, and how her current kit actually mirrors her very first drum set. “I think initially I started similar to where I’ve ended up now, which is quite minimal,” she says. “And then I started listening to Tool and Primus, and so I bought a double kick pedal, I had a splash, I had a China, I had all the accoutrements that most 14-year-old metal heads and prog rockers tend to buy … more was definitely more, at that time. Whereas now, the less drums I have to put together, and think about, and tune, the better. I think the more I can focus on being creative and coming up with something that doesn’t rely on certain pieces of gear, it’s more about how you’re expressing yourself.”
“The tones that I’m attracted to in music [are] sampled beats… from old funk and jazz records.”
A strange versatility to jazz kits.
Finding herself more and more attracted to scaled-down, bop-style kits, Mozgawa discusses her current sound. “These days, I’m liking the sound of smaller kits … it goes really well with a lot of the more electronic elements that we have in our music and that I’m kind of attracted to, so really focused, tight, smaller sounds that have the ability to sound quite jazzy as well.” She adds, “I think there’s a strange versatility to jazz kits that I didn’t realize ’til I actually bought a few of them. Once you tighten a bigger drum, it kind of loses a little bit of its edge or something, and you just get kind of the sound of a timbale as opposed to a sound of a tom … the tones that I’m attracted to in music, [are] sampled beats. So a lot of them are sampled from old funk records and jazz records, and trying to replicate that is kind of exciting for me.”
As far as her cymbals are concerned, Mozgawa relies exclusively on Istanbul for their large, vintage-inspired cymbals. “I discovered Istanbul cymbals about, probably six years ago now, through this wonderful musician, Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers) … he turned me on to them, he had them in his studio, and I think we recorded some of The Fool in his studio … I always loved cymbals, obviously it’s an essential part of a drum kit, but it was a while ’til I uncovered just how elemental they were.” She goes on to discuss her particular setup, “Typically it’s two Agop signature crashes, two 16-inch crashes that I use as hats, or the ones I have up right now, which are the 15-inch 30th Anniversary [hi-hats]. Rides and crashes are kind of interchangeable—I usually use a 24-inch or a 22-inch ride as a crash, and then my actual ride will be nothing smaller than a 24 … I guess I just feel more comfortable and expressive when I have that darker, bigger, deeper tone from the cymbals. And it makes me play differently as well, because if I have two rides on either side, I can do different patterns on the ride that’s typically where the crash is, but still crash it and use it as a conventional crash. But it’s kind of opened up the drum kit for me, a little bit. I can use the ‘secondary ride’ with the rack tom a lot more, and kind of find more interesting patterns … it definitely changed the way I looked at my setup—and played, ultimately.”
Inspired by the increasingly electronic sound of today’s music, Mozgawa incorporates electronic drums into her kit, with an added, as she puts it, ‘human feel.’ “Electronic music, to me, feels less niche than it used to. But I think there’s still a huge separation between playing instruments and programming drums … and I think what’s really exciting is bridging that gap, so they’re not two different camps. And there’s a lot of technology that’s coming out now with triggers that are incorporating the human feel, but still having the tones of electronic music that are so vibrant, and so interesting, and so malleable. I think my challenge, or what I find kind of captivating about the next few years in music, is about playing the machines as a human.” Mozgawa offers her typical electronic rig, “Live, I tend to use the [Roland] SPD-S, and I do write a lot of parts and patterns on the SPD-S, so I have like a typically 808 sound or a 909 sound, or samples that I’ve brought into the machine that I can actually play as I would play the drum kit. And that kind of inspires a lot of that un-quantized sound … I do one of two things: I play electronic sounds as a human, which I am, or I program something on a drum machine and try to replicate it on a drum kit … I’ll try and play it really straight and kind of regimented, but ultimately, I’m flawed, and it’s going to come out sounding nothing like the actual drum machine … it’s exciting trying to be a machine when you’re not.”
“What I find kind of captivating about the next few years in music, is about playing the machines as a human.”
Straying from the traditional band format.
According to Mozgawa, Warpaint is not your conventional band situation. “I feel like I’m less of a drummer in the band than I am just part of a four-headed beast… the four of us are very involved equally in the composing of something.” With Warpaint’s new album, Head’s Up, this format has brough a real sense of collaboration and intimacy to the band’s sound. “I think the thing that’s most different about this record to the last two that we made—one, is that we made it in here, in this room. So we utilized our space and turned that into a studio as opposed to taking demos into an ‘official’ studio, so to speak, with a producer that we’re not really familiar with, you know? Because we wanted to ultimately produce this record ourselves, but then you realize you need that objectivity and you need another authority, and that was our friend Jake Bercovici … he knows the girls so well, and he worked on the first EP, that it kind of felt like going back to the soul of the band … so it was very familiar and familial, making this record.”
As Mozgawa’a sound and cache of experience continues to expand, she asserts that it is the people she’s worked with, artists like Jamie XX, Kurt Vile, Jagwar Ma—who have not only shaped her journey, but inspired her to evolve. “I think ultimately it comes down to just, I like to play with people who have integrity. It doesn’t matter what style of music or how popular someone is, the thing that ties all of the projects that I’ve been involved with together is that they have a really strong vision of who they are, and I enjoy not playing like myself, because I don’t feel like I play like anything … I never wanted to sound a certain way, or whatever, it’s always been a combination of who I’ve played with, what records I’ve made with people, what they’ve taught me about music in general, and also about my approach … I get to uncover all those things while I’m on the job, which is really exciting.”