Her thoughtful yet exuberant playing with Flea, Kurt Vile, Tom Jones, and especially L.A.’s dreamy groovers Warpaint reveals a sophisticated attitude toward songcraft—and an ability to just plain rip.
Even without knowing whether Stella Mozgawa is a fan of the session drumming masters Matt Chamberlain and Joey Waronker, it’s kind of a no-brainer to ask her about them. Like the work of those brilliant musicians, Mozgawa’s slithery beats are at once endlessly groovy and completely sympathetic to whatever song Stella’s playing on. Her parts are devoid of excess yet full of interest. They have intensity, even at low dynamic levels. And they have oodles of style.
“Joey and Matt have both had a pretty big influence on my drumming,” Mozgawa confirms by phone, while spending the winter holidays at her parents’ home in Australia. “They’re session drummers that approach everything in such an integrative way—they’re part of the band, not just technicians. I admire that philosophy. It’s really soulful.”
Repeated listening to Mozgawa’s drumming suggests a player with a well-developed artistic philosophy. But according to Stella, there’s no pervasive concept that she adheres to. “I think every song suggests the appropriate mood and approach, if you listen very carefully to what’s missing,” she explains. “It’s the most challenging and satisfying aspect of making music, but I wouldn’t say I follow any particular formula. If anything, I always ask myself, ‘What would I enjoy hearing as a listener?’ I can’t just shit all over a piece of music because the beat I’m playing feels good. It has to complement what’s already living in the song.”
Warpaint, whose latest, self-titled album arrived in January, is the ideal vehicle for Mozgawa’s fresh but grounded style. Like the drummer’s playing, Warpaint’s music is multidirectional yet retains an appealingly strong sonic personality, tying together influences as diverse as new wave, dream pop, and dance rock. “I think that comes from the creative constitution that we have as a band,” Mozgawa says. “All four of us are involved in most every aspect of the music. We also tend to get bored easily, which contributes to the light sprinkle of schizophrenia in our sound. When we all agree that something works, that’s the Goldilocks moment. We are one another’s barometer of taste.”
Warpaint’s “sprinkle of schizophrenia” extends to the sounds the band works with. On the new album, for instance, “Hi” has a dry electronic feel, “Go In” features cool Tom Waits–ish percussion and a jazz vibe, and “Feeling Alright” sounds like towels were placed on the drums. “A few of the tracks were recorded in different spaces,” Mozgawa says. “‘Go In’ was done in our temporary living-room studio in Joshua Tree, ‘Feeling Alright’ in our rehearsal space—different spaces with their own sounds. I’ve got a few different kits too, including a smaller old Slingerland jazz set and a standard-size Pearl wood/fiberglass kit.
“Both of those songs were tracked as demos that made the album,” Mozgawa continues. “It’s really difficult to re-create a space and a feeling when it sounds satisfying to you. ‘Son’ is another one like that; we had to do some audio trickery to re-create a sound that I had accidentally created on a demo, which was later stolen with my computer a few months before we started tracking the album with [producer] Flood. That was one of the great advantages of working with Flood—he was really open to keeping demo parts and full recordings, in the understanding that some of these sounds, accidental or conscious, cannot be simulated, no matter how good you are as players or how good your engineer is. It’s a moment in time—it may be ropy as all hell, but it has a spirit that is essential to that song’s character.
“‘Hi’ was a really interesting song to track,” Mozgawa adds. “The demo had a blend of MIDI drums and live kit. When we tracked the version on the record, I played the drum machine part live on my SPD-S so that it had a natural feel to it—we could ebb and flow as a band while recording. We weren’t just playing to a glorified click track. I’m really proud of the weird litter of mutts we created sonically on this album. There’s a lovely little story for every track.”
On record, Warpaint really shines when working at a “cool burn” dynamic level, allowing the cymbal sounds to be especially clear in the mix. You can tell just by listening that Mozgawa’s choices are well considered. “I’m all about cymbals,” Stella enthuses, “especially since I was turned on to Istanbul Agops a few years back. It completely changed the way I play drums. I always viewed cymbals as an auxiliary element to the drums—until I played a friend’s set of 30th Anniversary jazz rides. Holy smokes! It was like aurally eating the creamiest cupcake ever made. They’re constantly making unbelievable cymbals, so I’m always willing to experiment.”
Mozgawa’s open-mindedness is evident not just in her tones but in her approach as well. She can pull off slick and silky dance beats that could have rocked Studio 54 circa 1979, as evidenced on “Disco//Very,” from the Warpaint album—and then play an atmospheric tom tap-dancer on the very next cut, “Go In.” And before you get the idea that she’s happiest in a mellow mode, check out “Everybody’s in a Band” from Andy Clockwise, all garage-rocking floor-tom toughness, Cheap Tricky cymbal wash, and Mitch Mitchell– like snare boldness.
Mozgawa’s eclecticism has roots in her early musical experiences. Stella was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1986 and started out on piano at age six, picked up guitar at ten, and began drumming at twelve. “My parents were both musicians,” she explains, “so I grew up in a very musical environment. My early drumming influences were sometimes subliminal—Purdie, Gadd, Keltner, Marotta…anyone who played with Steely Dan, really. In terms of technique, I learned a lot from listening to Danny Carey. Then, of course, there was John Bonham and Levon Helm—the classics. And there are so many incredibly inspiring drummers out there today too—an endless pool of ideas.”
Mozgawa doesn’t point to a specific time when she made significant leaps in her playing, but says she experiences musical epiphanies to this day. “I don’t realize I’ve learned anything until I listen back to a song and notice that something has gotten under my skin. But I feel revelations happening all the time. I remember when I moved to the States to play music, my MO was to learn as much as I could. I’m always the student, never the expert. So playing drums is a constant internship for me—music in general is. I find it the most satisfying way to approach what I’m fortunate enough to do every day.”
Though her focus is Warpaint—she joined the band after recording the debut album by Flea, whose former Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate John Frusciante was an early supporter—Mozgawa continues to work with other artists. “It’s always a joy and a great learning experience,” she says. “I love being privy to the different ways people approach recording and writing. It’s never the same, and it’s invaluable. I was lucky enough to record with Kurt Vile on his last record—I think he’s a bonafide genius, the real deal. I also worked with Tom Jones a few years ago, and what I’ve learned from these two legends from seemingly disparate worlds is that more often than not, everyone is willing to trust the choices you make.
“So you need to go with your gut, however ephemeral and vague that may sound. Even if you’re ‘just playing drums’ on a record, you are collaborating. You’re influencing the sound as much as anyone else. I think the moment I made that realization, I completely chilled out. I always thought I was going to lose the job. Someone was going to eventually inform whoever was in charge that they had made a grave mistake. It’s nice to have lost a little of that rather crippling neurosis.”
Check out MD’s Spotify playlist at moderndrummer.com to hear Mozgawa’s confident, creative work with Warpaint, Flea, and others.
Tools Of The Trade
Mozgawa chooses from various drumsets, including a vintage Slingerland jazz outfit and a Pearl wood/fiberglass kit from the ’70s. She plays Istanbul Agop cymbals (“I’ve kept relatively the same setup since joining Warpaint—two 16″ Agop crashes as hi-hats, a 24″ Turk ride, and a 22″ Agop ride used as a crash”), Promark 5A Japanese oak sticks, and Remo Vintage heads (“or the Aquarian vintage equivalents, which match well with the drier tone that I’m fond of”).