Stella Mozgawa – Warpaint

Stella Mozgawa. Photo by Kirk Stauffer.

Stella Mozgawa. Photo by Kirk Stauffer.

Here it is: the last drummer interview from Pickathon 2014. After 2 years and 2 months, I have finally transcribed all of the interviews I conducted there. This specific interview was also my ending to the festival as well. I met Stella in backstage area behind the Woods stage and we talked about drums for a bit. Enjoy.

Alright, first things first – how long have you been playing drums?

I’ve been playing since I was 13 years old. I’m 28 now, so that’s fifteen years.

And do you play any other instruments?

Yeah, I play drums, bass, guitar, a bit of synth, electronic instruments, a bit of piano.

Are drums your first instrument would you say?

It’s my primary instrument, but it wasn’t my first. I led up to it – it was kind of my last, in a way. I started on piano when I was six and my parents put me in classes and stuff until I was about 9, and then when I was 10 I decided I wanted to play guitar and I didn’t want to play piano any more. So my dad bought me a guitar, luckily, because he’s a bass player, so he was really keen on me playing those instruments, but I always wanted to play drums, and they just said ‘Ok we’ll do a year of lessons of drums, or practice on pillows or whatever, and see if you still have the urge because it’s a big commitment to get a drum kit.’ And I was just always obsessed with it. I remember having the urge to play it forever, but I didn’t think it was a possibility, and then when I started high school – I went to a single-sex school: it was all girls – and there weren’t many drummers there, so it was a bit less… I’m a bit of a wallflower sometimes, at least I was then, and I didn’t really feel confident taking up the drums if there were a bunch of boys who were possessive about it. So there was a bit of a weird vibe at the end of primary school. There was a kid there who was the drummer and I asked if I could play and he said no, so I just got obsessed with it and it was like I need to do it now. So as soon as I got to high school I started playing.

So that was the memory that you have of deciding that you want to play drums, was this dude being like ‘No’?

That was kind of like the nail in the coffin. But no, I think I remember playing on a drum kit when I was really young – probably about 6 or 7 – like on a family-friend’s drum kit, and I was just obsessed with it – I loved the idea of playing, so it was always in the back of my mind and there were just little steps which led to me actually, finally playing.

Did you take lessons in high school, or did you just play along with people, or…?

I played along with records a lot, and I did play in the contemporary wind bands and the jazz bands and a few little rock bands, starting in high school. Every year would have a rock band. So there was a year 8 rock band and a year 9 rock band and a year 10 rock band and stuff.

That’s cool.

Yeah, it was really cool. It was always an initiative.

So you were in all girl bands in high school. Like you are now.

Yeah, pretty much. But it was in between. I also, during high school, played with a lot of guys outside of high school. I started playing in this band that was sort of a mix of the brother and sister schools that were close to each other. And that was the first kind of co-ed band that I played in. Then one of those guys, his brother who was older and a famous musician, asked if I would play in a band with him, and then I played in about every band that would have me, basically.

Some nerdy drum questions: the first one is obviously your favorite drummer, alive or dead?

Umm, it’s so hard….. There’s no one drummer who really does it all, for me. But, I really love Toni Allen – Fela Kuti’s drummer . And I really love Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt. And just people who have their own style. Questlove is amazing as well. And I consider J Dilla to be a drummer, and he is one of my biggest influences in the way he approaches rhythm, and Levon Helm I really loved when I was growing up. All the classics, when I was growing up, and learning how to play. I loved Bernard Purdie and all the Steely Dan drummers and stuff like that.

Do you have a favorite drummer at Pickathon?

You know, I don’t really know who a lot of the bands are or haven’t really seen them. I just got to see Courtnie Barnett – a fellow Australian, and Dave [Mudie, her drummer] is a really cool drummer. Can you name me some? Who’s your favorite?

I don’t really know honestly. You’re like the seventh or eighth drummer I’ve talked to. I don’t want to flatter you too much, but at least three or four of them have named you as their favorite drummer.

Aww, that’s so sweet. Who are they?

The drummer from Foxygen, the drummer from Those Darlins, and the drummer from Diarrhea Planet.

Diarrhea Planet.. I heard about them last night and they sound amazing.

Maybe it was three. Those are the three that I can remember.

I’ve heard of Foxygen – they’re really cool – I’ve seen them before. I don’t know what the drummer’s name is. I think they’re LA  as well. I didn’t really look at the line-up. I was looking at what time Courtney was playing, so I looked at.. I realized that Jonathan Richmond is playing. He’s one of my favorites, but I have to miss it because we’re playing at the same time. But who plays drums for X at the moment?

DJ Bonebreak is his name.

Yeah, I saw them recently and they’re fucking amazing. I think he’s up there, but I’m sure I’m missing somebody who I really love, out of ignorance. I wish I had a better answer for that. Dave from Courtney Bartnett  is really cool. DJ Bonebreak is really cool. Out of the ones I know that are playing. The drummer for Foxygen, his name escapes me.

We’re going to – this is a question and so far everybody’s answered the same answer – you can only choose your ride or your high-hat and you play it for the whole song. Which one do you choose?

High-hat. Easy.

No one has ever said ride. Why not? What’s wrong with the ride?

You know what? I think it depends on what kind of music you’re playing, first.

The couple of jazz dudes – they said the high-hat too. Everybody likes the high-hat.

It’s less offensive. Ride is such a dynamic element – it’s kind of an accessory, in a way. I feel that snare and hat and bass are absolutely essential. I know a lot of people who are artists who just don’t play cymbals – they just hate the sound of cymbals, like crashes and rides and things like that. It’s offensive to their frequency when they’re singing or playing or whatever.

Ok. So high-hat.

High-hat for sure.

Alright, it’s 8 for 8 now. That’s fine. Cause you can open them. I guess.

Yeah, cause there’s a lot of texture you can have with them.

So what’s the biggest crash you would crash?

I used to have two 24 inch rides that I used. One is a crash and the other one is a ride. I still use that 24 as a ride – the Turk. I had a jazz ride – 24 inch Istanbul  – that I used as a crash for a while. So 24 is the biggest.

That’s awesome.

Yeah, but I like them dry so they’re not just a constant wash, they tend to be quite shrill. I like a darker crash sound.

Do you have a bell size that you like?

I generally like it big. I don’t like too heavy cymbals either. I like the one on the Turk. I think that’s really nice. But Istanbul started putting out these flat ones as well, and they’re pretty cool. They have a bellish tone in the middle..

What is your favorite song to play along to, or with that, specific drum fill within a song, if you have one.

In one of our songs?

In any song you could listen to, or in one of yours.

I really love playing along with “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan.

Ok. Is there a fill in there?

Yeah, there’s a few. I think that’s one of those funny songs that’s fun to play along to and get everything right – like a video game. Like when you’re obsessed with a video game and you figure out a cheat and you keep using that move.

What’s the cheat for that song?

I think it’s just like a Bernard Purdie thing. I don’t think he plays on that track, but.. When you go kind of off on something or you fill.. I love fills that go into the next bar. That’s like my favorite thing, and I steal that, all the time, basically.

You mean onto the one, or how far?

No, after the one. Usually two or something.


Yeah, I love that. I love that vibe.


I don’t know. It’s just cool. It opens up.. It’s almost like looking at the logic..of a beat, and you know that the beat’s going to come in there, or going to crash in there, and that’s the one. And it opens up a world of possibilities if you have more of those.

That’s awesome.

Yeah, just like looking outside of the box a little bit. I wish I could think of more… There’s so many good fills.. I just can’t..

Are you familiar with NPR at all? NPR does fill Friday – you should check it out. They have like five different drum fills, the audio of them, and they have a little quiz. You have like two or three seconds of a fill…

That’s so cool.

You should check it out.

And you have to like identify it or something?

Yeah, you play the fill and then there’s four choice and you have to click on what you think is right. I’m horrible at it.

I want to hear that. That’s awesome.

There’s a very specific segment that I can identify. But there’s just some that I haven’t heard. But I think you’d probably be good at it.

I’d enjoy it at least.. I’d get more ideas.

Do you wanna talk about… You’re the last drummer I’m interviewing this weekend and you’re the only woman. Do you wanna talk about the politics of that, or have you answered millions of questions about that before?

You know what, right now, I don’t even think about it, but I definitely thought about it when I was younger. It was a bigger deal. And I think because people just made a bigger deal out of it. When I was fifteen years old I started playing in clubs and it was weird, burly, old, kind of cynical sound guys from Sydney who just didn’t quite understand that that [women playing drums] was even a possibility, so they kind of treat you with disrespect. So I did build up this harder exterior. Because I would think that I have something to prove, because I’m a girl and I have to prove that I’m good. So I kind of played in a different way. I think I played fancier, in a way. I wanted to get my chops up and I wanted to be able to do all the songs that people didn’t believe I could do. It kind of all came from external factors how I perceived myself as a female drummer, or whether that was even a big deal.

I see. For me it just sucks having to ask that question, cause I didn’t ask ‘How is it being a male drummer?…

Yeah, it’s a thing. There are some cities, and some places in the world, and some people have never never.. it’s really really rare for them. And for other people it is more common. They know five or six girls in London or LA or New York that are great drummers and they consider equals. When something’s rare it gets high-lighted basically, and I think the rarer something is the more people will talk about it. It’s like girl-bands. It’s the same thing.

So do you think you’re past the point of any kind of discrimination?

Totally. I might have positive discrimination. Some people might think I’m better than I actually am because they’ve never seen a girl drummer and they have low expectations of what a girl drummer is. And I think, just listen to the music, or just think what’s in their minds. When I was growing up had a lot of people going ‘you’re a great drummer for a girl’.

Ugh, the worst.

It didn’t piss me off. I was like ‘I just want to be better. I want to be so good that you’re not thinking about the fact of whether I’m a girl or a boy’. And then after a while I just fucking got over that, because it was getting in the way. In my late teens, I was just like ‘fuck it, I’m going to just enjoy what I do and it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks’. But when you’re from 14 to 18, it’s the most self-conscious you can be as a human I think, and because that was happening and because people were talking about it in a kind of female vs. male drummer kind of way, I definitely feel like I thought about it a lot more, when I was growing up because it was something.. people were talking about, and now people don’t, and it’s not as big of a deal.

Well, hopefully. I feel like there’s still a little bit to deal with, but maybe not as much..

Always. Of course. There’s prejudice about girl-bands.

The fact that it has to be a genre, like ‘female-fronted-bands’ or ‘female-bands’, making that a separate genre itself is a problem.

I feel like less and less people ask about it. Like female-bands, I never really get the drummer question so much, but I’ve only been interviewed a handful of times, specifically by drumming magazines.

Have you ever been interviewed by or are you familiar with Tom-Tom?

Yeah, I know some of those guys. I’ve done a few articles with them, and Modern Drummer as well , but not a great deal, there hasn’t been a great deal of exposure for that kind of stuff. That’s kind of a different world of drumming I think maybe than the one that I’m in, whatever it is that I’m in. I think, for example, a good analogy is the way people respond to us now, when we came out with our last album, when we were doing interviews and touring, there were less Indie all-girl bands, and now there’s Haim, and Savages and there’s more people doing the same kind of thing. And people are more aware of those bands even though they’ve been around for a long time

For sure. One of my favorite punk bands right now – White Lung is three women and a dude on the guitar, and the drummer for them is sick.

White Lung? I’ll check it out.


One last nerdy drum question, I should let you get back to work. Favorite rudiment?

Probably the double-stroke, I reckon, when I’m warming up. I only just started in the last like year and a half or something, actually, warming up like that.

Slow to fast, or fast to slow, or..?

Yeah, slow to fast, or hard to soft, back again, that kind of stuff. I think it’s the best one for getting the muscles warmed up, because it’s not as cerebral as a paradiddle. But I like, when I warm up basically because if I don’t warm up my right hand, and I do a lot of 16th stuff with my right hand, I’ll get really tired. So now I have to just break through this threshold and just play really hard or really fast, on a pad or something and I can feel that muscle, you know when you’re playing and you feel that muscle standing up and you start getting hot and sweaty and you have to breathe deeper. I’ve been doing that a lot just to get warmed up. It’s not really a rudiment, but just a warm up thing.

Do you ever use heavier sticks during the warm-up and then switch to lighter sticks?

No, I mean maybe by mistake that’s happened a few times.

I used to, but it can make you play faster. I remember when I did that I kind of had to make sure I had to look out for tempo shifting.

That’s a big thing as well. I think it’s the biggest challenge once you’ve figured out what to play and how to play, is the tempo shifts, and just dictating the tempo in a band has just been on my mind more than it ever has been.

Do you find recording vs. playing live that you’ll kick a chorus or a verse into a higher gear if you feel like it? Or are you more of somebody who wants to play the recording tempo, usually?

I think live we’re kicking it up with a lot of songs these days – it’s just what feels good for everyone else, and I’m very sensitive about if someone says ‘that song was too slow.’ I wanna make sure that the next time we pay that it’s not too slow.

Who’s telling you that you’re songs are too slow? Or are you talking about the band?

People in the band.

Oh, I thought you were talking about an audience member –‘your songs are too slow’.

No, no, no. It’s always, with us, just like the pocket, when you’re playing guitar or bass, or when you’re singing along to something and it started out slow.. I don’t like shifting during the soft, but there are natural tempo shifts in our music anyway.

What’s the sign for it’s too slow? Is it like a head-nod?

It’s like (whispers) ‘it’s too slow’. There’s nothing in the head, it’s all in the mouth, and the eyes. I always get freaked out when somebody’s keeping time in their ears or something and they turn around and they just look disgruntled, and I think ‘Am I going to fast or too slow?’. I’m so hyper-aware of it now. It’s the next challenge.

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