How Stella Got Her Groove

STELLA Mozgawa meets me on a very hot Saturday afternoon in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood. She’s nearing the end of a two-month tour with her band Warpaint, supporting Depeche Mode across North America. “It’s our first stadium-y tour,” she says. “It’s really fun.”

She makes a disclaimer that she’s already had too much coffee, and we both wonder if it’s the last heatwave of the season. It’s a typical east LA cafe – people are furiously typing out their screenplays on their Macs, while eyeing off every new person who walks in. “It’s extremely seductive, it’s a seductive place,” she remarks on LA when we discuss all the expat musicians who have made their way here, or those flirting with the idea.

Stella grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her Polish immigrant parents who moved to Australia to perform together as a musical duo. She became a drummer in defiance of her “anti excessive noise” mum, and later moved to New York City, aged 21, with her band Mink.

“Being a session musician and a very active freelancer as a musician is like being in those game shows where they put someone in those tubes and blow money at them and they’re just grabbing.”

A few years later she had befriended another Aussie expat – none other than Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea – who convinced her to move to LA. In 2009, she met Warpaint vocalist and guitarist Theresa Wayman and was asked to join the band to replace Shannyn Sossamon, who left to focus on her acting career. She was living in Flea’s guest house at the time.

“We still stay in touch,” she says of the Melbourne-born musician. “He was so instrumental in me meeting the Warpaint girls. He was the first person to even say their name to me and the first time I hung out with them was around him and around his friends, so he had a huge part to do with that.”

“There’s a lot of people from that era that were raised on certain music that have so much integrity,” she says. “Whether you’re a Red Hot Chilli Peppers fan or not, he really means what he does and he’s a punk at heart. He doesn’t give a shit about metrics or who’s popular, he’s just about the soul of music.”

Spending an hour with Stella feels like catching up with a friend who has an insane amount of musical knowledge and random facts. (Did you know Taylor Hanson and James Iha are in a band together called Tinted Windows?)

She’s one of the most dynamic and fun drummers to watch live. She’s in one of the coolest bands on the planet. And she’s played with some of the most beloved indie acts around today – from Kurt Vile to The xx and Kim Gordon. Is it any wonder why people want to be around her?

On the anecdote about her parents that still makes her laugh

MY parents when they moved to Australia, they were gigging a lot in restaurants and places like that. So they were playing at the Rooty Hill RSL where they played early evening. It was a pokies crowd, late-’80s, early-’90s time. They had sequenced all these songs on these drum machines. Mum was singing and Dad’s running from the SH-101 [synthesiser] pressing the sequencer button there, running across stage and pressing another button that would set something off, then grabbing a bass guitar and ripping a solo. He was just running from one side of the stage to another, nailing it and keeping things together.

Mum’s singing, looking very beautiful. Dad’s sweating. At the end, there’s like three people in the crowd and one of them half-claps at the end of every song. And the others are barely looking up from their beers.

And then at the end of the show, Dad’s winding up the cables and they’re packing everything up. This drunk guy walks up and he’s like, “Hey”, and my Dad’s like, “Yes?” Mum’s on the stage kinda listening but Dad’s engaging with this guy. The guys comes up and he goes [puts on a drunken Aussie drawl] “Youuuuu were, that wassss, really great, really great, I really enjoyed that show. Thought it was really good. Really beautiful stuff. Sounded really beautiful.” And Dad goes, “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” And the guy goes, “Not you!”, and looks at Mum grinning.

On her mum’s early aversion to drums

MUM’S not even anti-drums, just anti excessive noise in the house. So I started with piano, which you can enclose in headphones. Guitar’s pretty quiet, bass is pretty inoffensive but then once drums come into the house it’s quite disruptive. Which I think was good in the end because I wasn’t going to do it unless I really wanted to.

So I had a very limited amount of time to play every day which was from the moment that I got home until the moment that my mum got home, probably about an hour-and-a-half. I used to have to set up and break down my drumkit every time I wanted to play. I got really good at it. I could work really well as a roadie.

There’s two drummers that changed the way that I think about drumming, and when I hear them drum, I still get really excited: John French, or “Drumbo”, who played with Captain Beefheart; and Jaki Liebezeit, Can’s drummer who just passed away.

On learning by memory

I SPENT a lot of time learning songs when I was playing in bands as a kid. You get a new album and you wanna learn every song on bass, on guitar, on drums. I didn’t really want to go to music school and my parents couldn’t really afford to send me for excessive music tuition. I picked up music a lot better myself.

Some people’s minds are wired to read music and some people’s brains are wired to memorise. I still do this now, if I have to learn songs for someone’s set, I’ll listen to the song a million times. For a week, I’ll have it in the car – I’m listening to Kurt [Vile] and Courtney’s [Barnett] stuff now [Stella starts a tour with them on the day after the Depeche Mode dates].

If you listen to your favorite song 10 times, you’ll know the lyrics by the tenth time – you won’t have to think about it. For me, it’s the drum part. That and the vocals cues.

On moving to America and being a “yes” person

I CAME over to New York the first time in early 2006, right before I turned 21 with a band that I was playing with. I knew that there was a possibility that I’d just be over here for a year or two so I thought I’d go along for the ride – I’d learn something, it’ll be exciting, I’ll get to go to America. Maybe it’s just my rumschpringe and then I’ll go back to my normal life and go back to uni.

I’ve been here 11 years now and it’s all just through years of saying “yes” to things. Maybe not everything but things that from the outset have some kind of worth in your evolution as a musician or as a person. For me, I just remember thinking I’m deferring university, I want this to be another form of education, so I approached it in that way. I was never rigid.

I’ve played with pop artists, I’ve played with rock bands, alternative music – I tried everything because I honestly didn’t know who I was as a musician and I wanted to absorb it. I really respect people who know who they are from the get-go and know what suits them stylistically, but I was just never that person.

I wanted to try it all because who knows what I’m going to be good at or what’s going to feel relevant. Over that period of time, through collecting material and playing different styles of music, it has informed and shaped who I am as a musician and now I feel more confident about that.

On her guilt about leaving Sydney’s music scene

THERE’S a part of me that feels guilty every day, that I should have stayed and tried to enhance the experience back home or get behind the cause. I know a lot of people who are very vigilant about Keep Sydney Open like the Motorik guys, [Keep Sydney Open coordinator] Tyson Koh and FBi.

Now I look back at the musical landscape that people like myself and Jono Ma [Jagwar Ma], Anna Lunoe and Kirin J Callinan, and all those people who – to a certain extent – have become expats but grew up around the same scene.

“I used to dream about playing my first solo show at The Hopetoun and now it’s just moths.”

[They] played Spectrum, played Oxford Arts Factory, the Excelsior and the Landsdowne. I mean, The Annandale has closed down, everyone played at The Hopetoun. I used to dream about playing my first solo show at The Hopetoun and now it’s just moths.

I look back at that time and think it was an incredibly fertile time, not just in music but in education in the arts. The sad thing when you lean towards the spectrum of commerce, the body and the soul of any city or country starts to be quite diseased. And I see it happening in Sydney. I feel quite helpless.

I don’t think that I’m successful or famous enough to be like, “Look what the Australian school system made me, I live in America and I’m a working musician.” No one gives a fuck. I don’t know what the solution is. It’s so heavily, restrictively bureaucratic. You can play a fundraiser in Sydney and raise money and get all the bands together, but you have to change the minds of the people who are the city planners.

On why she’s in such high demand

I don’t necessarily feel like an exceptional musician or technically very gifted. I think I have two things that I can offer people – firstly, I try to have as little ego when I’m working with someone. I want to be sympathetic to people’s vision and not be like, “Well, I think that’s tacky.” I just go with their idea of it and try to facilitate it.

Secondly, I would say that I am a tolerable person to be around. The combination of those two things, I can say has probably helped me get most of the work that I have.

A lot of drummers are really headstrong. They know exactly what they do and don’t want to do. I actually love egos and I love people who really know what they want and I love working with people like that. So I don’t want to be another thing to clash with. In my band, it’s different because if I feel passionate about certain things or if I feel attached to something, I feel like it’s my responsibility to say what I want.

On playing with Tom Jones

TOM Jones is an anomaly in my musical history. Things just happen in a weird ways. Warpaint played Later with Jools Holland in 2011 and there was this drummer in the audience [Jeremy Stacey] who just came up to me after the show and was asking me about my cymbals.

We kept in touch, I had no idea who he was and then someone said “Oh, he’s one of the biggest session drummers in England”. He played with Sheryl Crow for 10 years, he recorded with Tom Jones, played on Charlotte Gainsbourg records, he plays with King Crimson now. He couldn’t do the next Tom Jones record so he recommended me.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to schmooze my way into anything, because I’m really bad at it. I wish I could network and do all these things, because I’d probably own property and be financially stable and I’d be driving something other than a Honda Civic from 2002. That all sounds great to me, but I just can’t do it.

On the best show she’s ever played

IT was in 2007, just before I moved to LA – I was in New York – and I was asked by my friends Ben Ely and Quan to play in Regurgitator, supporting Devo. They were my favourite band growing up and Devo are one of my favourite bands of all time.

During that time, Regurgitator played their own show at the Annandale and I played with them. My parents were there, all my friends were there. It was The Annandale show that I always imagined but I was actually playing it and I was playing it with my favourite band. I was 20 or 21 at the time. At that point, I thought, I can leave Australia now.

"You can’t see anything but you’re high and you just know that Björk is out there. Another stress dream."

On the worst show she’s ever played

ONE of the more stressful ones was Warpaint playing this festival in Ireland. We were going to play right before David Byrne and St Vincent. It was one of our first shows supporting the second record [2014’s Warpaint] and we’d just hired this tour manager/monitor engineer who was not good at her job at all.

We had just started using in-ears and we were 20 minutes late to stage because there were so many technical issues. She was like this Catherine Tate character who pretends she can translate seven languages, that’s basically who we hired.

Oh, I just remembered another show we played that Björk was at. We had a mutual friend so she came and said hi to us five minutes before the show, but all of us were really stoned; drastically stoned to the point where when we got on stage, the lights were completely static.

It was an event at the Ace Hotel in LA where you play after a film screening. You can’t see anything but you’re high and you just know that Björk is out there. Another stress dream.

On someone who has changed her way of thinking…

WHEN I moved here and lived with Flea, that was a really transformative and powerful time in my life. I was very much a “yes” person at that time. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do and I felt like I could have fallen into a few different worlds in terms of who I was as a musician.

Am I going to be a session musician and just play with a bunch of people and make my money touring? Or will I be in the studio or will I join a band? I remember I was stressed out about whether to take a tour with a friend of mine – this pop artist from Australia.

I just thought, I have to make rent money and establish myself and start making an income, and I talked to Flea about my anxieties and he said something to me to the effect of, “Never go for the fast nickel, always go for the long dime.” Meaning, invest your time in something that is sustainable and means something to you that’s creatively satisfying.

Being a session musician and a very active freelancer as a musician is like being in those game shows where they put someone in those tubes and blow money at them and they’re just grabbing. Obviously thinking in that way and monetising music and the musical experience isn’t always the best route. I appreciated that he saw something in me when he said, “That’s not who you are.” I see who you are and I see your potential.

Something Else