Warpaint’s Theresa Wayman reveals the secret to her ambient tones – and it features less reverb than you might think

Theresa Wayman
(Image credit: Robin Laananen)

When Warpaint convened in 2019, there was a plan. As guitarist Theresa Wayman recalls: “We were all anxious to record an album the way we used to when we were starting, together in the rehearsal space just writing and jamming and playing things over and over, really honing songs.”

At first, this plan went swimmingly. In the earliest stages, the band set to work at drummer Stella Mozgawa’s home studio. “The best moment was when we got together in the first stages of writing,” Theresa says. “We all came in with some tracks we had started. We put those on and started learning them, bringing them to life. It was an ecstatic moment.”

From there, they moved to a pro studio, Rancho De La Luna, in Joshua Tree, that fabled outpost in the California desert, where they were joined by producer Sam Petts-Davies. There was one track, Trouble, that was recorded with the whole band playing live. “There’s something magical about that,” Theresa says. But, she adds with a sigh: “The logistics always seem to step in.”

‘Logistics’ in this case came from singer/guitarist Emily Kokal’s pregnancy. Warpaint raced to finish the basic sessions before Kokal’s daughter arrived. “There was a lot of emphasis on getting the bass and the drums recorded,” Theresa says. “The basic structures of the songs, and saving the top line guitar and vocal stuff for later.” And then: “The day Emily gave birth was the day LA shut down for the pandemic.”

Theresa is audibly frustrated that the process couldn’t have been further from the planned jamming: “We were all separated and this album became a very piecemeal, separated project.”

She tracked some of her remaining guitars at home with an amp borrowed from her boyfriend. Writing without her bandmates had its own challenges.

“Being really isolated, you start to go down certain roads on your own,” she says. “You think you’re getting somewhere, but sometimes they don’t get it. That’s a really hard bit of feedback. You’ve spent so much time and energy putting your heart into something and other people are like, ‘I don’t know...’”

With Stella returning to her native Australia and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg going home to Utah, the band attempted to work across three time zones.

“It was really hard to finish the album in such a disjointed way,” Theresa says. “Especially the mixing. We tried doing [online] mix sessions. It’s just so difficult with everyone at a different time of day through different speakers in a different mood. No aspect of it is a shared experience. It was really hard to come to consensus.”

Miraculously, Radiate Like This is an outstanding Warpaint album. Despite the drawn out process, Mozgawa and Lindberg’s live rhythm tracks from Rancho De La Luna give it an organic vibe. “We had a lot of heart and soul in there just from the recording sessions. Thank god we had that,” agrees Theresa. 

Having so long to finish the album had advantages, too. “It was amazing in a lot of ways because I’ve never actually been able to sit with our songs for that long since the early days, to really figure out what I wanted to do with them,” she muses. “There’s a lot more consideration to the songs because of that extra time.”

Warpaint found a solution to their mix problem in Kokal’s hometown. “Eventually we found somebody in Portland,” Theresa explains. “Emily and I were able to go and do some real hands-on mixing the analogue, old-fashioned way. You make your decisions there and then, and that’s it. That was an incredible experience, the antithesis of our modern processes.”

Radiate Like This finds Warpaint at their most dreamlike and poppy. There is less of the rocking out or math-rock time changes that distinguished their early efforts, but the reflective mood feels appropriate. For her part, Theresa found a new approach to writing guitar parts.

“I was actually messing around a lot with as clean a tone as possible, just seeing what it was like to have a really naked sound,” she reveals. “Is that a sign of maturity or something? More and more, I just want songs and parts to stand on their own as they are, and inherently have strength in them. I’ll add effects after as it suits, but not using that as the means of writing the parts.

“You have to be a lot more intentional with what you write if you’re not being smudged out by a lot of reverb or delays. You need to make sure that you’re listening to the other parts.

“It was really interesting to sit with the songs and meditate on what the other parts are, how to interweave in between those, rather than just smearing over the top of them.”

You have to take your time and go more subtle than you think... If you’re tuned in, small moves are actually more impactful

Kokal and Wayman are masters of ambient guitar tones, and Theresa is very forthcoming about how to build those tones without descending into chaos. 

“You can’t just throw every delay and reverb on or it will become really overwhelming. You get a slapback or an almost imperceptible short delay that just makes the tone sound wider.

“If you put reverb on that, it blends the delay even more so that you don’t hear it as an actual repeat. You have to take your time and go more subtle than you think – well maybe not with everything, but if you’re tuned in, small moves are actually more impactful.”

Having written the parts for Radiate Like This with dry tones, Theresa found herself stripping back effects for recording as well. “There’s oftentimes a lot of effects on the other aspects and the other layers within our songs, so I was drawn to stripping away any effects and just letting things be clear. 

“I tried all kinds of things. I started to use a phaser and a wah. I was trying to introduce some other sounds and none of them were really sticking because it felt like these songs called for cleaner tones.”

As always, Theresa’s ’64 Fender Mustang was her main guitar, recently joined by its twin sibling.

“I have a new ’64 – new to me – Mustang exactly like mine,” she says. “It just has different pickups. A friend of mine who works at [music store] Future Music found it. I walked in one day and he was like, ‘I just got off the phone with someone who has a red ’64 Mustang. It was their dad’s and they just want to get rid of it.’ 

“It was so serendipitous that I walked in at that moment. I decided to grab it because I thought maybe my son could use it, and it’d be nice to have a backup of the same guitar. It has a P-90 in the neck. It has a really brilliant tone, rings out in a really different way. It feels really good so I was using that some. For the most part I’ve just been using my setup, which is an AC30 and my Mustang.” 

Don’t get the wrong idea about dry tones, though. Radiate Like This is still full of glorious ambient sounds, and Theresa was happy to tell us (roughly!) how she got them. 

“I’m not the best person for remembering exactly what I did,” she laughs. “I just feel my way through. I usually stack a couple delays and reverbs on my Mustang just to make try to give more depth and sustain. I have a Boss DD-6 and an EarthQuaker Devices Dispatch Master. 

“The Catalinbread Adineko has some really wicked delays on it and get can get really bizarre, too – warbly and interesting. I usually put that into a phaser because it creates a chorus effect. I’ll do multiples, like a short one and then a longer delay, and then the Dispatch Master will get it really dreamy and washy if I want it to be. 

“A chorus and a shorter delay are always good to mix in there, just to create the illusion of a wider sound on the on the initial hit, and then I have an actual delay.”

The core guitars sound clean and full-bodied, and Theresa explains that an overdrive is essential to achieve this with the Mustang: “I usually like to gain it up just a little bit as well even if it’s not super-obvious. I like it to feel really hot. If I’m picking softly, the more I gain it up for that richer tone. 

“It fills out the sound, and I need as much of that as possible with the Mustang. If it’s not overdriven it will just sound thin and harsh.” For this album, gain came from the JHS Sweet Tea overdrive.

With the album complete, Theresa is already thinking about what to create next.

“This is exactly what we were trying to achieve,” she enthuses. “I love beautiful pop songs that have this perfect simplicity. It can be a complex thing to achieve. I’m really itching to get back into live and experimental things.

Radiate Like This is a lot more poppy in a Warpaint way. I love that about it. There’s this other aspect to us that is the antithesis of that, that has some weirdness and dissonance and isn’t always palatable. I want to explore those aspects of ourselves again.” 

But for Theresa, playing live is where she finds joy, she says: “We played a show last weekend. We got back together after two years and started playing together. That’s when I had that feeling it was just amazing to play again. It felt like playing all our old songs for the first time.”

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Jenna Scaramanga

Jenna writes for Total Guitar and Guitar World, and is the former classic rock columnist for Guitar Techniques. She studied with Guthrie Govan at BIMM, and has taught guitar for 15 years. She's toured in 10 countries and played on a Top 10 album (in Sweden).