Screaming Females Find Themselves Somewhere Between Fame and the Scene They Call Home
Screaming Females aren’t so much emerging from the underground as they are jutting out from it at an awkward angle. Touring heavily, they’ve built a reputation based on their fiery live performances and frontwoman Marissa Paternoster’s guitar solos. Last year, the power trio released Power Move on New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni. It was their fourth album since they formed in 2006, but it was the first one to be released with help from a label.
Since then, their hard work has started to pay off. They’ve received piles of praise from blogs and magazines from SPIN to Maximum Rocknroll, even Guitar World and Teen Vogue. They’ve opened for a reunited Dinosaur Jr. and toured with Arctic Monkeys and The Dead Weather. But gigs like those are still exciting departures for the band. “We’d never been on a tour like that where we had a special room and a deli tray. Every day was a big adventure,” says Paternoster of their stint with The Dead Weather.
Screaming Females’ regular life still goes on in a less visible world of unpredictable house shows and tour vans that break down. Usually, they’re playing small spaces in cities across the country and just hoping someone shows up. Thankfully more people are showing up. Drummer Jarrett Dougherty happily recalls two recent shows at the all-ages venues Trunk Space in Arizona and Che Café in San Diego: “Both of those shows were really awesome. We’d been to both cities a number of times and had kind of hit-or-miss shows, but this time there were lots of people to see us,” he reports.
In contrast to the instant blog-driven fame so common for talented (and some less talented) indie bands, the music-appreciating public seems to be getting to know and like Screaming Females bit by bit. The critical response to their music has always been favorable, but music writers seemed to find the band and its music a little enigmatic at first. It’s understandable. Their sound is a challenging and ever-shifting mix of classic rock tropes and melodic hardcore. But lots of early write-ups pegged them, curiously, as post-punk.
The band is really too busy following their alien muse to sweat genre distinctions. However, it’s important to make one thing clear: Screaming Females are a product of the DIY punk scene in their hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Rutgers University has attracted enough young people over the years to foster a persistent tradition of ad hoc music venues. That tradition, in turn, has fostered The Bouncing Souls, Lifetime and Thursday, among many other less notable punk bands, and now Screaming Females.
More current articles on Screaming Females embrace this, making them the new face of that music scene – at least to those on the outside. That role might be uncomfortable for some bands, but Dougherty says it’s fine: “It’s cool that people associate us with New Brunswick and mention New Brunswick because it is where we came from and it is our history, and to ignore that would just be silly.”
The drummer once did all the booking himself and still handles a lot of the managerial stuff, like reading the band’s reviews. He’s come to view almost any kind of attention the band gets positively. “Hopefully, some of the other bands get some attention, because they’re cool and they work hard. And, hopefully, it helps other people realize that they can build their own communities through music without having to listen to anyone else or worry about 21-and-up bars where no one seems to care,” he offers.
They still find their strongest support in New Brunswick. The band played to a packed house at the Bowery Ballroom as part of a showcase for Don Giovanni earlier this year. The crowd was suspiciously enthusiastic for Manhattan. “They were all from home,” Paternoster explains.
Their roots are reflected in everything they do. They recorded their new album Castle Talk using analog equipment at a studio near home. It’s not the easiest method, but they wouldn’t do it any other way. “There’s a lot of extra work involved when you’re recording analog because you have to calibrate machines and they’re all 30 years old. But we always like recording to tape because it’s fun and I like the way tape sounds,” Paternoster says.
They also observe fairly egalitarian band ethics. The interview for this story was conducted with all three members passing a cell phone: Paternoster, Dougherty and bassist “King Mike” Abbate.
And, while Paternoster writes the lyrics, she always takes the rest of the band into account. “I try never to write stuff that’s going to put words in my bandmate’s mouth. Because I am the one with the privilege to speak and make statements on stage and they don’t,” she observes.
Songwriting is a group effort, too. Castle Talk, like all their albums, is the result of the band working on its chemistry rather than the realization of any one person’s vision. “We just tried to write more good Screaming Females songs. I think oftentimes when someone lays out like a concept [for an album] you can get wrapped up in it and it just becomes overwhelming,” she asserts.
This process is starting to yield some sweet rewards. Over their five albums, their sound has become more melodic, counterbalancing a tendency toward chaos. They haven’t been toning themselves down, but carefully harnessing a vein of primal energy.
“We’re getting better at writing, letting all our different influences make a more cohesive end product,” Paternoster observes. This is evident. Screaming Females have metabolized their influences so completely on Castle Talk that picking them out is probably not the best use of a listener’s time. Both new waver Joe Jackson and the Japanese metal trio Boris come up during the interview. Make what you will of that.
One band the group isn’t influenced by is Dinosaur Jr. Since playing with them, Screaming Females have been drawing comparisons to them. To be clear, the band was stoked to open for the ‘90s alt-rockers. Heck, Dougherty was thrilled just to mail out the order when Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J Mascis bought Screaming Females’ discography online. It’s just that, at this point, Dinosaur Jr. has more Screaming Females albums than Screaming Females has Dinosaur Jr. albums.
Dougherty can find a rationalization for the comparisons: “The thing that we have in common [with Dinosaur Jr.] in a strange way and in a different time period is doing punk music, playing punk shows, and then doing something not what you’d classically define as a punk band. Doing something with guitar solos and that sort of thing.”
If Screaming Females aren’t classically definable as a punk band, they aren’t classically definable as anything else either. That may be why, when it comes to finding a touchstone in other bands, the Females connect with the musicians more than the sound. The members of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, who Screaming Females have toured with, have been a particular source of inspiration as people. Dougherty recounts their first meeting: “Ted ended up demanding that we stay at his hotel room because we didn’t have a place to stay. And he went and slept on the floor and he’s like, ‘No, I’m excited about sleeping on the floor.’ And we’re like, ‘We can’t let you sleep on the floor the first night that we meet you.’ But he’s like, ‘No, no, this is my show. This is the way it’s got to be.’”
Like Screaming Females, Leo and his rotating back-up band straddle the line between punk and indie rock, but it’s their enthusiasm and sense of perspective that struck Dougherty. “Everybody in that band has played in all sorts of bands for years and has had all sorts of varying degrees of success and failure over their lifetime as musicians so they’re very understanding and real people who appreciate other bands. It’s cool to see people who have been involved in music for 20+ years and still get excited over other bands,” he says with great warmth.
The Ted Leo example may be so resonant because Screaming Females are planning on being involved in music for quite a few more years themselves. Dougherty frames his outlook on the band’s future in terms of the 1996 grunge documentary Hype! “[In Hype!] they were talking about how there are bands that get by on a shtick or an appearance and then there are bands that get out there and play and they give it their all and that’s what they are,” he relates. The drummer finds that dichotomy especially relevant to music right now. Of course, he places Screaming Females squarely in the latter category: “There are one or two shticks that everyone is playing up big time. And we’re not about to go and try to copy any of those things. The thing is, we’ll still be around when the next shtick appears and all those bands for the last one, 99% of them will have disappeared.”
Perhaps if they had a shtick, or even an easy file under, they’d be an overnight success, perhaps not. Thankfully, the band seems content to see where their process and their way of doing things will take them. So far it has led them to write some pretty terrific Screaming Females songs.