Who Are…Screaming Females
The bartender at Knitting Factory Brooklyn doesn't believe that Marissa Paternoster is 24. She laughs at first, until it becomes clear that he's not pulling her leg but is, in fact, skeptical, despite the insistence of both her and her bandmates. When she finally produces her New Jersey driver's license, his eyes widen. “Wow, OK! You look so young! I guess you must be eating your vegetables.”
She gets that a lot. Indeed, one of the strange thrills of watching Screaming Females perform is watching Paternoster — 5 feet at best — open her mouth and hearing the galaxy-sized roar that comes forth. The other thrill is watching her play guitar. You can't always hear it on the group's records — of which there are four, the latest being Castle Talk — but Paternoster is a marvel, peeling off mind-bending riffs that fuse the guttural, bluesy howl of Jimmy Page with the ruthless minimalism of Guy Picciotto. (You can watch her in action here). In just four years, they've gone from playing house shows in their native New Brunswick for opening for the likes of the Dead Weather and Arctic Monkeys.
The group's ascent has not been trouble-free — in June, what began as a simple van breakdown set off a mind-bending chain reaction of awful situations, leaving the band stranded for days on end in Arkansas, alternately in U-Haul waiting rooms, grimy restaurants and, ultimately, alone on the side of the road in the 104-degree heat, hoping to God not to get bitten by snakes and wondering when in the world their misfortune would finally end. Paternoster documented the entire experience in a blog post, which is worth reading in its entirety for the sheer unbelievability of the group's poor fortune.
eMusic's J. Edward Keyes caught up with the band — fully-recovered — before their record release show in New York.
On the value of the New Jersey DIY scene:
Jarrett Dougherty: There's no journalists, publicists, booking agents, managers or blogs out of New Brunswick, New Jersey, but there are well over 100 people who will come out to shows and will go see bands that they've never heard of. They'll buy records, put up money, do anything to support the scene. When we first started, it was about putting on good shows, making connections, making friends, handing out flyers. All of that, I feel like, is completely different from bands from New York or L.A. People keep asking me lately how we feel blogs have affected us as a band. And, yeah, I'm really happy any time people write about us, but a majority of people who like us or buy our records are because they saw us play. People ask, “How did you get on the Dead Weather tour?” “They saw us play.” “How did you get on the Arctic Monkeys tour?” “Somebody from Dead Weather told them to come see us play.” A lot of bands show up to things like CMJ and SXSW and hope that their show is going to be the one that everybody's talking about and that the right labels and publicists will come see them play. We've always been more about playing a million shows for however many people we can and not really worrying about becoming the hip band of the moment.
King Mike: I hope that we can always be as self-sufficient as we are now. There are a lot of bands who bring people on tour to do everything for them, whereas we save money by Jarrett being the smartest person in the world and managing everything. I hope that we can always keep ourselves surrounded by people that we know and like, and keep it a very small affair.
Dougherty: Being on tour with Ted Leo has been awesome, because he does that. The band drives their own van. Their friend comes with them to sell merch. Seeing them pull into the 9:30 Club in D.C. and load their own gear, set it up, set up their own merch — that's awesome.
On that awful experience of being stranded in the South:
Dougherty: There were two different experiences on that trip. One of them was being stuck in New Mexico for four days with nothing to do, under this constant belief that we were going to be able to leave in just a couple hours. That's what all the mechanics kept telling us: “Just a few more hours.” We put about $5,000 into getting home from there. So there was that experience, which was really weird. There were hours upon hours where we just sat around and played with a yo-yo. On top of that, there was the whole stuck on the side of the road in Arkansas thing — and that's when it got really hard. That's when we started feeling like we were going to die — from either the heat, or the snakes, or the trucks, or the redneck meth heads.
Paternoster: I think the worse feeling — we were in such a Podunk part of Arkansas — and you kind of know for a fact no one there likes you because of the way you look and talk. I think the worst feeling was the feeling that the people who were supposed to help us didn't want to help us. The whole time we were going through it, the whole four days, Mike kept saying, “We're gonna die — we're never going to get home.”
Mike: That's exactly what was going through my head. Absolutely everything that could have gone wrong for us did, except for us dying. So I just figured that was next. And then when we put Marissa on a plane, I was convinced the plane was gonna go down.
Paternoster: Me too! When I got on the plane, I was like, “Oh my god, I'm gonna die in a plane crash.”
Mike: I thought something was going to go wrong in takeoff or landing and I was never gonna see Marissa again. I actually started getting really sad!
Dougherty: The only thing we could say at that point was, “At least no one's gotten hurt.” We lost all of our money, we lost all of our shows. We'd been stuck for days, and we were all losing our minds. So we put Marissa on a plane and Mike and I did 1200 miles straight driving without stopping from Memphis to New Jersey. It was 20 hours.
Paternoster: When it was all over and I read [the blog post], I was like, “Nobody's going to think this is a big deal, it probably happens to bands all the time.” We wanted to write to U-Haul about what had happened to try to get reimbursed but, as it turns out, some mystery person sent my blog post to U-Haul, and U-Haul gave us a shameful amount of money back.
On inauspicious beginnings:
Dougherty: My dad was a semi-professional folk musician and my mom is a music therapist, so music was around me constantly. They were always trying to convince me to pick up an instrument, and I pushed against it for a while, but eventually I decided to start playing drums. I took lessons from one of the best percussionists in New Jersey for like nine or 10 years.
Mike: My older brother played guitar, and I got his Squire when he upgraded to a Gibson. When I saw Marissa play the guitar, I realized that if I was ever going to be in a band with her, I couldn't play the guitar! So I switched to bass.
Paternoster: And I started playing guitar because my dad had a guitar and he asked me one day when I was 14 if I wanted to learn some chords and I said “Sure.” For some reason, I got really into it. I started printing out tabs from the internet — I probably know how to play every Garbage song — they were my first favorite band. They rocked — that was one of my first concerts: No Doubt, Garbage and the Distillers. The first Distillers record is a classic. I also learned how to play pretty much every Smashing Pumpkins song. Mike and I went to Catholic high school together, and we liked a lot of the same bands, so we eventually just started playing together in a band called Surgery on TV.
Dougherty: Discovering the New Jersey punk scene had been a life-changing experience for me. When I went to New Brunswick and started seeing bands play basements, it changed my idea of what music could be. I liked that it could be more personal. When I came back from Ireland after being there for a while, all the bands I liked had either broken up or moved away. So I started this crappy 'zine to get myself more involved in local music…
Paternoster: Yeah, that 'zine was bad!
Dougherty: — [laughs] So then my friend managed to figure out how to get money from Rutgers University to put out compilation CD's. Marissa had two projects on it. One was Surgery on TV, and the other one was Noun, her solo project. Those two songs were my favorites, so I introduced myself to her and, inadvertently —
Mike: — we let him be in our band.
On long-term career goals:
Dougherty: Music is a different world at this point. I think all we want is to be able to do slightly bigger things every time — put out a record that sells a few more copies, play a show in a town where maybe 10 more people show up. It's because we don't pay tour managers that we're able to make it work for us and to come home from tour with some money. Hopefully we'll be able to keep doing it that way for a long time.