“I don’t think anything happened to us as much as we made things happen. If you work hard at something for ten years, maybe one day somebody will give a damn.”
– King Mike
Screaming Females and I are sitting in the nearly empty dining room of an Ethiopian restaurant across from drummer Jarrett Dougherty’s apartment in west Philadelphia. For the past hour, we’ve been talking about their new record, Rose Mountain—an album they like to describe as “concise” for the laser-focused approach to songwriting they applied, but that actually has an expansive, all-consuming sound so melodically strong and blissfully heavy it could easily fill an arena…if Screamales cared about filling arenas.
But while we more easily discuss the mechanics of the record and the experiences the band had recording it (along with how Family Feud host Steve Harvey’s mustache looks exactly like a piece of felt or if bassist King Mike and legendary frontwoman Marissa Paternoster should get tattoos of the griffins depicted on the Corona bottles they’re drinking), the band gets relatively quiet on the topic of their current success.
“It’s been so gradual that I feel like we don’t perceive anything as being particularly different,” Jarrett says. “If you look at it from the beginning until now, yeah, there are big differences in where we’re playing and stuff like that. But really we’re still just writing music together, getting in the van, playing shows with our friends.”
For a band that has been together for ten years, released six full-length albums, toured with the likes of Garbage and Kathleen Hanna’s Julie Ruin, and, maybe most importantly, been such an influential, supportive, and inspiring part of the small, self-made scene they joined during their college years in New Brunswick, New Jersey, it’s almost stunning to realize that it really has stayed that simple. Talking to the band and the people they surround themselves with reveals that this simplicity is mostly due to the band doing everything on their own terms, always challenging themselves, and valuing a tight-knit community over a rocket-to-the-top type of career.
“Marissa works the fucking door at our little garage punk shows in New Brunswick,” Jen Shag of Shellshag, the Screaming Females’ label mates, tour partners, and quasi-adoptive parents, says with awe. “They work hard to put on shows in Philly and help friends out.”
Shag, who has been making music with John Shell since the late 90s, talks about meeting the Females as a life-changing experience. “Old people—I’m going to call them that even though I could be one of them—are always railing about how the youth sucks. And I’m like, no way. If you were meeting the kids I was meeting, you’d have nothing but hope for the future. I don’t just mean musically. I mean intellectually, spiritually…kids who are learning how to save the environment – all these incredible kids who have a community and are stronger and more confident because of it. These kids made [making music] seem really easy and accessible, and it was positive and less violent, and there were less drugs. Knowing them has helped me tremendously to grow as a person and not get stunted or drop out like all of my friends who kind of gave up.”
In the New Brunswick underground in the early 2000s, the Screamales established themselves, playing basement shows and self-releasing their first two records. “That, for me personally, was the most successful moment we ever achieved—putting out our first CD,” Jarret said. “Everything since then has been small steps, but that was a huge step.”
It’s been nine years, multiple records and side projects since the Screaming Females self-released their first album, Baby Teeth, in 2006. Since then, many of those smaller steps have included slowly and carefully expanding beyond their trio (which is based in Marissa and Mike’s friendship, founded in the fringes of a Jersey Catholic school) to include passionate, do-it-yourself people in their projects that have understood their vision and helped enhance their music.
They’ve become these godfather role models in this little world. Bands ask me, what would the Screaming Females do?
First it was Joe Steinhardt, co-founder of Jersey label Don Giovanni Records, which has been the band’s label since 2009. Don Giovanni grew out of the same New Brunswick punk scene as the Females. The label was founded “by necessity,” as Joe notes—no one was putting out records by the bands he loved: these great Jersey basement acts like The Ergs!, The Degenerics, and The Measure. Joe’s admiration for these acts, and the ethos of Don Giovanni, is deeply rooted in their dedication to do-it-yourself and making music that doesn’t aspire to be on Letterman, but does aspire to invigorate a more personal musical community. In many ways, Don Giovanni grew up and found their footing as a label alongside the Screaming Females.
“I don’t think I found them. I don’t think they found me. We were both just doing our thing, and had a mutual admiration for each other,” Joe explains. But it took a matchmaker friend and some pretty intense persuading to get Screaming Females to really consider working with a label. “After they told me they’d decided to self-release their third record, I told them, ‘I’m going to kill myself if you don’t let me do this record,’” Joe says, laughing.
“That night, Jarrett and I stayed up really late to make a real plan about what we would do together,” he continues. “Because we had never really discussed what it would be like, and the truth is we didn’t have a plan exactly. All we did back then was just press the record. So basically, I was just bullshitting, like, ‘Oh we’ll get a publicist and do radio. We’ll do what a real label does.’ After they agreed, I had to figure out how to make all these empty promises full. Now here we are: they’re a real band, and we’re a real label. We pretty much built the label together by figuring out all these things we didn’t know how to do. We’ve grown together, and it’s been really beautiful. I’m really proud of them and everything we accomplished together.”
“They’ve become these godfather role models in this little world,” Joe says. “Bands ask me, what would the Screaming Females do?”
Their latest accomplishment, Rose Mountain, is the band’s fifth album on Don Giovanni (including last year’s live record) and in many ways different than what they’ve created before. “Each time, we do the biggest thing we can do together, and this is the biggest thing,” Joe says of Rose Mountain. “They’ve really pushed themselves outside of their comfort zone on this record in every way, and to me, that’s what art is. It’s about pushing your boundaries.”
For a band as used to relying on themselves as the Screaming Females, part of pushing their boundaries on the new record was working with a producer—an idea birthed from the band’s experience recording a Record Store Day release with Garbage, a cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” in 2013. Marissa had performed the song on-stage with Garbage during a few shows they played together right before she got too sick to finish their Ugly tour. Officially, Marissa is diagnosed with something called fibromyalgia, which she recently described to Noisey as “a fake disease that they tell you that you have when they don’t know what’s wrong with you.” The band was forced to cancel the last week or so of their tour.
The trapped feeling of sickness and your body as a potential limitation are a big part of Rose Mountain’s lyrical themes, particularly in songs like “Broken Neck.” In that track, Marissa sings, “I’d like to calculate every swollen bone/But I’m strapped inside myself/Countless hours alone.” But with Marissa on the mend or at least taking steps to live within some of those limitations, she’s now hesitant to talk about those times.
“My dad’s like, ‘I’m tired of reading articles about you being sick! Get a new subject!’ I’m like, ‘I don’t ask the questions, Dad!’” And when I do ask the question, Marissa quips with a laugh, “It could be worse. I could be dead. Then maybe we’d be, like, really successful.”
If you were meeting the kids I was meeting, you’d have nothing but hope for the future… Knowing Screaming Females has helped me tremendously to grow as a person and not get stunted or drop out like all of my friends who kind of gave up. —Jen from Shellshag
The band then diverts into a long tangent about whether or not there’s an afterlife, just like the close friends they are, who have made it through something scary and depressing to come out whole enough to laugh about it on the other side. (Some highlights include Marissa asserting that we don’t know what happens to the chemicals produced by a decomposing brain, and Mike sarcastically suggesting – “All the chemicals float up into a cloud where you get to interact with some guy who died on a stick?”)
At the time of the Record Store Day recording, Jarrett recalls, “we were out of money because all of the money we were expecting to get out of the record got swallowed up in canceling shows.” The band was excited to work on something that they didn’t have to fund and that Marissa could manage while she was still feeling down—with the added bonus that working with Garbage would expose the Screaming Females to a new audience. “The recording process was cool in a bunch of different ways,” Jarrett explained, “but getting to work with Butch Vig as a producer was pretty amazing.”
So amazing that the band started to consider working with a producer on their next full-length album. “It took many conversations about whether or not we should work with a producer, and when we finally decided to, it was a long process of trying to figure out a good one for the project,” Jarrett says. “Matt Bayles was the perfect choice. I don’t think anyone could imagine it coming out any better than what we did for what we envisioned for it.”
Matt Bayles, whose catalog includes metal bands like Mastadon and Isis, helped bring a refined yet still heavy hard rock production quality to the record—one that clearly fits into the Females’ sound. “I’m here to make what you do as kickass as it can be,” Matt explains, “and if that’s getting out of the way of something you nailed, cool, and if it’s talking about and working over something that’s not quite here, then we’ll do that.”
After working on pre-production in Jersey, the band went to Seattle to record the record with Bayles. “I’ve been doing this sixteen, seventeen years, and some things come easy, some things don’t,” Matt says of working with the band. “For the most part, this project was relaxed and confident on everybody’s part, which I think comes across on the record. We had fun while we were doing it.”
“It was so painless, so easy,” King Mike says. “We played basketball and hung out…made a lot of coffee.” While Matt was mixing the record and Marissa was bored, she spent some time building the legend of Matt Bayles on social media. “She Photoshopped my head into a picture of Lovin Spoonful, and said I was the keyboard player in their reunion,” Matt laughs, recounting some of the group’s sillier moments together. “She found a picture of a dude with the word EXTREME written across his chest, but it wasn’t EXTREME because the T was missing, so she took my face and stuck my head on that and tweeted it out to the world.”
There is a point when you want to get out of the mold you’ve made for yourself. They weren’t trying to reinvent themselves, but they were going to allow themselves to be more dynamic and allow songs to be quiet instead of just blasting all the time.
Many of the band’s adventures while recording Rose Mountain took place out of the studio and in a weird RV the Screamales rented on AirBnB as a low-cost place to stay in Seattle. “I ripped the table off the wall,” Marissa shared with a smile. As all of them laugh, Jarrett adds, “We left Marissa alone for a half hour and were like, ‘Are you going to be okay?’ We come back and she’s like, ‘I don’t know what happened!’” Their enthusiastic host also delivered them vegan muffins in the morning—the early morning. “He brought them at 7am! It was unacceptable,” Marissa says with wide eyes. “He was just like [knocks loudly on Jarrett’s kitchen table]. We were like, ‘Noooooooo, dude! Just leave them at the door!’ Also, the wifi password was ‘JesusSaves.’”
“They’re funny, but they’re no-nonsense New England people,” Matt says of the band back in the studio. “If something isn’t working, you just speak your mind, you talk about it, figure out how to make it better, and move on.”
Together, Bayles and the Screaming Females were able to enhance the production quality of Rose Mountain, shining a bright light on previously shadowed aspects of the Screaming Females’ strengths. But ultimately, the reason the record stands out has more to do with the band’s decision to challenge themselves and try something new in how they wrote songs, a decision Bayles acknowledges as something he just helped facilitate.
“Some of the rough edges that might have been there on prior records, just in terms of performance quality, are gone, but from a songwriting standpoint, they were doing that before I was involved,” he says. “There is a point when you want to get out of the mold you’ve made for yourself. They weren’t trying to reinvent themselves, but they were going to allow themselves to be more dynamic and allow songs to be quiet instead of just blasting all the time.”
“It just started happening, and we sort of realized, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing. Let’s do that more,’” Marissa says of the band’s decision to change up their songwriting style for Rose Mountain. “But I don’t think we started really conceptualizing it until people started asking us questions about it,” she added, laughing. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, band meeting at five to discuss our future songwriting ideas!’”
“We always write the instruments first—drum, bass, guitar—and then Marissa comes up with vocal melodies off of that,” Jarrett explains. But for this record, instead of finishing off the instrumentation first, the band would write the shell of the song together, then let Marissa craft the vocal melody before completing the instrumentation—much of which was also dialed back compared to their previous releases.
“We just kind of chopped away at things we deemed superfluous in terms of song composition,” Marissa says of the new record.
“‘Wishing Well’ was definitely the first one that we did that way, consciously trying to hold back on the instrumentation,” Jarrett recalls.
“It started off as a joke at first,” Mike adds.
“Yeah,” Marissa pipes up, “Mike was like, ‘Just play D!’ And I was like, [makes confused and terrified face] ‘Whaaaaaaat?!?’”
The result is a record that is both revelatory and a logical next step for the band—something that makes you listen to all the old records and realize things you might not have noticed before.
The result is a record that is both revelatory and a logical next step for the band—something that makes you listen to all the old records and realize things you might not have noticed before, like the strength and full range of Marissa’s voice, the way that Mike can manipulate a bassline from a thwack in the face to a bopping, almost poppy melody, and the band’s collective savvy about crafting songs that build, climax, and then pause at exactly the right moment.
A record like Rose Mountain, delivered at a band’s ten-year mark, feels like a mark of sustainability for Screaming Females; there’s an energy to it that suggests they will continue to find ways to ignite their creativity together for years.
Talking to the Screamales, it’s obvious that they are the sort of people whose explosive creative energy, ideas and drive requires more than just one band or project. “I started screen printing shirts at a time when I felt like I needed to challenge myself more because Marissa has multiple active bands she’s in, and Jarrett was talking about starting a venue at the time. And I was like, I guess I need something,” King Mike says of the band’s side projects. “And now I don’t sleep anymore.”
It’s hard to imagine how any of them sleep, with Marissa now the singer of the searing Philly punk 4-piece Bad Canoes, and also working on “a very important TV show called MTV12,” in Marissa’s words. Jarrett channels energy into a sewing hobby (in addition to being an active part of the local scene and putting on shows for other bands, of course). Marissa has also published two books of art with help from Don Giovanni and put on an art show this year.
“They never stop creating,” Jen Shag remarks. “They’re inspiring people, and Marissa in particular gets us up off of our ass. We get more done being around them because they’re such go-getters.”
And it’s partly that forward-driven energy that seems to keep the Screaming Females from being able to define success or bask too much in any currently building fame—they’re always focused on the next thing, and creating instead of simply achieving.
“I don’t think that there’s any real end goal, at least not for me. I can’t imagine what that would be,” King Mike says. But in true Screamales form, he adds with a playful smile, “I could start to dream of things that would be a pretty cool end goal, though, like if we got to play in SPACE, that would be pretty cool! Then I could quit,” he says with a laugh.