Whether on the road or at home in New Jersey, the Screaming Females keep it in the family, damn it.
“So nice to meet you,” says the small elderly woman as I shake her hand. “It’s nice of you to come.” This grandmotherly woman is, in fact, the grandmother of Screaming Females’ singer/guitarist Marissa Paternoster, and we’re standing in the kitchen of her Union, New Jersey, home. Paternoster lived here when her parents divorced, and in 2005 her then-fledgling band took up residence in the basement—a typical unfinished cellar crowded with musical equipment and canvases of Paternoster’s art; “basement things” like laundry and a workbench; and “grandma things” like a collection of wicker baskets—where the Screamales continue to practice. Next scheduled practice: today, post-interview. Paternoster ushers me into a sparsely decorated (though blissfully air-conditioned) den where bassist ‘King’ Mike Abbate and drummer Jarrett Dougherty are watching Family Feud. “Grapefruit!” Abbate yells at the screen. (Category: Fad Diets.) The TV is muted, pleasantries are exchanged, and we all take seats around a coffee table.
Dougherty and Abbate don’t live too far from the practice space, and Paternoster currently lives in one of the numerous punk houses on Hamilton Street in New Brunswick, the epicenter of local basement show culture. “So everyone I know has fleas or something like that,” she laughs, before outing the neighboring punk houses that have contracted beg bugs. Her band, which is known for its sweaty, full-throttle live experiences of manic guitars and Paternoster’s wailing vibrato, is currently the toast of New Brunswick.
It’s a true community-based and strictly word-of-mouth scene: basement shows are referred to by name, not address. Otherwise the result is overcrowded house with the entire town in attendance, including the cops, citations in hand. Although consistently under fire by local authorities for overcrowding, fire hazard and noise violations—shows end by 10 p.m. to avoid the latter—these quasi-legal, ever-changing venues have nurtured the career of the Screaming Females, as well as bands like the Ergs, Vivian Girls, Thursday and the Bouncing Souls before them. (Required listening: Lifetime’s anthem “Theme Song For A New Brunswick Basement Show.”) Having a supportive family doesn’t hurt either. “[Grandma] was dancing the other week, a little shimmy,” Paternoster says, shimmying awkwardly in imitation. Dougherty shimmies, too, laughing. “Then when the boys leave, she usually tells me how she liked the songs… She hums stuff to me, [but] I have no idea what she’s trying to refer to.”
Then Abbate asks no one in particular, “What’s a movie set in space?”
“Star Wars?” Paternoster guesses. (Survey says: Star Wars.)
Dougherty then switches off Family Feud to a small chorus of “Damn it, Jarrett!”
“We’re going to get so distracted,” he says, by way of explanation.
I don’t mind, I say; I had interviewed a band that was almost incoherently stoned the previous day.
“Was it Wavves?” he asks casually. And just like that, I’m caught. Yes, in fact, it was Wavves, I admit, and the trio immediately doubles over in laughter. “Can we put that in there?” Abbate chokes out through a fit of giggles. “Make sure that goes in!”
With that out of the way and the Feud silenced, Abbate asks, “Do you want to know about the record?” Yes, of course.
Castle Talk is the band’s fifth album and second for New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records. And though the furiously DIY three-piece is now so big that it can no longer to handle the volume of its show-booking and press requests alone, it is still very involved with the often-outsourced, non-musical side of all things Screaming Females. For example, after I reached out to the band’s publicist for an interview, Dougherty took the initiative to set up our chat. “You’re at my grandma’s house! How much more involved can you get?” says Paternoster with a smile. “Love it here!” As if to punctuate her point, she points to a placard with a motivational quote perched on a doily-covered side table and reads, “‘Friends are flowers in life’s garden,’ damn it!”
The band will head out on its first European tour later this fall, for which it will trade its usual basements and non-traditional venues for a more conventional club circuit. But it’s certainly not for lack of trying. “It would have been really awesome to go over and do, like, a DIY tour in Europe first,” Dougherty says. “But my attempts to even delve into that have not gone anywhere, so the booking-agent option seemed best.” Instead of just traveling the Western European route, though, Screaming Females will be play in Scandinavia and a few Adriatic countries that often get passed over by American bands abroad. “Like Ljubljana in Slovenia, people say it’s the coolest city,” says Dougherty. “And people there seem really excited about the show already.”
Castle Talk’s album art and show posters depict a squat little horse and are still thoroughly home-made. “In sixth grade, in the yearbook, they had this section where people guessed what your occupation would be when you got older, and mine was ‘horse artist,’” says Paternoster. “I didn’t even know that existed. But I fulfilled the dream!”
“Horse is the new flower,” says Abbate, nodding definitively at the ‘Friends’ quote.
“Yeah,” Paternoster says wryly, “I’m a professional horse artist.”