"Our idea of how to get people to pay attention to our band and be interested in our music was never to have the one big show... The right label will be there and the right booking agent and the right publicist and the articles, and whatever. We were always like, 'Let's go out and play a hundred shows in a year and play for a couple dozen people here and there.'"
Five years and five-hundred-or-so gigs later, New Jersey power-trio Screaming Females got their one big show anyway. They weren't the biggest-font name on the poster for this summer's Siren Festival, but their short, muscular set, dominated as always by their guitar heroics, and the Jekyll and Hyde, meek-to-mighty charisma of front woman Marissa Paternoster, loomed largest in the minds of the crowds streaming out of Coney Island's concrete sweatbox afterwards. That performance has led directly to another turn in the bright spotlight, playing alongside The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Blow, and others at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, one of the few must-catch shows of 2010's CMJ Music Marathon. Now, with four albums of material to draw from, and the professionalism to seize the big opportunities that are increasingly thrown their way, the band is poised to bring back a little rock 'n' roll clarity to a haze-addled scene.
We talked to the band about the work ethic that lead to this hard-won moment in the sun, DIY's transformation into a buzzword, avoiding "the butt-rock thing," and how these days being on MTV is mainly just nice for your parents.
So, Castle Talk is your fourth album. The way you've gone about building yourselves up seems really traditional in a way. A lot of gigging, a lot of touring. You've worked your way up to opening for bigger bands, but there was never this big flash of hype. Has that been intentional?
Jarrett Dougherty (drums): I'd say it was out of necessity initially. To be honest, if someone, right after we became a band had said, "We're going to release your record and put you on tour," we would have said, "Cool." But that never happened, so we had to learn how to do all that stuff ourselves, and then once you can do that, you kind of take some pride in it and see value in it.
Do you feel like it's accelerating a bit now, or is it all just a gradual outgrowth.
JD: Very gradual.
So do you feel like what you do is rare?
Marissa Paternoster (guitar, vocals): There are a lot of bands who operate the same way we do. I think we do definitely play a lot of shows, maybe more than your average DIY band. But we work really, really hard, all day, every day.
JD: Most of the bands who operate how we do don't have the opportunities or don't really see the need to do the things we've done.
In terms of...
JD: Having really good distribution for records through stores. Doing publicity stuff, doing interviews and photo shoots with magazines. I know a lot of bands who would never get that phone call or that email, or if they did they'd just think, "That's not worth my time, that's not what I care about." We've put enough work into it this that we're ok with it, doing interviews, an occasional photo shoot. It's kind of fun, and it's cool that people are interested in our band, but I think there's a lot more bands out there who operate the way that we do than people might think.
Well, publicity, is a huge deal in terms of who even has a chance to keep going as a working band. Do you think that's corrupting? Just a necessity?
King Mike (bass): It's all about who you pay.
MP: It's a money thing. You pay somebody enough money and they can get you into anything. And that's sad. You think of all the good bands you get to see when you're on tour, who don't have those resources and deserve to be in magazines. They deserve it. They write good songs too, but they don't have the scratch. That's a shame.
JD: That's where our label, Don Giovanni, came in. They were willing to put up the money to push us out there. They said, "People are going to love it if they can find out about it."
When people ask you what kind of music you play, what do you say? Punk? Hard rock?
JD: Rock 'n' roll.
KM: I'm gonna start saying hard rock.
MP: That's a good one.
Well, I mean, it's not a super en vogue genre at the moment.
MP: Hard rock? I mean what is hard rock?
Sabbath? Dinosaur Jr.'s hard rock, right? ¨I mean they'd have to be...
KM: But they were just called an indie band because they were on an indie label.
But what people call indie rock now, seems a long way from that.
MP: Yeah, most of it is electronica. Or really orchestrated.
KM: It changes over the years.
MP: It's ok, none of these words mean anything. Who really cares? Music. Instruments.
JD: It's kind of interesting. I think DIY is now getting that sort of connotation.
MP: Yeah, it's gonna be the new grunge. Wait 'till they write the book!
JD: It's the new indie. It means, like, a sound. A way of acting.
MP: It means nothing. "They sound DIY."
JD: We've gotten that recently.
I'm not sure that's a complement exactly.
MP: I thought it was a compliment, but it's just funny. That's not what it means.
JD: People said that recently, in interviews, "You've got that DIY sound."
MP: "Sounds like you did all this yourselves, I can just hear it..."
Who do you take inspiration from as a vocalist?
MP: Hmmm, good question... PJ Harvey, Jeff Buckley...
I'm sorry, rum?
MP: No, like "Sublime with Rome."
JD: Sublime did a reunion tour, and the lead singer and songwriter and guitar player are dead, so they got this guy Rome. They billed the tour as "Sublime with Rome."
MP: So we've been replacing all kinds of other people with Rome. Like, Nirvana with Rome, or, I dunno, Alice and Chains with Rome.
Sublime was the worst. I lived on the West Coast around that time, were they huge on the East Coast too?
MP: Oh, they were huge. A big K-Rock band.
KM: They're better now that they've got Rome.
MP: He's just this dumpy little dude wearing a basketball jersey and gym shorts. The funniest thing is that we were watching some video of Sublime, and the two guys who were actually in Sublime weren't in the video at all—it was just Rome! Who wants to look at Rome? Anyway... good vocals.
Marissa, a lot of times when you guys are written about, most of the attention goes to you. And you're the front person, so it's natural to a certain extent. But do you think people are still maybe a little too surprised to find a small girl doing big rock solos?
MP: Yeah, because there have been plenty of girls who've done the exact same stuff. I dunno, music journalism is weird, because it's really just a big ball of adjectives. It's really hard to describe music, so people need to write about what they see. And so, given the option, what they see gets written about more than what they hear. Which is disheartening. Because it should be about what you hear. But it's tough to write about that. So I get why people have to write about how I'm small. And I have hair. But, I wish that people could push themselves a little bit harder to find a hook that's more substantial. I'm not playing there so you can look at me.
KM: We're not the most attractive.
JD: Well, and to take a more appropriate angle on it, it's not like, "Girl Plays Guitar: Freak Show!"
MP: Human being plays guitar...
JD: Well, with like the Riot Grrl stuff, their stance was that we need more women in bands because getting a diverse perspective through in an artistic form is important. Marissa is a woman who plays guitar. It's important that she's a woman, in terms of [the music] coming from a different perspective than it would from a man. It's important in that respect, to have bands coming from different histories and perspectives, but it's not a freak show.
I wanted to ask, because the records are so obviously guitar-centric, there was a time in punk or DIY circles when being really good at your instruments was suspect. Is that a totally obsolete concern that we've gotten past?
KM: Well, it's not gone, because people still bring it up all the time. People are always saying guitar solos aren't "in," in indie rock right now.
They never really left, really, but it's certainly not an aspect that's focused on...
MP: It's hard to walk a line between a tasteful guitar solo, and like, AC/DC territory. You know, the butt-rock thing. We try to avoid that, but sometimes it creeps in. I don't frown on it.
But does that somehow make the music "less punk"?
JD: Even with those punk bands, it was just part of their image. '77 punk bands were really into image, they always talked about fashion. I think that whole, "Oh, I didn't know how to play my instrument" was totally part of the fashion. Because the Clash can fucking play their instruments so well. And the Slits, they obviously had some crazy understanding of their instruments.
MP: Even the Damned. Tons of guitar solos. X had tons of solos. Television.
JD: These bands could play their asses off.
MP: Even later stuff, the Pixies...
JD: I think the big difference with the whole solo thing, is that you can put a stock solo in that has a lot of "Wheee-did-e-did-lee" stuff going on, and it doesn't make a difference to anyone, and it just makes you feel good that you can put a lot of notes in a row. But then there's the rare person who can express something with their instrument and it comes out in sudden bursts, in an improvisational way. Which is what soloing should be. And I think Marissa has a rare talent to be able to do that. People are always like, "Are you classically trained?" and she's like, "I don't even know what I'm doing." So it's a testament to the fact that it's expression, and not wankery.
I saw that you guys were featured in Spin, and recently on MTV? I guess I didn't realize that MTV still had bands play.
MP: They don't! I think we were probably the only band to play in decades and decades.
KM: Well, except for Taking Back Sunday.
MP: Carson Daly died.
I'm not sure that's true.
MP: He was cryogenically frozen in MTV studios.
Did Spin and MTV mean a lot to you in the 90s?
MP: I dunno, sometimes, not very often, little girls will say, "I saw you on MTV." So that's cool. It was this daytime talk show that, I guess, replaced TRL. It's On with Alexa Chung. Alexa Chung's this British supermodel, and they talk about fashion.
Was it strange to perform there?
JD: She asked us to do it, personally. No one from MTV wanted us on the show.
MP: They shoved us into this room.
MP: Waffle bar. Slept through it.
JD: It was funny because they told me weeks ahead of time, "The band has to be there at 8am."
JD: No, it was originally 8am, but the day before, they're like "Ok, but we have to advance this thing, so your crew has to be here at 6 am."
MP: The crew!
JD: Yeah, I was like, what? There's no crew.
KM: Our posse.
JD: When we showed up to load in our own gear at like 6am, the guys who were there to load us in were actually laughing. They thought it was hilarious. They were like, "Usually they pull up with their buses, and we gotta pull out all this shit."
But it must have meant something to your parents anyway, to say that you were on MTV.
MP: Of course it did.
KM: It's definitely a parental stamp of approval.
MP: Yeah, because what else can your mom and dad say to friends? Everybody knows what MTV is. Not like, "Oh, my kid was on Brooklyn Vegan." "What are you talking about? I'm 46-years old."