Family Matters: Catching Up With Screaming Females

Interview by Joseph Tirabassi
Photography by John Francis Peters

You wouldn’t expect such an ungodly racket to come out of these three. The members of Screaming Females are regular, unassuming folk who just so happen to conjure a riotous free-for-all of gnarled guitars and furious rhythm. They’re like an angrier, punked-out take on the ‘60s power trio model, only without the paisley shirts. The band’s most recent album Power Move is led by Marissa Paternoster’s snarling howl and breakneck guitar solos, a skill set that's made fans of Henry Rollins, J. Mascis, and some dude named Jack White. They’ll head out on the road with White’s new band the Dead Weather starting July 13 in Washington, DC. But don’t let the bright lights of the marquees fool you – the band is steeped in the D.I.Y. ethos, as drummer Jarrett Dougherty takes over the managerial role by doing all the legwork that’s usually reserved for a team of interns. Heck, Paternoster even acts as home tattoo artist to bassist Mike Rickenbacker. They keep everything in the family.

Since the last time you talked to the Tripwire, a lot has happened – the album came out, and you lined up the Dead Weather tour, how did that come about?

Jarrett: We did a Spring tour for our new album, one of the days we played was in Nashville at this club called the End, which is one of those long-lasting, slightly skuzzy but good sound rock clubs and our good friends in this band JEFF the Brotherhood are from there and run a label out of there called Infinity Cat that released a 7” we did with them

Mike: Buy the 7”

Jarrett: We played a show there on the tour and leading up to it there was some press in the local paper, and people were getting excited about the show. And this guy comes up to us after the show and said, “Hey my name’s Ben, I help run this record label” and Marissa and I are both thinking ‘oh great, it’s one of these guys.’ You get those guys that come up to you after the shows and say “I’m gonna make you guys huge!” But then a second later, he’s like “wow, I probably sound like a complete idiot.” And he talked to us about how he helps to run Jack White’s label Third Man Records. He told us about the studio and office that they’d built down there and if they’d known we were coming, how they’d love to have us in there but they had no idea who we were. So he and Jack [Lawrence] the bass player from the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs were just there hanging out, they come to see JEFF sometimes. Ben was just like “let me tell you, I am a jaded motherfucker and that was awesome.” And he was just sort of thinking out loud, “maybe you should play some shows with Jack’s new band.” A few days later we got a call from the booking agent asking us if we wanted to do the tour.

Is it kind of intimidating to meet Jack White? He seems like he might be one of those guru types.

Matt: I might piss myself.

He’s one of the few musicians around that is still into guitar solos. Marissa, what makes you like the guitar solo as opposed to just strumming chords like a lot of current bands?

Marissa: I think if you can take a good guitar solo, then there’s no reason not to.

Do you ever worry about overplaying?

Marissa: I make an honest effort not to.

Jarrett: When musicians use chops just for the sake of playing more, it’s rarely good. When you play something just because it’s flashy, you become like Dream Theater or something. But I think that’s what people like about Marissa’s soloing, is that it actually says something. It’s not there just to fill space, it’s not some plugged-in studio musician. It emotionally has content.

Do you improvise a lot on stage?

Marissa: Yeah, there’s only like two or three songs where I play the same thing, but all the other ones are made up on the spot.

On stage, what is your [Mike and Jarrett] relationship when Marissa is going crazy on the guitar?

Jarrett: On those parts, I try to think about holding back as much as I can so that it’s just a platform for her to play off of. But there are parts where we are all doing a full-band improvisation, which is a completely different thing than her improvising over a solid base. Everyone has to work together, because if everyone plays as much as they can at that point, it’ll sound like a big mess. So you have to listen to see who’s taking a lead at this moment or that moment.

You guys tour incessantly. Do you find life easier on tour, or when you’re back at home?

Mike: It’s a different kind of easy. On tour, I have something to do every day, something very specific and productive, and at home I don’t do anything productive.

I was watching the Flaming Lips documentary "The Fearless Freaks" and one of them is talking about when they’re on the road, it’s cool because you’ve got somewhere to sleep every night and people feed you most of the time. But then when you get home, you have to go back to flipping burgers or frying fish or whatever. Do you guys work day jobs?

Mike: I do.

Jarrett: Not currently. We definitely have for most of the time we’ve been a band. But right now I’ve been managing to stay unemployed by working really hard on the band stuff and eking by on a little bit of savings. But I don’t really find life particularly easy ever. People think ‘playing in a band – that must be fun.’ And fun is part of it, but I’ve never thought, ‘I’m in a band, life will be easy.’ But it’s at least something that I feel fulfilled with at the end of the day with all the work I put into it. It’s either I put a lot of work in for someone at a corporation and make a lot of money. Or I put a lot of work into the band and have a lot of setbacks and not make any money off of it, at least I’ll feel good about what comes out of it.

You started by playing house shows in people’s basements, moved up to clubs, and now you’re going on tour in these huge places with the Dead Weather. Are you excited to hear yourselves in these big rooms?

Mike: Every time I’ve been to a big venue, it always sounded bad.

Marissa: At least it’ll sound good for us in the monitors.

Are you worried about losing the intimacy you have at a house show?

Jarret: Not as much as the performance aspect, for myself. It’s cool when you play someone’s house, you can hang out and they’re like “look at this movie I just got.”

Mike: Like Son in Law.

Jarrett: [Laughs] But with these places you have to show up really early and you don’t know anyone there and you have to sit in some weird dressing room and stare at each other for a while, but actually performing, the reaction you get from a big room is just like a small room, but with more people.

Do you get to put out a tour rider?

Jarrett: We actually do.

Mike: I wanted a case of Pellegrino.

Jarrett: We asked for a case of beer, a case of water, a fruit and vegetable platter and four vegetarian dinners. I figure that’s pretty reasonable. At first we were like “I guess we’ll do a rider,” but people told us, “no you have to do it, it’s in their budget. If you don’t do it, they’ll just get to keep more money.”

You should be hitting them up for champagne.

Mike: I don’t even like champagne, but I’ll take it.

Marissa: We could just open it and go “yeaaaaaaaaaa!”

Jarrett: I was trying to figure out what a rider looked like so I looked it up online and I found the Killers’ rider. They get a different bottle of booze depending on what day of the week it is.

Mike: Don’t they have like 500 beers a night or something?

Jarrett: Yeah.

Mike: That’s so cool.

Jay-Z only wants a certain kind of blacked out SUV to pick him up from the airport and it has to be exactly 70-odd degrees in the room.

Jarrett: Does he carry a thermometer with him?

He probably has a temperature man. Since you’ve been getting more attention, has it been weird having all these people from New York, Chicago, LA, places like that looking in and saying “oh, what’s going on down there in New Brunswick?”

Jarrett: It seems to be a pretty common question. “Tell me about New Brunswick, New Jersey!”

I think that a lot of people not from the city think that there’s no scene, but bands like Bouncing Souls are from there.

Mike: And Lifetime.

Jarrett: The Ergs! are from New Brunswick.

Mike: Thursday! [Laughs]

Jarrett: New Brunswick is a strange city. As an outsider, if you roll through it, you’d think that there’s absolutely zero culture.

Mike: Not a thing worthwhile.

Jarrett: Yeah, not a thing worthwhile. But I think that’s what made the scene strong in a lot of ways. It’s also rough because it’s the type of place where people move in and out of constantly. But for me, my life was changed seeing a basement show in New Brunswick. I would have never ended up in a band if I hadn’t seen that first band playing in a basement.

What band was that?

Jarrett: It was this band called Atomic Missiles. They were amazing, one of my favorite bands for a long time. Them and this other band Plastic East. They played basement shows all the time when I was first hanging out in New Brunswick before I moved there. They weren’t the most popular bands. There were some cooler, hipper basement bands, if you can imagine that. But these bands were so wild. They didn’t play anything like I’d heard on TV or on the radio or even like Spin Magazine, or whatever my underground source was at the time. So New Brunswick is cool. It would be so good for the scene though if there was an all-ages venue. A legal venue, which there isn’t. There has been one in the past.

Mike: The Elks Lodge won’t even let us do a show there.

Jarrett: It’s cool though because it’s made us do everything ourselves. Managers, record labels, publicists, they’re not coming to New Brunswick to find out about bands. So if you want to release your album, you have to do it yourself, unless you know Joe Steinhardt, who runs Don Giovanni. When we wanted to go on tour, we would ask this band the Ergs! who had done national tours eight or nine times. We’d go to Joe and ask him where to play and he’d start pointing at a map and check out friends to call.

I was reading this thing recently about how your environment shapes your art or shapes your music. Do you think that the city shapes the sound? Would Screaming Females be the same in a different town?

Jarrett: I can give a very specific example. There’s a big Hispanic population in New Brunswick, so there’s reggaeton blasting all the time and my window used to be right on the street. So at all hours of the night, I’d hear that [beatboxes reggateon beat]. On the new album there’s a reggaeton beat on one of the songs. I specifically played that, because for weeks, all I would hear is [beatboxes reggaeton beat].

Marissa: How are you going to write that?

I don’t know. My onomatopoeia skills aren’t great.

Jarrett: Do you guys think it’s more than that…

Mike: I think we’re the product of the sum of ourselves.

Marissa: We practice in a deep dark hole, in a basement. Years and years of practicing in a deep dark hole.

Do you guys live together?

Jarrett: We do now. All in the same room, no heat or air conditioning. [Laughs]

Marissa: We pee at the same time.

Mike: There’s actually just a hole in the floor where we pee.

Marissa: We eat out of a trough. Communal living. It enhances our artistic experience together.

It makes you real.

Where did you record Power Move?

Marissa: [Speaking like a radio commercial] We recorded Power Move at The Hunt Studios! In Millstone, New Jersey. Check out or e-mail 732.567.5125. [Laughs]. No, actually though, I was an intern there, I got school credit. Now I’m not in school, so I just hang out there with the engineer Eric and he’s my BFF. I help him with projects and he helps me with projects, and I bring stuff in to him. It’s the coolest studio in the world. It looks like a meth lab on the side of the highway. It’s filled with all kinds of weird bugs and dead rats. There was a vulture on the roof one day, and I was scared because you could hear it walking on the ceiling. But it’s very professional. There’s just some wildlife. [Laughs]

I guess it doubles as a petting zoo?

Marissa: If you want to pet weird, dead rats.

Did you track the album live?

Marissa: Yeah.

Jarrett: We have three full lengths. The first one we recorded it to a computer, we did it ourselves, tracking everything separately. I love the way it sounds, especially as a first big project recording. But over and over again, we kept hearing from people that it didn’t capture our live chemistry or whatever. So I guess for our second record the idea was to shut people up and we went in to a studio and recorded live to analog tape. We pretty much just set up the amps, set up the drums and put microphones in front of them, did it, then maybe added a few handclaps and one or two guitar overdubs and that was it. So the album could be really jarring at times, which we really liked about it when it first came out, but it’s super sparse. It felt kind of empty, even though it’s loud. For the new record we wanted to do something different. So working with Eric was amazing, he would basically allow us enough time as we needed, even though it only ended up being a week. He did everything he could within the confines of three people playing in a room together to allow there to be different sounds and really cool sounds. It’s similar to the second record, except we changed things every day, we moved amps every day, did all kinds of stuff like that.

There seems to be something that sticks with people from Jersey. It’s this pride, begrudging or not. My mom is from Atlantic City, and she left there when she was in her 20s, but she’ll still get mad if we ever make fun of Jersey.

Mike: It’s quite a place.

Jarrett: I know that New Jersey lacks a lot in the way of culture, in terms of contemporary art and whatnot, or like being supportive of it. In California, there’s all these little towns with arts centers and small labels…

And handmade jewelry

Jarrett: [Laughs] Yeah, and everyone is saying “hi!” and waving to you.

Marissa: I don’t want to talk to anybody.

Jarrett: That’s why New Jersey’s the perfect place to be.

Marissa: I just want my cannoli and I want to get out.

Jarrett: People make fun of Jersey, and at first you blow it off, but then four five days into the tour, you’re just like “shut up!”

One headbutt and a broken nose later, and it’s a done deal. Have you gotten any weird fans come up to you?

Marissa: We probably shouldn’t talk about them.

Mike: They are in touch with the blogosphere.

Jarrett: It’s for our safety.

Mike: What about the guys that ask Marissa to marry him?

Marissa: A couple of guys with goatees will ask me to marry them every so often. We get touched inappropriately.

Jarrett: That only happens to Mike.

Mike: And I hated it.

Marissa: “I don’t even fucking know you!”

By doing a lot of the grunt work yourselves, the benefits are obvious – you can do whatever you want. But what are some of the limitations?

Jarrett: The limitations were becoming more apparent. That’s why we decided to go with Don Giovanni on this one, and they got a publicist to work on it who had been a fan of ours for a long time and was always checking in on us. There’s only so many hours you can spend on one thing and I spent pretty much all my time on this band, but you still can’t get everything done. Like for the Dead Weather tour, there’s paperwork, we’ve never had to deal with fucking paperwork at shows. Now, it’s like contracts and riders and stage plots. Hours and hours each day I would learn how to write a band contract for this tour. We’re at the point now where we’ve had too many people we’ve had to deal with we can kind of pick out who to trust.

You can tell who’s bullshitting you.

Jarrett: Yeah, like a publicist – their job is to basically be a hype man for the album, and if they don’t care about it, they’ll do a crappy job. But if they’re legitimately into the album, they’ll do everything they can. As you go along, you find people who have been at it a little longer and are giving you what turns out to be more than advice, it comes from experience. One night I e-mailed Steve Albini really late at night and he responded.

Whoa, Steve Albini?

Jarrett: Yeah! I was just asking about managers and booking agents and this guy really knew what he was talking about. The way he broke it down was awesome. It wasn’t any moral issue, it was basically “Don’t let these fuckers steal your money. People start businesses every day, band’s a pretty easy business to run. You don’t need someone to tell you how to run it.”

What have you been listening to recently?

Jarrett: I’ve only been listening to reggae and Talking Heads albums.

Oh, what reggae stuff have you been into?

Jarrett: Steel Pulse and the Congos and King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown by Augustus Pablo and King Tubby.

Have you seen the movie "Rockers?"

Jarrett: No! I’ve been meaning to see it! The Harder They Come is amazing. Mike, what have you been listening to?

Mike: I’ve been listening to the college radio station to see if they play us. They did once today. Then I call and request us.

Do you change your voice?

Marissa: [muffled] This is not Mike.

Mike: [Laughs] I don’t know. I like music. You?

Marissa: Dressy Bessy and nothing else.

Jarrett: And you went to that PJ Harvey concert.

With John Parish?

Marissa: Yeah. I went with my dad.

Mike: I just got ABBA’s greatest hits.

Marissa: I have this Madonna song you’re going to like.

“Hung Up?”

Marissa: [hums melody] I love Madonna though.

Have you been recognized at all around New Brunswick?

Jarrett: It happened to Mike.

Mike: Most of the times, people identify us as those fags.

Marissa: We’ll get out of the van at like 1am coming home from a show and these mongoloid cavemen with their mini Heineken kegs and the girls with the tube tops…

Mike: “…are you fags homeless, ‘cause you look like shit!”

Marissa: Good call on the “fags.”

Are those prison tats on your knees?

Mike: No, those are Marissa tats.

Marissa: We have lots of prison tats. Lots of stick and pokes.

Mike: I like this one [points to a tattoo of an ice cream cone]. I like ice cream. Put that in there.

My roommate has been trying to convince me to do it.

Marissa: I could do it for you.

That’d be great. What do you need? India ink…

Marissa: Yeah, India ink, needle, thread, pen or pencil.

Jarrett: You have to boil the needle.

Marissa: A new one. Don’t boil a used needle you find.

As big of a nerd as I am, I had to look up on the internet how to do it. It ran through the supplies and at the end of the list is a bottle of tequila.

Marissa: Yeah, make sure you get really drunk. It hurts really bad. Way worse than a real tattoo.

I think my parents hate my tattoos. They just don’t invite me to the beach any more.

Mike: We’re going to the beach tomorrow. Long Beach Island.

Jarrett: Mike has Marissa’s head tattooed on the back of his leg.

Mike: I need to get a Jarrett tattoo.

Marissa: I’d need to put glasses, and long hair, and a beard. Maybe I should get a can of oatmeal.

Family Matters: Catching Up With Screaming Females