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Beyond basements: Screaming Females 

New Jersey power trio focuses on having fun

Editor's Note
Just before press time, Screaming Females announced they had canceled their Charlotte show due to an illness in the band.

  • Christopher Patrick Ernst

Screaming Females are in motion. They're in the van, somewhere in Pennsylvania, headed to Chicago. Drummer Jarrett Dougherty is driving, vocalist and shred lord Marissa Paternoster is taking a nap and bassist "King Mike" Rickenbacker answers the phone.

"Tomorrow we're going to record some songs and then the next day we're playing live, so that's the official start of the tour," he says. And what are they recording? "Music."

After some light goading, King Mike clarifies: The new songs, he says, may end up on a split with another band or may go nowhere. Yet his first response is somehow more satisfying. King Mike's having fun with the interview, just like he does when playing in the band. It would probably be easy to fall into a routine with either — plenty of musicians with busy schedules certainly do — yet these basement-bred, live-wire rockers are fascinating precisely because they let themselves have fun, and it translates to excellent live energy. The band's Hopscotch set at Raleigh's Lincoln Theater on Sept. 6 — one of several festival dates preceding the current tour and a looming stop at the Milestone in Charlotte — was particularly wide-open and well-attended.

"It's fun to play for a lot of people, especially a lot of people who don't necessarily know who you are," King Mikel says, then pauses. "Did you find my wallet at that show?"

Lost wallets aside, Screaming Females' Hopscotch set sounded fairly nuts, even from the band's perspective. The artists who played that night caught grief because someone smoked some weed backstage. It wasn't Screaming Females, King Mike clarifies, but he found the crackdown ironic. "Apparently, you're not supposed to smoke weed backstage at a rock show," he says with a laugh, before pointing out that the same venue holds raves, which typically involve heavy ecstasy use. Still, Hopscotch was a good match for Screaming Females, who played an electrifying, memorable set.

The band's roadie, Christopher Patrick Ernst sees the Females from a different perspective than they do. "In my opinion, they always look angry onstage when they play a festival," says Ernst, who also serves as the band's merch guy and photographer. "I swear it kicks it up a notch. The angrier they look, the better they are."

Screaming Females make quick converts and draw a solid core of mega-fans, says Ernst. From his vantage point at the merch table, he likes to watch people at the beginning of a show, nonchalantly standing at the back of the room. Many of them end up right next to the stage, enrapt. There's at least one mega-fan in every city, Ernst says. Screaming Females have actually interviewed some of them and found they were of all sexes, ages and sexual orientations.

"I've seen a lot of people who maybe weren't there to see them," Ernst says. "Minutes later, they're at the merch table buying everything."

Screaming Females got their start in New Brunswick, N.J.'s basement scene and, over seven years and five LPs, have managed to rock their way into the national spotlight. Spin showed the band — particularly guitar master Paternoster — love in a recent issue, and that's only one of many major media outlets to have done so. It may be the basement-to-big-stage trajectory that sees the band so often labeled as punk, but it may also be nontraditional touring, like the independent record store tour they did earlier this year. Punk is just a label, says King Mike, but he can see how people come to it.

"I can sit here and tell you that punk to me means having a mohawk and wearing spikes on your belt, but tomorrow I can tell you that punk means going against the grain or being a social deviant or something," he says. If one wants to put a definition to the word, he says, it's most relevant to do so in terms of DIY movements in the U.S. "I think our band may be defined as punk because we work in a very small, tight-knit community, and we did a lot of stuff for ourselves early on."

Screaming Females doesn't play New Brunswick basements anymore — but not for lack of trying. Over the past few years, the band has tried to do house shows, but most were shut down by police, even days beforehand. It turns out the Females' visibility, compared with other bands that play house venues, makes them an easy target.

"There are still house shows all of the time," says King Mike. His roommates play in bands, he says, and they still do several shows a week on a healthy house-show circuit. The conditions in which Screaming Females formed, he adds, are still very much alive. And the conditions that keep Screaming Females going also follow deep-set DIY values. The band keeps family close, and has for years.

"We practice once a week at Marissa's grandmother's house," King Mike says. And Grams doesn't just provide a room where the band can turn up, but a critical ear as well: Paternoster's grandmother regularly gives the band welcome songwriting advice. "There was a while when we hadn't been playing at her house and maybe our songs suffered, but lately she's had a lot to say. She's not afraid to tell us if something we're doing is bad," he says.

The trio's next move, beyond the quick recording session in Chicago, is to release a cassette of "weirder" stuff — songs the band will plan out ahead of time, rather than just jamming until something gels; songs in alternate tunings or on thrift-store instruments. And then they'll tour, tour, tour. It's a comfortable state for Screaming Females, and Ernst says it's when the band shines.

"They get a little bit more tightened on the road," the band's roadie says. "There's a different feeling ... especially (with) a band that's visually and musically exciting."

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