Screaming Females Scale Rose Mountain
Screaming Females backstage at the Knitting Factory
Robert Menzer for the Village Voice
Searing New Brunswick trio Screaming Females would really like it if people stopped making a big deal out of their longevity. Yeah, they've been around ten years, and in those ten years they've cemented a reputation as one of the hardest-rocking, most beloved guitar bands in the U.S. And yes, that is an impressive accomplishment for a resolutely DIY group. But as drummer Jarrett Dougherty puts it, "We're not going to commemorate it. We're just going to keep going."
For them, "keep going" means releasing their fifth studio album, Rose Mountain, out February 24 on Don Giovanni Records. Its ten unrelenting tracks represent thirty-five minutes of kinetic intensity, courtesy of singer/guitarist Marissa Paternoster's powerful voice and unmistakable solos, which have become the band's calling card. It's the most ambitious record Screaming Females have ever made, and one that took a grueling journey to release.
From the outset, it demanded the biggest investment in a record Don Giovanni or Screaming Females had ever made, in terms of both time and money. Label founder and close friend of the band Joe Steinhardt recalls their constantly using the phrase "all in" when planning Rose Mountain's release. "In punk music you're always doing the best you can with what you have, and Screaming Females have always done that," he says. "For this record, they wanted to do the best anyone can." They had a vision to put out a hard-hitting rock record that marked a progression in their sound, and Steinhardt is confident they executed their vision perfectly.
It's more common than not for a band of Screaming Females' stature to defect from the label that launched them in favor of a big-league indie, making their long relationship with Don Giovanni notable. While friendship has played a part in that loyalty, it's more out of a proven track record of trust. They rarely disagree on the band's trajectory, and even when they do, they quickly come to a consensus. Steinhardt chalks it up to an ethos rooted in giving his artists control over their work. "Sometimes it's to a fault," he says with a laugh. "If they want to drive themselves into a wall, I'm like, 'OK, here's the fastest car.' I'll tell them it's risky, but in the end, I'm just here to help."
Dougherty thinks of Steinhardt as the Fifth Beatle of Screaming Females: He's so closely intertwined with their story that he's practically in the band. Steinhardt feels the same way. "They're sort of the big brother of the [Don Giovanni] family," he says fondly. "The first time we did anything — hire a publicist, put music on iTunes — it was with them. They built the label as much as it built them."
This consensus on the success of their record and ongoing relationship is made all the more meaningful considering they almost couldn't make Rose Mountain at all. In mid-2012 Paternoster began battling what turned out to be chronic mononucleosis, which left her in constant, unbearable pain. She couldn't play guitar and rarely left the house for anything but medical appointments. What she could do during this time was write. Screaming Females already had instrumentals for what eventually became Rose Mountain, so she began to work on lyrics.
On the next page: "I wanted to give them some hope. That's the best you can do as a friend."
Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females
Robert Menzer for The Village Voice
She considers it embarrassingly selfish, but everything that came out concerned her illness, because the pain left her unable to think about anything else. "Lyrically, a lot of this record is about looking at my body from the outside," she says. "Not to sound too hippie-dippy, like I have dreamcatchers in my room and an amethyst crystal up my ass, but I had to start considering my body as an abstraction." She fantasized regularly about leaving her body behind to find a new one free from pain, but while she was stuck in this one, Screaming Females came to a full stop.
The experience rattled them profoundly. With every month Paternoster stayed sick, getting back on the road seemed an increasingly distant pipe dream. At one of their lowest points they recorded the 2013 EP Chalk Tape, which Dougherty recalls as having a grudgingly acknowledged, ominous cloud hanging over it: They thought they might never make a full record as a band again, so they were doing what little they could to keep playing together. Dougherty and bassist Mike Abbate had to look for day jobs for the first time in years, a dismal process made worse knowing Paternoster needed the same income but couldn't work at all.
Steinhardt remembers trying to help the band not to feel like their world was ending. He reminded them constantly that their existing output had already cemented their status in the annals of punk and rock, assuring them that they would never be forgotten. Paternoster had made visual art for almost as long as she'd played guitar; Steinhardt revamped her website and reissued two books of her paintings and drawings. He talked to all three bandmates daily and tried to keep them focused on being creative without making a record. "I knew they would be OK eventually even if Screaming Females ended," he says. "I wanted to give them some hope. That's the best you can do as a friend."
Fortunately, the fear of a forced disbanding never manifested. Paternoster's recovery was unbearably slow, but the band was back in the studio as soon as she was well enough to track. They're embarking now on an international tour supporting the album, starting with a gig March 6 at Silent Barn. Because Paternoster is still not quite fully recovered, she's mindful about treating her body better. But when asked if that holds her back, she answers instantly with a firm "No."
Nevertheless, her performance style has shifted. In past years her eyes were a rare sight, obscured by long bangs and a hunched posture that kept her draped over her guitar. Now, as she rips through her complex solos, she stays upright and buoyant. Her voice is stronger than ever, as forceful during soundcheck as it is later during the set. She is focused and precise. One gets the sense that, while her awareness doesn't hold her back, she now uses her energy more thoughtfully than in previous years.
The one thing she refuses to put any more energy into, however, is dwelling on her illness. She's singing words she wrote while immobilized, but she has no special feelings — of spite or triumph — toward them. She's just excited to be back on the road and playing music. "It feels really good to be on the other side of this," she says. "I don't think about the lyrical aspect of songs. The best moments are the ones where the only thing I'm thinking about is playing."
Screaming Females play Silent Barn on March 6. The show is sold out, but they'll loop around the Tri-State for their April 4 show at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
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