While on tour last month, New Jersey punk band Screaming Females’ old Dodge conversion van broke down in deathly hot Las Cruces, New Mexico, prompting the trio to cancel their remaining shows and rent a U-Haul truck to tow themselves home, only to break down in Arkansas meth-head country not once, not twice, but three more times, with flat tires.
It was a hellacious ordeal exquisitely recounted by lead (and only actual) Female Marissa Paternoster in a 5,000-word blog entry on the band’s website. But the tragedy only affirmed the do-it-yourself ethic the band so righteously embraces—from the early CD-R solo albums she recorded on her dad’s laptop to drummer Jarrett Dougherty pulling double-duty as their manager to the cover art and T-shirts they design themselves. For this band, DIY is serious business: “I think that when people know that you work really hard to do something you care about, and you do it by yourself and on your own terms,” Paternoster says, “it gives your music and actions kind of like a stamp of authenticity, so that people don’t think you’re phony or you’re, like, lying to them.”
That’s some bold talk for a 23-year-old who could pass for 13 on account of her five-foot frame and raggedy Justin Bieber mop-top, but she backs it up with tough, charismatic vocals and bloody-fingers guitar theatrics, both further showcased on her ravaging proper debut solo album, Holy Hell (out last week under the moniker Noun), and the fourth Females album, Castle Talk, due out September 14. Paternoster wrote all the songs on Hell herself, with occasional musical assists from the boy Females and various friends, along with creative direction from her mom, who designed the cover art. The album is perhaps a little more power pop than the Females’ customary thrash, but what clearly separates it is her move from guitars exclusively to organs and keys periodically, as well as her brutally honest, introspective lyrics, all of which are delivered with the mettle of Sleater-Kinney and the rest of the riot grrrl acts that so influenced her.
“I mean,” Paternoster begins over her cell, aboard her Mazda hatchback (the band’s new ride) as the Females cross the Canadian border on tour with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “more so than the weird, hard-line feminist mentality that’s associated with riot grrrl—which meant a lot to me, but I’d never really identified too strongly with it—I think, just it kind of being queer-centric, especially when I was like 16 and I was very troubled by the fact that I was gay, helped me a lot with stuff. Yeah. Listening to that music made me feel better.”
Hell starts with the brooding “Black Lamb,” a piano ode to someone whose hair Paternoster possibly regrets pulling, wherein she quivers, “I will win the contest/When my best friend dies.” I ask her what that means. “I don’t really wanna tell people what to think or how to feel about a song,” she replies, belying less a lack of transparency than a combination of a songwriter’s boredom with self-analysis and the complexity inherent in such a mysterious song, seemingly a first-person tale of obsession wrapped up in a sexual-identity reawakening.
An easier song to dissect is “Old Friends.” It starts with a scuzzy guitar riff on repeat, Paternoster’s ascending bark augmented by another overdubbed vocal, keys, and drums. That turns into a drum solo, which advances the crescendo, but then it all collapses, leaving you to wonder where your own friends have gone. Paternoster, as Noun, defies her age with these two-and-a-half-minute nuggets of affliction and healing, including the album’s title track, a peerless, dark-as-night song about finding your own religion. Even that, she intends to do herself.
The Screaming Females play the Voice’s Siren Festival July 17