It’s Saturday night in New Brunswick, New Jersey. A restless crowd buzzes with energy as a petite girl with jet-black hair slowly pushes her way through the crowd. Once on stage, she picks up a guitar that’s almost as big as she is and starts generating a grinding dissonant wail. She seems to double in size, possessed by the spirit of rock and roll, channeling decades of delirious rhythm and noise into a shamanistic howl that has the crowd invigorated by her relentless pulse. This is Marissa Paternoster, singer and lead guitarist of the Screaming Females, a larger-than-life rock goddess.

“I’ve heard [people talk about this transformation] before,” Paternoster says modestly. “I don’t do it on purpose. I’m just trying to enjoy myself on stage.” Paternoster’s guitar assault is augmented by the rolling melodic bass lines of Mike Abbate and Jarrett Dougherty’s drumming, which manages to be driving, subtle and full of percussive nuances.

Dougherty had given up on his dreams of being in a band until he met Paternoster and Abbate, who had just started a band called Surgery on T.V. Dougherty took over on drums after the keyboard player left and the trio immediately gelled. They started looking for gigs, but even in a booming college town like New Brunswick, places to play were difficult to find. To remedy this predicament, local bands held shows in basements or the homes of fans so those under 21 could attend. According to Dougherty, the New Brunswick basement scene “encouraged, and still encourages, people to participate. It builds community.”

The community Screaming Females supported has sustained a thriving indie rock scene and allowed them to slowly build a national reputation. Their intense live shows and the bedrock rhythm section make every fan a fanatic, with each album bolder and more assured than the last. On last year’s opus, Castle Talk, Paternoster’s vocals were as commanding as her guitar work and the rhythm arrangements hinted at new wave, post punk, metal and even folk and disco.

Their latest album, Ugly, was engineered by punk auteur Steve Albini. “We still produced ourselves,” Dougherty says. “Steve brought technical proficiency to the engineering side, which made it a lot easier to do our part. The album has more clarity, but the sound isn’t necessarily cleaner. We wanted to represent the band for what it is, which generally means drums, guitar, bass, vocals. Not too many things to drown each other out.”

Paternoster said the songs on Ugly were written in a state of fear about the future and the music certainly mirrors the uncertain times we live in. The rhythms are punishing and, at times, almost funky. Paternoster’s vocals are incantations full of arcane images and witchy energy and her aggressive guitar showers the tunes with brittle swampy arpeggios, sustained power chords and shredding leads that spark like a fallen power line.

The album lives up to the band’s evocative name, but they all have their ideas about its origin. “[Screaming Females] came to Marissa while she was on a spirit quest,” says Dougherty. “I think that our name is better left unexplained,” Abbate opines.

Text by J. Poet
Photography by Christopher Patrick Ernst