Standing outside a venue in broad daylight, well before opening hours, is a similar sensation as being at school on a weekend. I could recognize the heavy double doors and the lettered overhang—the sidewalk, however, looked barren without the black stanchions herding people in and out. The building looked derelict; windows were dark holes without the artificial light pushing between the pasted tour posters. The street responded with a mutually agreed-upon quiet. Few folks hustled by me as I waited.
I tap a pen against my notebook. Jarrett Dougherty, drummer for three-piece rock band Screaming Females, is on his way to meet before their LA show. Shifting my feet, I read through my questions as I wait. Meeting strangers in person is harder than it used to feel—naturally I blame the pandemic. He arrives, not through the front doors, but from around the street corner. Behind him is bassist Mike Abbate and lead vocalist Marissa Paternoster. Each is easily recognizable from their pictures online, which, logic aside, is comforting. It’s clear the group values consistency: fans can hear it in almost two decades worth of recordings and live performances.
When asked where the consistency comes from, Dougherty shrugs. “It’s just been the same three people for 18 years,” he says.
Hours later, the double doors opened. Inside, the crowd packed close to the stage. The band enters—Paternoster takes the left corner, Abbate takes the right. Dougherty meets his drum set in the center back. Without preamble, they launch into “Empty Head,” the lead-off track on their 2015 album ROSE MOUNTAIN. The crowd also wastes no time, and falls into formation: heads banging, shoulders dipping, hips twisting. We are, in fact, at a rock show.
Paternoster leads the way, absolutely shredding through “Brass Bell,” the lead single of their latest record, DESIRE PATHWAY. I try to reconcile the quiet woman I met earlier that day behind the venue with the powerhouse I’m watching on stage. Her voice is unwavering, and only gains strength as the show goes on. Watching her play guitar is like tricking the senses: surely no one person can create that level of sound by themself. I very, very quickly realize that I’m watching one of the greatest guitarists alive. It’s not until the fifth or sixth track that Paternoster finally addresses the crowd with a quick and genuine “Thank you for being here.” By then, Abbate is dripping in sweat on stage. There’s a 12-year-old crowd surfing. I myself have covered some ground, moving with the audience against favored tracks like “Bird in Space” and “I’ll Make You Sorry.” They tear through their setlist, pulling songs from across their 18-year history. There are a lot of good things to choose from.
Their attention is so zeroed-in on their instruments, each other, the crowd. No time for banter, no time for self-conscious pauses or bombastic dance moves. Paternoster described it perfectly, hours earlier. “I’m not the brightest girl in the world, so whatever is directly in front of me is the most important thing,” she says, catching eyes with Abbate and laughing. Abbate and Dougherty both agree. “When we’re making a record, it’s the recording, and when we’re playing a show, it’s the show.”
“Exactly,” says Abbate. “And today we’re focused on putting on the rock ‘n’ roll show of a lifetime, here in Los Angeles, California.”
As I watch the show, I wonder if I should apply the same focus to my life. If the success of their band is any qualifying measurement, they clearly have the right priorities. Each member is a master of the part they play, all of equal importance, in service to the music as much as the crowd. Maybe that’s how they are able to sound so big, with such comparatively little manpower: the weight of their attention and focus is worth more than what a typical individual would give.
As the set trucks along, they play more from DESIRE PATHWAY, like the fast-paced “Desert Train” and the wordy “Beyond the Void.” Earlier I had asked Paternoster how she approaches writing her lyrics. She responded with: “I think that we just are really focused on becoming better songwriters, whatever that means—probably means something different for all of us. I know with each album I try to focus on vocal melodies, and try to improve on that… what was the question?”
No need to talk about the details when you can show up and show out. Paternoster on the mic is commanding full attention, creating such depth to the songs it’s as if a chorus of people are hiding behind the curtains. I find myself checking the corners of the stage, as if more bandmates will walk out onto stage and finally introduce themselves. True to their word, however, just the three remain as they bulldoze through each song.
“We’ve always tried to play different sets and improvisational moments,” says Dougherty, “just trying to make each show unique. It feels exciting and hopefully feels electric, hopefully gives the impression that something’s happening tonight for everyone out there, that is unique, and kinda puts you on the edge of your seat. Sometimes we’re playing a song we haven’t played in weeks, trying to remember how to play them as we’re playing them live.” If there’s a misstep on stage, fans can’t hear it. We’re all soaking it in, hungry for musical connection, still reeling from the years and months we weren’t allowed to have it.
Paternoster expresses the same sentiment: “When I think about the new record, I’m just really relieved to be able to make the record at all. COVID put a giant stop to our regular routine of writing, recording and touring. So I was like, thank God we’re doing our thing again. I was worried for a second there.”
Abatte agrees. “It felt good to have a goal, something to try and accomplish for once, after a long break of uncertainty.”
“I can tell you what did not help,” says Abatte, beginning to wax poetic about the larger trials and tribulations of DIY. “There was this big ass window in the recording studio we were at, and oftentimes there would be giant woodpeckers or a family of deer. There might have been an eagle at some point, we just kept getting distracted by the wildlife. . . luckily the sound proofing was real good, so there wasn’t any bleed from the woodpecker pecking away.” (Paternoster confirms the woodpecker was actually a Pileated Woodpecker, a very large, colorful, and relatively rare bird. From the studio, his nose was as “animated as Woody the Woodpecker himself—“See?” says Dougherty, “Life experience always works its way into the record.”)
The bass-heavy “Doom 84” closes out their set, a song that’s almost a bit sexy in its overwhelming nihilism. Waiting patiently for the encore, panting and still screaming for the Jersey DIY rock band, the crowd begins shouting out favorites that were missed so far, like “Wishing Well” or “Let Me In.” Whatever it is, we trust the three-piece to deliver something unique but overwhelmingly familiar, true to their fast-paced and breathless focus.
Dougherty summed it up perfectly: “It feels in that moment, you’re participating with everyone who’s there. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how that happens. If people weren’t reacting the way they are, would we play the way we are? The answer’s no. It’s a unique moment.”
Screaming Females are currently on tour, you can find their next show here.