Screaming Females

I waited two decades to see this band but it was worth it – here’s why

One gig-goer tells a tale of two shows, almost twenty years apart, from the plucky New Jersey band Screaming Females, and asks: what keeps a band persevering after all these years?

In the summer heat of Hackney’s Oslo, a band from New Brunswick, New Jersey are about to take the stage. I have been waiting about twenty years to see them once more.

The Screaming Females are a three-piece rock band I first met whilst studying at Rutgers University in the year 2000-and-something. Living out of the infamous alternative culture dorm Demarest Hall, my friend Jesse told me to come and see the band fellow Demarest resident Marissa had started. I begrudgingly ambled into a sweaty, badly-lit basement on nearby Hamilton Street. When the band kicked-off, I pressed record on an old camcorder – a far cry from the usual sea of phones that light up most venues now. Little did I know, I was documenting the band’s first official gig. It turned out, they were incredible.

So there I stood, around twenty years later, seeing them live again at the storied East London venue. Only this time, I dug out that old footage – a valuable piece of archive in the Screaming Females chronicles – and converted it so I could show the band. “This is sick, we rock”, said bassist Mike, watching the grainy footage. “I mean, if I saw this band I’d buy a tape or T-shirt. I thought it was gonna be garbage, but we totally rock”. Marissa, the band’s lead singer, guitarist and plucky co-founder, quizzed when it was recorded: “How much are you gonna sell it to me for?”

Screaming Females

Screaming Females today.

Screaming Females

Grainy footage from Screaming Females’ first gig almost twenty years ago.

I handed over a copy of their first show footage and wanted to hear how traversing the music business had treated them for the past 18 years. Screaming Females aren’t selling-out stadiums, but they’ve sold-out Hackney’s popular venue and other similar spaces across their European tour.

How have they kept things fresh over the past two decades? Marissa believes, “I think we just really lucked out. We were all in a similar age range, so that gave us a lot of flexibility. I think off the bat, we all were just very committed to the idea of being in a band, and it was something we all really wanted. So it took a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.”

Mike agrees: “Back in 2005, when we first started touring, we were playing teeny tiny shows. The $50 you might get at the door would actually get you to okay the next show. For a band just starting out now, everything’s so expensive. It would be a lot harder to operate in a similar way like we did with [bandmate and drummer] Jarrett just going on MySpace and finding people to let us play in their homes.”

Having waited almost twenty years to see Screaming Females perform again, I was slightly concerned they wouldn’t live up to my expectations from how they blew me away so many years ago. I didn’t expect fireworks, I just wanted to them entertain. It’s a lot to ask, but I’m glad to say they are still one of the most compelling live bands I’ve ever witnessed.

Screaming Females

Photo: Ali Donohue

Each element of the band is perfectly aligned and finely-tuned. On bass, the towering Mike drives the band – and the crowd, with longing stares into the abyss. Jarrett is one of the most perfectly rhythmical drummers anyone could ask for in a rock band. And on guitar and vocals nothing can quite compare to the three-way love child of PJ Harvey, Jimi Hendrix and Marcie from Charlie Brown that is Marissa. Her guitar solos are a thing of absolute wonder.

Their set flows perfectly without any need to stop, and builds and builds to send the crowd into rapture for some of their most successful songs such as ‘I’ll Make You Sorry’ and ‘Brass Bed’. By the end of the show I’m sweaty, in the same way I was all those years ago, but also surprisingly overcome with emotion, noting the joy they were bringing to the tightly-packed crowd.

Screaming Females

Screaming Females drummer Jarrett.

So how have they managed to keep it going for nearly 20 years? How can they still perform with the energy and verve of a band just starting out? Marissa reveals, “I think we all just really love music a lot and playing music and would probably be doing it no matter what. In terms of when and how we write, it’s definitely changed a little bit here and there over time. But we’re pretty democratic songwriters.”

Mike concurs, “We’ve practiced at least once a week for the past 18 years, and that’s the day of the week that’s my day. I’m so hyped to go to band practice and you know, just spend time creating something, it’s extremely fulfilling.”

Screaming Females

Photo: Bob Sweeney

In the days since meeting the band and seeing them perform again for the first time in nearly two decades, I’m delighted to say like all the best gigs you go to, I’ve not stopped listening to the Screaming Females.

Their music takes me back to a time in my life where life was full of freedom and the thought of if I’d emptied the nappy bin before it overflowed was nowhere near my psyche. But that sense of nostalgia for me should not overshadow the reality that this band was, and is, an exceptional three-piece rock band, and if you ever get a chance to see them live, go and do it. Don’t leave it nearly twenty years like I did.

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