Already being touted as one of the year’s best albums, Ugly, Screaming Females’ fifth full-length release, officially hit stores this week via Don Giovanni Records. Recently, Consequence of Sound managed to catch up with all three members (Jarrett Dougherty, drums; Marissa Paternoster, guitar and vocals; and “King” Mike Abbate, bass) as they were driving back from picking up vinyl copies of the album.
Your album Ugly is already being heralded as one of the best albums of the year.
Dougherty: Is it? I hope so.
Everything I’ve been reading online, everyone is loving it, and I’m loving it as well. It definitely seems to represent an expansion of your sound, building upon what you’ve done on your previous albums. I’m assuming that this is going to carry over to the live aspect as well.
Dougherty: Live, we’ve always kind of tried to do the same thing, which is have fun every night. I don’t think too much is going to change with what we do live. I think the only thing that has changed with what we do live is… at different parts of our career, we’ve had moments where we either like playing more improvised, longer versions of songs or just go in and just play a straight-ahead set. We kind of go through phases of melding all the songs together into one noisy thing or doing distinct pop songs, but I don’t think too much is going to change with our live sound.
Production-wise, this album definitely builds upon what you did on Power Move and Castle Talk, making your sound sharper, a little heavier and more confident. You’ve always been very involved with your music’s production. Steve Albini aside, what did you hope to accomplish with this album? Did you have most of it planned out prior to entering the studio, or did you let it happen more organically once you guys began recording?
Dougherty: We definitely had this record planned out before we went into the studio. We did more pre-production for this record than anything we’ve ever done. We demoed all the songs two or three times–let Marissa have a lot of time with the songs to kind of try different guitar overdubs and different vocal arrangements, you know, harmonies and this and that and doubling. So, by the time we went in there, we had a really good idea of what was working and not working for each of the songs.
Some of the songs we did a couple different times at different tempos to get an idea of what would feel good on the recording as opposed to playing live, because sometimes songs will feel better faster or slower live, but then you hear them recorded, and you realize they come across better at a different tempo. So, we did all that ahead of time, so by the time we got to the studio, we didn’t have to play to a click track or metronome. We didn’t have to really worry about what we were doing, and it actually ended up working particularly well with the way Albini works, because he wanted us to list exactly all the overdubs that we were considering doing ahead of time and then determine which ones had similar sounds, and it really helped the recording process move along quickly. It allowed him to excel at what he does.
I think our working styles ended up working together very, very well. We had a great time working with him. I know people have been harping on this thing I said where I didn’t want to talk about Steve Albini. I have no problem talking about Steve Albini. At that point in a particular interview someone had asked like three questions about Steve Albini, and I was like, “I don’t really know what the guy eats for breakfast.” That was kind of a little bit more of where I was going. Our comments as far as that were really like we don’t care to talk about the rumors of whether Steve’s a good guy or a bad guy. To us, he was a great engineer who we had a ton of fun with.
I was more interested in why you chose to work with him, because you guys have been so involved with your own production in years past that I didn’t think you needed to have an additional hand, and I was just wondering what you were trying to get with this new album, what sound you were trying to develop.
Dougherty: I think that… I mean, obviously, Albini’s records sound amazing particularly for loud rock bands, even though that’s not his sole area of expertise. He did a great Joanna Newsome record, which is obviously not a power trio kind of record. It’s always been within reach. For years now, we’ve been talking about the next record, whether it be Power Move or Castle Talk, whether we should go do it with someone like Albini. And really, it’s been within our grasp. There’s not many engineers and studios out there that have recorded such amazing records that are within our grasp, not only financially, but communications-wise. I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with somebody like Rick Rubin or Brendan O’Brien, Butch Vig or somebody like that.
But you can call up their studio, and someone answers the phone, and it might be Steve Albini. You call the studio, and their rates are reasonable. And I think that all of that stuff not only makes it a possibility, but you really know where they’re coming from, which is that they care about making good records for bands that don’t have the connections to the huge music industry, to big crazy expensive studios. And I think part of that… we were hoping going in that we had a little bit of a mutual understanding as far as ideologies go. I think it was on multiple levels.
We walked in there, and we were laughing at the same jokes; we’re telling stories about different eras of punk rock but not too far off from each other and also very diligent and ready to make a really good-sounding record. So, I think that it actually ended up everything we could hope for, in that we’ve always been involved with how our records came out and how they were recorded. That was no different this time around except we just had an even better studio and a world-class engineer.
The songs on this album seem to distill over 50 years of guitar, garage, and punk rock into one cohesive album. I even hear surf elements in “High” and “Expire”. Where do you all draw your inspiration from? Because it’s one thing for critics to cite Dinosaur Jr. and Fugazi, but as individuals, who did you look up to while learning your craft? I know it’s deeper than the early 90s.
Dougherty: I think about this stuff all the time. I think that we have pretty diverse influences as far as the individual members of our band, and now we’re together so often that we end up kind of transferring bands; everybody knows what bands the other people listen to but going back thinking about in high school, I was listening to some awful nu-metal. But at the same time, really what I was delving into more often was jazz and world music, free-jazz, freaked-out stuff like Sun Ra. Stuff like that. People may listen to our music now and think Dinosaur Jr. and Fugazi, which I understand; I get those references. But for me, I’m trying to think about what Fela Kuti’s drummer might play to this beat if he was in this band. What kind of beat would he play?
Man, if you had Tony Allen playing with you guys, that would be awesome.
Dougherty: I’m gonna pass the phone off to Marissa, so she can give her input.
This is your longest album, clocking in at just under an hour–almost double what you’ve done before. And “Doom 84” alone is over seven minutes long. When it comes to crafting your songs and choosing what to include on your album, what is your process?
Paternoster: We had a lot of songs ready to record when we went to the studio. I think we went in there originally with the intent of keeping a few of them for splits or 7”, so when it came down to it, we just kind of decided that they all had a space on the record. I think it was too difficult for us to edit out what might be perceived as the extraneous songs. It is a long record, I know. I feel like people are always kind of pressing us to either, when we’re playing live, to play for longer. I know that a lot of reviews of our other records would always be like this record is only a half-hour long, a brisk record or something. And now everyone’s critique is that this record is long. So, it’s kind of like a superficial observation–the length of this record. Yeah, that’s true, and we did take that into account. I think all of the songs have worth in them, have a spot on the album. If for some reason the length of the record is a burden to the listener, they should just get up and take a break.
I have no problem with the length; I just noticed that a lot of people were talking about it. Looking over your past recording history, a seven-minute song is a rarity, and I was just curious, did that happen because you were just jamming out in the studio and you didn’t want to stop?
Paternoster: Do you mean why that song in particular is that length? We wrote the song before we recorded it, and it was that length. When we talked about arranging it and making references to other bands that we think sound like that particular song… a lot of them write really long songs. And we were talking about Sleep and Witch.
You’ve done acoustic tracks before like “Deluxe” on Castle Talk. I love “It’s Nice”, the song that you have ending the album, especially how it lets the listener focus on your voice. The strings are kind of cool, too. Regarding the “ill-fated” piano track that you were trying to work on–that you left off the album–do you think you’ll ever revisit that and maybe try to develop something out of it?
Paternoster: The pictures of me playing piano… this photographer came in one day to take pictures, and it was almost this odd day where we were done tracking, and I was just singing. We were trying out this staccato piano thing, which would have… if you really want to know the nitty-gritty, the details… it was going to be on the intro to the song “Rotten Apple”. It was literally like four measures of just me playing A on the piano. It was really like the most boring thing ever, and then it got cut.
So, I take it that you’re not going to try and develop that? (laughs)
Paternoster: No. No, I don’t think we’ll ever revisit that particular part, but perhaps the piano will find its way onto a future recording. We archived that moment by taking many a photograph of me playing that piano.
I also live in a college town with very few venues and a big house show scene. Are you still actively involved with the New Brunswick house scene?
Paternoster: Yeah, I went to a couple shows while we were home for the past two weeks. And then helping a feminist collective in New Brunswick organize this annual festival called C.L.I.T. Fest. It’s the word “clit” serving as an acronym (I didn’t name it) for Combating Lady Inequality Together. It’s like a radical feminist music festival that’s been running for like eight years; it started in 2004 in Minneapolis, and it moves from city to city.
What’s the New Brunswick scene like right now?
Paternoster: Pretty much the way it was when we found it, still in basements.
Is being near New York a plus or a minus? Does it help your scene or overshadow it?
Paternoster: It’s a definite plus. I mean, I don’t think the house shows in New Brunswick suffer at all because New York is in close proximity. In fact, a lot of those bands in New York seem pretty keen on coming to New Brunswick to play.
I have a question for Mike regarding his bass playing.
Paternoster: Did you want me to ask him the question and then tell you the answer? We’re in traffic now, actually. (passes phone to “King” Mike Abbate)
Abbate: Hey, this is illegal, so if a cop comes up, I’m gonna put the phone down real fast ok. (laughing in background)
Ok. Your bass playing doesn’t sound like a typical bass role. It’s a bit crunchier this time, but I think that I hear you riffing it up more than just playing or walking the rhythm in sync with the drums. Is your approach on bass different than on a traditional role? Because I’m thinking I am hearing you play bass differently than a traditional bass player would.
Abbate: Yeah, I guess you’re right about that. I’ve only ever played bass (aside from getting high with my friends and fucking around); I’ve only ever played bass with Marissa. And Marissa, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, has a very unconventional guitar-playing style, so I can’t just be… I can’t do what most other bass players (mouths bass sounds). I have to play riffs or else it doesn’t work.