Since first starting in the basement scene of a New Jersey college town, Screaming Females have come a long way, after playing throughout the U.S. and Europe alongside the likes of Ted Leo and the Arctic Monkeys. They released their fifth full-length album, Ugly, earlier this year, and Screaming Females have managed to never lose sight of their DIY sensibilities.
After recently canceling a slew of tour dates due to lead singer Marissa Paternoster’s sudden bout with mono, drummer Jarrett Dougherty took the time to speak to us during their hiatus. While hanging out with his cat, Nacho, in his Philadelphia home, Dougherty talked about learning German, working with legendary audio engineer Steve Albini and what exactly the word “ugly” means.
Paste: Has it been nice to have a little time off since you had to cancel your tour dates?
Jarrett Dougherty: Not really. It’s been stressful. I love playing in Screaming Females, so this unplanned time off has been sort of hectic and weird.
Paste: How have you been spending it?
Dougherty: I’ve been reading a lot and doing stuff I normally do while I’m home. Doing stuff at my food co-op, riding my bike, cooking. Lately I’ve been trying to learn German. It’s one of my new projects.
Paste: Any particular reason, or just because?
Dougherty: I’m really bad with languages. I took six years of Spanish in middle school and high school and didn’t learn anything. Over the last few years, going to Europe, it seems so silly that most Americans only know one language. I realized I have the rest of my life to learn a bunch of stuff, so I might as well add languages to the list. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I just read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and I was doing a little reading about him. Apparently by the time he was 18 or 19 years old he was fluent in three or four languages, so I felt like I was kinda behind.
Paste: Well, your new album is being heralded as one of the best of the year in so many different places already. I know you’ve talked a lot about how the process of this album was different. What changed exactly?
Dougherty: We spent a lot more time on pre-production for this record. Previously for albums, for songwriting in general, we’d write a song, and once we felt like it was done we’d go play it live and go record it in the studio. But for this record, for a lot of the songs, we wrote them, went out and played them live for a little while, came home and recorded them ourselves. And then we listened to those and really analyzed it, and decided what was working and what wasn’t. And for a couple of the songs we completely re-wrote sections, or re-wrote entire songs. Just a lot of self-editing. I think that’s something that we are, since we were going in to record with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, to spend a lot more money on the recording process than we ever have, we really wanted to be prepared and have the songs be the best they could possibly be. In previous eras, a lot of bands would have producers in on a record, and what a producer’s job is to do is not have that direct emotional, direct attachment to songwriting and particular parts, and be able to say, “Hey I think this verse isn’t working the way it should,” or “This song is just too long or not long enough.” Or maybe, “The tempo or the feel is wrong for this part.” Since we didn’t want to have any sort of producer involved, and we didn’t have the money for that even if we wanted to, we decided that we could be our own best critics. So we really took that upon ourselves, and it was something we’d never done before.
Paste: Well it definitely seems to be working. I have to ask the obligatory question, though: how was working with Steve Albini?
Dougherty: It was great. He’s a professional, and he’s very fun to be around. I think our band personality worked well with his engineering personality, and I think we both had some mutual respect. I think he was impressed with how we came in, since he didn’t know us as people before, he was impressed with all of our pre-production done and ready to go. We weren’t trying to write songs or write parts, or do things like that in the studio. And we were impressed watching him operate a recording studio, which we’ve seen a number of people do and no one do it that well.
Paste: Tell me about the title of the album. It’s obviously very blunt, and I was wondering if it came from anywhere in particular.
Dougherty: We always have a tough time deciding on things. It took us a long time to come up with a band name, and album titles are always a struggle. I think we were in Germany at the time when we decided on that album title. We like to have things that are somewhat ambiguous to allow people to have their own interpretations. We do that because each of us individually like to have our own interpretations of what we’re doing. But for me the title Ugly has a lot to do with how we perceived the direction of the world in general. Ugly is an interesting word. It’s negative, obviously. It has negative connotations. But ugly is something that can mean also just a very base look at something. You look at something and you say, “It’s ugly.” But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not functional, or that it doesn’t have underlying beauty. An ugly person could be incredibly smart. An ugly object could be… people have their favorite ugly sweater. Or a bike that’s ugly could get you around your city, get you everywhere you need to go. I think that ugly is an interesting word because it’s negative, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily take away all other qualities of something. It’s only one type of quality.
Paste: That’s really interesting, and you talking about how it means different things to different people I fee like harkens back to your name a lot. I know people think that “Screaming Females” means something literal, when it doesn’t at all.
Dougherty: Yeah, exactly. I think we think about that with art in general. We think that very direct, purposeful art has its place, but a lot of times art that seems to last through generations does at least leave some element for the viewer, for the audience, for the person perceiving it to have their input on the interpretation. We try and leave a little bit of ambiguity.
Paste: I know Marissa designs all of your cover art. Is the cover for Ugly directly related to the title? Is it something you all have input on? How does it typically come about?
Dougherty: I think we work really well with allowing each of us to display our strengths. Every time Marissa draws something, she doesn’t have to come to us in each step and say, “Is this okay?” Ultimately, if any one of us feels uncomfortable with something we will stop it. Mike and I are overjoyed to have someone like Marissa to add such a distinct look to objects we make. I know that for her, she started drawing these figures separately, designing the album, and then they kind of evolved as we came up with the title, “Ugly.” She was looking through her notebooks and noticed she’d been drawing these figures that were kind of ugly, for lack of a better word. [Laughs] They were evil monster-looking figures. And as she was drawing she realized, as I think a lot artists do, you have initial inspiration, but as you work at it and work at it you try and figure out where the inspiration is coming from and where the style is coming from. I know she started to look at work by Nick Blinko from Rudimentary Peni, amazingly detailed album covers he did. And I know she’s really into medieval woodcuts. A lot of those have religious imagery, but a lot of the time they also have these images of devils and demons attacking people, Christianity’s interpretation of magic and heretics and that type of thing. I think looking at that art influenced her and helps her come to a general feel for the way the album should look.
Paste: Your music obviously has so many different influences in it, and I think it’s so interesting you’ve covered Neil Young and you covered Sheryl Crow, both of which are so different from your own music. How do you incorporate inspiration from such different genres?
Dougherty: Well I think that most musicians are huge music fans, and a lot of them are fans of art in general, whether it be fine art or pop art or wherever they look for it. But I have yet to meet a musician that doesn’t have a significant record collection. When you hear a band that seems like they draw influence from something very, very direct, and there’s not a lot of outside influences, or their record collections are made-up purely of one type of music, or one artist — I think it’s just that there was a decision to sound like a particular thing. And we never made a decision that this band should sound like anything, which allows us to make us sound like whatever we feel it should, or whatever we want it to at the time, and whatever comes out of us. So if we start to play a part for a new song, there’s never a moment when we stop and say, “Woah, this might not sound like Screaming Females,” which I think a lot of bands get scared of and stop those impulses because they’re worried that it doesn’t fit the kind of band they’re deciding to create. And a lot of times that can be really fun, to decide ahead of time the type of sound a band should have, but ultimately I think my favorite bands, and bands that stand the test of time, just do what they want to do. They allow their influences to come through, and didn’t stifle themselves by a predetermined idea of what the band should be.
Paste: You’re all credited on all the songs as songwriters. How does that work? Is there a specific process you go through?
Dougherty: Well, we always say all songs are written by Screaming Females because when we come together the process really is a communal effort for the most part. We make suggestions to each other. We really don’t write songs in that traditional songwriter sense of having one person write a song on an acoustic guitar or a piano, and then come in and figure out an arrangement with the band. We work from the other angle, which is that we come up with parts of songs and try to fit them together. We really are all extremely open to other people’s opinions and trust each other. So when we’re playing something, a lot of times even though I don’t have any proficiency at guitar or bass, I’ll make a suggestion based on what I hear going on to Mike or Marissa, and they’ll take that suggestion seriously. Because of that, it would be very difficult to determine which one of us had written Screaming Females songs. But Marissa does write all the lyrics. She sings them, so it makes sense that she’s the one who writes them.
Paste: You got your start in the basement scene in New Jersey. Basement shows have such a different vibe. There’s so much more camaraderie at them. Do you miss primarily playing that circuit at all?
Dougherty: I try not to be nostalgic at any part of my life. For me it seems impossible to take the view that you wish you were back some place, because you can never be back there. You have to take what you have now and appreciate what you have, and try to look towards the future of what can be better and different and more exciting and more challenging. I don’t tend to look back and say, “I wish we were only playing those types of shows still.” But I think a lot of what we learned and what we gained from those shows has really influenced our lives. I live in a house with eight other people, and I learned about communal living from living in show houses, and touring the country learning how other people operate in communal living situations. I love it, and I can’t imagine a point in my life where I won’t be living within a community inside of my house. And a vast majority of the shows we play now are still people we meet through playing those types of shows. Either they now run shows in bigger spaces or their bands are also able to play shows in bigger spaces, or if they have new bands, we’re able to invite them to come out and play in clubs, and maybe get their first opportunity to get to play on real sound system, on a stage, which bands like to do. So we still are involved in that community, just in a different way.
Paste: It really is such a community, and that’s great that y’all have managed to stay involved. I’ve seen some really great bands play in basements before that never seem to find their way out of the basement. How do you think that you managed to make that push to get onto a more national scene?
Dougherty: Well, it’s a bunch of different things. Some people don’t want to. Some people just want to start a band and play and have fun with their friends, and don’t want to get bigger. They don’t want to invest the time or energy because they want to put it into other parts of their lives. Music is just something they do for fun on the weekends, or something. For the three of us, we always felt there was something special that we had going on that we didn’t want to stop doing. We wanted to see how far we could take it on our own terms. I think there’s also a combination that occurs that people don’t have the self-confidence that what they’re doing is worthwhile enough to put energy behind it. There’s a lot in our society that creates self-doubt for all types of people, especially people who are living outside of society’s standard of what you should be doing with your life and what is worthwhile to spend time doing. And for a lot of people, “I’m going to quit my job to go on tour with my band,” seems almost comical to say to other people. A lot of time your parents or your co-workers will laugh at that concept. “Oh yeah, okay, I’ll see you in a few months back here begging for your job.” It’s difficult to take on that societal pressure to assume that your artistic output is worthless, that it’s not worth giving up—at least temporarily—other types of security in your life to be able to see what you can do with what you’ve got.