Yesterday marked the start of this year’s CMJ Music Marathon, an event created in 1980 so the nation’s college-radio players could gather in New York, network, drink, and see all the bands vying for their attention. Most of that stuff, apart from the drinking, is accomplished on the Internet these days, and yet there are still those of us who spend a week every October tracking the event, running from show to show, trying to sneak sandwiches in the backs of cabs, hoping for short lines. I’m not exactly sure why; New Yorkers could do that most any week. Maybe it’s the ritual of it. Or maybe it’s just that one music geek asks another, "What are your plans for CMJ?" and soon enough everyone feels like they should have something happening.
So Radio Vulture’s week of shows starts at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl, with three acts hosted by the blog network MOG: upstart New Jersey trio Screaming Females, western-Mass weirdos Dom, and longtime indie standard Yo La Tengo. Early on, that last band’s Ira Kaplan can be found standing right at the entry to the show room, chatting with a few fans, and for a moment I’m impressed by the accessibility of it, the way he’ll stand in a spot everyone in the audience has to pass and happily talk to all of them. This is only slightly deflated by realizing he’s mostly there so he can watch the Yankees game on the screen above the bar.
But let’s be honest and disclose some biases: Radio Vulture is here to see Screaming Females. Radio Vulture had to remember to take his Screaming Females T-shirt off before coming, in order not to creep the band out when trying to interview them. And, more important, Radio Vulture is here to see how people who don’t know Screaming Females react when the band hits the stage. The question of whether people “know” this band is a tricky one: They’ve played high-profile tours, like opening for Jack White’s Dead Weather project; they’ve appeared on Alexa Chung’s MTV show. But it’s possible they’re a little stuck between audiences at home in the New Jersey basement scene, not grand enough for punks, and just off the radar of a lot of indie-rock fans who might dig them.
But people react to their front woman, Marisa Paternoster: She’s striking, impressive, head-turning. She’s five-foot-two, baby-faced, and shaggy-haired, and as she takes the stage someone behind me leans over to a friend: "It’s like Justin Bieber’s little sister." She wears the same kind of dress as usual after the show she describes it as "Quaker style." When I say it’s the kind Veruca Salt wore, it sounds for a second like I mean the band, and she’s skeptical: "I think they wore tube tops. I would never wear a tube top. Put that down 'Tube tops are the pits of fashion.'"
Then the band’s off. Paternoster shreds on guitar, but in a fluid, vibrato-filled way that rarely gets showy. She sings in a grand, imperious voice, sometimes sneery and sometimes just commanding. And the band turns out a sound that’s oddly rare these days, ever since punk and indie-rock stopped checking in with each other very often it’s loose but exciting, basement-bred but still stylish. Their new album, Castle Talk (it's their fourth), sounds more wide open, and less fussed-over, than most every rock band I hear. They sell it well live, quickly winning over a lot of people who presumably came to see Yo La Tengo. The funny part is that Paternoster, who runs the stage during songs, shrinks back between them, quietly peeping a few announcements: “We’rescreamingfemales,” she says, too quickly for most to make out the name.
Which she explains later, in a confident deadpan: "I’m really afraid of everything and I have terrible self-esteem. So I’ve always been horrified of being onstage. And tonight I was horrified." The deadpan is important: In her songs and in person, she has a certain amused calm, like she’s messing with you or daring you to do something. As far as stage presence goes, drummer Jarrett Dougherty says they had to learn that part fast: "Years of touring without promotion, just playing for whoever, whenever you get in front of a room with people who have no idea who your band is and don’t really want to see you, they’re just stuck in the room. We had to be like: 'All fifteen of you need to listen to us and buy our record or else we can’t get to the next show.'"
Given that we’re at a showcase hosted by MOG, a complex online thing involving blogs, social networking, and putting music in an online cloud, it’s funny that the main theme of talking to Dougherty is the unrealness of the Internet. Screaming Females once joked to someone about the name of their bassist, Mike Abbate; now he’s listed all around the web with his surname replaced by the brand of his instrument. They still play unadvertised basement shows in New Brunswick to, as Paternoster says, “the same 30 people who’ve been going to basement shows forever" which Doughtery says is "one more testament to the fact that the Internet is not the only reality. There’s a real world. Hundreds of people at basement shows without it ever being posted on the Internet. I feel like our band is kind of a product of that mentality, too. People’s perceptions of the band are mostly incorrect. Either they think we’re not big at all, or they think we’re really huge most of it is skewed because of the Internet. Whereas most of the time we go out, play for a couple dozen people in towns across the U.S., and barely get by. But it’s the real world! The Internet isn’t the real world. That’s the moral of that story."
Maybe that’s why, when I ask Dougherty what he thinks it’d be like for them to become a Big Thing, his answer is the one you’d expect: He doesn’t even think about it anymore. Part of me hopes he might have to think about it, someday. But of course, I’m thinking about the possibility of Screaming Females becoming Internet Big. Which for them, thankfully, might not be super-meaningful. And for some types of bands, that’s a rarity.
Related: Vulture's Guide to the CMJ Lineup