Meat Town USA is a sort of punk-rock speakeasy—a hush-hush concert venue that sits in a dingy basement just outside of Rutgers University’s New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus. The design could best be described as flammable minimalism, with disowned floral-pattern mattresses propped against the wall, a few clouds of frayed insulation drooping from the ceiling, and Christmas-tree lights coiled around an exposed pipe. In order to keep the police away, the proprietors of Meat Town don’t publish its address, but on a recent Saturday night the downstairs was congested with students and townies trying to get a look at a tiny woman in a red mandarin dress thrashing away at her guitar. Her name is Marissa Paternoster, and in the blusterless world of modern indie rock, she’s something of an anomaly: an honest-to-God shredder.
Paternoster, 22, is the front woman of Screaming Females, a cauterizing power trio that’s currently the biggest punk band in all of New Brunswick. That may sound like a dubious plaudit, like declaring the finest slam poet in all of Hackensack, but thanks to a lack of all-ages concert venues, New Brunswick has a DIY ancestry that stretches back to the early nineties, when groups like Bouncing Souls and Lifetime played in basements close to campus. The college-town turnover means most bands survive only for a few years before moving on or breaking up; as a result, the city’s musical history is fitful and obscure. “New Brunswick’s like a Galápagos,” says Joe Steinhardt of Don Giovanni Records, Females’ current label. “I’ve always wanted a band from here to get huge, then stick around.”
Screaming Females formed in 2005, when art-school student Paternoster met drummer Jarrett Dougherty, 25, and bassist Mike Abbate, 19, both New Jersey natives. The group’s just-released third album, Power Move, alternates between grubby pop anthems (“Bell”) and psych-punk dirges (“Skull”), without ever quite replicating the band’s brisk, kinetic live show, perfected after years of basement gigs. While Paternoster is microscopic in appearance—maybe five feet tall, counting her Brian Jones–style bowl-cut hairdo—she creates a sound that’s absolutely colossal, with a deep, braying vibrato and a tendency for fret-traveling guitar squiggles.
Watching Paternoster break into a solo is jarring given the tasteful (often snoozy) state of modern indie rock. Despite the popularity of Guitar Hero and the nostalgia for nineties alt-rock virtuosos like Billy Corgan, most blog-anointed acts dispense with guitar histrionics altogether, content with a few noodles here and there. This is partly because of a lack of technical prowess and partly owing to an indie-wide aversion to excessive bravado. “The guitar solo is a dangerous thing to perform or even consider,” says Paternoster, who will demonstrate that theory at upcoming shows in Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey. “It’s such a dated, cheesy thing. It’s hard to do it in a way that doesn’t come off as corny.”
After the Meat Town show finishes, the crowd empties into the street, where they’re greeted with zombie frat boys and spaghetti-strapped vomiters. Considering New York and Philadelphia are about an hour away, you wonder why the members of Screaming Females—none of whom is a Rutgers student—remain in New Brunswick: The rents are high, the police are always cracking down for noise violations, and you have to go out of town to find a decent record store. At one point, the band members take me on a guided tour of the city’s cultural landmarks. It lasts about ten minutes. “It’s like Revenge of the Nerds,” says Dougherty with a sigh, “except there are no nerds, and the frat side runs everything.”
But such obstacles have instilled in Screaming Females a contrarian civic pride. The Internet has essentially decentralized alt-rock, putting the most remote music scenes within easy reach. Yet New Brunswick remains self-contained, even insular. “People have to work extra hard here to make things happen,” says Dougherty. “I read Our Band Could Be Your Life, that book about the eighties underground. The idea that you can do something awesome in your hometown—that’s what drives this. I don’t know why it’s so cool here. But it’s home.”