A few weeks ago, foxtails, a downstate screamo band, journeyed to Hartford to perform at Sarah's Coffee House, an Asylum Street storefront that sometimes curtails evening coffee sales to host weekend DIY shows.
The band was miscast that night. The evening, billed as Girls Night II, was meant to feature female singer-songwriters from around New England who played short, expressive acoustic sets. The band foxtails — comprising drummer Michael Larocca, 19, vocalist-bassist Megan Cadena-Fernandez, 18, and guitarist Jon Benham, 20 — is not that.
"They described us as dreamy indie-pop," Cadena-Fernandez says. "We're expecting to get kicked offstage. It's happened before."
Screamo is not for the timid; if music was cinema, we'd be talking about sudden, shocking jump cuts, not wide-angle cinematography. Blasts of distortion, shrieking vocals and rhythmic disruptions aren't gratuitous; they're tools for charting sudden new directions, characterized by jarring contrasts and escalating dynamics, often in service to the lyrics.
From the storefront, Cardena-Fernandez announced "The Chicken From Outer Space," a song from foxtails' recent album, "III," whose title refers to a villain on the pilot episode of the animated series "Courage the Cowardly Dog."
"Chicken" started innocently enough, with a soft, dreamlike introduction. Tension grew; Benham's arpeggios and Larocca's propulsive drumming led to new spaces, none of which lasted long enough to settle into.
"I've been raised to believe that all creatures deceive," Cadena-Fernandez sang, her voice a near-whisper, "How have I gone this long?" Before long, she was screaming: "Grab me by the throat / throw me to the floor."
Before the show, I learned the backstory: Larocca, Cadena-Fernandez and Benham met at the Regional Center for the Arts, a magnet high school in Trumbull. They don't have fond memories.
"I hate my past," Larocca says. "I just want to always move forward."
During his junior year, Benham asked Larocca, a freshman, to play in a band. Larocca declined. "I was a f***ing weirdo," he says. "I thought, 'I'm not cut out for this. I'm a nerd.'"
Benham tried again a year later, and succeeded. They recruited bassist Josh Garcia and Cadena-Fernandez to sing, and began messing around in Benham's backyard shack. Their debut album, "this is not for you," came out in 2015, dedicated to "years of depression and anxiety along with crippling trauma inspiring us to write all this bullsh*t."
Much of "this is not for you" is deceptively gentle, with little overdrive or aggressive vocalizing — until "every window in alcatraz has a view of san francisco," toward the end of the LP, where Cadena-Fernandez's anger boils into a demonic wail: "I'd slit my throat with a smile on my face if it meant I could ever get out."
From there, any and all dream-pop tendencies go away; "o tempora! o mores!", an EP from 2016, is immediately darker, its songs more inventive and jaggedly sectional. Some, like "timeline," the provocative three-minute opener, abandon harmony and melody. "There's too many blank spaces in the wrong places," Cadena-Fernandez screams, when the band cuts out. "Why? Why? Why?"
For a time, Benham was enrolled at Western Connecticut State University, hoping to study psychology, but soon dropped out. Larocca is currently a student at the New School in New York, where he studies jazz and contemporary music. "It's one of the only schools that does experimental music, and that's kind of my thing," he says.
Cadena-Fernandez didn't graduate from high school. "There were teachers who thought I was a delinquent," she says. "There were guidance counselors who really didn't give me the time of day."
Musically, foxtails is wary of being lumped in with pop-punk and indie-rock bands, which often happens.
"I gave the band the name [foxtails] thinking we were going to be indie-math-rock cool stuff," Cadena-Fernandez says. "I usually start out singing, and when I scream, people are like: Oh, wow, what?"
"We try to avoid [indie rock] because that's not us at all," Larocca says. "No offense to people who do that. It's a genre of music. I have all the respect in the world for anyone who wants to play it. ... We end up sticking out like a sore thumb."
Foxtails swelled to five members, then shrank down to three; Garcia moved to guitar for a while, then returned to playing bass, and then quit. Subsequent bassists didn't stick around.
Cadena-Fernandez switched to bass before the recording of "III," its latest album. "III" was recorded at Dead Air Studios in Amherst, Mass., with Will Killingsworth, who played guitar with the pioneering screamo band Orchid. "He's a great person to work with," Cadena-Fernandez says. "He gets what you're doing. He laughs during the silences, which is everything I need as a person."
The band writes everything together. "Everything is equal with us," Cadena-Fernandez says. Usually Benham approaches Larocca with a riff in a strange time signature; Larocca and Cadena-Fernandez come up with parts. "I used to try to make things complex, but now I'm more into emotion," Benham says.
In Connecticut, foxtails likes playing at Crunch House, a DIY space in West Haven. "It's basically behind a bunch of trucks in an industrial complex," Cadena-Fernandez says. "It's a utility closet, but they sound-proofed it. The PA is turned on. They have a projector. They can play [images] behind a band that's playing."
Recently, foxtails has found a few sympathetic scenes and listeners (none of whom were attending the Sarah's Coffee House show). They find common ground with experimental Connecticut bands like Dead Car Ellie (Benham plays bass in that band), and across state lines: On June 7, they'll play with Massa Nera, Aspine, Commuovere, People's Temple Project and the Ultimate Screamo Band in Boonton, N.J.
"There are a lot of bands in Connecticut, but for the genre of music we dig, there's not a lot," Cadena-Fernandez says. "They get killed off." She names one, then dismisses them as "very mild." "When it comes to the heavier stuff, the more intense parts, you either get the two screamo bands in Connecticut, us and Dead Car Ellie, or you just get metalcore. That's pretty much it."
"There's a lack of diversity in the Connecticut scene," Benham says. "We have more fans outside the state than in the state, which is rare for a band."
Foxtails hopes to tour this summer; last year, they ventured south for a week with another band, making it as far as Pittsburgh. "[Summer is] when we're freed up," Larocca says. "We like to mess around and waste gas money."
Touring with other bands, however, isn't always ideal. "There's the stress of money," Cadena-Fernandez says. "There's the stress of having enough room for everyone. ... When we had to look for houses to crash at, or to find food for everyone, money ran very thin."
The shows went OK, but the band got sick of its own material. "Halfway through tour, I hated every song we had," Benham says. "I'm still sick of them."
At Sarah's, the three musicians listened intently to the other acts and cheered them on. They were kind and thoughtful with comments. When they played, nothing — riffs, grooves, musical sections, songs — lasted for long: Meditation isn't welcome here. Don't get too comfortable.
As foxtails' set wound down, Benham thrashed on the floor. Larocca abandoned his kit and paced. All three members screamed wordlessly. The small crowd looked on, spellbound.
Stream and purchase foxtails' new album, "III," on Bandcamp.
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at email@example.com.