‘Orange Is The New Black’ Star Jessica Pimentel Talks Her “Other” Life As An Extreme Metal Musician

Jessica Pimentel has shot to fame over the past few years in the role of Maria Ruiz on Netflix’s pop cultural juggernaut Orange Is The New Black, but it turns out your favourite prison-riot ringleader is just as much of a badass off-screen.

It may stun some OITNB fans learn that Jessica also happens to be the multi-instrumental, corpse-painted, eardrum-shredding frontwoman of New York extreme metal act Alekhine’s Gun, and she recently caught up with Crave Online to talk about both sides of her insane life, while on tour in Australia with her drummer bae Tomas Haake and his band Meshuggah (you may have heard of them).

Check out our full chat with the ~arresting~ Jessica Pimentel, where she talks all about terrifying people both onscreen and onstage and how she’s learnt to embrace “Orange Is The New Black Metal”, below. Oh, and catch season 5 of OITNB on Netflix right now!

Crave Online: So we hear this is your first time in Australia? How’s the whole experience been so far? We saw you got to meet a koala?

Jessica Pimentel: It is. Yes, I got to meet a koala, some roos, a cassowary… you have some very dangerous animals in this country!

CO: We do, but you should be safe from them as long as you don’t go venturing into the wilderness alone! So you’re here with Tomas and his band, is it rare that you guys get to be on the road together?

JP: I did go with them on an American tour, which was awesome. I met up with him in LA and then we just went back & forth, I’d go do my thing and then come back, meet him and come back, meet him and come back. I got to hang a little bit on their Swedish tour, but this is the first time that we’ve gone so far away together and it’s been fantastic, it’s been really awesome.

CO: And what’s it like for you being on the road with someone else’s band? As a fellow muso do you enjoy just getting to put your feet up and watch them do all the work?

JP: Absolutely, I’m also working on a film script right now, so during the day I’m like stressing out about doing that, so this for me is like my dessert, you know? Like at the end of the day after stressing out and doing press all day – I’m still working too – and we’re travelling all day and all that stuff, then I get to just watch one of my favourite bands of all time, every night, just kill it with a different audience and see how every city’s so different. It’s really amazing to see. It’s really cool to see how different everyone is and just see the country. This country is different to touring in America, where you see nothing, basically. You’re just in a bus. You wake up, you’re at a venue, you go inside the venue, you go back on the bus, you’re like “I think… I’m in… [look for a landmark]” there’s no time to really see anything. But at least here we get to see what’s happening.

CO: So were you a fan of Meshuggah before you and Tomas met?

JP: Since I was a kid. I heard Destroy Erase Improve when it first came out, and it blew my skull wide open. ‘Future Breed Machine’ was the first track and it’s still to this day probably one of my top ten favourite songs of all time.

CO: Wow. How did you guys meet, if you don’t mind us asking?

JP: We met through a mutual friend. I mean, we’d always been around music scenes and I’d sorta met him in a peripheral manner, and I saw [Meshuggah’s] first New York show, which was in the ’90s when we still had all-ages shows. I got to meet him briefly then, but I was so scared!

Then, a couple of years ago, a friend of mine had opened for Meshuggah in New York City and we were hanging out backstage and we just all met, and Tomas and I just started talking and it was like… we really connected! Mentally, it was like “I’m talking in a mirror, this is weird!” We were just on the same page and we just connected really well as friends, it was totally a friend vibe, just talking about music, art, spirituality, meditation, Tibetan Buddhism, music, bands – and this was before Orange [Is The New Black] even came out, so he didn’t even know about that side of my life yet. And then a few months later that came out and he watched that, and was just like, “What? Is that the same person? I can’t even believe it!” Yeah and we just kept very loose touch for a while and then – then magic happened one day, I don’t know!

CO: Do you remember how he reacted the first time he got to see you perform live?

JP: He hasn’t seen me perform live. And I’m not sure I want him to! He has seen videos and he loves it, he’s really proud.

CO: So let’s talk about your band, Alekhine’s Gun, you guys are working on your first album… can you tell us a bit about that?

JP: Yeah, we’re working on a new album, they’re songs that we had kept in our pockets for a while, we wanted to make a full album before, but we ended up putting out an EP, so there are songs that we’re finally gonna use which have been around for a little bit. And there’s songs where we’ve switched up the writing order, sometimes it’s one person has written a song, sometimes it’s me and my brother, sometimes it’s just me, so it’s really nice to kind of mix it up, so it’s not all just this one kind of sound, you’ll hear everyone’s different kind of salt and pepper on how we create music, so I think that’s so much fun.

CO: What are the chances we’ll get to see you come back to Australia to tour with your own band?

JP: Very good, very good. If we release it and if we get some support we would love to come down here and do a proper tour.

CO: Awesome, do you know an Aussie band called King Parrot?

JP: Yeah, I love King Parrot!

CO: They put their own extreme metal festival on here this year called Thrash, Blast & Grind fest, you guys should get in on that!

JP: Yeah, I love King Parrot, they play Saint Vitus all the time – that’s one of our local New York City hangouts. A must-visit venue in NYC for metal.

CO: Something I’m always interested to know, as a vocalist in the extreme metal genre, do you have many female influences or are they mostly male?

JP: I don’t really think of my influences as male or female, I’m just like “I wish I could do that” or “I can’t do that” [laughs] or “I’m going to try that”. I don’t say that I particularly have anyone specific that is my influence. But as far as like, hardcore singing is concerned, I love Paul Bearer from Sheer Terror, he’s one of my favourite singers, but it’s not anything that we do in Alekhine’s Gun, that’s very straight-up New York hardcore. There’s too many – a lot of [Pantera’s] Phil Anselmo, a lot of [Metallica’s] James Hetfield, even though I don’t really do the… except I do do the [guttural] “ugh!” after every sentence — But not the “Yeah!” [puts on Hetfield voice] “Yeah, Yeah!” I do, do the ”ugh” after every word [laughs] not after every sentence.

CO: The way you scream, is that something that you’ve always naturally been able to do or did you have to work hard to be able to master the technique?

JP: Well I started off in hardcore, so it was kind of like just a straight voice singing aggressively, then I filled in for someone and I kind of tried to do that style a little more… it kind of grew progressively, and then one day I just tried it [laughs] I think if you’re just determined to do it, you can do it. And with being trained in classical theatre, I already had a really good vocal warm-up for straight singing, and applied that straight-singing warm-up to growling and grunting and all that, and it works!

CO: You never lose your voice?

JP: I won’t say never but if you’re having a really good day sometimes you lose your voice, but I’ve managed to be able to hold on to it for the most part.

CO: Well, it’s pretty incredible, the sound that you get is insane! As a female musician in such a male dominated genre, do you ever feel undervalued or underestimated?

JP: Absolutely. We’re not judged at the same level ever. We always still hear “for a girl” at the end of [“she’s really good’], and that should no longer apply. It’s ridiculous that that still applies. I also play guitar and bass – I play guitar on the album, but I still know guys who can’t tune their guitars properly. I know people who are mediocre players that are very famous, you know? And it’s not like [“they’re good”] “for a guy”.

But I think we’re in a male-dominated genre of music so there’s always gonna be a different kind of judgement, but I feel that, at least in New York, that’s a little bit less now. We do have a lot of really solid female players, and I think also our female players are very conscious of the fact that we’re being scrutinised differently and we carry ourselves in a way that is no-nonsense, professional, and we really minimise the sexualisation, because I think that also takes away sometimes. You know, if that’s your thing, that’s your thing. But for the most part, the women that I’m around are just really straight-up, straight-forward, confident, aggressive and hold their own, and they don’t let the opinions of men knock them down ever.

CO: How has the metal community, in general, reacted to your success on OITNB? Is there much of a cross-over in the fandoms?

JP: I think there are a lot of metalheads who are fans of the show, but not a lot of fans of the show that are metalheads! We’ve had some fans of the show come to a metal show and be very… “horror” would be the word I want to use. Because I think they’re expecting to meet the character Maria, and then they see, like, some corpse paint and some growling and music they don’t like, and they won’t even approach after, which is really hilarious. But there’s a lot of metalhead fans. At first, I was trying to keep everything separate, like to say “this is one world, this is one Jessica’s life and this is the other” keep ‘em separate, and now we’ve just embraced “Orange Is The New Black Metal”. It’s impossible to keep them apart at this point. If people want to judge me for doing one thing and say, “Oh, she’s not really a metalhead because she does this show” I mean, that’s ridiculous.

CO: Do you think that your identity as an extreme metal frontwoman will ever influence your choice of acting roles going forward?

JP: No, they never have. I’m an actress, I should be able to do anything, my job is to do anything basically, you know? My job is to make believe. So if I’m sitting here picking and choosing roles based on – not what I feel morally responsible for or I feel comfortable with — but because I wanna “stay cool” for the metal crowd, then that is the least metal thing you could possibly do. If you’re really a metalhead you shouldn’t give a fuck what people think of you.

CO: Have anyone you work with on the show ever seen you perform in your band?

JP: I’m trying to think… I’m not sure, maybe I’ll keep that anonymous. They were very quiet after [laughs].

CO: So we really saw Maria come into her own in OITNB, any hints on where her journey might lead in season 5?

JP: I can tell you that next season is super, super intense. Unbelievably intense. And you’re gonna see more of that direction where Maria originally left off at, wanting to search for power. She’s really no joke this season, Maria’s no joke. She’s going to terrify you some more.