Marissa Paternoster remembers the day in 2004 when she arrived in New Brunswick to attend Rutgers University. “I looked around at this city, which didn’t even have a record store or anything to do if you were under 21, and thought, my God, do I really have to spend four years here?”
Fortunately for Paternoster – and the rest of us – her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll. She had already been playing in a high school band called Surgery On TV with bassist King Mike. Once the duo found drummer Jarrett Dougherty and changed the band’s name to Screaming Females, New Brunswick seemed a lot more tolerable.
Screaming Females quickly became a staple of New Brunswick’s all-ages, underground basement show scene and started touring soon thereafter. In 2006, they self-released their first album, Baby Teeth, and in 2009, formed an alliance with Don Giovanni Records. Today, nearly 15 years on, Screaming Females remain DIY warriors who manage themselves, book their own tours, and make all-ages spaces a focus on the road and at home. This month, Don Giovanni will release the group’s seventh full-length, All At Once, a 15-track opus. The album will be available in multiple formats, including a triple vinyl album, and also in a deluxe, hand-painted “gallery edition” featuring Paternoster’s distinctive artwork (which has decorated umpteen show flyers, banners, and album covers). The two vinyl versions will contain a bonus 7-inch featuring covers of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy.”
In 2012, Marissa Paternoster was named the “77th greatest guitarist of all time” by Spin magazine, a meaningless accolade that doesn’t begin to suggest her fierce stage presence, mind-bending solos, and the aggressive lockstep riffing with Dougherty and King Make that makes this trio one of rock’s most compelling acts, live or on record. For years, Paternoster had to endure the ooh’s and aah’s of college bros who raved about “this chick that plays guitar like a guy.” At this point, happily, her exceptional prowess has found acceptance as a given, as more and more young women flock to Screaming Females shows to revel in the band’s gender inclusiveness and the modest display of excellence.
Ghettoblaster: You’ve released a live double album in the past but All At Once is an impressive 3XLP set. Did you find yourself drowning in new material?
Marissa Paternoster: We practice once a week and we’re always trying out new riffs and new ideas, new instrumentation. At the end of the day, we just had a lot of songs we thought were worthy of being released.
GB: Does it matter to you that in this economy, where it’s so hard to actually sell music at all, it would be harder to sell a double or triple album? Or since people are streaming everything anyway, did that not even enter into the equation?
MP: We never really think about how many records we’re going to sell. We don’t take into consideration the “economy.” We’re focusing on going out and playing shows and selling our records at the merch table. That’s what we talk about when we’re talking about how many records to make. If you’re somebody who likes our band and you’re somebody who comes to our shows, in my experience you’re probably going to buy our new record when you see us. We make sure that we keep stuff affordable and we keep the price down even if it is a double album or whatever. We really don’t care how people get our music. Just as long as after they’ve listened and engaged with the music and they like it, we really don’t kind what kind of media they consume.
GB: How about sequencing? Again, with streaming and single-song downloads, a lot of people think the album as a format is dead. You had to put 15 songs here in order in which you wanted people to hear them. Is that something you really focused on?
MP: Jarrett really takes care of the sequencing. I don’t really care to get involved that much. The format of 12-inch vinyl dictates how many songs you can put on a side. Since we like to release everything we do on vinyl, we really have to work within that framework. I actually don’t listen to records that much, everything I have is on CD, because that’s what I grew up with. So I usually just defer to Jarrett and Mike on the sequencing, unless there’s something I feel really strongly about.
GB: The three of you have been the Screaming Females for almost 15 years now, but obviously you’re not the same people you were when you started the band as teenagers. How have those years affected you as a songwriter?
MP: In terms of the three of us making music together, I think we’re much more comfortable now taking constructive criticism from each other and taking each other’s advice. In that way, it’s less stressful to make songs. Hopefully, we’ve all improved our musicianship too. Lyrically, I think I’m a little less afraid of opening up . On the older records, I drenched everything in abstraction and metaphor. Now I’m a little more at ease with sharing myself with people. It’s not so much that every song has to be about an experience I’ve had; it’s more like writing about my life in the context of the experiences that all humans go through. Also when you’re 18 or even 20 you tend to obsess about everything little thing, I don’t do that as much anymore.
GB: Now that you’re an established part of the American indie underground, do you get approached by a lot of young women thanking for you being a role model and showing that gender has no real role in musicianship?
MP: Yeah. Definitely, on the last tour, I saw some of that. I really don’t think of myself as being a role model for anyone, but it always feels good when people come up and say things like that to me. Sometimes people will ask me if fans want to talk gear with me all the time and the answer is no, they just want to talk – talk about their lives, just hang out and talk. That’s what I like best about playing shows. I’m way more comfortable talking about life than I am talking about gear.
GB: Usually at this point in a band’s career, they’ll start thinking, maybe we need a bigger label, or maybe we need a better booking agent to play larger places, maybe we should be playing the big summer festivals… You’ve never seemed to be interested in that career track. This is your fifth album with Don Giovanni and you seem fine with that.
MP: Our love has always been to make sure that our records are affordable, that we stay in touch with our community, and if we didn’t have such a wonderful group of people surrounding us, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Our relationship with Don Giovanni Records has always been, ‘you guys do whatever you want and we’ll support you.’ They basically have the same moral compass that we do. We’re more interested in maintaining our integrity in caring about the people who care about us, as opposed to caring about whatever ‘success’ is supposed to be, or making a lot of money.
GB: One of the bands I got to meet last year was the Downtown Boys, who remind me of Screaming Females in a lot of ways, especially your commitment to DIY ideals. But their songs are very political and your songs traditionally are not political at all. Yet I know the three of you all have very strong ideas about what’s wrong with this country. How do you answer that?
MP: I think we’re very political in the way we conduct our business as a band. Like I said before, it’s about being loyal to the people who take care of you and keeping all your merch affordable, and keeping our shows accessible. Those are all things we do because the three of us all share the same moral compass.
Jarrett Dougherty: We’ve done a number of benefit shows over the years for causes we believe in, and we’re pretty outspoken on our social media and whatever. But I honestly think that the places you can have the greatest effect politically are the things you’re closest to. So while we do whatever activism we think is necessary, even if it’s just outreach.
When I see certain bands get on their social media and say they can’t believe the amount of oppression in the world, I appreciate things like that, but then I see those bands look the other way at some of those same things in their own industry or at their own shows. And they seem happy to work with organizations or people who don’t hold to those same ideals.
To me, rather than just thinking of it as a contradiction, I see it as a cop-out. I can’t personally affect the way that Donald Trump is running the country. Hopefully, I can support the people and causes that are working to do that. But what I can do is make sure that the local promoter who’s setting up our show is setting up a deal so at the end of the night, all the bands will leave happy. As opposed to a lot of bands whose main concern is to get paid the most they can that night, and don’t care if the opening bands don’t get anything, or very little. A promoter doesn’t want to lose a Screaming Females show, they’re usually very excited about having us. So if we insist on a fair deal for all the bands, instead of just taking $500 more for ourselves and not worrying about anything else, then at the end of the night they can feel like ‘I made money and you made money,’ and then can go on being a local promoter in a very difficult industry and can continue bringing bands to this town.
I think that’s something that’s very important. Because then you’re not just thinking about what I made on a particular night, but it speaks to whether this community can continue to have bands come in and play shows. Otherwise shows just happen in New York and Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or L.A.
So I think that Screaming Females are often not publicly perceived to be political, but people don’t see how many fights we take on behind the scenes and how much we care about everyone in the community being treated fairly. Those are the most important fights and the ones that we’re going to make the most difference with.
Words by Jim Testa