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Interview: Marissa Paternoster—Screaming Females’ Guitar-Shredding Frontwoman

Screaming Females. (Christopher Patrick Ernst)
Screaming Females. (Christopher Patrick Ernst)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Marissa Paternoster, the guitar-shredding lead singer of New Jersey basement rock legends Screaming Females, wields her instrument with casual bravado. That brash, Smashing Pumpkins-esque roar has earned her an adoring fan club and a place (number 77) on “Spin’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” She wears her hair shaggy and favors gothic, high-necked dresses. The impression has always been that her two cohorts—bassist “King Mike” Abbate and drummer Jarrett Dougherty—are all that keep her anchored amidst the raw musical convulsions that form the basis of their style. The band has always thrived on this dynamic: Paternoster’s theatrical vocal delivery and six-stringed catharses would be impossible without that steadfast rhythm section.

It’s hard to believe that Screaming Females have been around for 10 whole years. For one thing, the group’s members are still young—Paternoster is not even 30. For another, the trio’s evolution from scrappy New Brunswick basement band to do-it-yourself rock ‘n’ roll institution has been both sure-footed and tireless. In the past decade, they have cultivated a staunch fan base, curried perpetual critical favor, and opened for the likes of Yo La Tengo and Garbage. (They play an already sold-out show at Great Scott in Allston on Feb. 26.) Their sixth studio album, “Rose Mountain,” which comes out Feb. 24, is at once a sharp musical shift and a natural progression of the innate Screaming Females-ness that has defined them from the start.

It is instantly clear that “Rose Mountain” is more concise and contained than its predecessors. As with 2012’s “Ugly,” Paternoster, Abbate, and Dougherty have continued to hone their songwriterly tendencies, polishing up their typically riff-driven concoctions with more attention to verse-chorus decorum. “Rose Mountain” embraces these pop proclivities with joy and the occasional flash of whimsy. Heavy, churning guitar parts exist side-by-side with ethereal “ooh-ooh” background vocals—though that doesn’t prevent Paternoster from evoking gory notions like swimming through afterbirth (“Broken Neck”) and musing about her own death (“Rose Mountain”). But the album also yields fresh surprises like “Hopeless,” a soaring, uncharacteristically vulnerable power ballad.

Below Paternoster speaks about the new album, the band’s maturing dynamic, and the chronic mononucleosis that forced her to put an indefinite halt to touring after the release of “Ugly”—and therefore makes “Rose Mountain” a resurrection of sorts.

When last we spoke, which was a while ago, you talked a bit about how the band had changed your songwriting process for the “Chalk Tape” stuff. I have you quoted saying, “We’ve been focusing really heavily on melody and songwriting, and sitting down and discussing structure and composition and melody more than we ever have in the past.” “Rose Mountain” sounds to me like a move even further in that direction—is that a fair assessment?

Paternoster: I believe that is a fair assessment. We spent a lot of time discussing [and] focusing on vocal melodies, which is something that we didn’t really ever think to do in the past. Or it would happen sometimes, but it was never something we actually sat down and talked about, like, “This is the way we’re going to approach this song.” That was never the way we operated. And it’s not set in stone that that’s the way we’re going to operate from now on. But I think it was something we talked about more often than not when we were making “Rose Mountain” because we didn’t want to make the same record again. But we also didn’t want to alienate people who had already been fans of our band for many years. So we were like, “How can we make something that’s still engaging and interesting for us, as a band who has existed for 10 years, while still sounding like ourselves and doing the thing that we inherently like to do?”

In listening to this, I feel like the sonic characteristics that really stood out to me on this album were contrast, in terms of melody and texture—like you would start out on “Rose Mountain,” the title track, with this heavy opening and then when the songs starts, it’s got this spare vibe. And you play with time signatures a little bit. So it feels like there’s more contrast, in that sense, and it feels like you’re really focused on conciseness.

Prior to “Ugly,” I don’t think we had ever demoed anything because we didn’t really have the means to do so. So we started demoing stuff, and I think throughout the demoing of “Ugly” and recording of “Ugly” we became more accustomed to and comfortable spending time not listening to things. Like, making a song, not listening to it for, like, two weeks, and then coming back to it and being like, “Oh my god, that riff is completely unnecessary. It’s making the song two minutes longer than it needs to be. It’s boring. Blah blah blah.” And just, you know, being critical of yourself in a way that’s constructive and not taking constructive criticism personally. And just trying to do the best you can for your project and your song. ... So it was nice to have the time to sit back and listen closely to the songs, and let them kind of stew. And what happened after letting them sit for a long time, they boiled down into something that’s really concise.

That’s a good metaphor. I like that.

Yeah. It’s all about cooking!

It’s funny because what you’re talking about is a very focused and deliberate process, and yet I feel like there’s this playfulness present. There are all these vocal harmonies, and “oohs,” and I don’t know if somehow you loosened up at all in the process of it, or what.

It’s weird because I guess in talking so much about making a record that’s concise and so thought-out, you’re like “Oh, but where’s the abandon? You guys are a rock ‘n’ roll band, what about the crazy, just letting-it-all-out-and-not-caring-about-the-rough-edges,” or something. But that stuff still exists, it’s just—the abandon is existing in different ways. Adding backup vocal harmonies, the “oohs” and stuff, that’s something I’ve never done, and it’s something we never talked about, and in that way it’s kind of like a form of what I would call, not reckless abandon, but venturing into the unknown and doing something that is new and scary for us, even thought it’s a little, tiny, dinky thing that tons of bands do. There’s still kind of that sense of adventure, even in something that’s so benign and not really that crazy.

You get a lot of attention as the lead singer and the frontperson, but I know you’ve talked a lot about how the band is really about the chemistry among the three of you. And that comes from having played together a long time, being friends for a long time. Can you talk about how that manifested in this particular album, in the process of making it?

While we were writing this album, I was extremely sick. I had mono for a long time. I just had a chronic case of it and I kept getting it, and then it would go away, and then I’d get it again. Basically what ended up happening was we had to cancel some tours, and then it got to the point where we had to just stop playing indefinitely because I just wasn’t getting better. And we didn’t know how much longer it would take for me to feel good enough to go on tour, which is what we do most of the time. And how we make a living and stuff. So I think the three of us were all really scared that we wouldn’t be able to play anymore together. And that was—there have been lot of moments that have defined our friendship and made it that I know that these two people are going to stand beside me and vice versa in times of trouble. So when I was really ill, we still saw each other every week, and we practiced every week, which was an action that really means a lot. ... So I never doubted that they would continue playing with me and waiting for me to get better. But it was really lovely to be able to actually see it, and be around them, and talk to them every week, and just know that they’re going to wait patiently, and everything will be okay, hopefully. So, “Rose Mountain,” for us, personally, is this triumphant record, because for most of 2014 and a lot of 2013, we were just like, “We’re not a band anymore.”

On the song “Broken Neck,” there’s this gory hospital imagery. I don’t know if that’s any relation to this experience being sick, or if I’m just reading into it and you just really like that kind of imagery.

No, it’s very much about being sick. It was almost like—when pain, chronic pain gets to a certain point where you can’t ignore it even if you tried really hard, it is the only thing you will think about all day every day until you go to sleep—if you can sleep. And I know there are so many people who experience chronic pain that I can’t hold a candle to. But the thing is that it’s so subjective because you’re the only one who knows what it’s like to be in your body. It’s kind of like pain is a really interesting thing, albeit horrible. And so while we were doing “Rose Mountain” and I was writing lyrics for “Rose Mountain,” as much as I hate to admit to being that, uh, what would the word be...

Literal?

Yeah, as much as I hate being that literal, with my lyrics, it’s not something I’m that prone to do, I literally couldn’t think about anything else. Because I was just completely overwhelmed. So if we were writing the record and I had to make lyrics, I was just like, “Well, this is the only thing I can think about. All day, every day. It sucks.” To say the least. So, yeah, there are a lot of songs that make reference to it, but I think “Broken Neck” in particular is the most literal. The song is about going to seven different specialists and making four-hour calls to your health care provider.

It’s so mundane.

Yeah, mundane, but still painful. But also feeling like you’re in a weird body prison. It’s about body horror.

I think my favorite song—and this may be just because my taste goes in this direction—might be “Hopeless.” It feels really different to me from other lyrics that you’ve done.

The few people that I’ve talked to about it, they’re like, “Oh, it’s a breakup song.” I was like, “No, it’s not a breakup song at all.” It’s mostly a song about wanting to break up with my body. Because it was causing me so much pain and grief. And so I used this universal format—which is the breakup song, which is something that everyone really likes—without even thinking about it, really. And instead of it being about a partner—[actually,] it was a about a partner, which is my body. Which is something I felt very detached from, and really angry with, in the way that I might feel about somebody who’s yanking my chain or making me feel lousy in some kind of romantic situation.

But it’s cool in that way, because I think if you’re a 13-year-old boy, or girl, or what have you, and you have your first break up, and you find this song, it can be helpful in that situation as well. And I guess sometimes things aren’t always what they seem.

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