The Weekly Interview: Screaming Females frontwoman Marissa Paternoster

Screaming Females play Backstage Bar and Billiards Sunday night.
Christopher Patrick Ernst

When Screaming Females’ singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster isn’t wrecking fans’ eardrums, she’s usually back in New Brunswick, New Jersey, working with bandmates Jarrett Dougherty and Mike “King Mike” Abbate. Touring relentlessly since their inception, Screaming Females have made Las Vegas a regular stop on tour, and return to play Backstage Bar and Billiards November 24. I called Paternoster on an off-day in Omaha, Nebraska, to chat about this year’s EP, Chalk Tape, her odd obsession with Korn and how journalists should stop asking her what’s it like to be a woman in a band.

Your voice is so distinguishable and powerful. Was that something you had to work at? I was singing in a school choir when I was in grammar school and middle school. Once I got to high school, choir didn’t really exist anymore, so I stopped. I was really shy about singing in public. I knew I could do it in the back of my mind, but I was really, really hesitant to actually share that with people. It wasn’t until I started recording songs on my own: I was living with my grandmother, and I’d kinda just record stuff in her basement. I never played any of the songs for anybody, but I had a ton of them. The songs were boring without vocals, so one day I just like, did it really quietly. I listened back to it and I was like, “That’s not that bad.” So when Mike and I started our first band, we were like, “Well who’s gonna sing?” and I was like, “I guess I’ll do it,” begrudgingly. I wasn’t really interested, but now I really enjoy singing.

Did being behind a guitar make singing more comfortable? I think it used to make me more comfortable to have the guitar on, and now, I mean, obviously I really like playing guitar, but I’m definitely not uncomfortable just singing.

I read that you named your latest EP Chalk Tape because you wrote all of the ideas for the album out on a chalkboard. Why a chalkboard? When we practice at my grandmother’s house in the basement, there’s just a bunch of old stuff from when I was a kid down there, and one of the things happens to be a chalkboard. If we’re writing a new album or if we’re writing down a composition and we’re trying to keep track, we’ll use the chalkboard, just ’cause it’s there.

You’ve brought up your grandma a couple of times. What does she think about all of this? She’s going to be 91 next month and she essentially, like, raised me—I lived in her house, so she’s basically my mom [and] my best friend. I don’t know if she really understands completely the nature of what we do, but she’s been such an intrinsic part of my life and the life of my band. The boys know her really well. They see her every week. She hears all of the songs before anyone else hears them. She definitely understands why I love music and art as much as I do, but as far as the logistics of being in a DIY touring band, that’s something that’s probably a little too hard to explain.

Does she like the music? Sometimes. Sometimes the boys will leave, and she’ll be like, “That new song was really good.” And then sometimes she’ll be like, “You were playing this one song for too long, and it sounded like a funeral march.” Whenever she says it sounds like a funeral dirge that means the song is awesome (laughs). But yeah, she’s super cool.

One of the songs that stands out on the EP is “Wrecking Ball” … and while it has the same name as another “Wrecking Ball,” it’s completely different. I was like “What song are you talking about?” and then I was like, “Oh yeah, that naked girl!”

Yeah, that girl [Miley Cyrus]. Your “Wrecking Ball” sounds like it’s filled with a lot of angst. And screaming. What was the idea behind it? Mike and I both tuned our guitars to just random notes. Like, we just stood in the basement and twisted the tune heads on our guitars, and then we didn’t tell each other what the notes were. I think I was probably tuned in between a lot of notes, so there are probably a lot of sharps and flats and stuff. Then we just kinda hit random chords and made a composition until it sounded kinda like a song. It wound up, I hate to say this, but I kinda think that the verses sound a little bit like Korn. Do you hear that?

I guess I could kind of hear that, yeah. I watched this video where you had a Korn … Oh, my Korn collage.

Yeah. I’m not a fan at all. I kinda hate them. They’re such horrible human beings that I was really fascinated by their private lives. Actually, the last time we were in Denver, I found this bookstore that had all these old back issues of magazines, and I wound up buying a bunch that were all about Korn. I became obsessed with them, even though I don’t know anything about their music and I think it’s like an abhorrent, horrible cacophony of sounds.

Speaking of another ’90s band, you went on tour with Garbage last year and ended up recording a cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” How did that come about? Shirley [Manson] and I were kind of email friends very briefly before I managed to sneak my way onto their tour. We were hanging out in the basement of a venue, and just talking about bands we liked. Shirley was like, “We should do something together at the last show,” ’cause we like a lot of the same music. We were talking about different Patti Songs and different Siouxie and the Banshees songs. When you do a cover, you kinda want to do something everybody can enjoy. I’d like to think “Because the Night” is kinda like a timeless hit song, so we just kinda decided we would do that one. The last two nights in Texas we did it and it was received really well. So Shirley and the boys decided to have my band flown out to LA, and they had us in this huge beautiful studio and we all played on the song together, and it was amazing.

I read that when you go back to New Jersey, you sometimes volunteer at a feminist collective. Are there instances where that kind of social-political theory finds its way into your music? I mean, I’ve only become hyper-aware of the fact that I am—like, I do identity as a female—kind of recently. Journalists in general, music journalists—since I talk to people about Screaming Females regularly—typically if they’re women, they don’t really ask me, but more often than not, if the person talking to me is a man, they’ll ask me if I find it irritating to constantly be asked if whether or not being a woman is odd. And it’s such a weird question, because I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I was born female, and it’s the only reality that I understand. I think I can empathize with other people’s realities, but I’ll never understand them. So it’s just a strange question to ask.

I think that it’s really important for people to recognize that I identify as a woman, and I’m in a pretty cool band and I’m not bad at an instrument. That’s awesome, ’cause there aren’t that many women that are highly visible in the rock ’n’ roll touring circuit. But at the same time, it’s kind of inconsequential. I had no say in the way that I was born. And I just so happen to be really enamored with this way of expressing myself. I do kind of grow weary of people taking interest in me or the art and music I make because of my gender. Because, who cares? I want people to value me because they value the music I make, or the drawings I make or the things that I write and sing.

But, at the same time, if being a woman and being visible and strong and playing music encourages other young women to do the same thing, that’s amazing and that makes me feel really empowered and pleased.

It’s like people think women being into music is a new concept. It’s a systemic problem. There’s always been really powerful women, like Bessie Smith, who were the most famous singer-songwriters in their communities, but it’s swept under the rug because we live under a patriarchy. There are a lot of marginalized people whose histories aren’t taught to us. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s just that, you know, The Man doesn’t want you to know about it, ’cause God forbid you might feel strong or empowered or inspired.

Did the Riot Grrrl movement influence you? I was totally completely obsessed with Riot Grrrl and Chainsaw Records and Kill Rock Star records and Mr. Lady [Records] and all that stuff. I definitely poured over the liner notes of every Bikini Kill record, even though they made zero sense to me. That definitely shaped a little slice of my personality.

Do you like Las Vegas? It’s really weird. It’s a really weird place. Mike and I were talking about it the other day, about how a lot of European people tend to tell us that they visited Las Vegas and that it’s really beautiful and interesting. And then we were like, “Yeah, that’s because they’re severely lacking in neon accoutrement in Europe. There’s just not enough neon.

But I really like the old strip with all the cool old neon signs, like the cowboy and stuff. I’ve never really been to the more touristy part, with all the really big casinos. I think it’d be interesting to see. Las Vegas kinda doesn’t provide me with most of the things that I’m interested in, but I am always kind of excited to go there ’cause there’s always some like true freaks walking around, and I can get behind that.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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