Marissa Paternoster's Screaming Females Trouble

How mysterious, chronic pain changed the writing process for the singer/guitarist and her band

Legs splayed, back arched, body twisted, eyes hidden by hair, Marissa Paternoster lets her fingers explode along the neck of her Stratocaster, dispensing a squall of a solo that'd make J Mascis green with envy.

In regular life, Paternoster's fairly diminutive, but here at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, only an idiot would look at her and think "small"—between her growls and wails and furious noise-punk guitar heroics, she's a towering, commanding presence, obligating the crowd to roil and bodies to fly from the stage.

It's a couple of Saturdays ago, and Screaming Females—Paternoster, bassist King Mike, and drummer Jarrett Dougherty—are headlining the annual showcase put on by their longtime label, Don Giovanni Records. It's also a celebration of the release of Screaming Females' new seven-song EP, Chalk Tape. And it's their first show in several months; the New Brunswick trio cut short their fall tour because of Paternoster's debilitating health issues.

As they rip and burn through their set in Brooklyn, all is well in the world again. Well, sorta.

"I still experience pain, but it's nowhere near as overwhelming as it was in the fall," says Paternoster.

Music has almost as many ways of hurting you as healing you. But it's not supposed to hurt quite like this, where a mystery illness turns public performances and private jam sessions into excruciating endurance tests. Where it stops a band with momentum and opportunities and overflowing creativity dead in its tracks, and nobody's sure why.

Paternoster explains that a six-month bout with mononucleosis, which she contracted last May, may be the culprit for the muscular pain that increased to the point where she couldn't play guitar, sleep, or eat.

"Not being able to play has been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to deal with," she says. "It's so, so hard to step back from it all, and it was especially difficult to give in to the pain. I felt like a failure. Every night I'd go to sleep and just hope that the next morning I'd wake up pain-free. After weeks and weeks of pain, I realized that whatever hurt so badly wasn't going to concede to my wishful thinking, and we had to make some really serious decisions for our band, our lives, and our careers."

A few days after Thanksgiving, not long after pulling the plug on the tour, Paternoster published an affecting comic strip on the band's blog detailing the relief she tried to get through visits to rheumatologists and orthopedic doctors and chiropractors—to date she's seen five different specialists and has yet to receive a concrete diagnosis.

"It's been frustrating, to say the least, but the good news is that all of my blood work and scans are normal," she says. "Through a lot of physical therapy, a tweaked diet, and exercise, I've been able to navigate through the chronic aches relatively well. It's been slow going, but I'm definitely moving forward as far as my recovery is concerned."

During the fleeting periods where Paternoster's pain wasn't entirely unbearable, Screaming Females descended into their subterranean New Jersey practice space and quickly cranked out the batch of new tracks that comprise Chalk Tape. Because lengthy jams exploring nascent ideas—the trio's usual m.o.—weren't an option this time, Paternoster says they wrote a bunch of song ideas on a chalkboard and then dove right into them, recording in one or two takes. "We steered off the driven path," says Paternoster, who says the EP is "a pretty fun listen, and I'm quite proud of it."

But even if circumstances dictated a change in process, Chalk Tape still feels like a continuation of the growth displayed on last year's Steve Albini–helmed full-length, Ugly, which—while still plenty vitriolic—shed some of the gnash 'n' thrash shredding that marked the band's four previous ragers in favor of more melody and nuance. "Sick Bed" drapes Paternoster's throaty, scornful intonations over distorted bass and drums, with a few seconds of electronic skronk turning up at the end. "Poison Arrow" is icy-pure Joy Division-y post-punk; "Bad Men" is semi-acoustic weird folk with vocals equally quivering and resolute; and the quasi-psychedelic "Into the Sun" is woozy and mesmerizing, like Polly Jean Harvey inside a sweat lodge. And if you still want corrosive guitars, savage rhythms and blood­thirsty caterwauls from Screaming Females, "Crushing the Kingdom" and "Wrecking Ball," particularly, deliver in spades.

Excited as she is about the new material, Paternoster wants to get back to the stage more regularly, but Screaming Females is taking things slow right now. Which, she says, is a hell of a lot better than nothing. "When pain got in the way of my performance, I did my damnedest to knock it down so I could recover myself. If I stopped creating, who would I be? I would definitely have a hard time navigating through that sort of reality. It makes me nauseous just thinking about it."

 
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