Interview: Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster on Guitar Heroes and Basement Shows

Screaming Females Above the Auto Parts Store during CMJ. More photos from the show here.
Screaming Females Above the Auto Parts Store during CMJ. More photos from the show here.
Rebecca Smeyne

It's been a big year for the Screaming Females. After two self-recorded and self-released albums, the New Brunswick trio (guitarist/singer Marissa Paternoster, bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty) signed to Jersey-punk kingpins Don Giovanni and released their third album Power Move, a mammoth slab of unwashed punk. Acclaim quickly followed: the group was opening for Dinosaur Jr. and Dead Weather, and the Voice recently anointed Paternoster the year's Best Shredder. But though the high-profile gigs continue--they recently played the CMJ Marathon and are opening for the Arctic Monkeys tonight--the group hasn't outgrown the basement quite yet. Paternoster checked in from the back of the van to talk about guitar heroes, learning curves, and what's next for the Females.

So this Arctic Monkeys show is, what, your third high-profile opening gig in New York this year? Do you get the feeling that there's anyone in these big crowds who's at least heard of you?

The majority of the crowd definitely doesn't know who we are. But, there's always a handful of people, at least lately, who will come up to one of us and tell us that they came to see us. That means a lot, because a ticket for a big show like Arctic Monkeys costs a lot more money than what a Screaming Females show would cost, so it's cool that people go out of their way to come see us open for bigger bands.

Do you think the band's sound translates well? Has it been weird going from small venues to the larger ones? How have you been handling it?

Well, our experience so far has been pretty positive. We had to teach ourselves how to deal with the bigger venues. We don't have a tour manager or anything, just us. So we had to figure it all out by ourselves. I think we've been doing a pretty good job. It took some learning, but we've adjusted accordingly.

What were some of the things you had to adjust to and learn about?

Just learning about different ways that venues deal with merch and different ways that venues deal with equipment and who to ask for ice. Really dumb stuff like that. You learn weird lingo and who to ask for what, when you need it.

What was your favorite piece of "weird lingo" that you learned?

Hmm...probably dead case.

Dead case?

I didn't know what that was. It's an instrument case without an instrument in it.

So it's been a pretty crazy year. When you're not opening for the bigger bands, how are the shows you do on your own these days going? Are they bigger than they were, say, a year ago?

In major cities, some of them, I can pick out people who might have seen us at a Dead Weather show. But other than that, I think it consistently increases by tiny numbers. Our audience [has] gotten gradually bigger over time.

When you guys are back in Jersey, are you still able to play basement shows? Or are you getting too big for that?

Oh no, we can still play basement shows. Those shows are pretty...what's the word...I guess underground. There are no promoters for those shows, so it's a very insular kind of scene. The people who know about those shows can go, and it's relatively difficult to find out about them.


Marissa Paternoster, buried under Darren Mabee
Marissa Paternoster, buried under Darren Mabee
Rebecca Smeyne

When was the last time you played one of those shows?

Uh, hold on a sec. [Marissa puts the phone down to talk to someone in the van.] We played with this band called Cheeky, recently. They played a basement show across the street from out apartment. And, they recently broke-up, it was their second to last show. They were really good friends of ours, so we played, and there were a ton of people there. They were probably there to see Cheeky, because they're awesome. So there were a lot of people there, but I've seen basement shows with more people in them than that. We definitely haven't out grown that scene.

What was it like, after doing all those big shows, to be back in a small venue like that? I mean, a really small venue.

It's fun. You miss those shows when you don't play them for a while. And instead of having a bunch of strangers stare at you in a 3,000-capacity venue, it's a bunch of your peers and friends and other musicians that your really respect watching you play, so it's almost more nerve-wracking than the big shows.

Because it's not a blur of people. You can make out the individual faces.

Yeah, it's not like a bunch of strangers. It's people who know us as friends and are important to us.

It's interesting. A lot of critics today complain that a lot of young bands are hyped-up before they are ready for big audiences. But your band had two albums under the radar before you signed to Don Giovanni and got a bigger push. What did you learn back in the day before you were getting as much attention?

We just worked really hard. We learned how to put out our own records and we learned how to book our own tours. We learned how to fly on an airplane together. We learned how to drive a car, I almost learned stick-shift, but I didn't. We learned how to make burritos while we're driving. What else did we learn? To make our own T-shirts. We taught ourselves how to do everything.

A lot of the attention that the band has gotten has focused on your guitar-shredding abilities. The Voice even named you Best Guitar-Shredder. What has the attention been like for you?

It's very flattering. I can't say I agree, but it's flattering.

How long have you been playing guitar for?

Like, eight or nine years.

What made you decide to pick up the guitar and practice? Were there musicians that inspired you, or did you have a musical family?

My dad is a big music fan. I grew up like listening to the Clash and stuff. He kind of played guitar, so he had one and he asked me if wanted to learn some chords and I said "Why not." So I started practicing and I kind of taught myself from then on. And that's pretty much it, it's not a very exciting story.

So you're mostly self-taught?

Yeah, I've never had a lesson.

Who were some your guitar heroes when you were first learning?

Billy Corgan, Joey from The Pixies. Billy Zoom from X. There's three.

So you've been touring a lot. Is this everyone's full-time job these days? Or do you have day jobs when you're back in town?

No, this is our job.

Did you have a day job before you signed to Don Giovanni?

Yeah, I was a waitress. It was like a French bistro. It sucked.

It sucked?

Yeah, it was horrible. I had to serve coffee. We never had customers. I was supposed to be a barista.


Interview: Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster on Guitar Heroes and Basement Shows

So, you guys have the compilation Singles coming out in February. What's on there?

It's all of the recordings from our seven-inch records that we put out since 2006. One is from a self-titled seven-inch, it was the first thing we recorded after our first album. There's a Neil Young cover ("Cortez the Killer") with a band called Hunchback, from Brooklyn. There're two songs that we did from a split with a band called Full Of Fancy from New Brunswick. And then there's another song from a split with a band called JEFF The Brotherhood from Nashville. Those seven-inches...well, one of them is gone. The JEFF split is gone. And over time, the seven-inches become scarce. So, we decided to put them on a CD so people could buy all the songs for relatively cheap. Keep it cheap, and people can have all the music from the seven-inches without having to look for the seven-inches. But it's not coming out on vinyl, to keep the seven inches special.

Did the band record all of those songs on their own?

Our first album we recorded by ourselves in Jarrett's room digitally. And lately, we've been working at a studio, The Hunt Studio, in Millstone, New Jersey. We did our last album, Power Move, there and we did two of the seven-inches there as well, and we'll do our next album there. I record bands there, I'm close with the owner and engineer, so I spend a lot of time there, and we all have a pretty intimate hand in recording now since we're really close the engineer.

You not only recorded this on your own, but you did the art for the Singles collection. How long have you been doing that sort of thing for?

I drew it, but I put it together in PhotoShop, so I guess it's like a collage too. I went to school for fine arts [at the Mason Gross School Of The Arts at Rutgers University]. I have a degree in painting and drawing. I've been making art my whole life.

You mentioned the next album. Do you think you'll have it out next year?

We plan to record a new full-length and go back on tour.

Any idea when you'll start recording?

Probably in the spring.

Whenever I see you guys or see a picture of the band, you're usually wearing a red, fancy, Sgt. Pepper-like coat. Is there a story behind the coat? Should we read any sort of symbolic meaning to its Beatlesque qualities? And where'd you get it?

For our first show ever, I had this really funny wool coat that I got out of the garbage of this old lady who died down the street from me. And I guess I was like "Oh, should I wear this when we play?" and everyone was like, "Yeah." And then I just kept wearing it for a really long time. It was blue and really hot and uncomfortable and ugly, kind of too big for me. And then I lost it. And so, my friend gave me the red one. And I started wearing that one instead. And now I have a bunch of fashionable outfits to wear.

The Screaming Females open for the Arctic Monkeys today and tomorrow at Terminal 5. Their early cuts compilations Singles will be available via Don Giovanni on February 9. Keep up with them at

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