For more than 15 years, New Jersey’s Screaming Females have been one of the scene’s most reliable sources of super-heavy-yet-super-thoughtful rock. From their self-released debut (2006’s Baby Teeth) to tours, collaborations and friendships with alternative luminaries like Garbage, The Breeders and Dinosaur Jr., the power trio of Marissa Paternoster, Jarrett Dougherty and Mike Abbate have done everything with the kind of deeply committed D.I.Y. work ethic that would bring a tear to Mike Watt’s eye.
They’ve also got some deep Chicago connections. In addition to recording Ugly with Steve Albini at Avondale’s Electrical Audio studio, they played the first outdoor Riot Fest in 2012 as part of a truly stacked day that included Iggy and the Stooges, Elvis Costello and Built to Spill. Two years later, they released highlights from their shows at The Hideout as one of our favorite live albums of all time.
Ahead of the band’s return to Riot Fest this September, we caught up with singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster to talk about discovering punk rock, all things Chicago and the band’s great new album, Desire Pathway.
Riot Fest: Chicago has played an important role in Screaming Females history. Do you remember the first time you played the city?
Marissa Paternoster: The first shows I remember playing in Chicago were at a place called Ronnie’s, which was this pretty derelict little bar. We used to play with a band from Chicago called The Sass Dragons a lot, and I can remember playing in the surrounding areas like Elgin and Wonder Lake with a band called The Brokedowns that are still active.
RF: Of course, you were part of the very first outdoor Riot Fest back in 2012. What do you remember about that day?
MP: I remember I was sick. I think I was sleeping at Electrical Audio and Jarrett came and got me to play the set. They were like “You should sleep until we play…” [laughs] We walked around a little bit, saw some Alkaline Trio and I was like “…I need to lie down again.” I think I spent most of my time sleeping at Electrical Audio.
RF: Well, that sounds more comfortable than sleeping at Riot Fest.
MP: I felt sick enough, I could’ve conked out anywhere.
RF: 2014’s Live at the Hideout is one of our favorite live albums of all time. What made you choose that venue for the recording?
MP: Since we aren’t playing house shows as much as we used to, we value venues that have been serving their community for a really long time. From what we can tell, as tourists or outsiders, people really like The Hideout and it means a lot to them. They’ve seen a lot of good shows there. They like hanging out there. A lot of people would be devastated if it wasn’t around anymore. That’s how we felt about places like Maxwell’s in New Jersey, which was really important to me as a child. I was able to go see bands I liked in a bar, but it was all-ages. I wasn’t just pushed to the side. It was really hard to see the bands you wanted to see if you were underage, so a place like Maxwell’s was invaluable. There should be more places like it, but unfortunately there aren’t.
RF: Speaking of New Jersey, it’s indisputably one of the punk capitals of the world. Why do you think that is?
MP: There are a lot of great punk bands that come from everywhere. I guess New Jersey is unique in its location because it’s between two giant cultural hubs – Philadelphia and New York. If you’re a kid in the suburbs like I was, going to New York only took 30 minutes and then I had access to one of the greatest metropolitan areas in the nation and everything that goes along with it – art museums, show spaces and stuff. So if you’re a young creative kid, that kind of resource is invaluable. People from New Jersey are spoiled that way.
RF: At the same time, geography might not be as important for punks in the internet era.
MP: It began to matter less to me, but I’ve also gained a lot more autonomy and mobility. By the time the internet was as pervasive as it is now, I was an adult. When I was a child, having access to a place like New York was invaluable. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I lived somewhere more remote.
RF: Besides Maxwell’s, where did you make some of your big punk and alternative discoveries?
MP: I’d been to shows, but only big club shows – 1500 or 2000 people – and I thought that was as small as I imagined a show could get. I don’t think I understand the spectrum that a “show” could exist on. I learned about punk when I started getting into Kill Rock Stars and K Records. That stuff had been kinda inactive since its peak for almost a decade at that point. Remember when the computer had its own room? I’d sit in the computer room and download free sample tracks on the Kill Rock Stars website. I could usually only do one a day, and then I’d burn them on a CD and walk around with my CD player and just, like, review them. That was pretty much my introduction to punk. I got really obsessed with it, but I thought for all intents and purposes that it was over, not understanding that there was this middle class in the music community where bands could draw a few hundred people. Those shows existed, but it took me until I got to college to find out.
RF: Let’s talk about the new album! This year’s Desire Pathway finds Screaming Females exploring some new directions and even getting quieter than people might expect on a song like “So Low.”
MP: When we’re writing, we never really set out with any super strict guidelines for what a new album ought to be like. We just see what comes naturally and move from there. This was one of the more, I don’t want to say strange, but difficult writing processes. We would start and then we’d go on tour, come back and nobody could remember what the hell we’d written. Then we’d figure it out, go back on tour and the same thing would happen. [laughs] Then COVID happened and we couldn’t even see each other, so we wrote a couple songs remotely via email with drum machines. A couple of those ended up on the album, but that process wasn’t for us. Navigating the world in any way, whether it was finding an engineer to record with or just going to the supermarket, all of these things were so incredibly difficult because we wanted to do the right thing and make sure everyone’s safe and healthy. For a band that exists in the class bracket we’re in, we have to be very careful about the choices we make. We manage ourselves and do pretty much everything ourselves, and it put a lot of stress and strain onto our band and individual lives. At the end of the day, we were all just really happy that we managed to get these songs out into the world. The fact that the album exists at all is a testament to the tenacity we have.
RF: Once you were able to reconvene and record the album at Pachyderm Studios, which is where Nirvana’s In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me were recorded, it must have felt great.
MP: It was a really cool place to be. I’m a huge, huge PJ Harvey fan and obviously a huge Nirvana fan. It was cool to see the fireplace Nirvana took a picture in front of. [laughs] It’s very pretty and the house itself is super wild. There’s a cool gazebo that’s a floor above ground level and a pool in the basement with a sauna, but it’s also kinda like the house from The Shining so everything’s spooky and haunted and there are beds everywhere because bands stay there. But when we’re recording, I’m just in the studio all day because I have to do the most stuff – play the guitar and then do all of the singing. To be honest, most of my time was just laying down the tracks. Hopefully someday I can revisit and actually go for a walk or something around there.
RF: But if you’re gonna be hunkered down somewhere recording, that sounds like a better option than a lot of alternatives.
MP: It was a beautiful place to be, but I only really got to see the inside. Which was cool. They had shag carpeting. [laughs]
RF: You also released the Clover EP last year, which is pretty much just available at shows or via Bandcamp bundles. Why did you choose to keep that one a little closer to the chest?
MP: We never want our music to be hard for people to find. Clover is kind of like the trailer for Desire Pathway, and maybe that’s something more familiar fans might want to have. We just wanted it to be limited and special in that way. You might remember, we put out a tape a long time ago called Chalk Tape that was limited to 100 physical copies and now you can stream it, but it’s really important for us to create incentives or encourage people to get out of the house and come to a show. If they really want to hear Clover, then that’s a good reason to come to the show. They can get a copy, probably from one of us! We wanted to make something unique and not just another cog in the content mill. If you think about it, it bums you out a little bit…
RF: And if someone doesn’t know Screaming Females at all and that’s just what’s at the top of your Spotify page, maybe that’s not the best entry point.
MP: Right. It’s not an adequate representation. A lot of a band’s history via their discography might be mired when you just bring it up on Spotify or Tidal. You don’t get the whole picture and that can be confusing for some people or it might dissuade them from ever revisiting, which is definitely not what we want.
RF: You’re back at Riot Fest this September, playing on Friday with Foo Fighters, Turnstile, The Breeders, and Kim Gordon. Are you going to try and catch any sets?
MP: We’ve played with The Breeders before and we’re excited and honored to be able to share a stage with them. I think they’re one of the greatest bands of all time who have consistently put out pretty much perfect records. I’ll watch Tegan and Sara for sure. Jarrett’s gonna watch Ani. Big time. Huge fan. I’ve never actually seen Turnstile, which is weird since we come from a similar place in punk and D.I.Y. I did see Quicksand a couple times last year and they’re always great. It sounds like a fun day and hopefully I don’t have the flu again!
Riot Fest 2023 Tickets + Lineup
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