Interview: Screaming Females’ Malleable Realist Rock

On February 21st 2018 » By Luke Ottenhof

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Marissa Paternoster, singer and guitarist for New Jersey punk trio Screaming Females, says that when she was in high school, listening to sad songs made her feel better. One might suspect the same would be true for nearly everyone in high school. It’s a peculiar paradox: Why would listening to mopey, minor key tunes comfort us? For many, the endorphin rush of emotion is purifying. We’re socialized to grin and conceal our defeats, so since we can’t express our sadness, indulging it with sad music is a healing practice. But the practice has more purpose than self-pity. These songs quietly corroborate and substantiate our pain.

With All At Once, Screaming Females—comprised of Paternoster, drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist “King” Mike Abbate—have made a record that corroborates pain and frustration, but more than that, they’ve made something that speaks to the most familiar state of existence: the broad space between joy and sadness. Paternoster thinks we have to spend more time considering that expanse. “Sure, you’ll have moments of euphoria, moments when you’re really down in the dumps, but for most of the time, you just exist in this purgatory,” she says over the phone during a drive to New York. “It’s OK to analyze it and acknowledge its existence, and not fight against it, but just be like, ‘This is the way life is.’”

Paternoster calls it the “banality” of existence, and it’s the language of All At Once. On the first track, after an ascending string of dissonant guitar spasms, Paternoster howls, “My life in this glass house / Impossible to get out!” The line suggests, of course, that perhaps the glass house isn’t a desirable place to be. But the true grievance is the second qualifier: that Paternoster is trapped there. The locale isn’t as unnerving as the tragedy of being stuck there, endlessly.

That feeling of helplessness is a central theme, constricting the record to its end. “Step Outside,” which closes the record, summons, with its inviting title, a vision of resolution to the anxiety that cloaks the first notes of “Glass House.” But instead, Paternoster imparts with blunt precision, “Sick with worry just knowing when you step outside, you won’t be safe.” It’s a frighteningly literal sentiment. Paternoster explains that there are virtually no spaces in America where she feels safe.

This marks Paternoster, Dougherty and Abbate’s seventh studio record together, an album posed as a “salon style gallery presentation.” Paternoster says the parallel was partly the product of her synesthetic relationship with the songs. “I think about music visually,” she explains. “I think of songs as being different colours and tonalities and shades, so I brought that up about how the album could tie together.”

The record’s cover art suggests a similar cohesion. Like all Screaming Females covers, it was illustrated by Paternoster. Her style is immediately identifiable, often marked by a playful, surrealist distortion of human features. Here, a face stares at a collection of empty, black picture frames, threaded and linked together with a weave of colourful strands. If the vacuous darkness of the frames suggests the vacant state we so often occupy, the shock of color is vital.

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling good,” Paternoster says firmly. “Feeling good is great. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that either. It’s just part of the human experience.” But the human experience is a lot different than what we’re conditioned to believe it would be. “[Because of] movies and shows and music, we’ve romanticized the highs and the lows, and always ignored the middle.

“This album is not really entrenched in either of those feelings. It’s acknowledging that there’s this in-between, and nobody wants to talk about [it], because it is boring. But that’s what 99 percent of our life is like.” Paternoster thinks that fact doesn’t have to be a bummer. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be as dull as we might perceive it.”

All At Once proves that theory. A tangle of moods and sounds sprawl across the record, shifting from the garage rock of “Black Moon,” to the grunge groove of “Agnes Martin,” to the restrained, romantic stomp of “Deeply.” Much like the presentation style they’re inspired by, the songs are vibrant pieces on their own, and together, they work to drive home a central thesis: Banality is a fact, but we can still mine it for power and strength.

Paternoster remarks that as she’s gotten older, she’s lost any interest in “personal gain.” That’s been superseded by “wanting the world to be a better place for everybody.” She snorts, adding, “And not having my head up my ass all the time, even though my head is still way up my ass all the time. Trying to remove it as much as possible.

“When I do leave the world, [I want to] leave something good behind instead of some kind of weird monument to my own ego.”

“You’ll have moments of euphoria, moments when you’re really down in the dumps, but for most of the time, you just exist in this purgatory.”

Marissa Paternoster

The lyrics on All At Once are less personal, perhaps even more universal than before. She wanted the songs to be malleable, such that many listeners could hear them and draw meaning. “I want to try and write down words that are relatable for a great deal of people, regardless of who they are or where they come from or how much money they make. As long as it’s relatable for them, and it feels cathartic or it brings them some kind of satisfaction, then that’s what we want,” she says earnestly. “I’m not trying to get on a box and tell anybody what to think or feel. I think we just want to bring people together, and bring people together in the real world.”

It’s here that Paternoster touches on the essential roots of her work with her friends in Screaming Females and at Don Giovanni Records, who have worked on every Screaming Females release. (Says Paternoster of Don Giovanni founder Joe Steinhardt, “We have a shared life experience. We also have the same value system.”) The desire to “bring people together” can be read in the context of what bringing people together actually means: Typically, it requires friendship, support, kindness, empathy, compassion. “There is a lean towards some universal idea of community,” she allows. “That’s something I value and depend on.”

This casts All At Once, and Screaming Females, as more than a project of music or artistry. They’re organisms that are actively campaigning to better their surroundings, and they’re doing it with concrete realism. Rather than toothless maxims or exclusive optimism, this approach gives us the tools to cope with the banality of life. This is what gives comfort; these are the new Sad Songs.

Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.

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