“Lyrically, our songs are […] about a very personal and internal struggle while you navigate through what feels like a dystopian nightmare.” ~Marissa Paternoster
May 26, 2016
Screaming Females — featuring Marissa Paternoster on lead guitar & lyrics, King Mike on bass, and Jarrett Dougherty on drums — sprawls cheerfully across two shabby couches in a dim upper room at the Northside Yacht Club, eating vegan sandwiches and chips as they speak with us about creativity, community, and being “working musicians.”
Women in Rock: can you describe the moment when you realized that you wanted to play music professionally, become a professional musician?
Jarrett (J): I think of myself as a pro musician, but there have been a few times when we couldn’t play for a while, so I sometimes feel hesitant to talk about it, because it feels like something that can be gone at any moment. But the honest answer is as soon as I met Mike and Marissa and formed the Screamales. As soon as I met them, I told people I would become a professional musician.
King Mike (KM): I’m still not sure I think of myself as professional. [laughs]
Marissa (M): When I think of a “professional musician,” I think of first chair in the New York Philharmonic. It’s probably just a matter of semantics, but for me, it’s like, I happen to play music and we get paid for it sometimes. [laughs] It’s my job. I think of myself as a working musician.
We’ve noticed that in your current tour, you’ve worked with trans, queer, and feminist organizations. To what extent do you incorporate activism into your work as musicians, or to what extent you see yourselves as addressing social justice issues in your music?
M: I think the way we’ve chosen to run our band is itself a kind of active activism. We don’t lay in bed with major labels, and we don’t accept money, or hospitality, or gigs from organizations that we think are in cahoots with evil. We’re very selective about what we choose to participate in.
J: I think people misinterpret us sometimes. They ask, “why isn’t your band in a commercial? why aren’t you more famous?” For us, it’s a purposeful decision, not an accident.
M: We consciously decided that we would rather be part of a community rather than a business.
KM: We care way more about human connection than about any kind of monetary gain.
J: I think activism can fit into music in a lot of ways. Some bands, including bands we tour with, like Downtown Boys, will explicitly tell you their political views between songs, and that’s not something that Screaming Females does. I don’t think it’s every band’s responsibility to go on stage and do that, but it’s cool if they do.
M: As far as working with groups like Tranz Mission and Equality NC and Planned Parenthood, I think if you are lucky enough to stand on stage in front of people, even if it’s only 100 people, and you have the resources to have an important nonprofit come out and talk to people about something that’s going on in their local government, then you should. It’s a social responsibility.
J: But lyrically, our music has never been explicitly focused on activism or politics.
M: Lyrically, our songs are instead about a very personal and internal struggle while you navigate through what feels like a dystopian nightmare. [laughs]
what is your songwriting process?
M: We hang out and experiment.
KM: Yeah, we just play riffs and put sounds together.
M: Sometimes what we make sounds good, sometimes it sounds bad.
M: Usually the lyrics go through many incarnations.
J: Marissa writes all the lyrics, but musically it’s a very collaborative effort. Mainly we get together and play until something good happens.
“I think if you are lucky enough to stand on stage in front of people, even if it’s only 100 people, and you have the resources to have an important nonprofit come out and talk to people about something that’s going on in their local government, then you should. It’s a social responsibility.” ~ Marissa Paternoster
Marissa, your lyrics are so poetic. Can you describe the imaginative process? do they just come to you, or do you get obsessed with a mood or a word, or what happens?
M: I went to art school, and I really like artists — like Jenny Holzer and Basquiat and Barbara Kruger — who use words in their paintings. I draw inspiration from them. I’ve also gotten into poetry lately, and I’ll read something and think “I don’t understand it, but it sounds cool and beautiful!” and that’s maybe how I come up with lyrics too.
do you have recommendations or advice for musicians starting out, especially women in rock?
J: Absolutely. One time I sat on a panel, and I kept being blown away because the other participants kept measuring success by money or album or ticket sales. And we’re a band who started in order to play loud and have fun, and that view of corporate success erases that reality. So my advice to anyone starting out is: success is what you make it, it’s what you decide, and to judge your success by other people’s standards is always going to cut you down. On the other hand, living life and experiencing new things and pushing yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone by meeting people all over the world and playing shows for people you’re not sure will like you or not, is incredibly fulfilling no matter how many albums you sell, or even if you’re hated on any given night. It’s a struggle but it makes life really interesting.
have you had those kinds of strong reactions to your music?
J, M, & KM, simultaneously: Yes. Definitely.
what form has that taken?
M: One time there was a guy who gave us the finger throughout the whole set.
J: We get the standard macho, vaguely homophobic, adamantly sexist rants about how what we’re doing is not music and it’s not good enough. There are videos of us on the internet, and Marissa is an amazing guitarist, and inevitably there’s some man who’s like, “she should be—“
M: “she should be playing a mixolydian scale, but instead she’s playing a pentatonic scale.”
J: Yeah. Regularly. What I always say is that when Marissa plays it wrong it’s because she’s a woman, but when Hendrix plays it wrong it’s because he was a visionary, expressing the violence of the Vietnam war through his dissonant notes or whatever.
M: Fucking it up. He should practice more. [laughs]
do you feel that expectations for women musicians are still unfair or biased?
M: Yes. Jarrett has to routinely delete inappropriate comments from our Facebook page. I don’t know if that happens to bands that are all men, because….um….I’m not in one. [laughs] But I would imagine it doesn’t. It’s also really common for a man to come up to me and say “I’m really surprised you can play guitar as well as you do.” And I’m like, why? [laughs] There’s an assumption there that bothers me, but then it makes me feel better to think that maybe I taught them something, that they might think differently after seeing me perform.
J: That’s what I was saying earlier, it’s not that we’re like, “here’s a song about being a strong woman with a bunch of people telling you that you’re a freak.” It’s just that we model being strong women and strong freaks. That’s what bands starting out should think about, is being themselves and finding other bands that click with you even if they may be different, and not about getting a lawyer or a major label.
gut reaction, who is your favorite woman in rock?
J and KM, simultaneously: Marissa.
M: Me! [laughter all around]
J: [pause] I will say we are all into Sadie Switchblade [from G.L.O.S.S.] right now.
M: I want the drummer in G.L.O.S.S. to punch me in the face. Not in a sex way — well, maybe a little [laughs] — but also in a I think you rule, beat me up! kind of way. They’re so cool.
It’s not that we’re like, “here’s a song about being a strong woman with a bunch of people telling you that you’re a freak.” It’s just that we model being strong women and strong freaks. That’s what bands starting out should think about, is being themselves and finding other bands that click with you even if they may be different, and not about getting a lawyer or a major label. ~Jarrett Dougherty