visual arts

Visual Arts alum finds success in rock band Screaming Females

New Brunswick has been home to a lively music scene for decades—at beloved bars like the recently shuttered Court Tavern (RIP) and in basement punk shows at private homes.

A few bands have catapulted out of the sweat- and beer-stained world of basement and club shows, and the punk trio Screaming Females, fronted by Mason Gross School Visual Arts alum Marissa Paternoster, is one of them.

Screaming Females
Screaming Females. Photo by Christopher Patrick Ernst

In 2005, the Elizabeth, N.J., singer-guitarist launched Screaming Females with Mike Abbate of Elizabeth on bass and fellow Rutgers student Jarrett Dougherty of Montclair on drums. Since then, Screaming Females has released five full-length CDs and plays an aggressive slate of shows across the United States and Europe.

In 2009, Screaming Females caught the proverbial big break by opening for Jack White’s Dead Weather at 3,000-seat venues. The band also has played alongside Arctic Monkeys, Throwing Muses and Dinosaur Jr.

Paternoster describes facing relatively mammoth crowds as “horrifying. It’s a lot bigger than a punk house. [But] it was fun, a point of demarcation.”

Paternoster has generated plenty of media buzz—much of it, for some reason, focused on the seeming dissonance between her diminutive stature and her diabolical shrieks. The Village Voice named her New York City’s Best Guitar-Shredder of 2009, while Rolling Stone christened Paternoster the year’s “answer to Sleater-Kinney’s 2006 breakup.” The New York Times has praised her “stellar, guttural scream.”

The 25-year-old Paternoster is thoughtful and witty in conversation—she calls Nirvana “the gateway drug” for punk kids—and says she’s learned not to take the attention too seriously.

“At the end of my life, I won’t say, ‘That Rolling Stone article was f------  awesome.’ That doesn’t matter to me,” Paternoster says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. The group will perform later that day in Fullerton, Calif. “It’s an afterthought for me. The only thing that matters is the music and the relationships that I have accrued making it.”

Paternoster’s “it’s all about the music” stance actually is pretty credible. Catch her on YouTube, and it’s clear that she, Abbate and Dougherty are not obsessed with building their “brand.” The band that appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered still practices in the basement of Paternoster’s grandma’s house in Union.

“She’s a rocker,” Paternoster says of her grandmother, Marie Paternoster. You can practically hear her cracking a proud grin over the phone.

Perhaps that seemingly relaxed attitude is part of Screaming Females’ allure; they make success look unintentional. But the trio’s rise seems to be attributable to a fair amount of grit: Paternoster describes their early years as a time in which the band would happily play “any show for however many people,” dragging their CD’s all over the country, remaining vigilant about showing up on time for each and every gig.

Marissa Paternoster's drawing
Drawing by Marissa Paternoster

Part of the band’s appeal undoubtedly is due to Paternoster’s mesmerizing voice—an expansive and seemingly unpredictable instrument that manages to punctuate the band’s dense, punk-rock-inflected sound with something akin to a big, bluesy wail. When queried about her musical influences, Paternoster points to blues singer and guitarist Son House as readily as she does ‘90s punk bands like Bikini Kill.

But Paternoster is quick to point out that for her, at least, art isn't merely a diversion; it's essential.

“Visual art and music, first and foremost, they serve a therapeutic function,” says Paternoster, who started on guitar at 14 and formed her first band, Surgery On TV, with fellow Roselle Catholic High School student Mike Abbate. Growing up, drawing “kind of saved me,” she says, so attending art school was a given. Paternoster’s intensively detailed, idiosyncratic drawings of fantastical creatures and characters decorate all the Screaming Females’ CD covers, including the latest release, April 2012’s Ugly.

“When you’re in fifth grade, and you figure out the thing you’re good at, it’s empowering,” Paternoster says. “When you figure out, ‘I excel at this one thing,’ it can serve as your salvation in a tough spot, because growing up is hard . . . [Having artistic talent] was a pass in a way. The [popular] kids forgave our nerdiness.”

Paternoster describes her high school self as “awkward and tomboyish. That’s crushing as a teenager. My friends and I drew from comic books. That was enough for me.”

And art—on the page, behind the microphone—still seems to be enough for Paternoster.

“Getting to play with Mike and Jarrett and develop relationships with them is all I ever wanted,” Paternoster says. “Everything after is a nice thing, a nice little gift.

“I already have what I want—memories and records,” she continues. “I sound like a Hallmark card, but it’s true.”

Screaming Females perform at Warsaw in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 14, 2012, and at Warehouse Motor Club in Middlesex, N.J., on June 29, 2012.

Watch this Screaming Females video for Wild, off the 2010 release Castle Talk:

Posted May 2012