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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014

Screaming Females Keep it Casual

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In another era, Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster might have been a glam-rock icon. Between her sneered vibrato and her ceaseless guitar riffs, she would have been a prime candidate for the glossy Mick Ronson treatment in the ’70s, where it’s easy to imagine her decorated in face paint, playing to cheering arenas then hanging out with Lou Reed afterward. But Paternoster came of age in the late-’90s, not the glamorous ’70s, so instead she records with Steve Albini and carries herself with the same casual posture as every other punk musician touring small clubs in a cramped van. That nonchalance doesn’t make her any less of a presence on stage, of course, but she’s the kind of presence who instinctively camouflages her star power.

Most Screaming Females press has understandably focused on Paternoster. She is, after all, the frontwoman and face of the band, the only female in a trio called Screaming Females and the only member recognized on lists like Spin’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time tally. But she maintains the band isn’t a veiled solo project. Contrary to reviews that brush aside their contributions, drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist King Mike are as integral to the band as she is, she insists. “Our writing process is very democratic,” she says. “The three of us definitely do equal amounts of work, and in some cases with some songs, I might have very little input. Some Screaming Female songs might come almost solely from Mike or some ideas come straight from Jarrett’s brain, and we just add our own little nuances to them.”

The notion of Screaming Females as an equal group effort might have been a difficult sell on 2012’s guitar-slathered Ugly—an album where it was almost impossible to hear anything but a one-woman force of nature—but the group’s latest EP makes a more convincing case. The loosest, most varied release the band has ever recorded, with forays into acoustic psychedelic and slinky, bass-driven post-punk, Chalk Tape is the first Screaming Females release where Paternoster’s usual all-powerful shredding doesn’t overshadow everything else.

The EP’s toned-down sound was shaped by illness. The band recorded it while Paternoster was sidelined from the road for seven months with chronic pains doctors were unable to diagnose, a frightening ordeal she detailed in a moving online comic. Her aches made touring impossible and the band’s usual jam sessions difficult, but the group kicked around new songs anyway, if only to keep Paternoster from losing her mind while her health prohibited her from doing anything else.

“When we’re recording an LP, we spend a lot of time sitting around and talking about song structure and composition and the way that the songs feel and the way we imagine they might be received,” Paternoster explains. “But with Chalk Tape we didn’t do anything. We were like, ‘I have this riff, I’m going to play it now. Play some stuff over it. Yeah, yeah, that sounds good—let’s record it.’ And that was it. There was very little thought that went into it. It had a sense of urgency, though I’m not sure if that urgency comes across to listeners hearing the EP. It’s a pretty mellow jammer.”

If the resulting EP sounds out of step with the rest of Screaming Females’ catalogue, that’s kind of the point. Though its songs aren’t literally B-sides, they play like the rarities and deep cuts Paternoster used to hunt down when she was a teenager, the kind of tracks that revealed different angles of bands their albums didn’t always capture.

“I always liked listening to my favorite band’s B-sides when I was a kid,” she recalls. “There are a lot of B-sides from bands that I totally love, and it was like, ‘Why don’t they put that on the album?’ And it’s weird: What kind of processing was going on during band practice where they were like, ‘This sucks, don’t put it on the album,’ while meanwhile 13-year-old me is going, ‘This is the coolest Smashing Pumpkins song I’ve ever heard!’ So I was always hunting B-sides down on Napster. It could be a harrowing process for me to sit at my PC for two hours while I tried to download, like, some Pixies B-side, while my mom was trying to use the phone so she could call her friend Denise but we have only one line. She’d be like, ‘Get off the goddamn computer!’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t! My download’s at 53%! You don’t understand!’”

Whether some of Chalk Tape’s carefree feel will carry over to Screaming Females’ next album, Paternoster can’t say. “The songs are all written, but you never know how they’ll sound until you record them,” she says. “I try not to get too attached to an idea of how I want a record to sound, because anything can happen when you’re hanging in the studio, and if the record doesn’t come out the way I was dreaming about, I might get sad or melancholy or upset about it. So I’d rather just kind of let fate dictate how the songs are going to sound, otherwise I’d get too caught up in my own internal dream world of how I want them to sound, and that’s unhealthy for me.”

Screaming Females headline the Cactus Club with Tenement and Rio Turbo at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29.
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