Screaming Females on comfort, consensus, creativity, and the new record 'Desire Pathways' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

How to evolve yet remain distinctly yourself… It’s a thornier question than one might think. In creative fields, stasis is often looked at as the enemy, repeating yourself as a cardinal sin. And yet, if you are working long enough, you are bound to settle into what works best, finding consistency among the chaos. Screaming Females is a band who have seemed to find the sweet spot between comfort and evolution, changing and yet never losing themselves. 

When I caught up with Marissa Paternoster (vocals/guitar), Jarrett Dougherty (drums), and Mike Abbate (bass) of Screaming Females, they were a few weeks out from the release of their eighth studio album Desire Pathway, another incredible addition to one of the more impressive discographies in independent music. Keep in mind, for them, “independent” is more than a convenient way to package their sound. Screaming Females are a DIY band in the functional sense, preferring to retain the elemental, grassroots aspects of what it means to be an artist in 2023.

Which is, in part, why the arrival of Desire Pathway is so exciting: it’s a way to finally show off the band’s new songs, as well as an occasion to mark their return to the touring circuit. So what better way to celebrate than with the 2023 Garden Party Festival, a two-day festival featuring bands like Armand Hammer, Laura Stevenson, and Catbite at White Eagle Hall on February 17 and 18. But first, check out my discussion with the band, in which we talk about everything from the endless cycle of Instagram posts, writing without live shows, and of course, their new record Desire Pathway

Sean Fennell: I want to start by talking a little bit about “Brass Bell.” I saw you said it’s about surrendering autonomy to something powerful. That, to me, can be taken as both positive and negative. Where do you think this song falls on that spectrum?

Marissa Paternoster: Well, it is inherently negative I would say. Just the idea of surrendering yourself to something negative that is taking over your life is not a positive thing. Though I guess it could be. Maybe if you are in recovery or something. 

Jarrett Dougherty:  There’s different words for it, but there are people who are submissive and they find that to be a way they like to live. 

MP: That’s fair. So, yes, there are plenty of ways where it might be a positive thing, but if we are talking about the song specifically, it was not a positive thing, no.

SF: That said, I imagine being in a band as long as you have would lead you to become a collective rather than individuals in a way that is kind of similar to the idea of submission. 

JD: I’d say that for us we try to stick to the idea of consensus. So the hope would be that by coming together you are actually able to fully realize yourself rather than it being a constriction on the individual. Though obviously you can’t just do whatever you want all the time. The idea that you have some sort of self-realization and self-actualization through collaboration and producing something that could not be produced on your own is hopefully the goal. That is essentially the goal with any helpful relationship: to get something out of it that you couldn’t obtain on your own. While you do maybe have to give up the idea of being able to do anything you want all the time, you gain something more important out of it.

SF: Desire Pathway is your eighth album as a band, correct? How do things get easier for you as a band each time you come back together to make a record?

Mike Abbate: Just by repetition. We just have a better understanding of how a studio works or what we might envision production-wise. We get better and better each time we do it at communicating sonic ideas which are often hard to put into words when you are talking about overdubs or whatever you might be doing on the album. We have been doing it a long time so we are constantly developing that language for effectively collaborating with each other.

Screaming Females | photo by Krista Schlueter

SF: Is there any worry that comfort would lead to the same outcome again and again rather than presenting new challenges to have to work around? 

MP: We definitely take that into consideration, but I think artists are always pressed to do new or exciting things or reinvent themselves constantly. Obviously sometimes that is because the artist wants to and that is a good reason to do it, but I also feel like it is an easy way to sell records, to have a marketing line where it’s like, ‘this band has completely reinvented themselves on this record.’ And then, of course, you can have the return to form. I just feel sometimes people don’t talk about how important it is to have creative relationships in your life that last a really long time and evolve and grow naturally. This isn’t some kind of hard line for me. I think everyone should follow whatever creative path they see fit, but it is very seldom people talk about sustaining creative relationships. 

JD: I think we do consider it, and we do always push ourselves while we are writing to explore new things but it isn’t like we go in and decide that this new thing can’t sound like the last one, it just kind of happens with us. I think when we explore new ideas they just inherently turn into these song kernels and then we begin to expand them into full song popcorn. And then as far as recording, we always try to do something different. So even though we have worked with Matt [Bayles] three times, we have gone to three different studios. This time we went and used a studio outside of Seattle, which is where he is based, one we’ve never been to. While that can cause some headaches and issues with not being familiar with the equipment or something’s broken or whatever it may be, it also creates just inherently different environments and it is going to sound different and produce different results.

SF: Yeah, and I can imagine even if you’re not specifically trying to take this brand new approach that things are just gonna naturally change and shift with time and your perspective.

MA:  I’d say it’s probably harder to do the same thing over and over again than you might think.

JD: Yeah. I mean, we’ve never been a formula band. Which is the way a lot of bands start. You’re like, “Oh, I am going to try to sound like The Ramones,” or whatever it may be. And then if you start writing something outside of that formula, you start to question yourself, or you’re like, “Is this really what this band sounds like?” Since we’ve never done that, we never had that idea. We can do whatever we want.

Screaming Females - Mourning Dove

SF: Now, just piggybacking off that idea: since you guys have been a band for a very long time, do you think your goals have drastically changed for what you want out of this experience from the beginning? Or do you think they’ve mostly stayed consistent throughout? 

MP: They’ve stayed pretty damn consistent.

JD: Yeah, we’ve always had pretty much the same goals, which is to be able to do this band the way we want to do it and hopefully make a living off of it. And it seems like a very simple formula. But a lot of bands, or most bands, are unable to do those two things. Either they feel like they have to sacrifice something, to be able to make a living, or they never are able to make a living if they do exactly what they want, or they never reach anyone doing what they want. So it’s a pretty simple formula. And we’re still here doing it. And it’s still always a question of whether a new new album is going to connect with people or not. I think it’s pretty amazing that both on our part and the people who have stuck with us who care about us, that we are able to still be worthwhile to listen to after all these years.

SF: Yeah, cause while you say you’ve had a similar goal this whole time, I imagine the logistics around all that have changed dozens of times.

JD: Drastically. You gotta make way more Instagram videos now. It is funny, but it’s so true. It’s so wild. Like, being a band now involves so much more “content creation” and emailing, and just this admin kind of like hell, as compared to not that long ago. 

MP: It turned from like, 70% of the time playing music and 30% of the time doing housekeeping stuff, to now I feel like it’s 70% housekeeping on mobile devices, and then 30% playing music, which is not desirable in any way, shape, or form. But everybody needs videos and constant reminders that you exist.

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SF: Can you tell me a little bit about the album art and how that came together?

MP: Right after we finished recording it, I was lucky enough to get a residency at this place called Dirt Palace in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a long running, DIY arts and cultural space that has residencies and studios for silkscreen stuff and they have housing for the artists. And so I went there for a month and that’s where I did the homework. But it was like peak Omicron, so I was completely alone for like the entire month, which was kind of weird, and a bummer, because it was also extremely cold in Providence at that time. I didn’t really get to talk to any of the other artists or you know, talk about their work or, like, talk about what I was doing. So I wish I had a more exciting story for you. But I really spent every day in almost complete silence.

SF: You’ve talked about the fact that this record, for obvious reasons, sat on the shelf for a while. Do you think that’s changed the relationship to the songs now that you’re finally getting to play them and have them come out to the world?

MP: Yeah, I mean, usually we get to spend at least like a year playing shows and presenting these songs while they’re being written. [We perform] songs-in-progress to an audience to get more of a perspective on how they might be received or which ones are really resonating with people and which ones aren’t. And we just totally didn’t get to do that pretty much at all with any of these songs. That being said, we’ve definitely played a handful of them in front of people, but for the most part, we haven’t. That’s just never been the case for us. So I would say that my relationship with playing these songs live is very uniquely weird and unprecedented, so that’s a new thing.

SF: That’s interesting, have you guys always been a band that likes to feed off the energy of playing the songs live to help shape them to their final form?

MP: Even if it’s not just gauging the audience’s reaction, we improvise a lot. So sometimes we like to come up with new ideas while we’re playing a show. We just didn’t really get the chance to do that on this album, but we tried some other things that we’ve never tried before. So, you know, give a little, take a little. 

MA: It can definitely affect groove or tempo and various little more subtle elements of a song. You can kind of get a different perspective on things when you play them out live versus just sitting down listening to it with the speaker pointing at your head. Even when you’re doing band practice, you don’t really have the same perspective. So it’s not even necessarily a crowd’s reaction, but it’s even sort of like, how you react to the song in a different environment.

Screaming Females’ annual garden party fest poster

SF: So in keeping with that, you kind of referenced it earlier, but tell me a little bit about this year’s Garden Party Festival and what that means to you as a band?

JD: We’ve been doing the Garden Party for… this is going to be the third official year, but we’ve been doing it kind of unofficially before it had a name in Jersey City for many, many years. It didn’t even start as something purposeful. It’s basically expanded every year since the beginning, and this year is quite a big expansion for us in that not only are there two nights at White Eagle, but there’s also an after party and a day event, which is like a record fair, and memorabilia, and also has an espresso pop up. So there’s a lot going on. And so it’s an exciting adventure. But we’ve literally put that together pretty much ourselves, done all the promotion and all the artwork and everything. But as far as what it means to us, I think it’s just, for me, it’s an extension of what I used to do all the time when I’ve booked shows in New Brunswick for years for touring bands, which was putting together a show that seemed interesting that I thought my friends might want to come to, trying to expose some stuff that they didn’t know that I think would be really exciting. And I think it’s just kind of a bigger version of that, hopefully. It’s totally independent as well, which is important, especially with so many festivals nowadays. And most of them read like somebody just printed off like a Spotify algorithm to book the festivals. I mean, it’s almost a joke at this point like the mid late 90s genre festival. 

Catch Screaming Females at either (or both) of their Annual Garden Party performances on February 17th and 18th. The band will also be in Philadelphia on the 19th for a show at Manayunk’s Main Street Music. Looking ahead, they tour the US — including Alaksa! — starting this spring. Full dates below. Tickets to local shows can be found at the WXPN Concerts and Events page.

2/17 – Jersey City, NJ – White Eagle Hall
2/18 – Jersey City, NJ – White Eagle Hall
2/19 – Philadelphia, PA – Main Street Music

3/4 – Homer, AK – Alice’s Champagne Palace
3/6 – Talkeetna, AK – Sheldon Community Arts Hangar
3/8 (day) – Fairbanks, AK – Bad Mother
3/8 (night) – Fairbanks, AK – Goldies
3/9 – Anchorage, AK – Cafecito Bonito
3/10 – Anchorage, AK – Koot’s


w/ Heavy Comforter
Wed. 3/29 Richmond, VA Richmond Music Hall
Thu. 3/30 W Columbia, SC New Brookland Tavern
Fri. 3/31 Atlanta, GA The Earl
Sat. 4/1 New Orleans, LA Siberia
Sun. 4/2 Houston, TX The End
Mon. 4/3 Austin, TX The Ballroom
Tue. 4/4 San Antonio, TX Paper Tiger

w/ Smirk
Thu. 4/6 San Diego, CA Casbah
Fri. 4/7 Los Angeles, CA Teragram Ballroom
Sat. 4/8 San Francisco, CA Bottom of the Hill
Mon. 4/10 Portland, OR Dante’s
Tue. 4/11 Vancouver, BC Rickshaw
Wed. 4/12 Seattle, WA Madame Lous
Thu. 4/13 Boise, ID The Shredder
Fri. 4/14 Salt Lake City, UT Beehive
Sat. 4/15 Denver, CO Marquis Theater

w/ The Mimes
Sun. 4/16 Omaha, NE Reverb Lounge
Tue. 4/18 St Paul, MN Turf Club
Wed. 4/19 Chicago, IL Cobra Lounge
Thu. 4/20 Hamtramck, MI Sanctuary
Fri. 4/21 Columbus, OH Ace of Cups
Sat. 4/22 Pittsburgh, PA Spirit
Sun. 4/23 Baltimore, MD Ottobar

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