Updated: Wednesday, February 28, 2018, 7:03 AM
Every Screaming Females fan knows Marissa Paternoster is the shining star of the punk-rock power trio.
The powerful-voiced vocalist is the front woman for the New Brunswick, N.J.-bred band, which also includes the rhythm section of “King” Mike Abbate and Jarrett Dougherty. And Paternoster is a thrilling instrumentalist — her dazzling but never showy fretwork led Spin to name her the 77th greatest guitarist of all time in 2012.
“That’s why I started playing the bass,” Abbate says. “I saw her playing guitar. And I thought, ‘I’ll get a bass, and I can play with her.’ ”
Hearing the praise of her buddies and bandmates makes the soft-spoken Paternoster a tad uncomfortable. “Aw, jeez,” she says. “Oh, man, I’m sweating.”
She pulls off her sweatshirt to reveal a Fiona Apple T-shirt and a tattoo below her shoulder that depicts sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space — an abstract shape that looks nothing like a bird — as though it’s laying an egg, “because I have a sense of humor,” she says with a smile.
There’s a song on All at Once (*** 1/2) called “Bird in Space,” a stately, melodic highlight of the power trio’s impressive eighth album, which was released digitally and as a double vinyl LP last week on New Brunswick’s Don Giovanni Records. The band will bring its highly energetic and extremely loud live show to Union Transfer on April 5.
But though Paternoster’s status as an underground punk guitar hero is well deserved, the key to the Screaming Females’ strength as a creative force — and to sticking together without a lineup change for 13 years — is that they function so well together as a collaborative unit.
That was underscored when the threesome gathered on a chilly January day to talk all at once about All at Once at the Green Line Cafe at 44th and Locust, where Dougherty sometimes picks up shifts when the band isn’t on tour.
“Nobody’s in charge of songwriting,” Paternoster says. The band’s arsenal of instantly memorable riffs — and All at Once, which was recorded in Seattle with producer Matt Bayles, who also helmed the Screamales 2015 album Rose Mountain, is full of them — typically come together while the musicians are together in the same room.
The partnership began when Paternoster met Dougherty while she was a freshman at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“I was terribly depressed, and I had ringworm,” she says with a laugh. She had taken up guitar after her father taught her to play a Nirvana song when she was 14. But at college “I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t know where the shows were. Jarrett was three years older. He could buy me beer, which was amazing. And he lived off campus with other people who like art.”
Paternoster and Abbate, 30, grew up together in Elizabeth in Union County, and played together in a band in high school called Surgery on TV. After she connected with Dougherty, “I told Mike, ‘I met a drummer and he can actually play the drums.’ ”
“I think I was just really, really stoked to be in a band. That’s all I ever wanted. So when I found two cool friends who also wanted to take it as seriously as I did, I wanted to take advantage of any and all opportunities to play.”
Abbate followed his friend to Rutgers the next year, and the Screaming Females have grown steadily in prowess and popularity since, touring midsize venues around the country and the world.
They’ve worked with luminaries like producer-engineer Steve Albini and toured with ’90s alt-rock band Garbage, with whom they recorded a scalding take on Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” in 2013. Screamales versions of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” for the Onion’s A.V. Club Undercover session, are newly available on Spotify.
The band came up through the all-ages, basement show scene in New Brunswick, the hometown they strongly identify with, even as they bemoan what they say is the college town’s disinclination to support the arts.
“The dream of every kid in North Jersey who wasn’t psyched to be in the suburbs was always to move to New York,” says Dougherty. But being a struggling artist is problematic “when you’re paying $1,000 a month for a room as big as a closet.” Seeking a supportive affordable community, Dougherty moved to Philly first, and Paternoster followed three years ago.
So with two thirds of the power trio in the 215 — Abbate still lives in North Jersey — does that make Screaming Females a Philly band?
“No,” says Dougherty. “We’re sort of in limbo. We do live in Philadelphia, yes. But we’ll always be a New Brunswick band because that’s where we played three or four shows a month for number of years. We’ve never had that experience here.”
On the Screaming Females Bandcamp page, they’re self-described as “deeply individual and steadfastly DIY.” And they remain fiercely independent and self-contained. They manage and book themselves, with Dougherty handling most of that work; Abbate, who also runs a T-shirt design business, takes care of shipping and merchandise. The Screamales have never sold a song to be used in a commercial or been much interested in being on a bigger label than Don Giovanni.
“I feel like we’ve been really successful in what our vision of our band is,” says Dougherty. “That turns a lot of industry people off, and at this point they’re not going to change us. Ultimately, it always comes back to the three of us.”
As the music industry focuses on hit singles played on streaming services — “The algorithm and blues,” Abbate quips — the band has remained old-fashioned in their dedication to working on collections of songs that aim to stand as lasting art. “The community that we’re interacting with in real life, they’re making albums,” says Paternoster. “And they want albums.”
Paternoster’s lifelong interest in visual art — her mother was an art teacher who showed her Robert Crumb’s ribald comics “at an inappropriate age” — shows up on All at Once’s “Bird in Space,” and the equally catchy “Agnes Martin,” named after the abstract expressionist painter.
Both songs dig into a theme that runs through much of All at Once and in conversation with the three Screaming Females: How to maintain concentration as a creative artist in an “all at once” era of digital overload.
Paternoster is only half joking when she says that Twitter has “ruined my life.”
“The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone and you’re not thinking about anything,” Paternaster says. “And I think that’s something we don’t get to do anymore because we’re just surrounded by weird reflections of ourselves in our phones and everywhere else.”