One of the best guitar players of her generation, Marissa Paternoster's shred aptitude is matched only by her work ethic. When she's not recording with her power trio Screaming Females or her side project Noun or in the middle of one of her non-stop tours, she's making her own album covers. Her frenetic pace was slowed by factors beyond her control when she came down with mononucleosis in 2013 and had to take a break from music. Fortunately, she's feeling much better now, and this experience informs both the music and the cover she made for the band's upcoming album Rose Mountain, their fifth album and their first with Mastodon producer Matt Bayles. To celebrate the premiere of their new single "Criminal Image," which you can listen to above, we talked with Marissa about pukey-green waiting room colors and why she deserves to sleep on a couch, dammit.
So you've always made the covers for Screaming Females albums. Tell me about making the cover for your new album, Rose Mountain.
I've learned a lot about how to do it. I mean, it's not particularly complex. I learned a lot about utilitarian things like Photoshop by the seat of my pants because I didn't know anything about it, and nowadays it's the only way to submit your art to any press that prints album sleeves. That's not totally true, but a lot of the earlier work I did was really graphic, and I didn't know how to manipulate photos in a computer, and I didn't know how to use layers, and I would just draw one thing on a white background, scan it and then put it on the cover.
That's what the first two albums were like, and then as I grew more confident with my Photoshop skills from futzing around on the program, I got kind of obsessed with layering things with no rhyme or reason. I used it as a crutch, because I would make a bunch of drawings and then I would scan them all in, and I would make these collage of these random drawings...I'm not disappointed in the drawings I did previously, but sometimes I look back at them and think "there's no reason this drawing is accompanying this other one. They're from totally different times in my life. They have very little to do with anything that's on this record. I just thought they looked cool." Which works when you're talking about visual aesthetics, but for this one I wanted to make something more concise and something that spoke to the lyrical and musical content on the record, so I felt good enough about Photoshop that I could start working with photographs. And we have done a bunch of tours with this fella named Christopher Ernst, and he's a very skilled photographer and he took lots of photos of us and he taught me a lot about editing photos on Photoshop. So Chris and I worked on this live album cover, (Live at The Hideout) and we wanted to do something together that was a little more complex, like make a painting and then put it in a diorama, and then he could take a photo of it. And he's always drawn from a really nice, pastel range of colors, and so thinking about his work and thinking about the lyrical content of our record, most of which is about being sick for a great deal of 2013 and 2014, and the color palette that doctor's waiting rooms always seem to adopt, the weird, desaturated colors they usually have, I realized "Chris would be perfect for this. I won't have to sit in front of Photoshop at all."
Up until then I had been spending countless hours making digital collages. I have a degree in painting but it's not something I'm particularly fond of. I like drawing a lot more. While we were making the album in Seattle I went to the art store and got supplies, so while Matt (Bayles) was mixing and we were taking breaks and stuff, I would just sit in the kitchen and paint, and it was really nice, because while he was working I didn't just have to sit around and stare into oblivion. I could continue working too. There's a lot of loose symbolism in the figures that are on the cover of the record, and then there also parts of it that I chose because I think it looks cool.
Cover art for Rose Mountain by Marissa Paternoster.
What parts would you call symbolic?
The figure that is on the cover is a head with two hands and it's kind of floating in this nondescript space that has no real defining characteristics, and a lot of the lyrical content of the record is about...I don't know if I believe so much in the human soul, but kind of feeling like you're trapped inside a physical frame that you have no control over, so a lot of the record is about that, and then the disembodied figure that is on the cover of the album is supposed to represent that kind of discord, and that you're dedicated to this body or this coil, and you feel so fragmented, like separate from it, even though it's something you're going to have until the day you die, and you have no choice in the matter. You can't go get a new one. You can change it, but you can't go to the store and go get a new one.
You're stuck with it.
So it's a lot about groundlessness and feeling, for lack of a better word, fragmented.
So the pastel green color is supposed to invoke a doctor's waiting room, but also when you look at it, it kind of feels almost pukey, like a nauseating feeling. Is that what you're going for?
Everybody has been in a doctor's office plenty of times, and those pastels are always these denatured colors, it's not the kind of pastels you're going to see on an Easter egg or Spring time decorations, where everything is bright and cheery. A doctor's office is very different, because I feel like they don't want to confront you with full pigment because it's too jarring, and they want everything to be as mute and as non-triggering as possible, especially for people who might be there for something serious. So a lot of the colors are really disgusting. I have found, spending countless hours hanging out in waiting rooms, that I really respond to them. So in the painting I was just like "fuck it, I'm going to use one of those gross, pukey colors." I'm also not a huge fan of color in general. I usually only draw in black and white.
Like the cover of your last album Ugly.
I have never felt confident with color, so it was really nice to have a strong palette to chose from. I think he and I together managed to do a nice job together. I think it's my favorite album cover that I've done. I like it and I usually hate everything.
Marissa Paternoster. Photo by Rodolfo Martinez.
So for the past few years you've been dealing with mononucleosis.
I don't want to harp on it because so many other people deal with things that are far more difficult, but I just had a chronic case of it, and it just screwed with my life in a way that was hard to deal with, especially with touring and being in my band. I couldn't go on tour for a very long time, almost a year, and it was scary because my blood work kept coming back positive for mono, but there was no way any doctor could tell me when it was going to stop, and I think that uncertainty was most damaging at the time, for all of us, because we had never stop playing for more than... I mean we had been playing for in our band since I was 19 and Mike was 17, so it was really long time, and for that to abruptly end because of something that had no foreseeable end. I think we all worried for a while if we were going to come out the end of this okay, and I on top of that, worrying about my band breaking up, I worried about if I was ever going to feel OK.
Right, that's only natural.
And there were no doctors that would help me feel better even emotionally. I could never get peace of mind from any of them, and at one point I had seven different people that I was talking to.
Jesus. I'm sorry to hear that. That must have been a nightmare.
Yeah, but what wound up happening was seven months later, after a lot of crying and sleeping and doing a whole lot of nothing, I feel a lot better. I still have some problems. I have still have some chronic muscle pain, but all of my life I've been relatively healthy and I've never had any kind of chronic pain, like so many people deal with, and it's granted me a healthy perspective. I'm going to go out there and do more stuff, and my body will probably only get worse as I get older, probably (laughs.)
You never know.
You never know, but I took a lot for granted, I think. Going through all that taught me not to take my body for granted, or the really wonderful life I have, to not take that for granted either. It was kind of a mixed blessing, the whole ordeal.
Just because people have it worse than you doesn't mean your experiences aren't valid. You don't need to apologize for talking about it.
Yeah, I know. That's the thing, it got to the point when I was sick that all of my blood work would come back the same as always, and it would be like "you have mono but everything else is fine," and this is eight or nine months into being sick and having really acute pain, and I was like "can someone offer me some more information?" and I got "well, maybe you should go see a psychiatrist," and I said "maybe I should, but even if it is some psychosomatic problem, and I'm experiencing some kind of discord in my mind, it doesn't make the pain go away." So I think one of the things that I was interested in, or not so much interested in but thinking about, was what is pain? Is it more of an abstraction than I thought it was? Because I always thought about pain as this biology. Your brain is telling part of your body that you injured it and you need to pay attention to it, and take care of it, but what do you do in cases where it seems like you brain is sending the signal to your entire body, and you can't see a cut, and you can't get an x-ray with any type of abnormalities or an MRI with any kind of abnormalities. What is your brain telling you? It was really upsetting at the time, but now I'm feeling better and I can reflect about it, it becomes a little more interesting. While we were writing the album I was still very ill, so I think it becomes a lot more cathartic, rather than reflective, but now that it's past me I've spent time thinking about it in a more abstract way.
Once you started to feel better, did you go right to work on Rose Mountain?
We already had all the songs written, I think our major concern was that we would have trouble touring because I had pretty bad back pain and chest pain. But for our first tour we were like "let's book this tour and see what happens. Hopefully everything will be okay, but we have to try." We went on tour for two weeks with Waxahatchee and Tenement, and it went really well. I take small amounts of medication, doing physical therapy whenever I wake up in the morning, doing small changes, like not sleeping on the floor anymore, which is actually a big deal for us because we don't sleep in hotel rooms. Now when we go to someone's house instead of going "yay, we'll sleep anywhere" now I have to be like "hey, we'll sleep anywhere but I have to sleep on a couch. Is that ok?" It's kind of a weird change for us. It seems so silly now, little things like that. Weird new changes to make after eight, nine years in a band.
Screaming Females (L-R: King Mike, Marissa Paternoster and Jarrett Dougherty). Photo by Christopher Patrick Ernst.
You've been putting the time in. You deserve a couch.
You deserve good things, Marissa.
I'd like to think so. So yeah, it's been great. I'm just so lucky to be able to do what I do, and I think not being able to do it for a long time taught me there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. If it means that once in a while I'm going to have a day where my back hurts a lot, I just kind of deal with it, in the way that so many people deal with it in their lives. I have to deal with it too. It's all good, it was just a hard year.
I'm glad you're feeling better. So, what was the making of the album like?
It was awesome. We kind of found Matt on the internet. We knew we wanted to work with a producer, but it's kind of hard to find producers who are also engineers. It's easy to find an engineer, but we wanted to find somebody who was multifaceted, who could make good sounds but would also be willing to chime in when it came to songwriting decisions, or even decisions with composition. So we found Matt, and sent him an e-mail, and he seemed interested and he was out in New York doing work with another band, and he stopped in New Jersey to have a meeting with us, and he seemed really nice and down to earth and easy to talk to. We made the decision to work with him and we got a flight out to Seattle and we ended up living in this really cool Airbnb in Seattle, this really cool RV that was parked in this couple's backyard. We lived in an RV for a month, it was awesome. And everyday we'd go into the studio from 11 to 11, work with Matt, go home and watch a movie or whatever. It was nice. It was the longest we've ever spent on making a record, and therefore for me personally, it was really nice to sleep on things and not have to rush and decisions. It was a luxury that we haven't experienced before. And Matt was a really nice guy. He's relaxed, but he's also a pragmatic guy who gets things done.
So how are you feeling today?
I'm feeling good. Except it's snowing, which is annoying.