Published Sep 28, 2008New York guitar virtuoso Marnie Stern is a peculiar but charming singer-songwriter who matches a love of melody with some seriously advanced guitar playing. Imagine that Eddie Van Halen had a daughter with Deerhoofs Satmoi Matsuzaki and they raised it on Don Caballero and Pinback, thats the closest you can come to pinpointing Sterns style. Sterns debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, while a remarkable achievement, was almost too technical, focusing on her otherworldly hammer-ons and fret mangling tapping over cohesion. Like its ridiculous title, This Is It is a balance of both, conveying a positive message through many ideas at once. Her playing still demonstrates that she could shred through a brick wall but she counters the mayhem with logical structures and a newfound vocal confidence. Aided by drummer and admitted mentor Zach Hill, Stern wears her heart on her sleeve as her wrists flail about her guitar. The result is a sublime collection of songs that demonstrate her otherworldly prowess with both the guitar and the songbook
What are you up to right now?
I have a new favourite guitar. This guy named Scott French makes these custom guitars. Spencer Seim from Hella has one. And I was always admiring them, and he got in touch with me and he was like I have this perfect guitar for you. Its white with a pink, paisley thing on it. I havent had a new guitar in seven years, and it arrived today, and I am FREAKING OUT! Its so awesome! The finger-tapping, it really plays well with that. I had a bunch of interviews today and then I sat down for a bunch of hours and played guitar. Its interesting it has a battery. Its interesting to get used to a new guitar, and the neck is way longer which is really cool.
How long have you been playing guitar?
Seriously, since I was around 21. Im 32 now. When I was 15, I took three lessons, but then I just never really played. I strummed around some folky stuff when I was in college, but I didnt really play. I always wanted to be musical, but I thought you had to be a certain kind of person to be good at it. But then I just decided that I wanted to write songs, and playing and writing songs went hand in hand. So since I spent so much time writing songs every day, I also spent that much time playing guitar, and they both developed together.
How were you drawn to such technical music?
I wasnt at first. It took a really long time. I started playing guitar when I was 21, but it wasnt until I was 25 that I found really experimental, technical, crazy music. That was just through liking one band, and then you find another band that they like. When I first heard math rock I was like, "Whoa, what is this? I thought it was amazing. Specifically when I heard Hella, it just blew my mind. I hadnt heard a lot of crazy stuff at the time, and I just thought it was the craziest and the freest, but at the same time the songs were totally constructed. I thought it was really interesting, so I wanted to try and do that and put lyrics to it at the same time. That was around 99 or 2001. I was kicking around, making music forever. When the whole Brooklyn explosion happened with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes, I was like "I guess I missed it. I was playing constantly, but I didnt have any friends in music, and it can be tough that way. People arent welcoming unless youre on a label or you have friends or you know people, and I didnt know anybody. I would go to shows by myself, and people would never talk to me. It was really isolating. So the only thing I could think to do was get the music good enough so that it didnt matter if I dont have any connections. The music will be good enough and that will get me somewhere.
How did you end up on Kill Rock Stars?
I sent the demo into Kill Rock Stars, and Slim Moon contacted me and said do you want to meet, and thats how it happened. I was going to be on 5RC, the experimental label run by Kill Rock Stars, but it got shut down when Slim left, so I ended up on Kill Rock Stars.
What has changed for you personally and in how you write music since the first album?
Everything and nothing. My life is exactly the same in the way that I do everything exactly the same. I sit all day and work on songs. I never go out, and Im not very social. In that respect it hasnt changed at all. Im still completely full of self-doubt all the time, as usual. Im really hard on myself, trying to push myself. I dont sleep very much because Im always thinking that I have to write songs better. But its obviously different because now I go to shows and everyones like "Hey, whats up! At first, I was annoyed, but then I became friends with everybody and its cool. Its nice to have people to hang out with at shows when I do go. But still, I rarely go. Another thing thats different is that my family is much more supportive now because it seems real, whereas before they thought I was escaping real life by working on music so much. Touring has been different; Id never done that as much, which is really exciting. I would say Im more aware of the bands out there, whereas before I was rarely on the internet. I just knew the handful of bands I liked. I didnt know who the Arcade Fire was or anything like that.
Now that people know who you are, did you feel pressure when working on the new album?
Just from myself I guess. I had started working on the second one right when I finished the first one, which was way before it came out, so I had some material from then. I write a song almost every day, and we ended up using a lot of the stuff from right before we recorded in May. So, yeah, I felt some pressure, but at the same time Im just in my little cave here. It sort of dissolves when youre just focusing on the song itself.
Was there more of a time crunch to get the second album done?
The difference was that I wasnt working a 9 to 5 job, so I had more time actually. But because Im working every day at it, I was ready to record in January. We were going to record right after the first one came out. So there wasnt really a time crunch. I work on it every day so things start to build. I even had the opportunity to chuck ten songs and do better ones instead.
So is this your full-time job now?
Yeah. I mean, I dont have any money to eat, but I dont work. I dont know what that is technically. I dont have a job, but I squeeze by. Its much better than working a 9 to 5. The other day, I was in New York and I had to meet someone for photographs at Central Park. I brought my dogs. It had been chilly, but that day it was 85 degrees. It was gorgeous, and I had the feeling of "Haha! Everybodys at work, Im at the park! It was great.
Playing such technical music as a female, do you have to deal with any gender issues?
Not in my life, only with the press. Thats the only time Ive ever been asked it or have ever thought about it. That was the only time it would ever come up. Its kind of shocking to me that I had never thought of it. I had always wanted to be a bad-ass on the guitar, but I really wasnt thinking of it in terms of gender. I just wanted to be as good as the people I like. So no, I dont think so. Also, I consider myself more of a songwriter because I write the parts. So when I talk to people its usually about that, not about the guitar. The first time I met Spencer from Hella, I was like, "Tell me all about your guitar, and he didnt want to talk about it because he always gets asked that.
You were recently interviewed by Guitar Player right? I found it really strange that someone on Kill Rock Stars could be in there?
I know! Its so funny! Heres the thing I didnt train properly. I didnt go to school for music. I dont know how to read music. I dont know anything about theory, or I might but I dont know that I know it. Everything I learned I just figured it out by hearing it. So when I was on the phone with the guy, there was a section in the magazine where he was like, "Take me through this tapping part, and I said, "How do I do that? and he said, "Well tell me what youre hitting. And I was like, "Jesus, I cant tell you what note Im hitting. I can tell you what fret. It was just really funny to try and explain how I was doing it.
What kind of music were you raised on?
I grew up in New York City, where theres terrible radio, and I didnt have any siblings who let me under their wing. I really think I listened to pretty shitty music for my entire life until my 20s. I guess there was just a calling. I listened to a lot of classic rock and I still do. AC/DC, the Who, the Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen thats the kind of stuff I listen to. For this record specifically I was listening to a lot of those bands because I wanted to focus more on the songs themselves and not so much the part. Sometimes the more you try and make the part interesting, the less room there is for vocals and singing. So we tried to spare the parts to make the song as a whole better. Listening to the Who and AC/DC was helpful for that. After we finished the tour, Zach and I were talking and he was like, "Besides Deerhoof, I cant think of too many bands that use the riff anymore. Hes my mentor in a lot of ways, so I went home and tried to think of tons of riffs that would stick, so the record has a bunch of those kinds of riffs that pop up throughout the song.
The new album certainly seems a lot more song-oriented.
The first one was me more trying to prove myself as a player, so I think the more intricate the part, the more I would want it in there. I wanted crazy time signatures, and to see how many notes could fit in each part. Since I was more focused on the songs itself this time, I kind of let go of that a bit. That was my own personal risk with this record. Singing about more personal stuff and less concept-y stuff was sort of embarrassing. Then I had to let go of trying to prove that I can play well and just try to make the songs good.
What was it that allowed you to let your guard down?
One of the main things I focus on with music is taking risks. Anything Ive done thats made me uncomfortable has kind of pushed me to the next place. When I first started singing in that high voice like Yoko Ono, I was so embarrassed and mortified. So with this, it gave me that same kind of uncomfortable feeling. Thats why I did it. The risk is that its really difficult to let your guard down with your ego in the way, so thats why I forced myself to do it.
You mentioned that Hella were one of the first bands to blow your mind. What was it like when you first met him?
Oh my God! It was crazy! It was crazy! Slim Moon from the label called me and said, "If you could have your wish list of drummers, who would it be? I said Zach Hill, so he called Zach and explained that he was about to sign me and asked him to drum on it, and Zach said yeah. I was a hostess at a restaurant at the time, and as I was on my way home I noticed I had a message. It was like, "Hey Marnie. This is Zach Hill. I stopped in the middle of the street and I was like "Oh. My. God! I talked to him and he told me to come on out to Sacramento. So I flew out, got there at night and met him outside the studio. It was amazing. But the funny thing is that now were such good friends.
He seems super down to earth.
Oh yeah. And hes unbelievably creative. Not just in music but in everything. Our conversations are always really interesting, at least for me. We talk about a lot of bigger ideas, and about life. Hes also very compulsive like I am. One night, we were all talking about Scientology but none of us knew what we were talking about, so then he was up all night watching YouTube videos about it. When I stay there, I stay with Zach and his girlfriend. The three of us spend so much time together. But yeah, Hes incredibly creative, and doesnt give a shit about all the bullshit of music stuff. Hes really in it for the heart of it, and thats really inspiring.
The title of the album is really long and hard to remember. Why did you choose the title for the album?
I dont know the full title. We were messing around with the ideas, and we were coming up with really funny ones. On that show Arrested Development, Maeby starts working at the TV studio, and shes 15, and her boss comes out and hes like, "You work for me? You look so young! And shes like "Marry me! So I wanted to name it Marry Me, but then St. Vincent took it in 2006. So right when were all set, they were like, "You need to pick a new one right away. We kept picking new ones and looking them up on the internet, and everything has been taken. So then Zach was like, "I got it! I got it! I didnt even think about that it was a long title or that it would matter. I just figured people would call it This Is It. We never really talked about why he liked it, but I liked it because the music industry has become so competitive, and theres no camaraderie between bands. So the title is supposed to say no boundaries. Im cool, youre cool, were all cool, you know? Not in a kumbaya way it just really resonated with me.
(Kill Rock Stars)