Marnie Stern This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That

Marnie Stern This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That
New 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 Deerhoof’s Satmoi Matsuzaki and they raised it on Don Caballero and Pinback, that’s the closest you can come to pinpointing Stern’s style. Stern’s 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 it’s 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. It’s white with a pink, paisley thing on it. I haven’t had a new guitar in seven years, and it arrived today, and I am FREAKING OUT! It’s 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. It’s interesting — it has a battery. It’s 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. I’m 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t at first. It took a really long time. I started playing guitar when I was 21, but it wasn’t 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t have any friends in music, and it can be tough that way. People aren’t welcoming unless you’re on a label or you have friends or you know people, and I didn’t 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 didn’t matter if I don’t 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 that’s 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 I’m not very social. In that respect it hasn’t changed at all. I’m still completely full of self-doubt all the time, as usual. I’m really hard on myself, trying to push myself. I don’t sleep very much because I’m always thinking that I have to write songs better. But it’s obviously different because now I go to shows and everyone’s like "Hey, what’s up!” At first, I was annoyed, but then I became friends with everybody and it’s cool. It’s nice to have people to hang out with at shows when I do go. But still, I rarely go. Another thing that’s 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; I’d never done that as much, which is really exciting. I would say I’m 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 didn’t 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 I’m just in my little cave here. It sort of dissolves when you’re just focusing on the song itself.

Was there more of a time crunch to get the second album done?
The difference was that I wasn’t working a 9 to 5 job, so I had more time actually. But because I’m 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 wasn’t 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 don’t have any money to eat, but I don’t work. I don’t know what that is technically. I don’t have a job, but I squeeze by. It’s 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! Everybody’s at work, I’m 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. That’s the only time I’ve ever been asked it or have ever thought about it. That was the only time it would ever come up. It’s 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 wasn’t thinking of it in terms of gender. I just wanted to be as good as the people I like. So no, I don’t think so. Also, I consider myself more of a songwriter because I write the parts. So when I talk to people it’s 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 didn’t 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! It’s so funny! Here’s the thing – I didn’t train properly. I didn’t go to school for music. I don’t know how to read music. I don’t know anything about theory, or I might but I don’t 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 you’re hitting.” And I was like, "Jesus, I can’t tell you what note I’m 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 there’s terrible radio, and I didn’t 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 – that’s 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 can’t think of too many bands that use the riff anymore.” He’s 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 I’ve done that’s 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. That’s why I did it. The risk is that it’s really difficult to let your guard down with your ego in the way, so that’s 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 we’re such good friends.

He seems super down to earth.
Oh yeah. And he’s 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. He’s 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, He’s incredibly creative, and doesn’t give a shit about all the bullshit of music stuff. He’s really in it for the heart of it, and that’s really inspiring.

The title of the album is really long and hard to remember. Why did you choose the title for the album?
I don’t 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 she’s 15, and her boss comes out and he’s like, "You work for me? You look so young!” And she’s 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 didn’t 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 there’s no camaraderie between bands. So the title is supposed to say no boundaries. I’m cool, you’re cool, we’re all cool, you know? Not in a kumbaya way – it just really resonated with me.

(Kill Rock Stars)