Marnie Stern is blog-approved. After 4 celebrated albums, many of which have ended up on their fair share of year-end lists, she is well on her way to becoming a recognizable name. With a personality screams out as loud as the guitar she yields, there is no ignoring her presence. She is outspoken (in the very nicest of ways), charismatic and beautiful, which is why outlets like MTV and Pitchfork have followed her around like love-sick puppies. I chatted with her as she ran some errands at home in New York City.
Are you busy doing a lot of shows right now or are you in an off-time?
I’m in an off-time right now…hold on, let me find my shoes….hold on one sec… yeah, this is an off-period. I have a couple of one-offs. I have Wavelength and then a show in New York next week. I have another in Chicago in a couple of weeks. But other than that, this is downtime when I’m working on the next record.
Do you go stir crazy when you’re not working or you’re not on the road?
Its like a grass is greener. When you’re on the road, you just want to be home and when you’re home you go stir crazy. Since I’m working on the new record, its just the pattern that I’ve had for five or six years where I’ll tour a bunch then I’ll be home and it’s all “writing, writing, writing,” sort of in a cave.
Your songwriting is more eclectic than traditional. How do you write songs?
I’ll start with the guitar usually. I’ll put one line down first, like a guitar riff that’s like 5 seconds long, then I’ll try to put another guitar part over that then I’ll try to sing to that tiny little section. Then I’ll try to come up with a rhythm guitar part that will last a little longer and try to come up with singing over that then I’ll try to put a lead riff over it. But its always guitar first.
So your process is very experimental?
I think a lot of people work by getting together in a room and write the record together. That seems so foreign to me and so crazy ‘cos it takes me so long and I spend so much time on every note. It’s not an easy thing. Once in a blue moon if it’s more simplistic a whole song will come out pretty quickly. But generally it takes lots of time piecing together the parts and then arranging them. Its not the experience where right away you get together a song like “boom, boom, boom” the way a band might. Or at least the way I imagine other bands would.
Do you ever just sit down and strum an acoustic?
Yeah, of course. I give guitar lessons. I have people coming over and saying “I want to learn this song” or “I wanna play that.” I just look up other people’s songs. I went through a phase a few years ago where I thought “You know what? I’ve never learned other people’s music so I’m going to give Jimi Hendrix a go!” Just because I love his songs. Then I learned all the songs. It was interesting to get inside his head and see his style as opposed as just listening to the way he plays. It was interesting getting inside his brain. I don’t generally like learning other people’s songs because then I’m in their head, doing their stuff and it’s easy to attach to it. But sometimes in order to break myself out of what I’m doing, I’ll pick a song and cover it for the day to try and get out of my funk.
Your style is very unique. Do you think people make too much out of your use of tapping?
I think it’s an easy thing to focus on, y’know? To separate yourself and it’s an easy thing to grab at as a journalist when you’re trying to separate the artist. So I think that’s why it’s done a lot. That used to be a little more frustrating because it made me feel insecure as though I was trying to be attached to metal or a certain world of technical skill, which I’m not. I’m trying to be as creative as possible and I enjoy tapping ‘cos its fun.
Do you imagine there will be a point where you’re not doing that or has it become too much of a part of you?
I think it’s become too much a part of me. I’ve been trying more and more to try and break away but it’s always in there because I get bored of the other because it’s more fun for me.
How important is it for you to be the best at what you do?
Hmmm. I never thought about that but I think it IS important to me. Not technically the best but I really like to work hard and I hold a high standard of what I think is interesting music. I’m really trying hard not to say “good” because that’s not really fair. Whatever you like is “good.” But the music and the standard that I hold myself to is high in that the band’s that I think are amazing and move me I think are so great and its very hard for me to get in my mind, something at that level. But conversely, I don’t think most bands are near that level. I get frustrated a lot because I feel like they, not that they’re not trying hard enough, but its seems like one note flat boring stuff. So when people call me with tapping a “one-note” artist its very frustrating to me because I put so much of myself in to it and try risky things.
I’ve heard you say the word frustrating a couple of times. Do you find the line of questions you get from journalists to be a frustrating process?
When I’m on a record and I’m doing tons of press, then sometimes, yeah. But then you get used to not having the question for a year then its fine.
I always wonder how many times you can be asked something. Its one of the things I ask most artists: “How many times can you answer THAT question?”
Most artists say a million, right?
Most will just say “Its my gig. People ask questions and I answer them.” Musicians are human. Some days they like answering the questions, some days they don’t.
I know people who are younger who just don’t and are jackasses and just ignore the questions. I don’t mind. It sounds like a precious answer but I really do appreciate that any one would be curious in the first place.
You must get a lot of questions about being a female guitar player.
Is that a valid line of questioning?
We should all just be classified as musicians. The more the question gets asked about female vs male, the more there’s a divide. I was doing another interview a few months ago and this was interesting to me. When I’m at a show watching a band I’m never making the separation. I’m thinking “Do I like this music? Do I like the style of the player? “ I look at it more from a competitive standpoint as a musician. I’m never separating male and female. And the person that was interviewing me said that he does. He always separated and thinks “oh well that’s a woman.” If that’s what most people do then it’s a shame.
Do you feel like it’s a better time to be a female in music now than it ever was?
Things change quickly. I mean, guitar-based rock wasn’t popular 5 or 6 years ago. It seemed like all the shows I played there wasn’t a lot of guitar rock going on in the first place. That seems to be prevalent now with the resurgence of the 90s grunge thing. I think it’s a really great time. I’ve been asked why more women don’t play guitar and I think its seen as sort of machismo, like a tacky extension of a show-off thing. They’re not looking at it as just an instrument that builds a song.
You were put on this list for Spin, and I’m sure people ask you about this all the time, for being one of the best guitarists of all time…
Is that something that you pay attention to?
Well, YEAH! Someone will send that to me and I’ll be like “wow, great.” I don’t go googling myself ever but y’know, something like that, some one tweets it or whatever and I’ll look at it.
Why do people find it so important to make lists?
I think more so now because of ADD. Lists keep you from having to read a real thing. It’s put together easily and you can read it quickly.
Is this kind of recognition important to you?
No. No. Well maybe in part because it’s an ego-based thing and it makes me feel good for working hard. However, the recognition is just interesting ‘cos for the past 7 years people have been very nice to me by saying I’m a good player but that’s not my Achilles’ heel. My Achilles’ heel is “songwriter.” That’s the main thing that I’m doing it all for. I’m making records and that’s the thing I want to be impressive.
That’s interesting ‘cos I hadn’t thought of that. Does your guitar playing overshadow your songwriting?
I think so, yeah. In some ways I guess. The idea is that you want to try and learn restraint but you don’t want to sound generic. So yeah, maybe it does.
You use the word restraint. I find your songs sound complicated but they’re infinitely listenable. How do you keep your songs focused?
I was probably a lot more experimental putting together my first record. I have a pretty good ear when it comes to identifying whether or not something is distracting. “Is this too much or not enough?” Sometimes people will tell me. A lot of times my parents or some one like that who’s listening early on will say “that part is driving me crazy! I can’t hear anything else! “ Then I’ll take it off. My best friend and my mother are the people that listen to it and they’re the people that are the critics.
Earlier you mentioned ADD. I find there is so much going on in your songs. Your mind focuses on one thing then it moves to another thing in rapid succession. Do you think you suffer from it?
That’s the way I am. It’s a bummer to be in my brain.
What would people see if they got in your head?
Kind of what you just said. Kind of all over the place. I don’t know if it’s possible to be focused and all over the place at the same time but I’m hoping that I’m proof that you can be. I hope the main thing that comes out is that it’s free and fun. Try to make everything fun.
Got in to a huge conversation with some friends this morning about the importance of music in the 90s. It was largely about what they saw as the hey day of hip hop but then, as all good conversations tend to do, extrapolated in to something larger.
Seems that music just seemed more pure in the 90s before things started to get over-classified. As a case in point, my buddy passed this Kyuss interview on to me that I’d never seen before. Thought I’d share because its poignant but also because its pretty hilarious at points. Worth watching.
Its no surprise that what [MP.G] does draws heavily on our 90s past. Quite simply, its what we know. Its true to ourselves. We’re not pretending to be something more “modern.” We’re not going to all of a sudden have handclaps, accordians, mono synth lines (well maybe), giant beards or rousing group choruses. In short, we’re not going to be in a commercial any time soon (though I could use the payday).
As “Empire Of Light” inches closer to completion I find my inner music critic wondering just what the hell kind of record it is. Its not the shoegazer epic some might expect from us. Its not the "angst informed noise rock" our Might Strike Satellite EP became known for. Its not the Garage Rock that likely dominates the local watering hole you go to on Saturday night. Its not the American Indie Rock your uncle listened to.
Its my hopes that in a world where incessant classification is the norm, this record finds its place. I hope it finds some ears.
Above all, I hope some of you will enjoy it.