One word that invariably shows up in any article or review of Marnie Stern’s work is “shred” (or “shredding,” or “shredder” or some such permutation) which, while an important facet of her music, is a little reductive in explaining her appeal. There’s no question that a guitar virtuoso who also happens to be an attractive woman is the sort of novelty that can take you far and one that most bands would kill to have at their disposal, but the novelty would wear thin pretty damn quickly if that was all there was to Stern. What doesn’t get mentioned enough is how singularly bizarre, creative and just plain fun her music is.
The obvious enthusiasm and joy that sonically jumps out is similarly noticeable when she is just discussing music, be it her own or someone else’s. Marnie was kind enough to speak with Stereo Subversion about her new album (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), how her music reflects her personality and the importance of actually being able to play your instrument.
SSv: So how’s the tour going?
Marnie Stern: It’s going great. We’re in Arkansas heading to St. Louis.
SSv: Well, speaking of the tour, a lot of people are wondering how you ended up setting up a kissing booth at your shows.
Marnie: Malia, our tour manager, had gotten a ticket for almost three hundred bucks, so she came up with the idea that we should do the kissing booth, and that’s what we’ve been doing, but we haven’t even made enough money to pay the dumb ticket yet.
SSv: I gotta say, I’m pretty surprised to hear that.
Marnie: Well, we’re almost there.
Everything’s very safe. No one takes risks. What’s the point of that? There’s so much music out there now and it’s amazing how much of it sounds alike.
SSv: Ok, that’s good to hear. Moving on, I’m really enjoying your new album, and I wondering what you feel the major differences are between it and your debut album [2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm]?
Marnie: I think this album is a lot more song-oriented, you know, more sort of focused on songs and not as much on the individual guitar parts. We put in a bit more, or rather I, put in a bit more restraint to try and make the focus about the song.
SSv: Yeah, you’ve said you come up with the guitars parts first, then you add the vocals, correct?
Marnie: Yeah, every once in a while I do it the other way around, but sometimes…like “Prime,” the first song, I did the lyrics first.
SSv: Yeah, I’m actually sort of curious about your song titles, because they are occasionally really long and odd like “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave” or “Put All Your Eggs In One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!” And I’ve read you cite Don Caballero as an influence on your guitar playing, but I was also wondering if they had any influence on the way you name your songs.
Marnie: Yes, absolutely, I love it when they come up with those funny names. Hella also does it, a bunch of bands do it. I’m a big fan of the long, funny song titles.
SSv: Yeah, same here, I think more bands should do that.
Marnie: I know!
SSv: About Don Caballero, when I first heard your music, I found it kind of difficult to guess who your influences might have been, and when I read you cite Don Caballero, it was helpful. This is sort of a roundabout way of asking who influenced your sound, but can you name a few?
Marnie: Uh, Hella, U.S. Maple, Deerhoof… who else? Erase Errata but you can’t really hear that…stuff like that.
SSv: For someone with such a unique sound, is it difficult to come up with a sort of glib, short description of your music when people find out you are a musician and ask you about it? What do you usually say?
Marnie: I just say “rock.” Sometimes I say that I’m a singer/songwriter.
SSv: That doesn’t really encompass what you do though, or really do you justice.
Marnie: But it’s true!
SSv: Were you surprised to be so accepted by the indie rock community? In the past, it hasn’t been much of a safe haven for people who…
Marnie: …can play their instruments?
SSv: Yeah, that’s pretty much where I was going.
Marnie: I think people are moving away from that mindset. That was more popular a while back, but now I think people would rather hear someone who can play their instrument rather someone who can’t, except maybe Juno. That soundtrack is, like, ‘what the fuck?’… Anyway, all the bands I was listening to, everyone knew how to play their instruments really well: Deerhoof, Hella, U.S. Maple. Even if it was intentionally… not sloppy, but you know, there was a style to it. Everyone knew what they were doing, so that’s what I like.
You know, I like Slayer [death metal noises for a few seconds]. I never really listened to Death. I used to be very afraid of dying, so I would never listen to a band called Death. I think the trend is… I don’t fuckin know. I never notice trends. I just know that people not being able to play their instruments annoys the shit out of me.
SSv: I agree. It seemed like for a while there, the only band who was allowed to play their instruments well was Built to Spill, and that was it.
Marnie: Yeah, it’s true. What the fuck? That’s fucking fucked up.
SSv: [Laughs] Yeah, I completely agree. I read you told Pitchforkmedia.com that you don’t think you’ve written a genuinely good song yet.
Marnie: No, not yet. It’s coming! I’m 90% that I haven’t, but let’s pray that it’s coming.
SSv: Obviously, not to kiss your ass or anything, but I disagree. Would you at least agree that your songs are unique?
Marnie: Unique? Definitely. My own? Definitely, but really good? Not yet. Bruce Springsteen wrote Born To Run, that whole record when he was 25 or 26. Holy shit! Now, that feels like a very together… ”Born To Run” is such a good song. I would like to be unique but write a great song.
SSv: Does the fact that you’re fanbase is growing make you suspect that maybe you’re not the best judge of your music?
Marnie: Yes, I always like to hear what other people have to say. I like hearing other people’s opinions. I mean, I’m very hard on myself, but I’m very open to hearing anything critical or anything like that.
SSv: I also appreciate that you are one of the few musicians who has a noticeable sense of humor in your music. Is that an important aspect of it to you when you write lyrics?
Marnie: Yes, I want my personality to come out as much as possible and I feel like people’s personalities don’t come out in their music anymore and I don’t get it. It doesn’t seem authentic. It just seems like regurgitated stuff and it’s really frustrating. Someone like Yoko Ono, I don’t necessarily listen to her much, but at least she has her own stamp on there. Everything’s very safe. No one takes risks. What’s the point of that? There’s so much music out there now and it’s amazing how much of it sounds alike.
SSv: That’s sort of why I was surprised to hear you say you didn’t think you had written a good song. Because they’re so unique, it must have taken at least some confidence to release them.
Marnie: Well, some of them, I was embarrassed about it. Like “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling” from the last record, I was embarrassed about. I thought it sounded like spoken word or beat poetry or something.
SSv: Actually, I had In Advance of the Broken Arm on my Ipod for a while before I listened to it. I had it on random one day and “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling” came on, and it’s the reason I checked out your album in the first place.
Marnie: Cool. That makes me feel good. Thanks!