MFR Interview: Marnie Stern
Download: Marnie Stern - "Transformer"
Download: Marnie Stern - "Every Single Line Means Something"
Download: Marnie Stern - "Don't Stop Believin'" (Journey Cover)
Absolutely no one doubted New York-based guitarist Marnie Stern instrumental prowess, based on her frenetic fretwork and intensive, progressively rhythmic interplay with her fellow musicians on her first record, In Advance of the Broken Arm. Her follow-up, This is it...and That is That keeps Arm's best qualities while adding a stronger, more discernible sense of melody and songcraft which results in a more satisfying, consistently terrific listen.
While songs like "Transformer", "The Packaged is Wrapped", and "Vault" all delve into subjects like loneliness, uncertainty, and the courage to summon self-assertion, the music itself is so uplifting, focused, and disciplined that any listener's reaction that isn't transcendence is subject to question.
After Tuesday night's show at Chicago's Empty Bottle, Ms. Stern graciously spoke to MFR/CIMI about the sophomore slump, the inspiration of her album's distinct title, and life on the road. In person, Stern is incredibly personable, enthusiastic and forthcoming. Also, in concert, she totally rocks the fuck out.
To see photos from the Empty Bottle show, go here.
Interview after the jump.
Minneapolis Fucking Rocks: It's been often said that for your first record you have an entire lifetime to make it and then your second one you only have six months to a year...
Marnie Stern: To make it?
MFR: Did you feel any sort of trepidation--
Marnie Stern: Yeah. Of course. I was worried about the sophomore slump. I was so nervous...But I'm...I'm such a worrier that I worked...(brief pause)
MFR: You worked through it, basically.
MS: I worked all day, every day, all night, every night. I mean, I worked constantly for this record.
MFR: So, like, 12 hour days?
MS: It depends. Of course, some days, I'd be like "fuck this", and I'd sleep in. But for the most part, I was pretty diligent about it. And I would say that for every...I spent about six weeks at my Mom's place in Florida and I didn't sleep at all. I just worked around the clock, 24 hours a day. For every, like, two weeks that I would work, I would maybe come up with a piece of a song. So..yeah, I had tons and tons of material, and Zach (Hill, drummer) and I had to wade through, like, 80 songs, and then pick the best.
MFR: How do you whittle down to 10 or 12 songs?
MS: Just the ones that you think are, you know...well, mostly, I think they all stink. But then there maybe a couple where I think, "Well, maybe that's O.K." And then that's it.
MFR: In your Pitchfork Interview, you and the interviewer talked about how you write songs to psyche yourself up. The music obviously must come first, but do you come with--
MS: All the time, when I'm reading, or just looking through magazines, I'll take something, I'll keep a list (of lyrical ideas and I'll go through it and say, "Oh, I like that, I like that". Or someone will say )something, and I'll like the phrasing, and then I'll switch it around. And then sometimes I'll just sit for a long time and come up with lyrics. Then I have whole sheets of lyrics, so then, when I'm working on stuff, I grab the sheet and try to fit it in (with the music).
But for this last record, it was difficult because if I didn't have a vocal line right away, I'd just keep going. So a lot of times, I sacrificed and made the guitar part a lot simpler, which was really hard for me to do. Like, embarrassing, in a kind of way.
MFR: How so?
MS: Like, "this is simple, this is boring, this is dumb." But then, it's the only way that I could make vocal line go through it. When too much is going on, guitar wise, it's possible to fit vocal line in it. Sometimes. So this last record I was trying really hard to make them all fit together.
MFR: Was "Transformer" like that? That's a song with a really strong vocal, but also has a very strong riff.
MS: The riff happened in five minutes. I was listening to Lightning Bolt...it sounds like it too. "Crown of Storms", or something like that. I listened to that song over and over and over again, every morning when I woke up. And so, then I got the riff...which is different than the Lightning Bolt one, but there's the same feeling and energy. Then I just started singing over it, and it hit, and that was it. And that was right away. Maybe 5 or ten minutes.
MFR: Getting back to the lyrics, in the Pitchfork interview, you mentioned that your lyrics to motivate yourself. Do you see yourself as less of a songwriter and more of a self-help guru who happens to kick ass at guitar?
MS: Ahh (laughs a little)...maybe. I'm 32, and I feel like its been a real bum road to home, you know. And so, that's why I do all the self-help stuff. I spend all my time alone, I'm lonely...
MFR: But at least your career is skyrocketing.
MS: But that's not real. That has nothing to do with my life. It's a different thing. I don't know about that, that has nothing to do with my real life when I wake up. I have one friend that I call, and we talk. I don't know about that other stuff. That's just how I feel, you know what I mean?
MS: It's the same solitary life.
MFR: Are you able to feel a connection to the audience, even if its fleeting?
MS (enthusiastically): Of course! Yes! With this record, all I wanted to do is make people go (throws up devil horns, bangs head slightly) "yeeaaaahhhh!!!!". (laughs). That was my whole...I was listening to a lot of classic rock, AC/DC, and The Who, and I'd be in the shower and go "Motherfucker. This song makes me feel fucking good!". I wanna write a song that makes people feel good.
MFR: "Transformer" has that Van Halen sort of (imitates double bass drum)
MS: Yeah, Yeah. That's Zach though, too. Really, it's half me, and half Zach. He comes up with the drum parts that add dimensions to the songs.
MFR: Have you notice a difference in the crowd after the glowing Pitchfork review?
MS: No. Eh, maybe CMJ. Who knows with that college...but here, yes. This show was...packed. And that was so exciting. And I feel like it's for Gang Gang Dance, but it doesn't matter. I'm just happy to be here.
MFR: The crowd was really into it. I really enjoyed the instrumental interplay in your band. I think I overheard your drummer...
MFR:...say you've been rehearsing for two weeks?
MS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We played for five days, and then we started doing shows (laughs).
MFR: This is your first show with Gang Gang Dance?
MFR: Can you tell if a tour is gonna go well after the first show?
MS: They're really cool. I mean, I'm excited to be playing with them. You know, sometimes you get to places where...people here like my stuff, but when I get into the middle of the country, people are like...
MFR: Like red states?
MS: I don't even know...I'm so used to playing shows for three people that I'm expecting that. And if it's not that, then that will be great!
MFR: You guys play Minneapolis on Election Day.
MS: Yeah! I know! That will be crazy! I feel like no one will be there. And then we play Milwaukee.
MFR: Do you think you'll do a Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix-style?
MS: We should!
MFR: I think it you could pull it off.
MS: It would be great.
MFR: The title of your record...
MS: Zach Hill came up with the title. It's an Alan Watts book.
MS: We'd been bumming around titles forever. Funny ones, serious ones...and then Zach texted me and said, "I remember this Alan Watts quote, what do you think of it?". And I was like "I like it a lot". I had no idea that a long title was...lame, or people don't do it.
MFR: Fiona Apple kind of ruined that one for you
MS: I had no. clue. Because Kill Rock Stars is so awesome, I was like "this is the title" and they were like "awesome". Nobody said anything. Then I started getting reviews...(feigns pompous critic voice) "the ridiculous title" and I was like, "huh?". I didn't even think of it.
MFR: The way I write it up is This is it followed by an ellipsis...
MS:...and That is That. That's how I thought people would do it. Just call it This is it.... But I just liked it because it seems to be positive, and powerful.
MFR: Do you respond to Eastern Philosophy?
MS: A little bit. I go through phases of just exploring through different things. I wouldn't say so over this past year. But in general, yeah. I've read a little of Alan Watts.
MFR: Are you able to incorporate the tenets of what you read into your creative endeavors?
MS: Yes. That's the whole idea. My best friend's a painter, so anything that I look at...it's all toward the goal of trying to use it somehow, eventually.
MFR: Is she the one who did the cover art?
MS: Yeah. My best friend, yeah.
MFR: The use of watercolors reminds me a lot of Monet.
MS: Yeah! She's really decorative and beautiful, but at the same time, something's skewed and messed time. I like that a lot.
Marnie Stern MySpace Page
Marnie Stern opens for Gang Gang Dance tonight at the 7th Street Entry at 8 p.m.
Buy her albums here.