Music Features

Marnie Stern (Interview)

“Hello, friends and family. Please leave me a message. Thanks.”

Night owls are an interesting breed.  It’s remarkable that some internal processes, the creative ones at least, are better facilitated when the world outside is fast asleep, strands of drool building damp spots on a significant number of non-allergenic pillows, sugar plums dancing in a considerable number of dreaming heads.  The quiet abandonment of a lonely evening is one Marnie Stern knows all too well.

“Well, it makes you feel really depressed when you’re sleeping all the terrible hours,” commenting on what she refers to as her “terrible vampire schedule.”

A minute or two after leaving a message on her cell phone, Stern called me back and informed me of the Venti Chi Latte whose sole purpose was to keep her awake for our interview.  Her voice too peppy to suggest exhaustion of any kind, I figured the caffeine was running its course and carried on with my inquiries.

In 2010, Marnie Stern released her self-titled third album and played a series of performances at CMJ, which was then followed directly by about two and a half months on the road through the States and Europe.  With January her only break before co-headlining with Tera Melos for a month’s worth of U.S. appearances, I asked about traveling and whether or not she misses home when she’s not there.

“Well, I’m not used to touring that much,” she began, “but I figure I needed to start because everyone I know tours a ton.  So, I’ve been starting to tour more.  When I’m gone, I think about being home, but not really because it’s boring and lonely here.  It’s like, ‘I wish I was home.’ ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘No, I don’t.’ It’s like that.”

The popular assumption is that if your hometown longitude and latitude magically intersects atop New York City, it’s a guarantee that you’ll wind up incorporated into the city’s happenings, a daily dose of cultural and artistic inspiration as commonplace as drawing air.

For Stern, though, New York City doesn’t hold much allure.  “I live on the Upper East Side, which is really far removed from the hubbub of coolness.  So, I don’t really participate in everything that the city has to offer, which is partly why it’s a big pain in the ass to go downtown, especially when it’s so damn cold all the time. But, yeah, so I’m really isolated up here, so I guess that’s what I think of being here.”

On the strength of a demo tape, Stern was signed to Kill Rock Stars in 2007.  Her first album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, was produced by Hella drummer-turned-musical soul mate, Zach Hill.  I asked how the two of them began to work together.

“He had released stuff with Hella on KRS and then the head of KRS said, ‘If you had your pick of dream drummers to work on your project, who would it be?’  And, I said, ‘Zach Hill.’”

Hill, upon hearing the demo, agreed to work with Stern on the condition that he produce the album.  “For the first two records, Zach produced,” Stern explained.  “So, that was a huge deal for me to be able to work with him; a dream come true.”

Stern’s life-altering demo was released January 18th through Dog Daze Tapes, a cassette-only label run by an employee of Kill Rock Stars named Ben Parrish.  Simply titled, Demo, the release is a document of In Advance rough cuts and home recordings.

“Yeah, I’m about excited about that.  Ben who used to work at, or still does work at KRS… When I first got signed it was from that demo tape and so he had always said, ‘Release it. We should release it,’ so he released it on cassette.” 

Stern added sort of curiously, “And, I guess the kids are doing cassettes these days.”

The musical climate from a musician’s perspective is always a resourceful topic of conversation.  Being three studio albums deep into her four-year career, Stern is a relatively young presence in indie music, though a distinguished oddity amongst her peers.

“You can never really gauge what you’re doing.”

Reaching for a peek into her positioning as an indie rock presence, I asked her how she views herself within the scene.

“I don’t think that clearly, or at least… I can’t,” she continued.  “Meaning, I don’t really know what I sound like.  I mean, I have ideas, but when you’re in it, you just don’t know.  I think trends are really popular these days, I guess they always have been, but I feel kinda like… right now the trend is stuff that I do isn’t that popular, but that just could be my perspective.” 

Pondering the question some more, she added, “I don’t know.  I guess part of me feels like I fit in really easily and part of me feels like, ‘Gosh, I don’t fit into this at all.’”

So, where did she pull this sound of hers?  Getting into sort of a “Top 5” conversation, I asked Stern about her well of inspiration.  Her answer began with specifics, (Hella, Erase Errata, The Locust, Deerhoof), but as she continued, Stern went into her motivation to stand out.

“I wanted as much as possible to be part of that community.  Y’know?  Because I feel like part of me for so long, going to the shows and having no friends who play music and trying to talk to people and getting the cold shoulder, I still would go home and just feel really, really inspired just to get really good.

“And, by ‘good’ I just mean they weren’t afraid to be different and that’s the thing that grabbed me the most and so I tried.  It made me feel comfortable enough to try and just be as weird as I could and that’s how I started playing with my own voice.”

There is a certain amount of humility in her voice, particularly detectible when she spoke of her creative development.  As the music press has continually pointed out what she can do with a fret board and six strings, I asked if she had any issue with how she’s perceived by writers, bloggers and rock critics. 

“I think the guitar thing makes it difficult, makes me uncomfortable, because there’s all this pressure, or at least I feel pressure to be really good at the guitar when really I’m just trying to make some songs,” Stern explained.  “I like playing guitar, but I never said I was that good at it.  And, so that’s hard for me.  It embarrasses me.  It makes me feel like I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I’m awesome.’ I’m not saying that ever.”

Moving off topic for a moment, it was about this time that Stern disclosed she was attempting to cut her own hair:  “I’m giving myself a haircut now and I really don’t know what I’m doing.  It’s YouTube.  They make you think you can do it with these videos.”

I had to ask why.

“Really what it is, is that I have an interview with Elle Magazine, the fashion magazine, tomorrow.  And I haven’t cut my hair in two years and my mom’s like, ‘You’re going to go to an interview with your hair like that?’”

As the guitar typically takes center stage when it comes to Stern’s music, lyrically she’s anywhere between a critical essay on literature and a pep rally.

“Mainly just reading and picking up quotes and stuff,” Stern answered when I asked about her lyrical content.  “Sometimes, someone will say something funny and I’ll just write it down.  But, the general themes that grab me are just sort of the difficult nature of life, and how difficult it is for everybody, and how it’s just some seriously tough stuff and everybody’s trying so hard to figure out a way through it and to me music is really the only thing that I have that makes me feel like there’s really much point to continue it.  Now that probably has to do with the fact that I spend a lot of time by myself.”

I countered, “But there seems to be a motivating and positive tone to what you do.”

She replied, “Yeah!  Well, because it’s by nature I’m fighting it constantly in my life and I’m fighting against the grain so it’s harder for me to be positive.  To be negative?  It’s a lot easier to be negative.  So, basically the lyrics are me trying to psych myself up.  When you embrace all that stuff: all that energy and possibility and all that stuff can make you feel great.  I guess, kind of like exercising.  No one wants to do it, but once you do it, you feel really good.  Sort of.  Not a big fan of exercising.”

With that in mind, Stern’s newest album, Marnie Stern, revolves around some very personal and emotional weight, an aspect of the album that Stern felt might resonate with a larger crowd and expand her fanbase.

“… I definitely felt like (Marnie Stern) was easy to relate to and I’m surprised that apparently the second record, or from the response that I have noticed, that it’s not and that’s the most interesting to me.  And, I guess disappointing in a way, y’know what I mean?  Because it was really me trying to be as straightforward and honest as possible about real shit.  And, I was excited to try and reach a lot of kids and I just didn’t see that happen with this one.  And I have no idea why.”

Sterns continued, “When you’re working on a song, if you hear it a hundred times while you’re working on it, you start to like it more because you get used to it sometimes.  So, sometimes I wish I could write songs really quick, because then I would know right away.  I’d hear it and say, ‘Yeah, I like it,‘ ‘I don’t like it.’  I’d like it if I could pump something out in an hour and then listen to it and say, ‘Like it? Or, don’t like it?’  But, I don’t know how to do that.

“I think about it all the time, the songwriting all the time, and it’s really frustrating when you’re not… right now I don’t have a direct focus.  It’s normal, because I’m just starting.  But, I feel like I’m capable of so much more and when you sit down and all those hours go by and you don’t have anything, it’s like, ‘Ah, Jesus Christ.’ But, it’s still a fun process.  And the process is what’s keeping me going really.  More than the final product.”

While Stern continued cutting her hair, (commenting here and there with, “Oh no. You see? They say to do a layers thing, where you take the scissors and… How do you skim when it’s just a tiny piece?” and “I look like a housewife of Beverly Hills.”), I turned our conversation over to music in general, specifically the viability of making a living off of music and music’s increasing disposability.

I asked Stern, “How will musicians compete and capitalize when so much music is available online for free?”

She answered, “I don’t think they will.  I mean, I don’t capitalize now and technically music is still for sale.  So, honestly, I don’t see a way, really, until someone comes up with a new model.  Y’know, when you hear those older bands from other generations saying, ‘My God, it sucks, I can’t imagine,’ because they got used to making a living off of it.  But, I guess, coming from someone who just wanted so badly to become part of the whole community, money is last thing on my mind, even though it sort of shouldn’t be because it’s very irresponsible to be 34 and this in debt.  But, I don’t know I just never think about money and I don’t really spend any.  So, I don’t really think about it that much, but I would like to be able to make a living off of this, but I don’t see it happening.  Really, I just can’t even imagine.  Especially, just the way record sales just keep getting worse and worse and worse and especially with the economy right now, tours have not been best… I don’t know, I just don’t see a way.”

After pondering her point a moment, she said, “Besides licensing and I’m not going on a Suburu commercial anytime soon.”

I followed up with, “Do you think the removal of this physical model has made music disposable?”

Without having to really think about it, Stern replied, “Yes.  I think everything gets one listen or a few listens.  This last record for me in particular, it’s more of a grower.  Y’know what I mean?  The second record the songs were right at you.  This one really does grow on you, but if you don’t give it the second listen, it’s not going to do that and it’s a shame.  It’s a real shame.  Even thinking about CDs today.  CDs?  Who has CDs?  And, I think the music, because there’s so much more music, it’s just getting worse and worse, y’know the quality of music out there, because if anyone can put it out…”

Knowing that she doesn’t really have to complete her thought, Stern continued, “It used to be hard to get a record deal, so you send in a demo when you got together with your friends and if the music was garbage you wouldn’t be able to record it.  And now…

“So, then the kids listening to THAT music are like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s good.’  And, then THEY start making music,” still considering my question.  “It’s scary and I think that’s part of why I was so inspired in that period of time with those bands that I was listening to because I thought they were really good musicians.  Not just musicians; I thought what they were doing was really original and unique and different and cool and you could tell it took some time for them to get to that point as opposed to just putting together some generic sound and… And, I don’t hear that too much right now.  But, I’m sure it’s out there and I’m just not digging hard enough for it.”

After pausing for a bit, Stern added, “But, it certainly does speak to the generation, the youth generation right now, a lot of the stuff sounds very nostalgic to me.  So, it’s interesting that the generation would prefer the nostalgic then to create their own ‘now.’  But, I don’t know: I’m not a teenager.  Unfortunately.”

Hoping that she still has a hair left on her head at this point, I asked Stern about what’s next.  With her last album having brought personal gravity to her dynamic, I ask her if she has any new ideas or bold artistic statements she’s beginning to entertain.

“Zach and I talked a little bit about the next record, maybe doing stuff together as opposed to me doing it, like we always do, and sending it to him.  That could be really interesting.  Right now, just this week, I’m at a point where, gee, there’s only so much input one brain can have.  I don’t even mean it like that, I mean I wanna hear some drums or just somebody put bass, somebody do something that I can try and work off of.  Y’know what I mean?  As opposed to sitting there, trying from scratch to come up with stuff. 

“But, it’s still really fun, especially with a strong iced coffee.” (Giggles)