Marnie Stern. Photo by David Torch.
Marnie Stern has been heralded as a female guitar god, but don’t pin that on her. A born and raised city girl, Stern lives on the upper east side and conducts her interviews up there, too. On a nice, sunny August day I met Stern at Molly Pitcher’s Ale House to discuss her new album, Marnie Stern, out October 5 on Kill Rock Stars. As conversations can do, this one turned inward, with Stern coming clean about everything from her difficulties with writing melody to her love life. Cue the devastating story behind the single, “For Ash,” a bit of Best Coast trash talk, and the possibility of a naked Marnie Stern shoot for Red Bull.
What are you most excited about with the new record?
I’m hoping that it reaches more people than the avant trendy audience that the other stuff seemed to reach. I hope that it breaks from the novelty of crazy guitar and into just people being able to enjoy it, or at least feel moved. That’s my goal, to move somebody. [Three kids in karate uniforms walk by.] This is why I like this neighborhood!
Do you like kids?
Yeah I want one, I really do. It’s a problem being 34. I’m getting nervous. [Laughs.]
I was talking to Zach [Hill, from Hella, and Stern’s full-time drummer] about this - bands that are popular now - I don’t understand why it’s all so mellow, and he said because I mean, their idols weren’t what I listened to as a kid. I know it's absolutely absurd, but a Bon Jovi song comes on, I’ll listen to it, I cant help it! There’s something though lately about those disgusting 80s tones on guitars, just disgusting, synthetic gross tones. There are things on my Pro Tools that emulate that.
I think with these young bands they look at the 80s like you looked at the 70s, and it’s just a different thing.
Don’t you feel now that a lot of music that’s pretty is just pretty for pretty’s sake? The other day I was listening to music and all of a sudden I started to feel a lot better about myself, I mean, I was shocked! Shocked!
Where do you go to listen?
Pitchfork, Stereogum, those are the only ones I know. Is it a fishbowl, is it just music industry people going to these sites?
I mean, the internet is kind of the only place to get music, so I think, no.
I know Pitchfork, like hundreds of thousands of people go there, and I think about their influence. I mean, they’ve always liked me, but what if they didn’t? No one would listen to me! It’s a scary thing! If they fuck you, you’re fucked, you’re fucked! And that’s really scary. It feels now, like, any record that came out in the past year or two, nothing sticks, it’s like there for a couple days and then that’s it. And that’s so scary. Like, Joanna Newsom had that record, here and then gone. I can think of 20 bands, like, what happened to that band, what happened to that band? What does it mean for the artist?
And that’s why any artist will sell their songs for sponsorships.
Oh, fuck yeah, I’ll sell, I am so poor. Plus I never understood that thing because anything I put out I’m really proud that I did it, so I’ll put it anywhere, anywhere. Like, here it is, I made it! I’m real proud. I don’t feel embarrassed. But, if I was making money off the record, if I had more choices. But considering that I’m so in debt all the time…
So if Red Bull came to the door?
Oh yeah. If they said we’ll give you 20 grand to get naked with the guitar I wouldn’t do it, but in my brain, I might… “Oh, do I have to do anything?” [Laughs.]
Ok, Best Coast, I see everywhere. What’s with her?
She is Wavves’ girlfriend.
So that’s why she got famous? Is she famous? Like what, because buzz is different.
She went on the New York Times, and they reviewed her, did a podcast. How many records is she selling, I’m not sure. But she’s getting good reviews all over the place.
Of course I heard a song and was like “Are you joking me?”
She sings, un-ironically about loving boys. Her lyrics are “I wish my cat could talk.” No joke.
That’s unacceptable, that’s unacceptable. That’s not showing any part, that’s unacceptable. You might as well then be an 80s hair metal band saying “I want pussy.”
That’s what they’re going for.
If Pitchfork is the innovator of good…
Well, they love her.
That’s how I know about her, it’s not like my friends were like “do you know Best Coast”?
Do you go to shows?
Nah, no. When you’re on tour and it’s every night you don’t want to go see music. Basically my schedule is I’ll work for a bunch of hours on music, I burn out, watch TV, play a board game, if I’m feeling it I’ll read, I’ll talk on the phone to somebody and go to bed.
I feel like with younger musicians, they’re so about a scene, they’re out all the time.
For me, when I was 20, what a miserable puppy, truly a mess. I can’t imagine really being able to tap into my vulnerability at that time; it’s not until you’re older that it’s seen as a strength. But I think with a lot of the music out there now, I do not understand it. When I was talking to Slim Moon when he signed me I asked him about the demos he gets and he said ok there are three types. The second are from people who just sound like their idols, the third is the decent, the first is people who literally just learned how to play and they put the songs together and send it in. I honestly, half the stuff I listen to, I feel like it’s first go, first try, and then there it is and they’re all over the place. It’s not for me to judge, but it’s just very bizarre. Why is it that everything seems more generic and that is what people seem to be enjoying more?
I wanted to call the album “more is more.”
My whole goal is to be super sincere, to figure out how to not be clichéd. I mean, everyone is sincere, Alanis Morissette is sincere. Everyone is, hopefully. Why does Bruce Springsteen’s music, to me, feel so much and why does Coldplay’s not? I’m always thinking about that. It’s a weird line.
Do you have go-to records that you listen to for different states?
I’ve only listened to three Animal Collective songs in my life, but one song that I had on repeat right before I did the “For Ash” song was the one “Purple Bottle.” It's really bitter sweet and it moves great. I always play Marquee Moon from Television. I play Dire Straits, I play Billy Idol, I play Ponytail, “The Body Electric.” I play, The Who “Baba O’Reilly,” I play AC/DC “Thunderstruck,” I play Van Halen “Unchained.” Lately, oddly, I’ve been getting into a Steve Miller kick (laughs). You know, just, these are all straight like rock, guitar rock. Zach and I were loving the Elvis Costello pump it up song and were like, “Let’s make the whole album sound like this!” That’s always been my thing. What I was grounded in for years was crazy loud noise music. But lately, I just like the free feeling of those songs, just the joy feeling, even like Cheap Trick.
The whole 90s women-guitar movement, did that have any affect on you at all? Like, Courtney Love?
No, no. Well, before I knew about good music I remember listening to that Hole record. Up until I was 22, I listened to really bad music. I didn’t know the difference between Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Stone Temple Pilots, it was all the same to me. I mean, it’s like anything, if you take photographs you have to look at a lot of photographs.
You said you didn’t want to be thought of anymore as the woman who shreds. At the same time, you are kind of looked to as a role model for women who want to play guitar in that style, you know?
When I was coming up, I always just wanted to be good at something, I never thought of it as masculine and I never thought of it as feminine, I thought of it as cool. If I saw musicians who were doing something interesting I would just think oh they’re really good, I would never think that’s a girl who’s really good I would just be really jealous. And if they were really bad, it was the same embarrassment.
You’re from New York. Maybe that has something to do with it?
My tastes have always been relatively nerdy. It takes a long time before you feel comfortable with yourself to embrace the nerd in you. I think growing up here was difficult because there’s a lot of fitting in and maturing. My tastes are very immature- I’m playing games…
What kind of games?
I like card games on the internet, I like action movies.
Like Iron Man?
Yeah! And I like sci-fi and space and thinking about our existence and things like that. I was fortunate, when I was in college, I had a group of friends who were individuals themselves. No one divided into any kind of camp or anything. It’s funny, when I started doing music I just wanted to be good like everyone else, I didn’t start out trying to do my own original thing. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
You’re totally self-taught?
Yes. It’s not that I can really even play that well, I know a couple tricks, everybody has a bag of tricks that they bring out and you like the way it sounds so you do it a lot. I mean Zach, as a drummer, is another story. But it’s what you do, the way you put things together.
Your mom told you to play right?
Yeah, she’s a badass. She’s tough as nails. So you know you always take the reverse, I was the wimpy, wimpy…
But your music isn’t wimpy at all!
Well, no, but no matter what I do in my life, in her eyes, I’m still a little girl. When I was listening to Hella and a lot of mathy bands, I knew they were technically proficient, but it sounded so crazy to me, the popping of a billion notes, and to know that someone’s playing it, not a synthesizer. It was the coolest, coolest, coolest.
You know I had a 9-5 job for six years and I would walk to and from work listening to this, with my mouth open. But at the same time there were bands like the Walkmen doing real emotive stuff that I liked. I’m a real emotional person, and I wanted to blend.
For me, it’s really hard to blend. With this last record what I tried to do was still have the tapping but make it sound more orchestral in the background, so that it guided the song as opposed to a shrilly part with a lot of mid range that was right in your face because I guess I’m really attracted to certain rhythmic styles. Zach always says, sometimes because I do it all without drums, I’m just trying to fill it out. He says try and do a little bit less, you don’t need to fill up the space because the drums will do that.
So you self record?
It’s the only thing I like. It’s been so long, and it’s so hard because I haven’t written anything in a year and it’s so frustrating. But I remember, that when I have done stuff that I like, the moment when it hits? Greatest feeling.
I appreciate touring and when people come out, but I think I’m just so insecure and none of that stuff is real to me at all. That’s all outer world, it doesn’t give me confidence, it doesn't make me feel, at all.
What about if you were going to work with someone else?
I don’t know how to do it because it takes me eight hours to come up with something, I mean, I know how to jam but I don’t know how to find some intricate part by jamming.
When did you move to the Upper East Side?
I lived in the east village for 10 years, then my mom re-married and she moved to Florida and didn’t want to lose her rent-controlled apartment. When I first came up here I hated it. But the more my life became about touring with 22-year-old kids the more I liked it, because it’s so opposite of that. And also, because I mean, I think the women here think they’re really stylish, but everyone’s so out of it that it makes me feel better! It’s less pressure. When I go to Williamsburg its like oh god, I don’t know how to dress at all! [Laughs.]
Tell me about the story behind “For Ash.” I read it was inspired by something sad that happened in your life.
So, okay, part of the reason I went so gung ho with music was I had my first real boyfriend when I was 25 for a year and a half, and I loved it. I loooved him too much. And you know, he broke up with me and never talked to me again and it was so frustrating and horrible for me that I didn’t date for six years, and I just threw myself into music. Every year I’d write an email, “Hi, how are you?” Nothing, nothing back. With me, it was like, “I’m gonna be successful with music and it’s gonna be like in your face sucker” and then he didn’t care less. I knew he wasn’t happy, and I always wanted to believe that in a messed up way, but instead I’d put it on me.
So then he, last May, committed suicide. And it was horrible. The way he dealt with all his pain was to go from long term relationship to long term relationship. He died when he was 31 but he’s had so many long term girlfriends that at the funeral it was like, 10 girls that he’d been with. I carried this person with me, for the whole time, and so, it was such a strange feeling to think that there was one person that you loved and then they were gone and I mean, the myriad of emotions, I was still in my rut, and I sat down, and it was just him, and then the song came right away, because I wasn’t blocking, it had nothing to do with me, it was just him. I did that song and the “Cinco de Mayo” song at that time, they’re both him. I have this messed up thing where in my mind I just cared about and loved him so much I don’t want his memory to die. I still think about him all the time and I hope that the other people who were close to him do too.
Did that help you to deal with all of the years…?
Honestly, I feel weak and ashamed that it took him dying for me to kind of get over it, or feel like there was no choice now, can’t hang on to someone who’s gone. I really loved that person, so incredibly, incredibly much and you know, I’m the kind of person, I don’t let go. So then I had a boyfriend in the last year, Matt from Women, he played bass on my record, we split up a month and a half ago. I don’t jump from thing to thing, things stay with me and they’re extraordinarily painful. So right now it’s been harder because everything I’m doing sounds like Alanis Morrisette.
I have such crazy heartbreak that its just, too much emotion and I can’t focus it. I feel like that’s part of the thing that keeps me going with music. It’s something to filter the feelings into. I didn’t expect there to be so many lows in life. I expected there to be a lot more highs and I expected it to be a little bit easier. I guess I’m just real sensitive but I’m also at the age that I’m not embarrassed about that anymore, what can I do? It’s who I am.
I really think that it takes crisis to grow. It takes failure and pain. I have this life where everything is always unknown, I never have any money, I have no partner, no security, it’s all unknown, career unknown, question mark. Question mark. Question mark. And while that’s exciting because I never have to question whether I took the safe route at the same time it’s exhausting. Sitting there writing, coming up with the song is the security, trying to nail down something good, when I do it, I’ve done something.
A lot of musicians struggle with that, right?
I take it really seriously because it’s all I have. When I wrote the last song on the record about Matt, I was in the happiest, love, happy place ever and I think that’s a pretty good song. So it doesn’t mean you can’t make good stuff, it doesn’t always take chaos to make good stuff it’s just right now, I feel like, god, I don’t know.