An interview with Marnie Stern

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Famed for her manic, eruptive, finger-tapping electric guitar style, Marnie Stern has been playing loud and unapologetic rock since the release of her first album in 2007. Considering her upcoming tour in September and her third album set to drop in October, Stern luckily had some downtime to sit with TONY for nachos and a couple of Peach Passion Margaritas at Mustang's, on her native Upper East Side. But as we soon found out, Stern's downtime isn't exactly relaxing: she has a show coming up June 18 at the Glasslands and aside from that, she keeps a demanding songwriting schedule: going to bed at six and waking up at nine. As we chatted, Stern talked about why she remains loyally on the Upper East Side, why music has changed in the last few years, and why she fears sounding too mainstream.

How long have you lived in the neighborhood?
Ten years. I lived here when I was really little, and then I lived downtown forever. I grew up in the East Village and the Upper East Side. I would much rather live up here than in Brooklyn with trendy people, where I have to get dressed up to go to the deli.

Are there any musicians that live up here?
No, that's what the problem is, I don't have any friends here, so anytime I want to hang out, I have to go downtown. But I don't like going out, so it's a good excuse to say, "Well, it's kind of far...."

What are your favorite things to do around here? I mean, there aren't any guitar stores or record stores.
Yeah, I know. Well, there's the Guggenheim and the Met, and there's the park. There's Brandy's Piano Bar—it's a gay piano bar around the block where they sing show tunes with a piano player like Billy Joel and everybody sings in the whole place and there are all these gay guys who are really flamboyant and it's really fun. It's really intense though, you have to be in the right mode.

Do you do most of your songwriting in your Upper East Side apartment?
Uh-huh.

How do you start a song?
I just start with one guitar part and then another one and I keep putting them on top. Lately, I've been in a rut. You know I'm releasing a record in October, but I wrote those songs in 2008, so I've pretty much been in a rut for a year. When that happens, and you only get to stage one, which is just layers of guitar—not doing singing or melody—it's not like I forget how, but I almost forget how. You know what I mean? I am very hard on myself but I really feel like I used to complete things more: Every day I would finish a song, and I'd chuck it if I didn't like it. I don't finish anything now, I just get to ten-second parts and I'm so particular and I just think everything sounds shitty—my filter is too harsh.

Are you trying to go in a new direction?
Always. The new material—I always think it's really, really mainstream and other people tell me that it's not. Mainstream to me equals boring, so I don't want to be doing that. In this new record, instead of having the tapping parts be shrill, I use them kind of as texture in the background to build the backbone and then build the songs around them.

Can you give us any details?
I haven't named it yet, and the deadline is in like two days. It might just be self-titled because I'm so bad with titles, and plus, I got so much shit for that last title. People have said it sounds pretty epic and triumphant. It's weird for me to hear everyone's feedback because I always think people are too easy [on me].

I read that you first picked up the guitar at age 15 but you didn't get into it until your twenties. What got you into it?
Nothing. Yeah, I think about it all the time—I have no idea. It must've been, between 15 and 21 I had always picked it up and tried to write a folky song. It was probably some kind of rebellion: I finished college and didn't want to do regular work. I also had a friend who said to me, "What are you gonna do with your life? What's the point of your life?" And I didn't really understand if you had goals, it made you feel better about yourself. I read something with some pop singer, it was Madonna or Gwen Stefani or Lady Gaga or someone like that, and they said that they didn't feel good about themselves until they started doing music and it's the same with me. But then when I feel like I'm not doing well at it, boy, it's the total opposite—my confidence just plummets.

What do you think of the music scene in New York right now?
Part of the reason I live here is to avoid it. Plus, my kind of music is not popular right now. There was a time in the late-'90s and the early 2000s where there were tons of bands that happened to fit my style of what I liked, maybe more technical and just weirder: a mix of the noise bands and the prog bands, the Hella bands. I mean, I'd even take the Strokes now over the shit that I hear everyday. The lo-fi, "I don't know how to play but it's fun" [attitude]—I don't understand that at all. It seems like a faux spontaneity that's not natural at all. I like music where the real personalities show through; with [bands today], it seems like all strutting.

How have you seen the industry change in the few years you've been putting out records?
I know from [drummer and Hella member] Zach Hill that you used to do tours with people or there would be a big tour where everyone would play, and because no one had a cell phone or internet or anything, there was a good camaraderie between the bands because we work with this big team and we want as many people to see our shows as possible. There wasn't the same competitiveness that there is now. Because Pitchfork and the blogs have liked me, it's benefited me, so I'm appreciative. If they hadn't, I might be singing a different tune. And I don't know if it's like kids in school where if they say it's good, then everyone says it's good—if everyone else really thinks it or they just say it.

What's different about your upcoming record?
With this new material, I'm always paranoid that it's wimpy or dull. We're doing the mixing now and we're trying to mix it differently than the last one: the vocals are very prominent in the mix; they have a lot of reverb, and to me it sounds like Bette Midler because I'm not used to it. But I sent it to my mom and she said, "I like it—it's easier for me to understand." What's great about the writing process is that with the first record, I had a certain style. You don't realize, but then you do other stuff and that's your style for a little while, but even if I wanted to, I can't recreate anything similar to that, and it's frustrating. The more mainstream my music becomes, the more the weirdness sounds harsher, and more abrasive, and I think, "Oh, no, is this what getting old is like?" I used to be able to listen to the shrillest, most terrible, scratching tones and now I'm like, "Turn that shit off." So maybe I'm somewhere in the middle. For me there's always been two years between each release, so there's a period where you're exhausted after you finish and then you wonder what's gonna happen, and that's exciting.

Tickets for Marnie Stern and White Hinterland at the Glasslands on Fri 18 are $12 with RSVP and $15 without. You can RSVP here.

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