Marnie Stern Interview
There's a certain mystique about Marnie Stern that is evident in the irony that surrounds and defines her. Take her location as an example. She lives in the cultural center of the universe, New York City, a musician's dream, where anyone can walk out their door and immediately fall into a pool of creativity. And, with her social butterfly personality, you would think that she would be out meeting new people every night. However, she is a self-proclaimed homebody, rarely experiencing NYC's many facets, opting to stay in her apartment to write music and find inspiration in her own solitude. Her lyrics are optimistically heavy, like "Go team, go!" but she admits that her life leans more towards tragedy than comedy (I would guess 60/40) as she is occasionally afflicted by bouts of loneliness. Irony can also be found in the media's portrayal of her music and the way she actually perceives it. Her new album, This is it..., is one of the year's best and it has sparked a love buzz within the media. Within the haze of this love affair, her sound is generally defined as "guitar-driven," but as she claims, "My music really all depends on the right drummer." Journalists are quick to link its key elements to past genres, but, as a whole, it is unclassifiable. The sound and essence of punk, noise, and experimental rock are clearly there, but when it comes down to it, Stern's music falls into a category that is solely her own, which she unpretentiously believes.
In an attempt to find some clarity about Marnie Stern, I sat down with her before her San Francisco show with Gang Gang Dance. Each question I asked was baited with one overarching question: Who is Marnie Stern? What I came away with from the interview was that, despite her powerful sound and personality, she is really just a youthful girl at heart, still searching for her own stride on her own terms.
I've never been a fan of structured question-answer interviews because, well, they're lame. So, I called up Marnie a few hours before the show and asked her to meet at a bar across the street from the venue. "Can my best friend come?" she responded.
"Hell yeah," I said, knowing that her best friend's presence would elevate the conversational interview that I wanted to conduct. I also decided to bring my best friend along to add to this theme.
It was dark outside, but she walked in with jet black sunglasses on the top of her head, which made for an interesting contrast with her light blonde hair. Her blue necklace matched the color of her tank-top, but it was surely a fluke as her carefree surface gave me the impression that her sense of style was naturally fashionable, as if by chance, not by any effort. She introduced herself as well as her best friend, Mia, a friend since her days as an NYU journalism student.
"Thanks for coming to meet me. Let me get you some drinks." As I walked Marnie over to the bar, she leaned in and quietly mentioned that she's had to pee since she got to the venue. "Go to the bathroom," I kindly demanded.
"No, no. I'd rather get a beer," she said frankly, which occurred to her as slightly funny, but definitely true.
I ordered Mia a pale ale while Marnie decided what she wanted. "Do you have a light beer," she asked the bartender, "in color?" The bartender turned to face the 50 or so beers on tap with an expression of confusion on her face before turning back to say, "Sure."
"Oh good," Marnie replied nonchalantly as she looked around the room to take in the new bar, here in the new city, with all of its new people, without any concern for the answer to the question. It was adorable, like watching a child walk into Disneyland for the first time. But, it was very clear to me that Marnie was not a naïve girl by any means. As the conversation progressed, I realized that she was constantly relishing in the fact that people are actually coming to hear her play, she is touring with talented musicians, and she gets to hang out with her best friend. Thus, making the effort to think about what kind of beer she wanted was just too petty to take away from that.
But, it's not just this tour that makes Marnie so ecstatic. It is the fact that she is truly living her dream, even though it was very tough in the beginning. "We were worried about her" said Mia, without any hint of regret in her face. It was impractical for Marnie to be making music as a career, but Marnie is the type of person that does what she wants. So, she continued on with it for several years.
"I was scared after a while," she admits. "I was trying it for so long, but wasn't really getting anywhere. But, my other best friend, Bella, kept on top of me." She begins to tell the story about how she was signed to Kill Rock Stars almost two years ago and her eyes still light up. "I sent a demo in two years in a row and heard nothing back, but then Slim Moon, who used to run Kill Rock Stars, called me and ended up signing me."
"We were so relieved," chimes in Mia as they laugh about it. Obviously, signing to an indie label wasn't some sort of financial or popularity boom for Marnie, nor did she care, but it was certainly a validation of all the hard work she put into her music. And now she is working with some of her favorite musicians such as Zach Hill (Hella), Mark Shippy (U.S. Maple), and Mary Timony. She is touring around the country now, playing for fans that adore her music. She is truly living her dream. Yet, despite all of this success, it is evident in the way she speaks about her music that she is not fully satisfied.
"I feel like this record is so pop. I feel like I sold out," she says with distaste. No matter how hard I try to convince her of the otherwise, she is still unsatisfied. But, it is not that she truly believes her music is pop. I don't believe that for a second. It is that Marnie Stern has not yet found the balance between her experimental and pop inclinations in her own mind, even though most of her fans believe she has. She is also dissatisfied by the way the media attempts to label her. "I'm not a good guitar player. I'm not a shredder," she argues. "And I don't know if my music is experimental. The 'experimental' music I listen to does not sound like that. And, sometimes, if journalists can't put a label on my music, it just becomes 'hipster,'" she says, shrugging her shoulders in helpless opposition. Ultimately, though, Marnie is not trying to go against any grain. She is just a very genuine girl and fears that these misnomers unfairly contradict that genuineness. "I didn't come up with these labels."
"You mean you don't call yourself a 'guitar goddess'?" I ask, jokingly.
She chuckles and kindly disagrees.
Describing Marnie's personality is much easier to describe than her music. She is bubbly, always excited to hear something new, see something new, and do something new. Yet, she is very much an artist. That is, she is lost in her own creative world and the accidental sacrifices of that are the new experiences that she would enjoy so much. "I usually stay inside and write music and watch TV," she level-headedly admits, "but lately, I've been playing a lot of shows, which has been a lot of fun."
After this proclamation, her band walks into the bar, along with some members of Gang Gang Dance. Her face lights up and she eagerly calls them over.
"What are you guys doing here?" she says with the biggest smile.
"We're here to spy on your interview," jokes Mark Shippy, who I found out later was a badass guitarist.
"That's Mark from U.S. Maple, who are like, the best ever," she says with the utmost sincerity. "And that's Jim who is so awesome!"
Jim Sykes, whose drumming is on par with the ferocity of Zach Hill's, sits down next to Mia and, together, they drift off in conversation. Marnie turns back to me and reiterates her admiration for Mark's guitar-playing and Jim's drumming.
"Speaking of drummers, aside from Zach Hill, I thought about some pairings that I think would be so rad," I explain.
"Okay," she responds with genuine curiosity.
"Greg from Deerhoof."
"John Stanier from Battles."
"I loved Helmet," she declares.
"And this last one, I think would be amazing. Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt."
"Oh my god! Yes! And he is so gorgeous," she divulges, once more revealing her child-like genuineness that is oh so adorable.
She finished her beer and left the bar to get in a Parliament Light before her set. She and her band lit the stage on fire, putting on a loud, intense show that was nothing short of amazing. After Gang Gang Dance finished the night, I met back up with Marnie backstage where she played with her dog, Fig, amongst her band and friends. She listened to some guy pontificate about some bullshit as her band and friends finished up the last of the beer. She was partially engaged in the conversation, but I could see that she was still engulfed in her own world. And, in this world, the only critic that exists is herself. She is a very tough critic, as well, and I would argue that she is too hard on herself. She knows what she wants, but she can't say that she has achieved it, yet. Sure, she is doing exactly what she wants to do with her life, which myself and many other people are floored by, but she has not reached her peak of satisfaction with her own music. For this reason, along with her strong, musical work ethic, it is apparent that we have not yet heard the best of Marnie Stern. She will continue to progress and single-handedly advance society's perception of gender and genre. Marnie Stern is naturally a trail-blazer, carving her own paths within everything she does. And, very soon she will embrace this and find the satisfaction that such a sweet person, talented song-writer, and gifted musician deserves.
- Caleb Morairty