The certain past and uncertain future of a self-taught super guitarist.

Photography by Phil Sharp


Housed inside her bulky puffer jacket that’s used to fighting off the icy winds of New York City is Marnie Stern’s slight frame. But for a petite woman she has big ideas and a big personality, so we decide to take up the biggest booth in the bar.

A late starter to music, Marnie released her first album, ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’, back in 2007, just shy of her thirty-first birthday. Exploring the realms of experimental sounds that jumped and flipped and refused to adhere to standard pop sensibilities, she tunnelled her way in with the likes of Deerhoof, Ponytail and the Mae Shi.

Her second offering came in 2008 in the long-winding shape of ‘This is it and I am it and You are it and so is That and He is it and She is it and it is it and That is That’, and last month, after a two-year break, Marnie returned with her eponymous LP number three. Huddled behind the table, face buried in the menu, she describes it as more mature and says she’s stopped trying to prove something. “For a long time I was trying to prove to people, and to myself, that I’m a good player,” she says distractedly in her delicately, high-pitched American accent. “I don’t really feel like I care or need to do that any more. So I chose simpler parts with more space and I think that makes the songs breathe a little bit more.”

Having been brought up and lived in NYC her entire life – “Unfortunately,” she retorts. “I’d like to live some place warm, but all the warm places are filled with idiots.” – Marnie explains that the first two records are about the trials of her life there in the eight years it took to get signed (to Kill Rock Stars) from the moment she decided to pursue a music career after graduating from her journalism degree at twenty-two. Her latest album is less of a moan and more personal.

“The others were relatively abstract,” she intones, dragging out certain syllables that expose the cogs of her mind working away as she speaks. “I mean, I knew what they were about, but they were a little bit hidden because I was only thinking in broad concepts, artistically.

“The first two records were really about those years of having nothing to show for myself on paper. You know, no external things; no car, no money, no husband, no nothing that people usually use to determine success. So, most of the lyrics were me pushing myself to keep going in the face of all of that.”

In the past couple of years, Marnie explains, she got a “personal life” and started dating and got hurt and so she decided that the tracks on her third record should best reflect the real Marnie, which is why she named it after herself. “Musically I think it’s my most concise batch of songs,” she smiles. “Also, the last record had a really long title and I didn’t realise that was going to be such a big deal, so I just named it after myself.”

When Marnie decided she wasn’t any good at journalism she wanted to become a musician, but she didn’t know how to play an instrument. “Everyone thought I was insane and trying to escape responsibility,” she explains, “but I just…I don’t know. I had some kind of calling to it, a real dedication. So, I worked my butt off and practiced between five and eight hours every day for years and years and years.”

It was in this time that she established her ‘tapping’ technique, which involves her shredding the guitar as she fingers the frets up and down like she were adeptly pattering a piano. “It became easier because you’re using two hands instead of one, so you can get to a lot more notes. And it wasn’t from Van Halen or any of those bands, why I started doing it so much. It was from later experimental bands who were almost mocking those older bands. It was more for the kaleidoscopic sound that it brings.”

Those noise-rock experimentalists she speaks of include Lightning Bolt, Don Caballero, The Flying Luttenbachers, Hella and more. “Lots of strange and experimental bands in the late ’90s in New York bubbled their way up,” she starts telling me. “There was a slew of bands who were doing the coolest stuff and I started becoming interested in music that was different, that made you feel funny. Even Yoko Ono’s stuff I like because she’s so Goddamn weird it makes you uncomfortable. So I listened to all this really strange music and that’s when I started paying attention to guitar parts, bass parts, drum parts and the way they interlocked, time signatures and stuff like that.

“Those bands really kicked my butt into gear because I would see them play and think that they were so good that I felt a healthy competitiveness. I just wanted to get as good as them, so I’d go home and play and play and play and it was a really fun feeling.”

Between hours of solitude, hidden away practicing guitar, Marnie spent seven years of her twenties working at an advertising agency as a secretary, as well as temping all over New York as a waitress, hostess and jewellery store assistant. “I worked a lot,” she exclaims. “But the good part about that long period of time was that I was by myself, figuring it out, so I found my own style through sheer practising alone.” She still writes everything alone now, which she describes as “a blessing and a curse”.

“It’s great because when the parts lock together I think they’re pretty interesting, but it’s really hard to generate ideas constantly from the same brain.”

Once Marnie’s laid down the tracks using Pro Tools at home, she emails the ones she doesn’t throw out to Zach Hill – who drums for Hella and has moonlighted in Wavves – in California and he writes the drum parts before Marnie joins him to do overdubs. “That’s how we’ve done all three of [the records].” And while making the three albums on Kill Rock Stars, Marnie gave up her day job. “Because from seventeen to thirty I was never without a job, I sort of hit a wall where I said ‘I’m never going back to an office,’” she stipulates in a firm voice, “but that was just me being a brat. As soon as I get home I have to get a job immediately because touring is expensive. I’m in extreeeme debt. Extraordinary, extreme, panic-stricken, unbelievable debt from touring for four years without a job.”

But if she becomes shackled to the desk again will we be waiting another eight years for the next Marnie Stern offering? “I’ve been in a rut for the past year so I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she confesses, furrowing her eyebrows in wonder and doubt. “Usually by this point I have at least half [the amount of songs] that I can use. I mean, I work every day but I just haven’t been coming up with stuff. But that’s good, I think that means I’m on the verge of, you know, a new jump, creatively. A surge.”

She grins a grin of anticipation that eradicates any doubt that might actually be going through her head, so we leave her waiting for the Mexican breakfast she’s ordered and wonder if and when we’ll be hearing from this glowing girl of mystery again.

By DK Goldstein


Originally published in issue 24 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. December 2010

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