Q&A with Marnie Stern
In an indie-rock world dominated by males in their twenties and often choked with irony and self-consciousness, Marnie Stern is most assuredly an outlier. A 32-year-old woman with serious guitar chops and songwriting skills that are quickly growing to match them, Stern is unabashedly earnest about playing what she calls “progressive” music — a category that has only recently begun to emerge from four-letter-word status in hipster circles. Her newly released sophomore album, 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, is her second collaboration with Hella member and drummer extraordinaire Zach Hill, and on it the two of them play songs that sound like math rock as played by highly caffeinated cheerleaders — in the best way possible. We recently spoke with Stern (due with Gang Gang Dance at the Larimer Lounge this Friday, November 7) about New Age philosophy, her poor deaf dog, and how she’s really not a shredder. Excerpts of our exchange appear in the November 6 issue, while the entirety of the conversation is posted after the jump.
Westword (Kyle Smith): You’re a very busy woman these days.
Marnie Stern: Today I am, apparently.
WW: Does it suck doing all these interviews?
MS: No, I like it! I don’t mind doing interviews at all. Plus we had the CMJ week that was really busy, but now I have a couple days off. So it’s really a cakewalk for me.
WW: Well, that’s good. How was CMJ [a five-day music festival in New York]?
MS: Really fun. Crazy, but very fun.
WW: So I’ve read that your touring setup these days, your band, is you with two other guitarists. Is that correct?
MS: No. The other guitarist couldn’t do it, so it’s me, Mark Shippy from U.S. Maple, and the drummer is this guy Jim Sykes from Parts & Labor. [He’s a former member.]
WW: He seems like he’d be a good Zach Hill surrogate.
MS: Yeah, it’s going really well.
WW: How much do you still feel like an outsider in that whole world?
MS: Not at all anymore. Not at all. Because, well, because when we go to play, people will say, like, “Hey, I’m excited to see you,” and that’s so nice. And that gets me more excited to do the shows, you know? So I don’t at all have that feeling that I used to have. Which is great.
WW: For sure.
MS: That feeling sucked.
WW: So you like touring more now? You’ve said before it’s not all that fun.
MS: [Hesitates.] Yeah. Yeah, I like it. I’m getting more used to it. This will be my third, so I’m still really a novice and a newbie when it comes to that stuff. Most people, you know, have done twenty tours. But, yeah, I’ve been having a lot of fun. CMJ was really fun. We played a ton, and talked to a bunch of people, and, you know, went out and had drinks and ate and it was just really great.
WW: Do your dogs come with you on tour?
MS: One of them does, the one I’ve already made deaf and crazy anyway. [Laughs.] I just keep bringing her along. The other one — my roommate is very attached to her, so she stays there.
WW: You’ve said that you’re very into philosophy, and that comes through in your lyrics for sure, but I’d like to hear more about it, like what kinds of stuff you’re into and how that connects to your music.
MS: Well, I was mainly — I haven’t been reading that much philosophy lately, but I was mainly really moved by this sort of New Age philosopher named Ken Wilbur who wrote a bunch of books. I’ve read all of his books, and they were basically taking in a whole bunch of different ideas and combining them into one...into one…well, into one, but some of his major themes were talking about getting to a place of higher consciousness, and he has lots of terms, and he has a grid, or a map, that sort of explains society, kind of like The Matrix, where he says there’s an inner world and an outer world.
Pretty obvious stuff, but it really helped me to be able to visualize, to explain, inner world meaning, you know, it’s really obvious, but all the stuff that I feel internally that has nothing emotional, that has nothing to do with the bullshit of day-to-day — not that it’s bullshit, but they’re just two totally separate things. And there was a period in time where it was really helpful to me because I had no, literally nothing in the outer world to speak of. I had no — I didn’t own a home, I wasn’t married or had a boyfriend, I had no money, I had no car, I had nothing that in society is supposed to tell you that you’re somewhere. But internally, in my inner world, I felt so pleased and satisfied because I was making this music that was making me feel really good. So that’s how that helped me.
WW: How much is this, your music, a feminist project?
MS: [Hesitation, lots of false starts.] I…I guess I’m a feminist, in my own way, but really, I don’t really like to — one of the things I’ve been trying to work on is to not categorize things, because I feel like that limits you, like when you try to put up all these different boundaries of what you’re doing, similar to when I’m working and I’ll start playing something but I’ll immediately judge it and say, “No, it sounds too much like duh-duh-duh, so I’m not going to keep doing it,” and that’s bad. So in a way, I suppose, it’s feminist, but in another way, it’s just universal.
WW: What led me to that question was thinking of, like — have you heard of that rock camp for girls?
MS: Yes. I may actually take part in that.
WW: OK, because I was thinking that you’d be absolutely perfect for that, so that’s what I was thinking — like feminist not so much in some sort of confrontational way, because you’re not really that, but more in an empowerment sort of way.
WW: Well, that’s cool that you might do that.
WW: When you started to learn to play guitar — you’re completely self-taught, but did you even use any books or anything like that?
MS: No. And here’s the thing — because of that, I have my own style of playing, and I think I’m a pretty good guitar player. But I’m certainly not anywhere near the level that people say that I am, and that’s not me being modest, that’s just true. I would say that what I’m proud of in what I do is the songwriting, putting different interesting parts together, not so much being some virtuosic player, which I don’t think that I really am. And it’s hard for me, it’s embarrassing for me, because I get flak from other people who say, “Hey, what the fuck?” But in my mind, I’m never like, “Yeah, I’m this crazy shredder, dude!” The songwriting, to me, is what I’m proud of.
WW: Are you sort of an autodidact in general?
MS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
WW: To talk about the new record a little bit — this is the second time you’ve worked with Zach Hill, and he seems like a perfect match for you. Do you think you’re just going to continue to work with him in the future?
MS: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, we’re really close, and we talk at least once a week. I would love to, because I think he enhances and brings so much to the music. I would say 50 percent is me, and 50 percent is Zach. Especially as a producer — he really has a terrific ear, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for the production on this record and my other one.
WW: You’ve said that you feel like you’ve never really done anything great, which I think a lot of people would disagree with, but do you at least think you’re getting better? Are you happier with this record than with your first one?
MS: Yeah. Yeah — uhhhhh, no, I think that there’s a freedom in the first record that I like a lot more. But there’s a give-and-take; if you want to make songs structured — hold on one second. [A long pause as she answers a call on the other line.] Hi. Sorry. What was I saying?
WW: You were talking about the new record versus the last one —
MS: Oh yeah, there’s a spontaneity to that one that, you know, especially when you don’t think that anyone’s ever going to hear it, it’s…like even I, who haven’t listened to it in a year, go back and listen to it and I’m like, “What the fuck is that? That’s fucking crazy! Holy shit!” But with this one, I like listening to it all the time, which I can’t really say as much of the first one. I think this one’s really fun, and the whole purpose for this record was to try and make it as fun as possible, like songs that I would wanna listen to in the shower, I would wanna listen to walking around in my headphones — that was my goal. So when you focus, you have different themes going on in your mind — I was listening to the Who constantly; there’s just such power in those songs, such good energy, so I was really just focused on, you know, the energy of a fun song.
WW: Yeah, you can hear that, the Who especially.
MS: Cool, cool, cool.
WW: What’s the theme for the next one, or have you even started to think about that yet?
MS: Yeah, I’ve been pulling in different things; I saw a really good band, Women, at CMJ. They were real dissonant and I kind of feel like I’d lost track of dissonance in some ways, and I really love dissonance, so I kinda wanna pull some of that back in…and at the same time I’ve been using really happy chords, a la Ponytail, so…yeah, there are different things that I’ve been doing. I’ve gotten a bunch of songs that I like, but after this tour is when I really sit down and start to focus.
WW: What have you been listening to these days? You just mentioned two; what else? Anything new and exciting?
MS: Mick Barr’s metal band called Krallice —
WW: Wow, another Mick Barr band, huh?
MS: [Laughs] Yeah. Zach Hill’s solo record, a lot of Royal Trux, Ponytail, let me think of what else…some of the Skin Graft bands, this band Daughters, stuff like that.
WW: You say you haven’t been reading much philosophy lately; what have you been reading lately?
MS: Right now I keep going back and forth between a CIA book — it’s like a real history of the CIA — this advertising book that this guy wrote in the third person which is kind of interesting, a de Kooning biography, what else…when I did the record I read a Neil Young biography, an Einstein biography, so a lot of biographies.