Volume 78 - Number 25 / NOVEMBER 19 - 25, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Underdog kills on guitar
Marnie Stern explains her style and song
Nov. 29 at 8 p.m.
Santos Party House
100 Lafayette St.
$15 advance/$18 at the door
By DAVID TODD
Marnie Stern converses a bit like an elderly woman (“I’m always leaving things places”), but she sings like a siren dishing out exclamations (“Keep at it!”) and threats (“Defenders get onto your knees”). And on the guitar, she shreds like she was grounded for her entire teens. Emerging last year with her first album, “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” she posed an unusual figure: a 30-ish blonde finger-tapping a yellow Jazzmaster, turning pop chants and layered guitar palpitations into song-shocks which seemed to speed right out of the iPod. Sometimes lumped into a “new female guitarists” genre with others such as Kaki King, she fits in better with math-rockers Hella and U.S. Maple, both of whom she counts among her favorites.
Now Marnie’s back with her second 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,” which draws its lengthy title from Alan Watts, a familiar figure within her universe of philosophers, anxieties, and underdog protagonists.
DAVID TODD: People ask you about your guitar influences a lot, but I was wondering where you get the song forms you use.
MARNIE STERN: Just really by trial-and-error, messing around and trying to figure it out. I found my way that way.
Was that a long process for you?
Oh, a 10-year process. It was a really long process. And I still feel like I’m maybe three-quarters of the way there. I’m still working on it.
In terms of the new album, were you conscious of changes within yourself or your approach?
No, I just worked really hard on it for a long time. I was hoping that it was going to come out well, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I was trying to write fun songs, because I was listening to a lot of fun classic rock on the radio. So that was kind of in the back of my mind the whole time.
What about for the first album, what were you listening to then?
Yoko Ono, the more noisy bands. The Flying Luttenbachers, Melt-Banana, Boredoms. Lately I haven’t been listening to as much of that. But you know, you go through phases, I guess.
For both your albums, you’ve worked with drummer/producer Zach Hill of Hella. How did you get hooked up with him?
The label [Kill Rock Stars] asked him if he would work on [the first album], and he said yeah, that he wanted to produce it. And Hella’s my favorite band of all time, so at first I was so scared. But now we’ve become close and I just think he’s such a creative person. He’s such good producer, he’s such a genius drummer. I feel like half of it is me and half of it really is him because his ear is so good, and just creatively, it’s great being around him. I think we’re good collaborators and it’s really complementary.
It seems like what you’re doing could overwhelm another drummer, and Zach is able to bring a lot of energy and creatively on his end.
Yeah, exactly. I think the energy is the main thing. And he’s got a lot of it. (Laughs.)
There was an article last year in the New York Times which suggested that virtuosity is back in with the guitar. It seems that the problem with the old virtuosos is that their technique wasn’t really necessary for their songs. But it seems like you’re building songs around the style you have.
Right. Yeah, that’s my intention. But it’s hard for me to do that, to find the vocal line in [my pieces]. But I’m not a guitar virtuoso at all, by the way.
I didn’t mean to imply that you were.
Okay, yeah. I’m just a pretty good guitar player. But I think if anything is unique about me, it’s [that I’m able] to figure out a way to make the guitar part complex, but at the same time really weave it into the song so it’s not just some show-offy part. On this record too, I tried to restrain myself for the betterment of the song.
You got introduced to finger-tapping through indie guitarists like Ian Williams and Mick Barr, right?
Just randomly, yeah. I mean, I saw both of them I didn’t really see what they were doing. With Ian, I just saw that he was using two hands, and then I went from there. I didn’t study it. But you know, I also thought that Spencer [Seim] from Hella was doing a lot of tapping, and a lot of the time he’s not. So that’s interesting – what you think you hear versus what – is, and then how you interpret it and what you do with it.
I wanted to ask you about your Scott French guitar. Is that what you’re playing now?
Yeah. Scott French! He made me a guitar and you know, I’d wanted one from him for a long time, because Spencer from Hella has one and Robby [Moncrieff] from The Advantage has one. I feel like he just makes the most beautiful, coolest guitars.
I saw some photos of it, and it’s so well-crafted. It’s like moving into an upscale apartment or something.
I know! You should’ve seen me when I opened it. People were interviewing me [when] the guitar came, and so there’s video of me opening it. Oh my God, talk about Christmas. It was my first guitar in almost ten years.
On your MySpace page, you list your location as “Uptown,” as in the Upper East Side. Do you feel uptown in some ways, as opposed to downtown or Williamsburg?
I did live downtown for 10 years. But it’s kind of nice being up there like totally out of it. It helps me to do my own thing and not get bogged down by thinking of stuff so much, because no one there is in the musical world. It’s just totally cut off. I walk around in my pajamas outside and people look at me like I’m cuckoo.
I wanted to ask you about the movie “Rocky,” which you’ve professed an affection for. Where does that come from?
Underdogs. That’s why I like all of those things. I love the sports movies where the team comes back at the end, because for so long I felt like I was that underdog. And just in life in general, I’ve always felt that way, for whatever reason. Maybe I’ve always been eccentric, and when you’re younger, in high school, it’s not really accepted. I feel proud that now my personality comes through in the music, and that people like it, and that, I was never pushed to the point of abandoning who I really am. So that’s why I like all of that stuff.