Marnie Stern

A Strange Bird

Marnie SternShe isn’t as twisted as the early Polly Jean (she doesn’t play out-of-tune violins and avoids disoriented howling), nor as dreamy as the early Kristin Hersh (before becoming a mother and going off alone with her guitar, the mind behind Throwing Muses did a lot for girl noise), but she exploits her dark (and psychotic) side without worrying what other people think. Marnie Stern can drink three beers over the course of an interview and name her second album this: “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” (Kill Rock Stars, 2008). Marnie adores Macs, and if she weren’t a guitarist she would have liked to have been an inventor. Of what? Anything. She lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and when she goes out for a walk, she passes Times Square, the Chrysler Building, and the HBO studios. But she doesn’t go out much. She hates to socialise. She’d rather play the guitar. There was a time when she practiced up to six hours a day. “There are a bunch of great guitarists out there but I never modelled myself on any one player in particular,”she says. But not everyone shares her opinion. Just over thirty years old, she is considered one of the best guitarists of all time. And also a fashionable hater. In one interview, she said that Best Coast wasn’t such a big deal, and the cyber-sparks flew. “The only thing I said is that I didn’t like her lyrics, that they seemed too simple to me, that’s all,” she later excused herself. It didn’t help much. Her reputation as a strange bird preceded her. This is the fame that keeps her far removed from the flashes of the girl garage rage that has taken Bethany Consentino and all the others to the top. That fame and her music, which is of course light-years away from three chords and high-school lo-fi music. If Marnie’s sound had to be defined, it would be enough to consider her the missing link between Hella and Ponytail; that is to say, it’s aggressive pop with a metal root (and guitar virtuosity). The first record I listened to obsessively was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. I listened to all the details and I remember it was the first time I could hear all the individual instruments as opposed to just vocals and drums,” she says. She was probably on the balcony of her apartment, maybe having a beer and watching the sun set (something that she claims she does whenever she can), while typing on her beloved Mac. “ I picked playing guitar for no particular thing. I just found the confidence to go for it and put in the practice that it takes to get better at something. I also wanted to write songs and I happened to choose the guitar as my instrument for that,” she assures. She has just released her third album, which she called “Marnie Stern” because “ I was pretty confident in his batch of songs and I think this is my most fully realized album to date,” and also in part because “ the title was also a reaction to the long title of the last record which everyone asked me about so often,” referring to “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”. She was fed up with talking about it, as she is with talking about how strange it is for a woman to play the guitar like she does. From here came the writing of “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black”. “ It was meant to be a tongue in cheek statement since I get asked about being a female guitarist so much. It's silly to focus on gender as opposed to the playing itself and the songs themselves.” Of course, hers does, and not in vain; her album is probably the most well-aimed rock hit of the year, along with “Expo 86” by Wolf Parade. The thing about Marnie is that she knows what she’s talking about. “ Maybe the only thing about me is that I’m older than all of them, and maybe this is why what they are doing doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me,” she said, just after the attack on Consentino’s lyrics. By vocation, she is clearly self-taught (and progressive: if Marnie had been born in the 70’s, today she would have a place among the classics that perverted hippy rock for the better) and solitary (it was always her and her guitar, leaving high school and much later, while she was working at any old job), Stern had already turned 30 when she released her first album (before that, she had sent demos all over the place): “In Advance of the Broken Arm” (Kill Rock Stars, 2007). The album, an aggressive noise pop treatise (always with a metal root, you only need to see Stern hit a couple of frets of her guitar with her fingertips to notice her bizarre kinship to Slash), was considered “ the most exciting rock album of the year” by the New York Times. That is to say, while Consentino was deciding whether she wanted a pet (the famed Snacks who appears on the cover of “Crazy For You”) or not, Stern was already an outsider of the future explosion of girl bands that was brewing.

Marnie adores Patti Smith. “ I recently read her biography and she really puts herself fully into her music and she’s a really intense artist and I admire that,” she says. And if you ask her to choose between Best Coast and the Vivian Girls, she answers, without hesitation: “ I really like St. Vincent and I think her confidence and strong sense of self and complexity really comes across in her music.” In her small flat on the Upper East Side, which she currently shares with her dog, she plays David Bowie, The Police, Sleater-Kinney. Nothing new. “ Bands like Hella, Lightning Bolt or The Flyin Luttenbachers were huge inspirations for me and they sent me in that mathy direction. I am pretty isolated from any scene and don't really go out that much.” As we said, a strange bird.

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