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Marnie Stern‘s last release, This Is It…, has garnered her much critical acclaim, as well as a spot on Pitchfork’s “50 Best Albums of 2008.” This month she kicks off her tour in her native NYC. Wednesday, March 11, she’s set to shred at DC9. Black Plastic Bag had the opportunity to chat with Stern about her craft, her creative partnership with Hella’s Zach Hill, and a new album in the works.
How did you get into music in the first place?
I mean, I’d always loved it, it just took me figuring out that in order to play music you didn’t have to be this musical type of person that I had always thought you had to be. That, really, you could learn it just from practicing as opposed to having some innate skill born in you. And once I realized that, then I just started practicing a lot and working at it, and that’s how it happened.
So when did you start playing guitar?
I started picking—I picked up a few chords and I strummed, you know, when I was 15, but then I didn’t really start taking it seriously until my early 20s.
What prompted that change?
Um, I had finished college, I had studied journalism in college, and I didn’t really like it, I wasn’t that good at it, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I had always wanted to do that, but I just didn’t think of it as a feasible option. But when I realized that, you know, I wanted to do something that made me happy, um, I chose it.
How did you get from studying something that’s sort of a science to something, I guess, so artsy—have you always been very creatively inclined?
Yeah, yeah I think I’ve always been relatively creative. And prior to that I think I had been more of a singer-songwriter. You know, I had dabbled in so many different things exploring different things of what I wanted to do, but I got bored of them really quickly. And it was the only thing that I could just sit there, for hours, and even if I was frustrated, I still wanted to keep going. And I think really that’s why I stuck with it. Because it was the only thing that I could apply myself and, and not get totally overwhel- I mean, I would get overwhelmed, but it just, there was, I felt like an endurance there that was a good feeling.
So you were looking for a challenge?
What were your influences when you were first starting out?
Oh, Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney and Blonde Redhead and Unwound, bands like that.
You said you were self-taught. What would you do to teach yourself guitar—did you try to replicate records?
No, I never tried to learn anyone else’s parts. I don’t know why everyone does that. In the end, it turned out to be a good thing because it helped me develop my own style. But the more that I worked at it, the more I researched different labels and what they were putting out and I listened to so many different things, and that started pushing me in the direction of more experimental music, and then I found bands like Hella, and then I was really, for a long time, just doing instrumental music, for like three years. And then I wanted to figure out a way to kind of incorporate a pop sensibility into that experimental structure. And that’s really what my first record was about.
Why did you choose the guitar as your tool for expression, rather than, like, drums or another instrument?
I play drums, and I play keyboard. Drums to me are so difficult, more difficult than anything. I think I probably picked guitar becuase I had one, and I had learned those couple chords. Maybe if I had a drum kit I would have focused on drums, but I think it’s a little bit more difficult to write songs being a drum player and I, I really wanted to write songs.
How would you currently describe your music?
The stuff I’m working on for my next record? It’s pretty melodic. And rhythmic, also, I would say.
Would you say it’s much of a departure from your-
A little bit. I think to the artist it always seems like a really big departure, and then, people tend to say “Oh, it sounds the same.” I don’t know, I guess once you have your style, you have your style, but, to me it sounds very different. But I think the last record [This Is It…] sounded different than the first one [In Advance of the Broken Arm], I don’t know. A lot of people didn’t, so.
So how is working on this new record going? With touring, are you finding the time to work on songs much?
Well the tour starts in a few days, so I’ve had a couple months to work on it. But, currently, I’m very frustrated [laughs]. But, it’s going okay. I mean, it’s always start and stop, start, you know, I’ll make a breakthrough, I’ll write a song I like, and then it’s, takes a really long time before I write another one that I like, so, in that interim I’m usually very frustrated, but then I just force myself to sit down and keep going.
I know in your past two albums you’ve collaborated with Zach Hill, are you working with him again for this new album?
Hopefully, yeah. We’re trying to work it out. So that will be good if we can.
How did that partnership come about? I know it’s been sort of career-long for you.
The label [Kill Rock Stars], the head of the label asked me if I had a choice of dream drummers, who would it be? and I said Zach Hill. And he called Zach and said “Would you be willing to work on this?” And Zach said yes. And that’s how we started working together.
And how’s that been for you?
Fabulous! He’s really inspiring, most amazing musician—ever. He’s just extremely creative, has a really good ear, is just really, really wonderful.
And are you touring with him on drums for this tour?
No, the drummer Jim Sykes that I played with on the last tour is coming for this tour. And then the bass—instead of a guitarist I’m having a bass player, and her name is Malia James.
Why is the title for your last album, This Is It…? [full title: This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That]
Zach came up with it, actually. We were trying to figure out titles and he had read it somewhere and we both liked it. So we chose it. We didn’t really think that much about it or that it was excessively long or that it would matter. We just liked it.
So on this new album, do you have any titles in the works, concepts you’re trying to flesh out?
No, not yet.
And who would you like to collaborate with on this album that you’re working on?
You know what, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it, Zach and I have been talking about it, and hopefully somebody really fun and creative.
Do you prefer collaborative work to composing on your own?
Mmmm… I, I’m not the type of person that’s comfortable going in and writing material with a bunch of people, I’m just not good at it, I take a long time to come up with my parts and do it in a very specific way. But in terms of production and ideas and stuff like that, I really like as many – I like a lot of people giving their ideas and opinions, I like to listen to all of them.
I don’t want to make it about gender, but I think it’s awesome that you’re a female and so good at what you do—you’re experimenting with these things—and it’s sort of a male-dominated genre of music-
Which is a very male-dominated industry—what has been your experience?
Well, I’ve never really thought about the fact that I’m a woman who plays guitar, but, many people have mentioned it to me recently, in the past couple years, but I don’t know. Maybe the reason I’m good at it is because I never saw it as a gender issue, at all. I don’t think I’m that great of a guitar player, I think I’m pretty good, but I don’t think I’m virtuoso at all, I mean I know I’m not. But I don’t know, I wonder if I played drums – I don’t think if I played drums people people- I don’t, I don’t really know. Maybe female drummers do get asked that all the time. But I would assume that with drums, I would assume it would be more with drums because, you know, to hit hard you have to have a lot of physical power, and with guitar you don’t really.
But I have no answer to that other than I’m really compulsive, and I like to just sit for a long time working on it, and I think a lot of people start with guitar but there are a lot of humps to get over. In fact I find myself in a hump now, which I haven’t felt in a really long time – in terms of just progressing on the instrument. But yeah, I mean I don’t know, I like video games too.
So you haven’t encountered any people treating you differently because you’re a woman, or is it just people asking-
Well, I do, I’ve had situations where I’ve gotten to a venue and they’ve seen me and they say “Oh, would you like a stool, are you gonna be, you and an acoustic?” and I’m like “No…” But yeah, no, I guess I’ve been really fortunate.
It sounds like you have, maybe like, this love-hate relationship with creating music—is it very much a struggle?
One thing I will say, though – and this isn’t really gender-related – one thing I can’t stand are people who are more style over substance, who get up and can’t really play and their songs suck and… that drives me nuts.
What makes you say that?
Maybe, I think I’m obviously biased because I, I guess because I work so hard at it that when I see people get up there and, moreover when I see a band become very popular who isn’t very good, it’s frustrating.
But… what was your other question – love/hate? Oh, it’s not love/hate it’s love, it’s love, love, love. The hate – I could perceive it as hate – it’s just frustration, you know, I get really down on myself when I’m not making anything that I like, but that’s my issue with, you know, not having much else going on in my life but music, so all of my happiness rests on whether I’m writing a good song or not. It’s just, well, sucky.
It’s just interesting how you weren’t cherrypicked as this young, “next big thing” musician, so I’m just curious as to how that “discovery” process, of you, becoming a musician-
I personally, I didn’t have any siblings when I was growing up, who listened to music a lot. I grew up in New York City where you just don’t go to shows, it’s just not… popular, and most places are 21 and over, I mean, I just never even thought about it. I didn’t grow up in a place where, you know, you go to the record store with your friends, I grew up in a city where you, you know, try and get into a bar or something. So, that was one reason. You know, once I got to college and really made my bond with a bunch of friends, they were all very creative, and they really encouraged me. That had something to do with it. And, I think I had always thought that I had to do something that was responsible, and I didn’t see music as responsible so I never entertained it. And that’s partly, possibly, growing up in New York where it’s very corporate, I’m not sure.
So those are the reasons why I didn’t, and then the push to do it came, really, at a time where I just started feeling, kinda, more confident in the idea that I could choose anything I wanted to. But I mean I’m proud of the fact that starting from scratch and not knowing anyone, but I mean, I don’t know if it’s luck or not. It’s an interesting question. I was talking the other day with the band and we were saying, How many Led Zeppelins were out there that never, you know, made it? And it was really depressing – probably a bunch.
So you’ve been through D.C. before. How do you like playing this city?
Love it. Last time it was terrific, it was packed, it was really, really fun. I think I’ve played there three times, or maybe four. I really like D.C. a lot. I had entertained moving there for a while, but it never happened.
Why did you want to move to D.C.?
I don’t know, I just like the history there.
And have you found your audience is growing and diversifying, as well, with every tour?
Yeah. I mean I think sometimes when there’s buzz, people who generally wouldn’t be attracted to your music go to see it because other people say it’s good. But the more the merrier. You know?
Yeah. It’s been totally, totally great. I have a hard time—I mean, I’m really excited about this tour, we’re touring in the summer, a lot. I’ve got a lot of touring planned.
And do you have a schedule at all for when you wanna finish this album your working on now, or are you taking it as it comes?
I kind- you know, they say that you should record within, release within a year and a half of when you released your last one, that’s the general benchmark or whatever, so I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll have it done by then. I figure now I’ve got about six songs, or I’ve got about half done.
Marnie Stern plays DC9 Wednesday, March 11 with Four Fins of the Rocket, Exactly, and Black & White Jacksons. Photo courtesy of Marnie Stern’s Myspace page.