A few years ago, back in the good ole print days, we featured the genre-defying guitar virtuosa Marnie Stern in our annual Heeb 100 and year-end “Best Of” list. Fast forward to 2013, and the affable indie rocker has just released the most accessible and accomplished album of her career. While we’d like to attribute the artistic growth that is The Chronicles of Marnia to the “Heeb Bump,” Stern wants to adjust our laudatory assessment, albeit every so slightly. “I can’t listen to this album,” she asserts. “It makes me uncomfortable.” The Upper East Side resident (seriously! She lives there!) is referring to the newfound polish and diluted freneticism she was once known for among the noise rock snoberatti, but an aesthetic shift–we think–for the better came about because of peer pressure. Try something different, they said. And try something different, she did.
Sometimes the masses are asses, and sometimes they’re simply looking for songs that won’t necessarily induce a seizure. In this instance of the latter, Stern could potentially benefit from a crowd-pleasing sheen, and self-imposed artistic integrity aside, this change could bring her music justifiably to a broader audience. But just in case her fourth album doesn’t quite make enough waves based on its artistic merit, the rocker’s publicist cooked up a dating/ publicity stunt to coincide with the record release. Basically some dude–a non-musician, Stern insists–had to apply for the opportunity to spend one evening with a genuine guitar heroine, barring that he’s not a “total creeper/ stalker.”
And after thirty-seven years of bad luck on the dating scene, the songwriter tells us, maybe this could be the thing that finally works out for her. Or maybe it won’t. Who knows? However, one thing’s for sure–aside from inspring this writer to start work on an indie rock/romantic comedy screenplay–Marnie Stern is a veritable axe goddess who made a life affirming record. No matter how uncomfortable it is for her to hear that.
I’m assuming that it’s a pretty unusual time of your life right now.
Why, because there’s a record coming out?
Yeah, that and the fact that you offered yourself up for dating a stranger.
[Laughs] That was my publicists idea. I was talking about how I was single–I recently broke up with a guy–and she thought it would be funny to see if we could do this matchmaking thing…who knows.
Are you still living in the most un-rock and roll location in Manhattan, also known as the Upper East Side?
What’s it like to be Marnie Stern on the Upper East Side?
Um, the sad part is that when I first moved up here, I noticed I was so different from most of the people here. But now, after so many years of living here, I kind of blend in. I’ve forgotten that there is a world out there that is different from where I live. Because I’m either on tour with young kids, or I’m living around old people on the Upper East Side.
All my friends have moved away. The only friends I have left in the area are married and have kids and moved to Brooklyn. I used to have friends that all lived up here.
Why didn’t you move to Brooklyn?
Because I have a rent controlled apartment. You know, when I first moved here, I hated it. But the more I did music, I loved it more. Nobody else does music here. There are no hipsters up here. The second I walk into Brooklyn, I see a dozen guitars.
I get what you’re saying. But as someone who lives on the Upper West Side, I wonder what would happen if I lived in the “artsier” communities. Do you think about that?
I don’t think like that. I did live in the East Village when it was hip. All my friends were creative. I know what life is like when everyone is making art. But now that I’m older, I would die to live in some neighborhood where I had to dress up to go to the deli.
This is a topic that’s probably only interesting to people in New York, but how’d you get a rent controlled apartment?
It’s been in the family. It’s a big place, too, which is why I don’t want to give it up. Sometimes it hits me that I live here and I’m like, what? This place! But who cares where I live? I’m on tour half the time.
The appeal of going elsewhere when you have a rent controlled apartment…is non-existent.
I so badly want to want to live in Los Angeles. But something there is not right. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels off when I visit.
For me, having grown up and worshipping guitar heroes like Eddie Van Halen, Nuno Bettencourt, Steve Vai, etc., your music resonates with me.
Those days are long gone.
Is that where you got your skills? Where you introduced to guitar playing like I was?
No, I went the opposite way. I went through the experimental/noise scene first. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek shredding like Hella, Lightning Bolt, and Don Caballero. I mean, I always loved Van Halen, but it wasn’t like I wanted to be like those guys and write music like them. I liked the strange way people were hitting frets, and making weird noises. I never heard of drone before, which was intense to me. I had never been exposed to all of that and that’s what made me want to be a better guitarist. Not metal.
You were on the panel that selected the best guitar players for Rolling Stone magazine. You were also one of Spin Magazine’s Best Guitar Players.
Yeah. That stuff’s kind of weird. My mom’s proud of me, though. As the years progressed, since this has become my life for so long, I became more interested in dynamics. Not guitar playing.
The new record is less dense. You’ve changed your style.
Zach Hill [Stern’s former drummer and collaborator] and I…we both like busy-ness. That’s our taste. For this record, Zach’s not on it. [Current drummer] Kid Millions is a different player and the producer made us also strip down guitar parts. But most people like restraint. I don’t. I think restraint is boring. The vocals are also so slick and pop star-ish. I can’t listen to the record. It makes me uncomfortable. It went against my grain of comfort but enough people talked me into it.
Your music has a real tension with its self. The songs are tuneful, but then they’re also trying to sabotage that tunefulness. I’ve always found that you had the potential to reach a broader audience…
But that’s the part I find interesting about my music. The part that makes a mess of things. I’m not sure if I’m right or wrong about that, but I like a lot happening. WHen I take the tension away, that discomfort, to me the song becomes dull. And unspecific. It could be anyone’s song, basically.
So it has nothing to do with your need to be provocative?
Oh no no no no. I don’t care about that. I’m thinking, what would Zach Hill think if he heard this? I think is this authentic? If it’s all cleaned up, it’s less authentic to me. To most people, however, they’ll think it’s less authentic with the noise. Like, why am I throwing all those things in there? Let the song be!
Speaking of Zach, have you been keeping up on [his new band] Death Grips?
Yeah. I decided to change my songwriting and slow them down at the same time he decided to do Death Grips full time. So it worked out perfectly. I feel like with me and Zach it all works out. He’s a real spiritual guy.
Do you think they’re trying to be provocative?
He would never do anything for press or anything like that. Music, to him, is for the people. He’s super intense, and super talented. The band is intense, and super talented…I’m really happy they’re doing so well. I feel like of all the musicians I know, he has worked the hardest and he deserves to be successful.
Have you sent him your new record? I imagine making your first record without him was surreal.
Yeah, a long time ago. I haven’t heard from him about it though. But he’s been busy and on tour. I understand. Zach and me…I’m used to talking to him once a month, but we haven’t spoken in four or five months. He’s busy.
His drumming is so directly associated with your music.
Well, I think it was a good idea that this happened…the switching it up. It was a challenge for me to do things differently, to work with a different drummer. Again, I wanted to change the template. But again, Zach and I made everything exactly how we wanted to make it. It was never what anybody else wanted to listen or what anyone recommended how we should do it. And in most instances, we had a similar vision. With Chronicles, I had to listen and accept suggestions from other people which is hard and different for me.
I happen to know that you’re getting an extremely healthy amount of applicants for this dating thing…look, I’m married. If I wasn’t, I’d be applying too.
I have a very, very hard time meeting people. First of all, I’m turning thirty-seven. I have been single, in the past ten years, for maybe seven of those years. I don’t go out. I don’t do anything. I just broke up with a boyfriend, but I was single from twenty-six to thirty-two. But the guys I dated were all much younger than me and didn’t want a real relationship. This guy I was just dating was nine years younger than me. It’s just very difficult.
Also, I’m pretty eccentric. I have to be honest. I was talking to my mom about this, and she said, I want to tell you that things are going to get better but that’s what I used to tell you, and well, it didn’t. So I can’t say that any more. And I’m like, Mom!
Aren’t mothers supposed to be supportive?
Yeah, well…but also all my friends are married.
Do you want to have a family?
Yeah. But I’m almost at the point of giving up on that.
Marnie! Things happen when you don’t expect them too. Don’t give up.
Ugh. My friends tell me this all the time.
If you’re so focused on meeting someone, the expectations are too high. You need to not want to want it so bad.
Yeah, but it’s like a job. You have to put the effort in, and I don’t do anything. I sit at home with my dog. Or I’m on tour. How’d you meet your wife?
At a party. But I was so not in the mood to be at that party–I was going through some stuff–but I met her in spite of not wanting to socialize. Even though I didn’t want to be there. So my guard was down and it happened. Look, Marnie, from a male perspective, you’re very cute, you’re a phenomenal guitar player…
From your lips to God’s ears. I feel like my married friends are starting to pity me and that’s pissing me off. I was out with a family friend and we were talking and he asked me why I was so bummed out. And I was like, well, I felt like I would have a family by now. And he said to me, if you have pancreatic cancer–he’s older–then you have a reason to be bummed. It’s cliche, but he’s right. I’m trying to put things in perspective.
What kind of guy are you looking for?
He cannot be a musician. No musicians.
Have you tried online dating?
It’s terrible. I get people writing me, what are you doing on here? You know what the problem is? All of my fans are nineteen. When I come back from tour, my friends tell me I’m acting like a teenager. I rarely see anyone older than twenty-five in my audience. That’s why I’ve been doing all ages shows. It’s good energy.
Yet you started out late as a professional musician, right?
I was twenty-one when I decided to pursue it. But I was working all the while. I worked for an ad agency for seven years living in the East Village and writing songs. I would drop my CD off at venues and offer to play free shows. There was such a cool hip scene down there, and I would go to shows by myself. My friends were not into the music I liked.
You weren’t meeting people at shows?
No! I would say, hey, and they wouldn’t answer. I guess they were snobs. I would try to make conversation and no one would talk back. It was very embarrassing.
I can’t believe that.
They didn’t. It was very humiliating. And that social pressure to make new friends and network pushed me further into my own little cocoon. On the other hand, though, it really made me feel like an individual. And then I was so lucky–this didn’t happen ever. I sent my CD to Kill Rock Stars, and Slim [Moon, founder of Kill Rock Star Records] said he was coming to New York and asked if we wanted to meet. I went and met him and he was reluctant about signing me at first but he gave me some amazing pointers. He told me that I needed to get live drums on the record, not a drum machine. So he asked me who my dream drummer would be, and I said, Zach Hill. And he says, let me call him. I remember getting a message from Zach later on and I stopped in the street. It made my whole life. I lived off that initial excitement for three years.
I would love to option your life story as an indie romantic comedy.
[Laughs]. All I know is that the last two guys I dated, after we split up, we’d talk and I’d ask them how they were doing and they always say, I’m great! Everything is awesome! And I’m thinking, can’t you just lie to me?
You mentioned working at an ad agency? Can I ask which one?
Young & Rubicam. I was an assistant to a creative director. Administrative work.
Do you remember why you quit?
Well, I had been there for a long time, and one of my good friends there said to me one day, you know, when you started working here you were a bubbly, cute musician who had a day job, but now you’re a secretary that sometimes plays music at night. It really woke me up. I quit because of her. The funny thing is, years later, I heard from her after she saw a write-up about me in Elle magazine. I’m glad I took her advice.
UPDATE: Stern recently spoke to the New York Post about the outcome of the dating contest. Read here for more details about the male suitor known as “Neal.”
Marnie Stern’s The Chronicles of Marnia is out now. She is also on tour and performs at the Music Hall of Williamsburg this coming Thursday, April 11th.