Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

A Day in a Studio With Marnie Stern

Written by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Jason Rodgers
Makeup by Jen Lombardo
Hair by Liam Carey

A quick Google search for Marnie Stern will tell you two things about the lady guitarist: one, she’s a majorly badass shredder, and two, she got kind of a late start. I find the latter particularly inspiring as it gives a boost of hope to those who might feel like it’s “too late.” One thing I learned from Stern—it’s not. Another, who the fuck cares if you do or don’t have (as Courtney Love refers to in the Hole song, “She Walks Over Me”) a “perfect punk-rock resume.” Sometimes the endgame is the same regardless of your background.   Not that many people send their demo to a record label and then get signed. But at thirty-years-old, Stern quit her secretary job, mailed her self-recorded demo in to Kill Rock Stars, and three months later, was the label’s newest artist. From there she was asked to choose her dream drummer to play with—who else to match her hard, turbulent shredding but Zach Hill—and then the rest of the pieces gradually fell into place.   

Stern released her third full-length record this past fall, the self-titled Marnie Stern, and has been touring around it pretty consistently since. Her most recent touring roster consists of repeat offender Nithin Kalvakota on bass (miraculously, he has toured with Stern before on drums, as well), and Vincent Rogers on the skins. I recently had the chance to interview Stern at Sadie Photo Editor Jason Rodgers’s studio in Williamsburg. Since we did the shoot and interview in the same sitting, like always, at various points the conversation opened up to everyone else in the room—Rodgers, makeup artist (and old friend) Jen Lombardo, and hair stylist Liam Carey.  

I read that you heard Sleater-Kinney when you were twenty-three and that changed everything for you. What were you listening to before that?  


Like what?
Marnie: Like, I don’t even know crap. I wouldn’t say the radio. I guess I could just listen to what everyone else was listening to, but I wasn’t going out and buying stuff ever. I don’t even think I owned many CDs.
Jesse: How did you get into Sleater-Kinney then?
Marnie: I had to research. Maybe somebody had said, “Check out this band.” And the Internet was beginning and All Music Guide was like the one music Web site, and it was like, “If you like this, try this.” At the beginning, I just listened to the more popular indie music, and then, as the years went on, started making my way towards the weirder, more experimental stuff. Cuz I didn’t listen to a lot of punk. I didn’t grow up with kids who were music people, cuz I grew up in Manhattan, so everyone was trying to go to the bar.
Jesse: What was it like? Who were your friends growing up?
Marnie: Um, [long pause] it was awful. There was a lot of pressure; it was shitty. There were a couple of normal people, but it’s like . . .
Jesse: Upper East Side, Manhattan.
Marnie: Yes, yes. Yuckers. And I didn’t have any money but, of course, they all did, and so I’d be like, I want twenty dollars to go out. And my mom would be like, “Twenty dollars! Are you fucking nuts?”
Jesse: Wow, totally.
Marnie: It sucked, [both laughing] and I picked NYU because I got to skip my last year of high school, so I didn’t have to pay the tuition. That was why I left; I wouldn’t have stayed in New York otherwise. But I remember listening to the Hole record, Live Through This, when I was a junior in college and liking it . . . but not knowing why really. And Sleater-Kinney too, but not knowing why. And then it just took so long to develop a taste . . . forever.
Jesse: That’s really interesting. So then, what were some of the first bands you listened to, and then where did you end up?
Marnie: When it got weirder?
Jesse: Yeah. Like once you really got into music . . .
Marnie: Well, back then it was more about the labels. So, I’d go online, and let’s say with Kill Rock Stars, it would be Sleater-Kinney—then I’d look at what other bands the record label was putting out. Slim [Moon, founder of KRS] also had 5RC, which was like his weird side label, and that’s how I started finding all the weird shit, and I didn’t even know what it was. I was like, what the fuck is this?
Jesse: Who was on 5RC? I don’t remember.
Marnie: Hella. This band The Planet The, Excepter—weird noise bands. But there were a bunch more. It was really, at one point, a ridiculously cool roster. And the music scene was different then, in New York especially. It was right before the YYY’s boom. All the bands would play together, and it was a more family kind of feel. And everyone was really fucking good, and I felt crazy pressure to get better, which was good. Now it’s shocking . . . If you had told me that kids were going to be trying to sound like Paul Simon mixed with . . .
Jesse: The Beach Boys . . .
Marnie: Yeah, are you kidding? I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s the cool underground?! It’s so weird to me. And then I’ve played shows recently in Brooklyn that are supposed to be that kind of thing, and all the music’s super quiet and mellow. And then I play, and everyone who has played before me has their fingers in their ears, and I’m like, Holy shit! I’m the old one here?! What the fuck is going on?
Jesse: Jen and I were just talking about how you’re kind of this exact hybrid of what we grew up listening to—metal meets riot grrrl, which is basically the perfect combination.
Marnie: Yeah. Well, because I didn’t have many friends doing it, and I wasn’t part of anything, I ended up just doing my own thing. It was all sort of by accident, but just years and years of trying a little bit to sound like the noise people, trying a little bit to sound poppy; and then you come up with a couple of tricks you use and that becomes your style. But it takes so long to figure out. But then once you do, it’s definitely you.
Jesse: So, had you been playing guitar already when you started getting into Sleater-Kinney and stuff like that?
Marnie: A little bit. Right at that point was when I was starting to practice a lot, every day. Then I got really serious, but I didn’t take lessons. I just sat there and would try, not know what I was doing, throw the guitar across the room, pick it up, keep going.
Jesse: Did you read instructional books, or did you just literally figure it out?
Marnie: I just listened, yes. And I would be like, OK, two guitars are playing at once . . . like the most basic shit. But I feel like no matter what I put out now, the review always says, “Crazy, insane, nonstop, blah blah blah . . . ” Even if it’s a slow song; and I’m like, "The ballad? Really?"
Jesse: So . . . …sending your demo to Kill Rock Stars and then immediately getting signed sounds made up!
Marnie: It’s insane! It was insane. And I was thirty. I had just turned thirty, so it was like very insane.
Jesse: I love it! But how did that actually work? I feel like people tell you never to send demos.
Marnie: They do! I quit my day job and three months later got the record. After being at the day job for six years.
Jesse: What was your day job?
Marnie: Secretary at an advertising company.
Jesse: Amazing.
Marnie: So, what happened was, every year my best friend Bella would be like, “Did you send it?” We’d try and get grants and she would say, “Did you send your demo to the label?” And I would be like, "Again?!" And she would be like, “You have to do it! Do it, do it!” And she said, “Write, ‘Sign me. I’m the DIY lady shredder.’” But I didn’t know DIY so I wrote, “Sign me. I’m the DYI lady shredder.” [laughing] And they loved it.
Jesse: That is so amazing.
Marnie: Actually, I did this interview with Corin Tucker recently for something, and it was crazy because she’s a feminist, and obviously such a big part of the riot grrrl movement, and that’s so removed from my world, yet we both arrived in similar places. But I guess it’s true that if it hadn’t been for her, maybe it would have been harder for me. I don’t usually think of myself as a “female” playing music, but when I stop to think about it, there really aren’t that many.
Jesse: Yeah, totally. That’s kind of the whole point of what we’re trying to do with Sadie—make stories of interesting, creative women with unconventional paths more easily accessible to young women. Growing up on Long Island, I was actually pretty lucky—I had access to underground scenes and punk ideas—though with one wrong turn or different move, I could have just as easily missed it all. At the time, of course, I felt like there was nothing cool going on, but in retrospect, I listened to and was exposed to a lot of progressive, cutting-edge stuff.
Marnie: And how did you find it?
Jesse: [to Jen] How did we find it?
Jen: Friends. Older friends probably that had a little bit more of a clue.
Jesse: Yeah, definitely. We were such critics at the time, but . . .
Marnie: But doesn’t every generation always say that everything sucks now, and it used to be so much better?
Jesse: Yeah, totally.
Marnie: But didn’t it? I mean, maybe it’s just a weird phase right now for the past bunch of years of all this stupid music and bullshit, but . . . I haven’t listened to any record in four years. Is that insane?
Jesse: So, what do you listen to? Just old stuff?
Marnie: Classic rock on the radio, yes . . . Because everything is so disposable now, I guess they’re picking stuff that sucks so they can just sell it quickly and then move on to the next.
Jesse: Speaking of musicians who are not disposable, how did you get involved with Zach Hill? Was he on that first demo you sent in?
Marnie: No, that was just a drum machine. KRS was like, "If you could have a dream drummer, who would you pick?" And I was like, "Zach Hill!" So they called Zach and said, “Will you listen to this and work on it?” And Zach said yes.
Jesse: Oh my god, that’s amazing!
Marnie: So then I had to fly to California, and I was so nervous I was going to like puke and pee in my pants. I was staying alone with him and that was . . . oh god, I worshipped him! I had gone to see him play; I thought he was a god.
Jesse: That’s so cute.
Marnie: And also, he’s younger than me, which was a little weird. So, that’s how our thing started, and then we developed a great friendship and ended up really being complementary to each other.
Jesse: That’s awesome! So, you always record with him on drums, and then the rest changes each time?
Marnie: The bass was the same person for the first two records, and then Matt [from the band Women], my ex-boyfriend, played bass on this last one.
Jesse: How do you write songs then since you have that kind of a setup?
Marnie: I do all the guitars and vocals and then send the tracks to Zach as songs. He puts drums over them, and then I fly there and do the guitars and the vocals again. But we keep some of the layers that I did at home because some of the stuff is crazy weird sounding. So, that’s how we’ve done it.
Jesse: And then bass, same? If it’s not you playing bass, whoever it is just writes their own parts over it; or do you have ideas for bass?
Marnie: No, I usually don’t. Like Matt did all his own stuff. And then live, the person playing just listens to whatever the person on the record did. With the drums, it’s harder to find someone who can play it because . . .
Jesse:  . . . those drums are crazy!
Marnie: Insane.
Jesse: OK, I don’t know if you’re going to feel like talking about this, but . . .
Marnie: Lady guitar?
Jesse: Lady guitar?
Marnie: Being a lady playing guitar.
Jesse: No, no, no. Please, I’m over it. [both laughing] I feel like I’ve asked that question soo many times, and I’m like, I can’t . . . I watched your Dirty Laundry video with Malia where you talk about your old drummer quitting right before your SXSW show a couple years ago . . .
Marnie: Ugh, what an asshole!
Jesse: What happened?
Marnie: He liked me, and we hooked up a couple times, but then I was like, ohhhewww, no . . .
Jesse: While you were in a band together?
Marnie: Mm-hmm. And then I met someone else at a show who was on tour, and started hanging out with him. And then we finished the tour and were going on tour again and I was like, "Listen, I’m not into this." And he was like, “It’s totally fine. I’m done.” But he wasn’t, and so then he was like holding it in the whole tour.
We had this showcase at SXSW, and he flipped in the hotel and had a tantrum. You would have laughed. It was shameful, like [makes awful baby crying noises] “You’re so stupid and you’re so . . . . ” I couldn’t even take him seriously. He was like, “I’m quitting,” and then he wouldn’t come up so we had the bellhop come up to get his stuff, and then he was like, “I have the van keys,” like threatening us, and so Malia, who’s no-nonsense, was like, “What the fuck?” She went down and was like, “What are you doing? If you want to leave, just fucking leave. Give me the van keys.” And he sent me emails that were—and I have crazy in me—hundreds that were, “You fucking bitch, I hope you die, you fucking bitch. We were gonna be a power couple together . . .” And I was like, "What? A power? What was your power?" Like, what the fuck?
Jesse: Oh my god! [all laughing]
Marnie: He would be like, “I hope you die early . . .” And then he’d write back another one and then call and be like, “I’m really sorry about that. I know that wasn’t right.” It just went on and on like that. And then finally he just stopped.
Jesse: Did he apologize?
Marnie: Yeah, in an email, he was like, “I guess you’re not gonna want to talk to me anymore.” [laughing]
Jesse: So, what did that show turn into?

Marnie: We got two members from …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and a member from Crystal Antlers, and we did a jam.
Jesse: That sounds fun!
Marnie: It was fun, but I think people were not so into it. But it was really fun!
Jesse: So, then how did you find Nithin?
Marnie: Through the guy I started dating when the drummer flipped out—he and Nithin grew up in Ohio together.
Jesse: Oh! Amazing.
Marnie: Weird, right?
Jesse: Yeah, that’s great. I love that. So, you wrote “For Ash” about your ex-boyfriend [who committed suicide]—what is it like to have a song like that, that’s so personal, and then release it into the world?
Marnie: Well, I’m so afraid that people are going to forget about him . . .
Jesse: He was an artist?
Marnie: Yeah, he was a painter. I’ve always been so obsessed with him that now it’s like a way to be obsessed without being embarrassed. When someone is gone it’s then all the sudden nice. I think about him constantly; and it’s, of course, so sad but it’s a way to keep him alive I guess.
Jesse: Were you close with him before he died?
Marnie: No, we had been broken up for six years. But I didn’t go out with anyone else cuz I just loved him so much. So, I hadn’t seen him. And I guess at the time when he died, he had a girlfriend, and she had three kids, and they all lived together. So, I can’t imagine what that was like for her and her kids.
Jesse: Wow, that’s tough. Did he have a history of depression?
Marnie: Yeahhh, but nooo. Yes, [pause] but just like any other emotionally unavailable dude. It was crazy—he walked into his work, went downstairs to the basement at seven in the morning on a bright, beautiful day like this, hung a rope and hanged himself.
Jesse: At his job?
Marnie: At his job. I think because that home with the three kids . . . I don’t know. I can’t imagine what was going on in his head, but it’s sad. Of course it’s sad, but especially because he was such an amazing, funny, great guy. Everyone thought he was the best. Everyone loved him, wanted to be around him, worshipped him, which made it even more frustrating cuz it was like, everybody liked you, not just me. Evvverybody thought you were the best ever.
Jesse: That’s intense. Well, on a lighter note, you’ve notoriously lived on the Upper East Side almost your whole life—have you always lived in the same apartment?
Marnie: When I was young we actually lived downtown in the Village. And then my parents moved uptown to First Avenue, so it wasn’t fancy Upper East End. It was kind of middle-class. And then we moved. Both of my parents kept marrying lots of other people—so then my mom and I moved to LA, and then when we moved back we had nowhere to go because she was going through a divorce, so we moved back into that apartment that had been my dad’s. Then I went to school, and . . . [when I was] twenty-five, my mom was like, “I’m getting married, but the apartment is rent controlled and I don’t want to lose it. Will you move in and pay rent?” And I was like, fuck no. I’m not moving up there.
Jesse: And you lived downtown because you went to NYU?
Marnie: Yeah. And then Ash and I moved up into that apartment. And I hated it for so long, but the thing is, it’s better to be around those schmucks than to be—because touring, you’re around the cool, hip thing all the time, so it’s nice to just have a break.
Jesse: Totally. So, your last record came out in the fall, and you’ve been touring a bunch lately. What’s next?
Marnie: More touring!
Jason: Do you mind if we start [shooting], just because I want to use sunlight a little bit?
Jesse: No. This is good, I think. That was my last “official” question, but do you have anything else to add?
Marnie: Vagina, vagina, vagina!
Jason: That’s very Sadie magazine! [all laughing]
Marnie’s Upcoming Tour Dates:
June 2011
14 - Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Forever Cemetery - w/ The Flaming Lips
15 - Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Forever Cemetery - w/ The Flaming Lips
17 - Las Vegas, NV @ The Pool at Cosmopolitan Las Vegas - w/ The Flaming Lips

July 2011
3 - Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
4 - Iowa City, IA @ The Mill
5 - Kansas City, MO @ The Record Bar
6 - St Louis, MO @ Firebird Chicago, IL @ Aragon Ballroom - w/ The Flaming Lips
8 - Chicago, IL @ Aragon Ballroom - w/ The Flaming Lips
December 2011

9 - Minehead @ ATP Nightmare Before Christmas -- w/ Les Savy Fav, Archers of Loaf, No Age, The Dodos
And her amazing, not-to-be-missed blog.

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