We really wanted to ignore the fact that indie-rock femme guitar virtuoso Marnie Stern is kind of a babe. We think her face-melting matters more than her heart-melting attributes, and worry that mentioning her half-smiling, half-winking glow might undermine years of tireless struggle. Her looks are beside the point, right? "Rock" and "cute" have nothing to goddamn do with one another. It's 2010, people.
But let's just clear the air, get the creepy fanboy part out of the way: Stern has looks to kill and an axe to match. She also has few qualms with playing it up. On her last tour, the entrepreneurial Stern set up "kissing booths" — $3 for the cheek, $10 for literal lip service, and a cool $100 for some tongue action — to help pay for a traffic ticket. Sex and awkward hormonal nostalgia sell, it seems.
When we caught up with the guitarist-bandleader-jokester on the phone, she was mid-College Music Journal (CMJ) Marathon — New York City's answer to Austin's South by Southwest — playing multiple gigs a day in scattered venues around her home turf. It was business as usual for a musician who has been at it for much longer than her quick rise into the upper indie crust would suggest. From the age of 23 to 30, Stern played and gigged and grew, listening to technically savvy, dissonance-friendly bands like Hella, the Flying Luttenbachers, Deerhoof, and other outfits on the 5RC label. "When I hit 30, I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' But, oddly, that's when I got the record deal" with Kill Rock Stars, Stern says. "I'm not a schmoozy person, and you didn't used to be able to get a record deal from the Internet, but in the end, all of that playing to nobody forced me to get my own style."
That style would be finger-tapping, a technique first popularized by the likes of Frank Zappa, ZZ Top, and Eddie Van Halen and first heard from Stern on her 2007 debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, which The New York Times called that year's "most exciting album." The hypershredding riffs continued on her say-it-out-loud 2008 disc, 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, with Stern dancing on the frets with both hands, soloing throughout the verses and occasionally in the choruses, with little regard for traditional song structure and pacing herself.
It's working. Shows are selling out and critics are fawning. But on this latest release, Stern focuses less on technique and more on honest songwriting — heart fully present on sleeve, audacious as a girl necking with random fanboys. "It's a weird thing. I'm really proud of this record because it's much more of me putting myself out there," she says. "I had much more personal things going on in my life, just a lot of minicatastrophes that were happening over and again."
Case in point: "Transparency Is the New Mystery," where the words "I'm not enough" echo amid decelerated guitar work and other verbal pleas for decency. The thread continues, but the ideas change, on "Female Guitar Players Are the New Black," where Stern laments, "I will find you there living in the desert heat/I will find you there with another kind of girl/You're gonna come around," and further pontificates with Iron Maiden-esque guitar assault.
Percussion, too, is as important as ever to Stern's music, where fills sound like Ritalin-free temper tantrums. (Stern recorded with Zach Hill, wild-man drummer and all-round sound engineer for Hella, but Vincent Rogers handles sticks on the road.) On "Cinco de Mayo," drums race with guitar notes, but unabashed sentimentality shares the stage: "I miss you/I'm shouting it out to the gods," she sings, and the juxtaposition borders on surreal.
Stern says she doesn't pay much attention to critical adulation, though she'll retweet good reviews, which are piling up. What matters to her is, well, her. "I'm very hard on myself," she says. "The only time I ever feel proud of myself is after I've recorded the song and I listen to it with Fig [her Yorkshire terrier–Maltese crossbreed] on the bed — that's the only moment I ever say I like it. Then you play it live all the time and it's a completely different feeling anyway."
Stern, also owner of a cunning sense of repartee, seems entirely comfortable in the live setting, and also with sharing life's more personal moments offstage. Her Vagina Monoblog (vajamming.blogspot.org) betrays a punk rocker with coy wit, close friends, Fig, and a predilection for Law and Order (she takes pictures of the courthouse steps from the intro montage to prove it). Somehow that all adds up to a little perspective.
"It's so rewarding [to know people are paying attention] because I did it all by myself," she says. "It feels so damn great, especially when your parents are like, 'Where's the baby and the husband?' and all that shit."