Marnie Stern: Lost in Translation | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Marnie Stern

Lost in Translation

Apr 11, 2013 Web Exclusive
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Marnie Stern's outspoken confidence comes from her ability to block out the noise in her life. Not the transcendent shrills of her whirlwind guitar tapping, but her struggle to face what may happen if the well of her musical career were to run dry.

Stern is hardly naïve to the realities of her craft. The New York-based musician realizes she makes ends meet through teaching guitar lessons and helping her mom with eBay sales. Indie fame isn't exactly a cash cow, and praise as a contemporary guitar great doesn't make her rich either. "It's so strange," she says. "If you get a boost from SXSW for a while, you're doing well for a little bit. But it's so short-lived."

With the release of The Chronicles of Marnia, her most focused collection of songs to date, and a month-long tour ahead, Stern has put her long-term worries on hold in order to focus on what she does best-play guitar. As she recently waited for some new merchandise to arrive at her New York abode, Under the Radar spoke with her about the new record, her recent SXSW trip, and how critical and popular acclaim rarely go hand in hand.

Max Blau (Under the Radar): On The Chronicles of Marnia, you've noted that you scaled back some musical elements to accentuate your guitar playing. What originally prompted you to do that?

Marnie Stern: It happened a little bit on its own by me working on stuff at home. I just try do stuff [that's] kind of a change...the more stripped down part. Also, I had an older version of ProTools that kept crashing and couldn't handle a lot of tracks. So it was sort of happening out of necessity. But then going into the studio, this was the first time I worked with a producer and he was pretty insistent on building up everything from scratch as opposed to the way I had usually done, which was to do the demos, bring them in, and then [create] overdubs on a lot of what I had originally done at home. I think that's part of why it sounds a little less chaotic. When I had [recorded music] before, there had been so many layers. [With] already a bunch of layers of guitar, then we'd overdub that with many more layers-and then vocals, we'd overdub those vocals. With this record, except for some of the tapping loops, we just kept it starting from scratch. So that's the main difference. I guess it's a pretty big one.

Was that a conversation you had before you went into the studio?

A little bit of both. [Producer Nicolas Vernhes] and I had talked about it beforehand. We had a couple of meetings. Then, there were things that happened as we went along, where I had probably been expecting to just add on vocal stuff, and we did it from scratch.... On all three of the previous records, I did most of the work at home first. I [also] had a plugin for distortion that has had a very similar sound on a lot of the records because it was the same tone. We didn't use that tone and that changed the feel as well.

You mentioned to Pitchfork in a recent interview: "There's this feeling I've had where I'm trying to pull creativity out of myself, where I love to do music so much, but the connections I make with it are not as strong as the ones I made when I was young." Could you elaborate on that?

The spontaneity, just the action of sitting in a spot and making music [and] trying to record music...gets lost after a point because you're doing it so much. It's impossible for your brain to not develop just easy patterns...a mindless thing. For me, going on tour, and I think this happens to a lot of musicians, you start to be come a little bit disillusioned.

You hear so many bands every night when you play. Right now, the kind of music that I kind of love isn't really around as much. The bands I felt like I was inspired by, that style, isn't really that prevalent.... To put it simply, almost all the musicians I talk to, almost everyone says, "I hate music. Ugh, I'm so sick of music." And it's true, because when that's the only thing you're doing for so long, that's bound to happen.

How do you shake that feeling?

The way to undo that is to find different ways to approach songwriting. The advice people have given me is to listen to other types of music that you wouldn't necessarily listen to. I don't know. Otherwise, I would imagine they would always say that it's a young person's...you know. The people who are youngest are the most creative.... You do the same thing so many times that it's eventually going to come out.

Given the rat race that you describe with new bands, what are your thoughts about SXSW? You just went a whole bunch of shows down there, including a performance at an Under the Radar party.

It all depends on what place you're at. My memories of South By in the past were miserable. In the past people say, "Oh, it's such a clusterfuck. It's terrible. It's so claustrophobic." I remember it as being that way every other time I've gone, but this last time I just had so much fun that it didn't matter. I think in part that's because we stayed at a very nice hotel room...

For myself, I had been not sure of what was going to happen musically with me-if I was going to be able to release this record in the first place. I was so thankful that I did that everything that's happened with this record...I think bands do SXSW if they have a record out because it gets a little more press circulating... Every couple of years that I put out a record, the landscape keeps changing and it gets quicker and quicker and quicker where...maybe in 2007 there would be a little bit slower pace. There would be bands that everyone wants to look out for. There were a handful of those, but now it seems [there's] five of those bands in five months, and those [earlier] bands would be considered veterans, even if they are [relatively] new.

SXSW was good on my end because I hadn't learned any of the songs, so we got together and learned the songs for the new record and played them 10 times in three days, which gets us ready for a bigger tour. And it was warm there. 

Since you said it just got dropped off a few minutes ago, what sort of merch do you have for the tour?

We've got some good shirts! Just the usual that I ordered from the label. We've got Marnie Stern beer koozies. I don't know what that says about me.

You mentioned how indie rock has changed, even from album to album that you've released, where bands like Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear have become 'veterans' despite still being relatively young bands. How do you make sense of that?

It's crazy to me how [there can be] a band, not even myself, but a band that's gotten tons of attention, and then two years later nobody cares because the palette has changed. I think when you're going through it and you're touring and you're playing all these places, it's so fun. Thank god I was older when it started happening for me...because I can't imagine being in my early 20s and doing all that and having it just sort of go away so quickly.

It reminds me of Death Grips last year. I know Zach Hill used to play with you, but the hype never seemed to match the actual ticket sales.

What's so interesting to me is that there is a disconnect. You can't tell. For example, I am a person where I feel I get a lot of press coverage. If you compare it to my 'popularity'...how many people come to shows or how many people buy records or actually really know me...it's unbelievable how few that is compared to.... For example my mom said, "I don't understand. I saw you in this, I saw you in that. Doesn't that mean something?" And I'm like, "Well, no. It doesn't." I don't know if I'm just very terrible and people hear about it and go check it out and are like, "That's horrible, I hate it."

It's fascinating that that's the case, but then media outlets will praise you as one of the world's greatest guitarists. How do you feel about those kinds of laurels and the fact it doesn't translate financially?

I used to feel insecure about it. I didn't feel that it was warranted. When I would see one of those things and hear about it, I would picture all the people that I know who are really good guitarists looking down at me thinking, "Uh, that's so annoying." Now, I'm really appreciative of it and I'll take it. You know what I mean? I'm happy to hear that, but the thing is, I don't understand because it doesn't translate into someone listening to it.

I don't know. I'm just more curious than anything else. As an example: tUnE-yArDs. She makes experimental music and it's very popular. What's the diff? I don't know. There must be [something] because she's extremely popular. What she makes is good and fun and amazing and I'm very happy for her, truly, and I think it's a good example where I'm happy for their success because you think it's good for all the other people who are trying to make music that isn't just as cut and dried. To my mind we're similar in category, so it's interesting to me that she's able to reach such a broader base. I don't think it's just a function that she's with a bigger label. I think it's something with the material. I don't know. On the other hand, look at Justin Timberlake...

I spoke with Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery a few months ago. He talked a lot about retaining fans and the number it takes to sustain a full-time musician.

The scariest of all of it to me: I can't jump to any point in the future in my head, because then I will start panicking. I thought, "Okay, this is what I'm doing for the next year. I'm touring and I at least do not have to worry about heating because I'll be on tour for the next period of time." So that's satisfying and then I thought, "Wait a minute, what if I can't put out another record?" It's not me being fatalistic. It's me being practical. "What if I don't put out another record? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" I know that sounds ridiculous. I know that's what normal people think all the time, which prevents them from getting into this predicament in the first place. Then I just shut it off. I'm like, "Okay, can't think about that. Just think about right now."

What is your ideal happy medium? What is the right balance?

Financially, here's the problem, is that I still have the same debt since 2007 on these credit cards that I put money back on to pay for tours. So I owe $20,000 on these cards and I've just been paying the minimum for all these years. So I haven't even really been [paying] the amount that I owe. That is a terrible thing when I think about that. I would love to just get one [sync] for a commercial and wipe out that debt. With that wiped out, then if I had to get a 9 to 5 job, no problem. I don't know. That would be an ideal thing.

If I could have my dream life, I like doing this eBay thing with my mom. It would be exactly what I'm doing, but maybe with a little bit more money here and there. Then touring, but instead of a bum rush of five tours topped on top of each other...a month tour, then a month off, a month tour, then six months off. But I've chosen to do a bunch of tours now for this thing because that way you can eat and you don't have to spend any of your money while you're on tour. That's why I set up a bunch of touring right now, so I don't have to worry about that.

www.marniestern.net

(Find Max Blau on Twitter: @maxblau)



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campervan
January 7th 2014
9:49pm

haha,i really like her
Marnie Stern’ is nice girl