For 45 on-the-record and 20 don’t-print-this minutes, Marnie Stern and I talked at Molly’s Pitcher on the Upper East Side. The guitar-slinging singer drank three beers, waved a lot of cigarette smoke out of my face and entertained all of my questions as openly as possible, considering that none of my questions were very controversial. I learned a few things: that she eschews notoriety even at the expense of greater popularity, that she’s a very deliberate speaker (most of her answers were punctuated with long silences), and that, yes, she hates being labeled a shredder.
Why is this your go-to interview spot, of all places?
Because of all places.
Your third album is the self-titled one. Why is that?
One, in reaction to the long title [2008’s This Is It And I Am It And You Are It And So Is That And He Is It], which I didn’t think was going to be a big deal at all, and then was a big deal and I got lots of questions about it. Two, because the record is more personal, and I was feeling pretty proud of the songs, and I thought self-titled was good.
There’s a more self-affirming quality to the songs, I think.
And that’s what was going on in my life, personally. I’m not that social anyway, but I didn’t have much of a social life going on, and it was really just about the struggle with myself to keep going and keep doing music and feel like anything was possible with myself. And then all these personal things came up and they just, you know, fell into the songs naturally. The music had to reflect what I was feeling, so the style changed.
You’re frequently lauded for your technical skills as a guitarist. I think I’m obligated to ask you about your “shredding” and the whole guitar myth.
I don’t think I’m a very good guitar player. I think I’m pretty OK but really not great at all. Almost everyone I know plays the guitar really well and really interestingly. For me, I’ve tried to develop my own kind of style, and that’s the part I’m proud of, of trying to be as original with my playing as possible. The reason I’ve always loved a band like Deerhoof is because they put together parts that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together. They take classic-rock elements, jazz elements, noise elements and that kind of originality is something I’ve gravitated toward because it’s so different. Those are the types of things I’m attracted to, and so with my guitar playing I just happened to choose guitar as the instrument. Yes, I was attracted to technical players, but mainly because it was the style of music they were playing.
Do you ever think about your place with regards to critical perception about being such a dense “shredder”?
Of course, and that’s the one everyone goes to, and I’m finding that it holds me back in a lot of ways. My audience is in the indie small world. I mean, I’m not very well-known, but some people know who I am. When it comes to an audience at my shows, maybe it’s 150 people. It’s never really a huge crowd, and I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if people hear “crazy shred guitar” and think “Why do I want to go see that?” I am writing songs. The guitar is real pulled back on a lot of it. If I had chosen piano as the instrument, I probably would’ve found, hopefully, some weird way to play piano. It’s just — [groans] — “shred.” The word “shred.”
Like all you do is wail on it.
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s frustrating, but it is what it is. I fall into some weird niche category as opposed to a broader category. It’s good that I don’t really fall into a category that’s bad, because it’s not easy to say, “Oh, it sounds like this.” I would think, I don’t know. I’m not totally sure.
How much of a role do you play in branding yourself, or marketing?
A lot of bands are getting really into the social media and networking, tweeting constantly, blogging. Has anyone ever told you to “expand”?
My manager wishes sometimes that I would dress fiercer. [Laughs.] No. No. I have a Twitter.
I did see it. But you don’t tweet that much! Tweeting is like a by-the-hour thing.
I bet I’ll be the best tweeter in the world someday. Maybe that’s part of it. Zero branding. Zero marketing. Zero. I guess I want the emphasis to always be on the songs opposed to anything you might detract from the music itself. I don’t know how that fits into today’s music world. I honestly never thought about it that way.
The whole “indie” thing is being more pushed in a mainstream sense. Corporations are more open to having artists on their labels. I read an interview where you talked about the possibility of doing a Red Bull ad.
I think if I had more choices, if I made more money off music than I make, then I wouldn’t need to even think about. I wouldn’t even care. But when you’re so in debt all the time it does become frustrating having ramen at my age for dinner, a little bit. But it’s my choice, so I can’t really complain about it. I chose this field. I would forego food over what I do. So I don’t mind at all.
But I understand why corporate branding is looked upon the way it is and it makes perfect sense. If someone said. “Would you play a show for XYZ,” and it’s a rock show where I got paid, then yeah. The other thing is, I’m not really familiar with contemporary music. I don’t listen to much that’s new. Most of the people I’m friends with in bands don’t either. Not for any particular reason. I’ve never sat down and talked to them about why, but you know, maybe part of it is you grew up listening to things you thought were awesome and you still like listening to them. A lot of these questions and things, you don’t really think about them until you get asked, and then you have to start thinking about them.
On the new album you have one song, “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black.” How’d you write that one?
It was just a tongue-in-cheek response to the question of “What’s it like being a girl playing guitar?” Like it’s a novelty, which it isn’t. And also being known as that when … the reason it’s so difficult is because then it puts pressure … I don’t think I’m that great of a guitar player! It puts pressure…
Pitfalls of being the one indie-rock shredder.
I guess! But on this record there’s not a whole lotta shredding going on. At all. And the guitar parts on a lot of the songs are just chords and a lot of textural tapping. A lot of it’s textual, a lot of clean, simple notes. It’s all, for me, when I’m writing a song, the notes, the choices, whether it’s gritty, whether it’s smooth, it’s always referential to the mood. I’m trying to make the guitar fit the mood of what’s going on in the song. That’s the fun part, trying to get different tones or sounds out of the guitar.
I know you have high standards, in terms of writing songs. A song like “Risky Biz” has, again, this self-affirming idea of trying to get something out there. Do you write the guitar part first, and then the lyrics?
Yeah. Usually the lyrics in bits and pieces. Vocal melody for me is the hardest to fit over parts usually, because parts are doing a lot, and it’s hard to find space for it. Space is my big quest, which is tough since I like filling up space so much. The main progression in that song is like a four-finger subtle tapping thing that has an interesting groove to it, and I was thinking about someone in particular and it seemed to match.
Do you ever relax your own standards?
They don’t seem high to me! I mean, compared to the bands I worship who are so good to me, I just feel like such a piece of shit in comparison always. I mean, Don Caballero? Me? It does not feel on par at all. So I’m just constantly trying to get there, and maybe it is a mental thing, but I honestly feel like I’m pretty good at judging my own…. That’s totally not true, but it feels like I can listen to a song of mine and then a song of theirs, and oh my God, I’ve got miles to go.
Then do you finish a song because you’re satisfied with it or because you’re ready to just be done with it?
It’s different lately. A lot of songs never happen because there are parts that I love and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done but I can’t build on it. I can’t come up with the next thing. For some reason I can’t grow, and then I just give up on it. But I used to not be able to do that at all, but you know, maybe I’ll try three days every week to build off of something. If I can’t do it then it just sits there. There are hundreds of songs that never got finished.
Has it ever appealed to you to do a more stripped-down style?
I don’t even know how. I like having direction, some kind of focus, or else I feel like I’m all over the place, so I’ll say, “Zach, give me a focus for the day!” My friend Nick, who’s the guitarist and singer for Tera Melos, one day he said, “Gimme a song that’s just power chords.” I must have spent months doing that. And I came up with a hundred and then fell off.
If you’re not listening to more contemporary stuff, what do you listen to?
Classic rock. The Police. David Bowie. And then all those bands I’ve always loved. Ruins, Tera Melos, Sleater-Kinney.
I hear a lot of more classic ‘80s metal bands in your music. Do you listen to them a lot?
Yeah! I didn’t growing up, but that’s the station I listen to in the bathroom, or the classic rock station, and I like it and it’s fun. I listen to that. Sometimes things happen by accident, and it’ll sound so much like something else I’ve never even heard. Maybe a tone or the sense of a certain tone that’s very reminiscent of XYZ, and people will ask “Were you listening to that?” and I’ll say No, I’ve never heard it.
[To bartender: Could I have a beer? A light, lady beer? But not lite, just the color.]
Earlier, you said it can be frustrating, financially. Have you considered what, if you stopped doing music, what you’d do?
No. I can’t do that. [Laughs.]
If you were going to your high school reunion and had to explain what you’re doing now to someone you haven’t seen in forever, what would you say?
I do that all the time, and I can’t help but feel incredibly irresponsible in a lot of ways because everyone — it’s all relative to society’s standards. Ninety-nine percent of the people I went to high school with are married with children. I can’t think ahead like that because, yeah, you just have to do it day to day, or else you get caught up in what-ifs. I just cannot base my life in what other people are doing or what’s going on with anyone. I just have to stay the course, and hopefully something financially will settle into place. And if it doesn’t, I don’t think I’d stop doing music, but if I did, I’d get a job at the Supercuts.
Do you cut hair?
You’re embroiled in a blogosphere tiff right now because of comments you made about Best Coast in an interview. Have you been following that whole “explosion,” so to speak?
I feel badly that it came across that I was making a blanket statement about good or bad. Everyone’s making music; it’s a great thing to make music and I am pro-all music making. I was specifically just talking about taste, and my personal taste, and what I like to listen to, which is entirely subjective. All taste is subjective. I was not saying definitively about anything. I was saying that for me, I don’t like the lyrics. I’m sure some of my lyrics are very simplistic in nature and so is my playing. I was saying that when I’m listening to music for my taste, I usually gravitate toward something that to me is odd, or different, or guttural, or emotionally really charged. Those are my tastes in music. That is how we form our own opinions; at least, that’s how I form my opinion for myself on what I choose to listen to. But only for me.
I went on to say in that interview that I was really specifically speaking about the point in my life when I wrote those songs, which were highly emotional and the lyrics were emotional, so when I made those comments I was referring to myself and what would motivate me or what I would want to be listening to at that point. Of course there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of lyrics. I listen to many songs, all kinds of songs, obviously. I listen to the “Sweater Song”! [Laughs.] I was just specifically talking for my own personal tastes.
I don’t know if it’s the times now, but my intention is never — in life, as a person — to bring hurt feelings to anyone or judge anyone. In fact, the whole ethos of my goddamn life is to try to not be judgmental. But when it comes to making music for myself, I’m gonna have likes and dislikes and form opinions about what I want to listen to, entirely subjective based on that week, or that month, or that day. But you have to, or I have to, have an opinion about things.
It’s funny being called a “hater.”
And also, part of it is because I’m a little bit older. What I wasn’t paying attention to is that I do have responsibilities to be more specific and careful with what I say, though it is frustrating. It’s just a different time. I’d like to think that I’m not a “hater” but — and this is subjective, too, and coming just from myself — but there seems to be a real fragile nature, in my experience, in the music world right now. If you have a negative opinion on anything specifically, then you are a hater of all things, and I don’t know why that is. But you know, I’ve worked hard not to be. I don’t feel defensive.
Maybe there’s been more of a breakdown in recent years with regards to how people critically talk about music.
Let’s talk about that. That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what’s bizarre about genres in general. Sure, I listen to a lot of different genres, but that’s because that’s my taste as a person. I got into plenty of arguments with my last boyfriend, who played music, and we got into plenty of fun arguments: “No, that sucks.” “No, that sucks.” But you don’t think anything about the person or judge them. It’s just their own opinion!
Blog culture has increased the tendency of listeners to hear something once, pass judgment and move on. Does that bother you?
Everything is very different. The disposable nature of everything makes everything different. I have a lot of parts of my personality that are similar, in that I’m very particular with what I like and don’t like. I do that. I pass judgment when I listen to something. I’ll listen to one thing and if I don’t like it — well, it’s rare that I like anything — but, you know, I’m very judgmental with myself, my own tastes. And of course they’re all subjective, no right and wrong, but because I don’t really listen to much contemporary music, I hear about these things that are going on and they don’t really [do it for me].
For me you’d grow up with a band and you’d stick with them even if they ended up sucking, usually, because you’d stuck with them. There were base values like loyalty that were considered important qualities. And not even in an intellectual way! Shit, if you liked Aerosmith, then you loved Aerosmith, and you stayed an Aerosmith fan. Now it seems to be really antithetical to that, where you like something and then that’s it, you move on. What I was saying about Aerosmith, it doesn’t make sense to keep liking someone when they suck. It was just a different thing, because you had to seek out the thing yourself, and then you became a fan, and because there was more work involved, I think, it was more for me. Like when I found Hella. Oh, I found Hella, and the people at the shows were really dedicated, and they still are. I don’t know if that’s genre specific or what, but that seems to be different. I’m not entirely sure, either, because it’s not like I’m at those shows or listening to that music very much. Uh…
So what bands did you stick with?
All the noise bands I mentioned. Sleater Kinney. Ponytail. High Places. And then there are people where their music isn’t necessarily my style, like A Place to Bury Strangers, but I really like what they’re doing. Women. Different styles. Strange, strange shit going on.
Have you always lived in Manhattan?
Uh-huh. But I’m not a doer. I don’t go out.
I don’t enjoy it. I used to think it was laziness, but it’s not laziness. It’s something else. Obviously when I was in my 20s I went out a lot more, but shit, not so much anymore. So I don’t really take advantage of New York the way I should, and I really do like living up here [on the Upper East Side] because it’s really … not New York. I feel very separate, and I like all the families and kids and it gives me some perspective from the music world.
I saw you announced a tour, but there aren’t many dates on it. Are there more?
There are, but the booker hasn’t released them yet. Add three weeks onto the end. We’re doing CMJ then a month more then Europe straight. So it’ll be like two months total.
Do you like touring, playing live, going on the bus? I assume you don’t fly.
I do. Sometimes I fly. I do in Europe! I like it. It’s exhausting, but it’s really fun. It’s just a different time of life, more exterior. And again, there’s something of the vanity of getting on stage. You don’t grow very much, or at least I don’t, but it’s very fun. It’s escapism! That’s what it is. It’s escapism, and really easy to distract from anything.
Do you ever think about the vision of cool you’re fitting for someone in the audience?
Maybe you’re enabling someone to start their own band.
Well, that’s the thing, when you say things like that it’s fantastic! I just don’t think about that stuff. But yeah, then I feel like a very responsible person, and I feel like a more than responsible person!
Are you playing with the same band?
The drummer is the old drummer from Tera Melos, Vince Rogers. Nithin Kalvakota, who did drums last time, is playing bass. I wanted to hire a second guitar player, but it’s not looking likely. That’s another goddamn suck-ass thing, that I’ve done so many tours and gone into so much debt that they won’t give me any more credit cards. In order to do the tour you’ve gotta be able to give the band something. So I don’t know if I can afford another guitar player even though I’d really love to have one.
Maybe you’ll just have to shred harder.
I know. I know. But there is this idea now, there’s such a range with the setup asnd everything, I’ve never made a penny off of music. And I don’t mean that in a pity party way at all. A lot of times, people may assume that you’re set, but these are different times where music is free, basically, and a lot of people don’t show up to your shows, and your guarantees reflect that. It’s just different.
You could sell more T-shirts.
Working on it! Working on it! That’s why I did the kissing booth for Christ’s sake.
I wanted to ask you about that, but it seemed too forward.
If I have to again! Which is also very fun, but there weren’t many kisses, I’ll tell you that. Bleak. Can you think of another promotion?
I don’t know. Drinking with the band?
Give me 10 bucks and let’s get drunk. Of course the money doesn’t matter to me. I wouldn’t have spent 10 years in all those meaningless jobs and working. It’s just never been important to me, never been a focus. It’s easier when you’re comfortable, and it was easier when I had a 9-5 and could buy a few extra things here and there, but it’s just never been something I cared about. It’s unfortunate, though. But I’ll tell you something I like: Mac computers. Love ‘em. Love ‘em! I’ve had the same basic Mac laptop for four years. It’s been on every day for 24 hours for four years, and it still works. I endorse that company wholeheartedly.
One of these days it’s just going to shut down. That’s how they break.
Don’t say that.
Is that true?
With PCs you can tell ahead of time because they slowly get shittier. Macs just die.
Macs just die?
Yeah. Out of the blue.
This is a disaster. Are you kidding me? I gotta back up everything. But still. But still. I don’t even really need to use it. I just love the way the keys light up. I love the futures. I tell you, if I could’ve had another job — I used to say CIA, but someone said, “But if you’re in the CIA you can’t tell anyone you’re in the CIA,” so enough of that. So then … inventor! What’s cooler than being an inventor?
Nothing! You make the future. You are the future.