Marnie Stern “We really wanted the ear to focus on the song itself and less on part, part, part, part, part, part, part.”

When Marnie Stern plays guitar, her fingers are a blur. Her long blonde hair flies back and forth. Her Yoko Ono-esque voice shines through the rush of notes, coming at you faster than your brain can register. This tumult, though, is not just a gratuitous exercise in jaw-dropping skill, but the means by which Stern delivers catchy and inspired pop songs.

Stern's sophomore album, 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, produced by Hella drummer Zach Hill, was released by Kill Rock Stars last month. I caught up with Stern via phone during a break from practicing. We talked about the Mets, melodies, mash-ups, and more.



When did you first start playing guitar?

I started when I was 15. I took about three lessons, but then I really didn't pick it up again until I was about 21. I don't really know what propelled me back into it. I suppose I just had some kind of drive within me. I chose. It was more that I chose it. So at 21, I started chipping away at it more seriously.

How did you end up teaming up with Zach Hill?

The then-head of [Kill Rock Stars] Slim Moon had said, “If you have your dream pick of drummers, who would you want to work with?” And I said Zach Hill, because Hella was my favorite band. So he called Zach and asked, “Would you work on this?” and Zach listened to it and said yes, and that he'd like to produce it, because he had wanted to get into producing. So I was over the moon thrilled with that.

How do you balance between the pop and technical aspects of your music?

The pop parts are innately in me. They come out no matter what. I don't even have to work on that. That's just there; it just wants to come out. So the balance works well, because I kind of focus more on the guitar parts and the other style of the music, and the pop part just comes on top of it easily. Not so much with the vocals, though. Melody is harder for me with vocals for whatever reason. It's hard for me to find placement to sing a lot of the time, especially because the stuff is so busy.

What are some of your influences on both the technical and melodic/pop ends of things?

On the technical side, Spencer Seim from Hella, Mick Barr, Brian Gibson [of Lightning Bolt], Weasel Walter -- his compositions for Flying Luttenbachers -- and U.S. Maple -- that band had a huge influence on me. And then Deerhoof, and Deerhoof pop-wise, as well. I remember they were one of the first bands I heard that were sort of incorporating a pop sensibility into their style. Sleater-Kinney and Television. Television, in particular, had a huge influence because the guitars were really angular, and I thought the vocals fit on top really nicely. The guitar parts were stripped, but they meshed well. And The Who and a lot of the older bands.

"It's hard for me to find placement to sing a lot of the time, especially because the stuff is so busy."


Can you explain the album title for the new record [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]?

Zach came up with it, actually. We had been talking about titles for a really long time, and everything was taken. There's a database where you can look up everything that has been taken. I mean you wouldn't even believe what's actually been taken. We were joking around with movie titles, and we looked up Look Who's Talking, and it was taken. And then we looked up Look Who's Talking Too, and I mean everything has been taken. [Laughs] And I wanted to name it Marry Me from a funny scene in the TV show Arrested Development, but that was taken by St. Vincent. And so Zach had heard the title, it came up in his mind, and he mentioned it to me, and I thought “Yeah, that's really great.” I had no idea that a long title would be such a big deal. I really did not even think about it, not for a second. I thought people would just refer to it as “This Is It.” I don't know, I just liked it a lot. I mean, I do really long song titles. I don't really ever get any shit for that.

Have you gotten a lot of shit for the title?

Well, everybody mentions it, yeah.

How was making the new album different from In Advance of the Broken Arm?

I think that I try to focus a lot more on song structures, and I try to use a lot more restraint in terms of holding back, because my tendency, which shows, is to fill it up a lot. So, there were verses where I just held back and did some really basic stuff so the singing could come through. Zach, too, held back and had some restraint. We really wanted the ear to focus on the song itself and less on part, part, part, part, part, part, part.

What were the inspirations for your lyrics?

Usually they come from the things that I've been reading. If I read a tiny little bit that I like, I'll write it down. And paintings — titles of paintings. They're usually titles of things. Just bigger, broader statements that resonate with me that I think are moving or helpful for me while I'm sitting there working, trying to find some motivation or some inspiration to push myself to get better or, you know, feel excited. Because sometime you feel like nothing really changes in life, so by putting those kind of motivational lines in the songs, I'm kind of hoping it propels me, at least in that time and space when I'm writing the song.

Your lyrics this time around seem more personal. Was that a conscious decision?

Well, honestly, I'm pretty lonely in my life. I spend a lot of time by myself. Personally, it was the first time I had dated someone in a long time, and I couldn't help it. It was just in there.

With such complex and challenging parts, is it tough to pull together a live show?

Well, this tour is going to be really interesting. Zach is touring his solo record, so I'm playing with this drummer Jim Sykes who used to be in the band Parts & Labor, and myself on guitar, and then two other guitar players, Mark Shippy from U.S. Maple and Matt Papich, who plays in Ecstatic Sunshine. So, I think that it's going to be really exciting and interesting. We're going to be able to fill it up and try to come a little bit closer to actualizing the sound of the album.

"I really like cheesy sports movies where the underdog team comes from behind and wins."


What was your first reaction to Hood Internet's mash-up of “Absorb The Numbers” and Lil Mama's “Lip Gloss”?

I loved it! I thought it was so great, especially because I don't listen to hip-hop, and all of my friends do, and I never have any reference. You know, the biggest song in the world comes on and I'm like, “What is this?” But yeah, I just thought it was really, really energizing and fun. I thought it was great. Also, everybody seems to love it. I just got a message from the Hood people yesterday, and I said “Do another, do another!”

"Shea Stadium" is a timely song title given the closing of the stadium last month. Are you a Mets fan?

Yeah, I'm a Mets fan. I'm kind of a baseball fan. I really like cheesy sports movies where the underdog team comes from behind and wins. So I was watching The Natural and Rudy.

When you said that, I immediately thought of Rudy.

I don't see how anyone could see the movie Rudy and not be moved. But yeah, there's something really fantastic about being at a ballgame and the energy at the ballpark. I try to write stuff that's pretty anthemic, and baseball really has that anthemic, big feel. And so I knew that it was the last year for Shea Stadium, that they were tearing it down, so I got an impulse to write that song. It's also mixed with personal things as well.

And you're from New York, right?

Yes, New York, born and raised.

Do you feel like some of the frenetic energy in your music comes from the city's influence?

Actually, no, I don't, because I live here but I don't really live here. I don't take advantage of it. I don't go out of the house that much, to be honest. And even lately, I've been coming to band practice, and there is a lot of energy in the city, but I don't think that New York really has anything to do with the music at all. I think it's just more my personality.

If you weren't making music, what would you want to be doing instead?

Well, the other things that I'd want to be would be a private investigator, or I'd like to be in the CIA. I would like to be on covert operations.

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