Q&A: Marnie Stern On The Pains Of Making A Living, The Joys Of eBay, And Her New Album The Chronicles Of Marnia
Judging solely from the music she makes, it would be easy to assume that Marnie Stern resides on some other — presumably much more high energy — planet than the rest of us. Over the course of three frenetic albums, Stern has essentially created her own highly particular brand of rock music. Her songs are generally sprawling affairs that are epic in scope and characterized by Stern’s distinctive guitar playing: super-technical, hyper-meticulous shreds that sound as if they are being zinged out into the universe at about a million miles an hour. For her fourth record — the awesomely-titled The Chronicles Of Marnia — Stern dials back the mania so pervasive in previous releases and lets a few of her latent pop sensibilities rise to the forefront. It’s but one of several firsts for Stern, as Chronicles is also her first record sans regular drummer Zach Hill (who is replaced here by Oneida’s Kid Millions) and it marks the first time that Stern has worked with a proper producer (Rare Book Room’s Nicolas Vernhes). I called up a sleepy and apparently somewhat hungover Stern to discuss the new record and discovered that, even with a headache and no sleep, she is one of the funniest and friendliest musicians I’ve probably ever spoken to. Her new record is excellent as well.
STEREOGUM: I was very very very excited to do this interview. I’m not gonna lie. I’ve been a fan for a very long time.
STERN: Cool! That’s so nice to hear. I did a thing last night at the Bowery Ballroom. Fred Armisen had a show and I played in the band.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah, I heard about that. What was it like?
STERN: It was kind of like a variety show thing. I played a song and it was so fun. I drank too much … which is why I sound the way I do right now and almost missed your call.
STEREOGUM: Did Fred Armisen do stand-up of some sort?
STERN: Sort of. He played; you know he’s a musician. He played everything. He played drums, he played bass, he played guitar, everyone was so nice! It was great. It was the bass player from Bow Wow Wow, two guys from Les Savy Fav, a guy from Nada Surf played, the bass player from Yo La Tengo — everyone was just so NICE. And then I drank a lot at the end.
STEREOGUM: What song did you play?
STERN: “The Things You Notice” from the last record, the last song, and it was fine — no drums — but it was good!
STEREOGUM: Do you still live on the Upper East Side?
STERN: Upper East, yeah. In the woods.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been in that same spot forever.
STERN: Forever. Well, ten years. Forever.
STEREOGUM: That’s a long time.
STERN: Before that I was in the East Village.
STEREOGUM: Is this sort of a limbo time for you? Are you getting ready to be touring a lot this year?
STERN: Yeah, I’m excited. Well, it’s been three years, I think, like three years since the last record. No — two? Three? I think three! But you know, we finished recording this new one last May. We started in March. Record’s been done for almost a year.
STEREOGUM: What’ve you been doing with yourself for this past year?
STERN: Well that’s … watching a lot of TV. For money I’ve been giving guitar lessons and trying to sell plus-sized women’s clothes on eBay. But the eBay takes up a lot of time. Nine hour days when I get a load of clothes from my mom. But I gotta say I really like it because it’s very satisfying to go through the work, take the picture, write the listing, and then it sells! Ship it out, there you go!
STEREOGUM: Are you considered a power seller?
STERN: Yes, I am I won’t tell you my eBay name though — it’s so embarrassing.
STEREOGUM: My friend did that very same thing for a long time … and basically managed to make a living off of it.
STERN: What does she sell?
STEREOGUM: She sells all kind of things, I mean I think she sells clothes, but she’ll sell anything. She just randomly sells things out of her apartment when she’s tired of them. She’s always like, “People fucking buy it! This old toaster oven? Fucking sell that shit!”
STERN: They do.
STEREOGUM: She said it is much more laborious than you anticipate because you have to package it and sell it and then people are assholes and email you a million questions …
STERN: And they often return things or want their money back and you have to accept the return. My mom’s been doing eBay for a long time and its market is way oversaturated now so things don’t sell as much.
STEREOGUM: Did you tour a ton on the back of the last record? I feel like I saw you play several times during that era.
STERN: Yeah, for me I feel like I did. For that whole year I toured — then we did a bunch of U.S. tours, two or three, and then Europe — a long Europe tour. I did ATP and we went to Australia. Yeah, so I was touring a lot. But then I can’t play local shows because the band that I have — everybody lives in different places. So everything has been really quiet for a long time. It’s so weird how that is. It’s so busy, busy, busy, and then nothing. Busy, busy, busy, and then nothing.
STEREOGUM: I know you recorded this record with Nicolas Vernhes at Rare Book Room, who I happen to know very well. Was he was the producer?
STEREOGUM: Had you ever recorded with a proper producer before?
STERN: No, no and I always stayed away from it. Zach cut a couple of the records basically the producer. And I had always … well, we had conflict. Well, I think the second record Zach and I made together had more conflict. And then the third one we didn’t at all, and then with Nicholas it was pretty smooth, but there were definitely things that I … I tend to be very bad at confrontation, I don’t like it. And so I’ll hold something in forever and then suddenly just blurt out, “No I don’t want that!” Like — what? It was good though. Generally I wanted it to be more scrappy and messy, like the other records, and not everything played in the correct notes and stuff … so we would argue about that. To be honest, I can’t listen to some of the songs because the singing is too different than what I’m used to, but I did it.
STEREOGUM: The vocals on Marnia sound too clear?
STERN: Too clear and just too pop, to me. But I know that a lot of it is in my head, you know what I mean? I was glad to do it and to try something different, but it was hard to do that and feel comfortable. And it was hard to strip and take away the layers … I was prepared to do it because I knew that it was time to try that, but, it was very difficult. I like lots and lots of layers piled up on top of each other … I don’t like space.
STEREOGUM: Recording vocals is so nerve-racking. Are you one of those people who needs to record it while no one is looking at you and you just kind of hide in the booth and do it?
STERN: I was really comfortable with them, so it was okay. What was hard was we were so — we didn’t have a lot of time for any of it. I had to do all the vocals I think in one day — all of them. Also, in the other records we would take, like, lots of pieces that I had done at home and blend them with the stuff that we would do in the studio, but with this its almost all just studio. This is different.
STEREOGUM: Well how is it working with the new drummer? This is your first record without Zach Hill playing drums for you.
STERN: Great! He’s so nice, that kid, Kid Millions. He’s so nice and he came in and, you know, he learned the stuff and just went for it. I had given him the demos. He came in and he just went crazy for like, a day or too. He went nuts! And it was awesome. With Zach and I … it’s sort of like family — we’re just so — I feel very close to him so it has almost evolved into a different thing between he and I. But this was a really, really, a nice change. Different and fun. Kid knew Nicholas, too. So it was like, comfortable and it was fluid. And good.
STEREOGUM: That’s good. Those are big shoes to fill.
STERN: I know, it was so funny. I was like, “Would you consider playing drums on the record?” and he was like, “Yeah!” and then a couple of days later he was like, “Oh shit I have to try and replace that guy!” He forgot! Yeah, but I knew with his style that it wouldn’t be a problem … it would just be a little different. Which, I think was good, just to hear what it would be like. It’s still pretty busy. But then with him Nicholas was like, “pare it down, pare it down.” He had more business and Nicholas was like, “No, can you just play four/four?” So he was like, “Do I have to?” And Nicholas was like, “Yes!” You know, so that’s how that went.
STEREOGUM: Do you find that your way of making songs — and piecing songs together — has changed a lot since you first started making records?
STERN: Kind of, I mean here’s the thing that I can’t do to this day: I don’t know if it’s pressure or I’ve just never done it, but I can’t spontaneously come up with a part for a song. Like, I did that a couple times on the record and I really don’t like the things I came up with — they’re not me. It takes me so long to sit down and work things out … that’s part of why I don’t think I’m a very good player. It takes me so long to come up with any little tiny bit that I like. So I can’t just be like, “How ’bout this?” and then toss out some new guitar part in a few minutes. It would take me an hour at least to be like, “Okay, maybe this.” I wish that I was more spontaneous, kind of, and could make a record live with the band, which is what Nicholas is more used to doing. Everybody getting into a room and just banging it out. Instead it’s all separate, I’ll put on this guitar part, I’ll put down this guitar part, now this guitar part. Singing: I’ll do this singing line, now this singing line, then the drummer comes in, then the bass player does his thing — then everything gets mixed together. It’s less spontaneous — I mean, I don’t really care, but it’s more like one of those sensitivity insecure issues that I think about. Like, am I for real?
STEREOGUM: Well I don’t think it’s any more or less legit than any other way to make songs. Everybody has their own way of working. It’s not like one is better than the other. But you can play the guitar in a way that a lot of people would never be able to. Your ability to shred is legendary.
STERN: Mmmmmm … hmmmmmm.
STEREOGUM: I mean, previous to making this record I remember reading an interview with you — I can’t remember exactly where it was — but you were talking about the difficulty of doing this as a career for so long. Was there a point after touring the last record — or maybe this happens with every record — where you debate whether or not you’ll ever make another one?
STERN: It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I was worried that I couldn’t find anyone to release it. That’s what I was worried about. It wasn’t that I don’t want to, it was, “Uh-oh, can I actually DO it?” And if I can’t, do I self release it? And do I do Kickstarter, and, “Oy … I don’t want to do Kickstarter.” ‘Cause everything is so crazy now! I don’t know if people realize how crazy it actually is, but the labels are just so incredibly conservative in terms of they want it to be a sure bet because nothing sells. I mean, thank god for Kill Rock Stars and some labels who are willing to take the risk and kind of know that there won’t be that much of a reward, but with everyone else it’s like … “How can we many any money off of this?” I understand it. They’re not making any money. It’s a business, after all. So everything is just totally petrifying to me in that way. So that’s why the eBay is like, “Okay, I list it, it sold, it’s done.” Every day you don’t know what’s gonna happen … and it’s kind of exhausting. Like I keep thinking, “Am I gonna get to a point where I don’t have to worry? Will I reach that point where I could always put something out if I wanted — if people listen to it or not, is another story — but will I reach a point where I don’t have to worry?” I can’t feel that yet, you know?
STEREOGUM: There are some people that certainly can operate without ever having to worry about that, but my guess is that the majority of people who make music these days almost all live with that concern now. I always fantasize about that. It would be so great simply not wonder how I’m gonna pay my rent from month to month.
STERN: Can you imagine that relief? It’s gotta be wonderful.
STEREOGUM: I have a friend who is an artist and a performer and she does a lot of crazy things to make a living in New York. She’s always told me this: “I don’t look at it like, ‘How am I gonna pay my rent?’ [spoken in fearful tone] but more like, ‘Hey! How AM I gonna pay my rent this month?!” [spoken in gleeful, inquisitive tone]. Like it’s a fun game.
STERN: Yes! Like it’s a fun challenge. That’s funny. But then I also feel like a brat, like a spoiled brat. I’m not going out to an office and working, so what am I complaining about?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I think about that too. I mean, I’m talking to you right now, this is my work. So, will you be touring with these same dudes who played on the record?
STERN: No, of course. Kid is scheduled to play with Oneida a lot this year — I mean, these drummers! They’re so busy all the time! So, my friend who used to play with Parts and Labor is going to be the touring drummer. I’m really excited. I want to get another guitar player so bad so that I don’t have to rely on looping so much, but I just don’t know if we can afford it!
STEREOGUM: When does the touring really kick in?
STERN: Well for a test run we’re doing South By Southwest. I’m going to Chicago to practice, since the bass player lives in Chicago and then we’ll play one or two shows along the way and then we do South By. We start playing shows like, April 9th and then it goes for a month and then I play Europe after that at the end of May, beginning of June.
STEREOGUM: Well that’s cool, that’s a healthy part of the year blocked out.
STERN: Yeah. I guess I’ll still be worrying about rent and stuff but trying not to. You can worry about that; you can just worry, and worry, and worry and have that terrible feeling of, “Uh-oh, I don’t have any money.” But, it always gets sorted, you always figure it out, and even if you go more in-debt then it’s like “Okay, I guess that’s what’s happening.” (laughs)
STEREOGUM: I think it’s cool that the longer you live in New York — I remind myself of this sometimes — If you get truly desperate or shit gets really crazy, you probably know enough people that you can call and just be like, “Give me something to do!” And they would do it. It’s reassuring.
STERN: Yeah. My roommate and one of my closest friends, I’ve known him since college, is a 38-year-old man who has a “homeless fear”… and he makes a terrific living! I’m like, “Are you kidding?! You still have the homeless fear thing?” He’s like, “Yes, I do. What would I do?” I’m like, “Go to a million friend’s houses! You graduated Columbia business school, are you insane?! You can get a job anywhere!” He’s like, “No, I have this vision of being homeless!”
STEREOGUM: Sometimes that’s a healthy thing. People who grew up much like myself — I grew up in the Midwest and very poor as a kid — it stays with you. I remember talking to Beth Ditto from the Gossip and she was saying that she still has an eyebrow pencil that was like, eight years old in her purse, that she will just keep using forever even though she can afford another one and she has her own makeup line with MAC cosmetics. She referred to it as “scarcity issues.” You hang on to your eyebrow pencils, just in case.
STERN: Old habits die hard, that’s so true. And some of the stuff is like, correct, why would you get a new one if you have one? That stuff seems to make sense.
STEREOGUM: I love the vibe of the new record. I love how upbeat and positive it is.
STERN: Cool! Well after the one before that was … God, you don’t realize when you’re in something what a downer that shit is, but I listened to one of the songs recently — when you’re playing them live it’s different for some reason. So I make the record and I don’t listen to it for years. And I listened to it recently, like one of the songs, and I was like, “Jesus Effing Christ! Turn that off — God!” And at the time, I remember thinking, “It’s okay that I was going through that, everybody likes somber music.” Not me. Get that bummer shit out of here. So yeah, everything was pretty even stevens in my life and that’s kind of why it’s just got a pleasant, plodding along feel to it. The vibe is pretty upbeat. Happy, even.
STEREOGUM: You sort of get sold this idea when you’re young that things aren’t legitimate unless they’re difficult … or that things can’t be powerful unless they express something negative. As I get older, I really appreciate things that can be happy and celebratory in a genuine, non-ironic way.
STERN: You NEED it, kind of! I feel like you need it.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, its like you cant always be that morose sixteen year old version of yourself forever, I mean, even if you’re that most of the time, it’s nice to not be that sometimes.
STERN: Exactly! I feel like, things change of course, but for an example: I notice all of my friends maybe ten years ago would maybe say, “Mmmm it’s four o’clock maybe I shouldn’t have a glass of wine yet.” Now it’s like, “Who gives a shit? Yeah, I’ll have a glass of wine!” Letting go of things and, you know, I’ll take what I can get is how I feel about everything, which is part of letting me look at what I have versus what I don’t, because … like I said, I’m tired of worrying, I’m tired of feeling nervous … just gimme the good stuff and I’m glad to have it. Life is ridiculous.
STEREOGUM: I’m sure you will have to have this conversation a million times if you haven’t already, but I mean, The Chronicles Of Marnia really is the best titled album maybe, ever. I’m not kidding, I love it so much. Even before I heard a single song of it and I hear what it was called I was like, “Oh My God, YES!”
STERN: Well it just happened in a very casual conversation. I don’t even remember exactly, but I just titled it as a song and then when I played the song for people they were like, “You should name your album that.” And I was like, “Can you do that?” Meaning, not can I, but would I get in trouble with the Narnia people … that’s what I worried about at the time.
STEREOGUM: I guess not.
STERN: I love that I didn’t even research it any further. I was just like, “That’s the title!”
Marnie Stern’s The Chronicles Of Marnia is out 03/19 via Kill Rock Stars.