Q&A: Marnie Stern on Trying to Survive the Music Landscape
Since her debut, “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” it’s been clear that Marnie Stern is one of the best rock guitarists around. And with each successive album, she’s proven that her skills as a songwriter and lyricist match her virtuoso abilities. On her new album, the wonderfully titled “The Chronicles of Marnia,” the craziness of her previous records – walls of winding guitars and the sounds of thousands of thundering drums – is pared down ever so slightly, which gives her lyrics about striving and struggling to practice her art that much more room to resonate. That said, “Marnia” is still one of the wildest cacophonies of squealing guitar solos, fretboard dancing, and crashing drumming you’re likely to hear this year. ARTINFO’s Bryan Hood recently spoke with Stern on the phone about her recording process, what in the music business has got her down, and bands forgotten to time.
“The Chronicles of Marnia” is your fourth album. How has the process changed since your first record?
Well, the first one, you have a lot more time to do it and you’re figuring out stuff, which is sometimes better because it’s more refreshing. But really the process is still the same, you’re still trying to find creative ways that aren’t stale, that you haven’t done too many times.
When you start working on an album do you already have a theme in mind, or is this something that surfaces during the writing and recording process?
No, I’m not like a band that goes in and says, ‘OK, we’re going to make a record.’ It’s more like a job where I try to work on it all the time and come up with themes in my head. The themes, where they used to be really broad, now they’re much smaller, they’re just small details that I like to put in.
What themes do you notice in “The Chronicles of Marnia”?
Stylistically, I was listening to a little more ’50s music, like Chuck Berry. Getting into that kind of style of guitar. And the lyrical themes, they’re similar, but basically it’s such a strange situation out there with music that I’m always worried that I’m not going to – both creatively and literally – have the opportunity to release music. So that’s a fear.
Why is this a worry for you, especially since your records have tended to receive lots of positive critical attention?
Because labels are much tougher now in terms of choosing what they’re going to release. They’re not making any money, so they have to make sure they release stuff that sells, and my music doesn’t really sell records. So logically, I would be on the chopping block.
Is this a feeling you’ve always had or is it something more recent?
I think it’s more recent, because when you start out you’re fresh and known as the new thing. That passes quickly in the music world. It’s also a reflection on all the musicians that put out records that I looked up to so much that you just don’t hear about anymore. And wanting them to live on.
Who are some of those musicians?
Oh, just a lot of different bands that I was listening to when I was starting out. When you’re younger you just have a tendency to idolize stuff more. Like I was just talking to our drummer about the band Don Caballero, that’s one, and Royal Trux was another – bands that in their time were considered the coolest of the cool, and I guess the people who remember them still consider them that, but no one else remembers them.
Do you see yourself fitting into this kind of role as a musician?
Yes. Yes. Yes. It doesn’t worry me – it would be nice to be remembered at all in any capacity, but it’s just a shame. It just sucks that something becomes popular and just the nature of humanity, once it’s popular, it’s over sort of.
Do you think this is exacerbated by the constant hype circles of the Internet?
Of course. That’s what I mean. It’s much more accelerated than it used to be. And the quality of music is suffering.
But you keep doing this. What pushes you?
What else would I do? Plus, I enjoy it. I can’t, I mean, never say never, but I can’t imagine – and I say this every year – doing this very physical thing for that much longer. But you know, I thought that six years ago, and here I am, sitting here right now.
One thing that sticks out about “The Chronicles of Marnia” is that it feels more accessible than your other records. Was that something you were going for?
No, but the engineer was, so it was a compromise that I made. The producer wanted it to be more sparse. If I had my way I’d make the same kind of record over and over again. I argued a lot, and then in the end I acquiesced. It’s a waste of time to argue.
After working with drummer Zach Hill (Hella, Deathgrips) on your first three albums, you worked with Kid Millions this time. What was that like?
It was good. It was different recording in New York instead of California. But it was easy because it’s home and [he] is really nice and easy to get along with. He came in and did his parts for a day or two and that was it. It was cool.
When did you finish the album?
Almost a year ago.
Is it strange talking about something you finished working on so long ago?
Everyone needs time to do stuff. The distributor has to make the records. There’s always like a six-month hold, then we pushed it back even further, and pushed it back again. I don’t listen to it anyway. As soon as I finish making it, I’m thinking about new things in my head. Everyone’s like that, though.
How do you feel about the album?
Some parts I like a lot. That’s how I usually am. Later on I listen back and I either love it or hate it.