Q&A: Marnie Stern
By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 20 February 2013
Marnie Stern’s distinct sound, mixing highly technical guitar playing with lo-fi indie rock, reached many people’s ears for the first time with the release of her 2007 debut album, ‘In Advance Of The Broken Arm’. Since then she has continued to develop that style, earning a CMU Artist Of The Year nod in 2010 following the release of her astonishing eponymous third album.
Next month, on 18 Mar, Stern releases her fourth LP, ‘The Chronicles Of Marnia’, her first without drummer and producer Zach Hill, who these days is occupied by Death Grips. Instead, she worked with Nicholas Vernhes (aka Oneida drummer Kid Millions), who moved her songs into more understated waters.
CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Stern to talk about the recording process, her songwriting and the perils of the music industry in 2013.
AM: Your last album was called ‘Marnie Stern’, this time you’ve gone with ‘The Chronicles Of Marnia’. Which is the more accurate representation of you? This new album seems more positive, which I guess is reflected in the title.
MS: At the time, ‘Marnie Stern’ was a fair representation of what I was going through, and this new record is a reflection of the things I’ve been thinking about more recently. It’s more positive and upbeat because my life’s been fairly even for the past few years.
AM: Do you write songs continuously, or is each album more of a focussed look at a period of your life?
MS: I write continuously, but the songs I end up using are usually written around the same time, because I end up locking in with a bunch of ideas. I sort of get some bursts of clarity and similar themes. Sometimes, I’ll pull a few songs in randomly that I like. But that’s generally the way it goes.
AM: This is your first album without Zach Hill as both your producer and drummer. How did his absence affect the writing and recording of the album?
MS: It didn’t affect the writing at all, because I write the songs alone, but the recording was different. For the first time, I used a different studio, and Kid Millions came in. Recording is always fairly similar, so it wasn’t like doing a 180, but it was a new environment with new people in the mix.
AM: What did Nicholas Vernhes bring to the process? There seems to be more clean vocal parts and space to breath between the all-out shredding this time around, is that part of his guidance or a natural progression in your sound?
MS: Yes, that’s Nicholas. If it were up to me, I’d keep the vocals a bit more rough around the edges and fill some of the empty space, because I’m not a fan of empty space. But we talked about it and in the end, I knew that it was pointless to just keep repeating myself, so we created space by taking away some guitar parts. And we recorded all the singing on nice microphones.
AM: How long did you spend in the studio working on this record? Are the songs pretty much written when you start recording or do they change as you work on them?
MS: I write them all at home in demo form and they are fully formed at that point. At home I spend a long time on them, changing the arrangements and adding parts etc. The studio is mainly just for re-recording all the parts and adding bass and drums. There was one song that we worked on there, but I’m really bad at coming up with things on the fly. I’m better if I have time to work on it at home. We spent two weeks recording and ten days mixing, I think. We actually started recording last spring, so the record has been done for quite a while.
AM: You spoke recently about your worries regards increased competition and smaller budgets in the music industry. How have things changed since your first album?
MS: Well to be honest, they’ve gotten worse. There’s no way to control any of it though, and I am so fortunate to be releasing music in the first place, so that is the attitude I have adopted. I’m focusing on the things I have instead of the things I don’t.
AM: You seem to be quite involved in the business side of things. Is that something you enjoy?
MS: I don’t mind it. It’s really not very complicated, more just a lot of little details that always need tending. It also makes me feel mildly productive when I can check things off of a ‘to do’ list, since the process of song writing isn’t as cut and dry. You don’t always see immediate results from your efforts. With the business side, it’s more clear cut.
AM: What are the realities of the music industry in 2013? Has what’s most important creatively or commercially changed for you?
MS: The only thing that has ever brought me true internal satisfaction is coming up with a song, or even a part of a song, that I like and am proud of. I enjoy touring, but it’s much more external. To be honest, I don’t even particularly love recording an album. What I enjoy is sitting there trying to come up with something, and being aware of the moment when the pieces lock into place. It’s exhilarating.
For a while, I think I started to get caught up in trying to focus on the idea of “my career” and trying to make a living off of it. It just made me disappointed and depressed to look at it that way – that competitive way, I mean, where you start comparing yourself to other bands. I’m not interested in being on that hamster wheel.
AM: You also teach guitar in between recording and touring. What are you like as a teacher?
MS: I really enjoy it. I’d like to think I’m patient and I try to focus on each person’s strengths. I mostly love watching them fall in love with playing, because it makes me love it all over again.
AM: And finally, your US label Kill Rock Stars is giving away a date with you on the day the album comes out as a prize. How do you feel about celebrating the release of your new album with a fan?
MS: I think it will be fun, and I’ve had such terrible luck with dating, that you never know! They may pick somebody good, or at least it will make for a funny story at dinner parties.