Sexism lives, even in the supposedly enlightened realm of 21st-century indie rock. Just ask Marnie Stern, the brilliant insomniac guitar phenom from New York City who's released two excellent albums on Kill Rock Stars—she's received plenty of shit-talk from Anonymous Internet Commenters™.
"'I wish I was a girl; then I could be considered a great guitar player,'" Stern quotes a typical detractor in a phone interview. "There's tons of shit on the internet where people say, 'She fucking sucks, her riffs are lame.' 'Three of my roommates play guitar better than you do.' People are really angry about it. I couldn't care less. I piss people off. That's cool. I think it's hilarious that people get really pissed," she says with obvious glee. "[It's mostly] dudes around the age of 19, 20." On the other hand, some of these young'uns propose marriage to Ms. Stern. She usually replies, "Okay, in a few years."
Despite vicious disses from faceless schmucks on the intratubes, Stern's accrued plenty of accolades from music critics and fellow ax-slingers like Mary Timony (formerly of Helium) and ex–U.S. Maple member Mark Shippy. (The former's collaborating with Stern on a project; the latter's accompanying Stern onstage for this current tour.) You can't fault her work ethic. Stern's notorious for spending several hours a day on her music, sitting in her Manhattan pad with guitar and Pro Tools, spurred by coffee, cigarettes, and an obsessive compulsion to be original. How novel and charming....
"The only thing I love to do is to try and put different parts together," Stern says. "When I first heard [Television's] Marquee Moon, I thought it was the greatest. Everything was coming together in such an interesting way. When I sit down to play, that's the excitement I get. It's hard for me to find where vocals will fit in the mix and trying to make that work. It's frustrating, but when I finally do it on the billionth try, it's a big hallelujah."
Stern may not be a virtuoso (yet), but her mercurial spray of emergency-Klaxon tones are cohering into attractive, individualistic shapes on her new 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. Like that Alan Watts–inspired title implies, Stern crams about 30 minutes of activity into her three-minute tracks. She's toned down the shrieky Yoko-isms of 2007's In Advance of the Broken Arm, too, crafting 12 songs that could follow in Deerhoof's wake without jarring the continuity.
Stern didn't get serious about music until she was well into her 20s, after she—wisely, in retrospect—ditched her journalism career. Her first musical crush was Bruce Springsteen, whose albums her mother frequently played in the car when Stern was a child. "I liked his songwriting, intensity, and honesty," she says. "I was really a big fan of his for a long time." Not until her early 20s did Stern discover more underground artists like Television, Captain Beefheart, and Hella, whose Zach Hill became Stern's drummer and producer.
Stern admits that making her music is cathartic and therapeutic. Listen to her output; you can't help noticing a tremendous pressure release. Befuddling words and scalding, scabrous notes gush forth from each song with volcanic blasts of energy. Marked by her manic fret-tapping technique and amphetamined vocals, Stern's trebly, turbulent compositions present challenges for those not blessed with high metabolisms and hypervigilant attention spans.
Oddly, Stern thought she'd lose fans with what she thought was the commerciality of the new disc. But it's actually not a huge departure from Broken Arm. "I think it's important to try to constantly grow," Stern states. "I thought that [This Is It] was so straight-ahead that I was a little nervous, compared to the last one... I thought it was like Coldplay or something."
But Stern places utmost importance on being original, which will always keep her music from sounding like Coldplay. "I think you gotta go to the uncomfortable place," she asserts. "If you don't, it sounds so regurgitated, so boring, like everything else. That's why I love David Byrne and Talking Heads so much [This Is It's "Steely" pays tribute to Byrne]. I think he writes the best lyrics I've ever heard in my life. They're esoteric, but some of the phrases are so great. So I was listening to that a ton, because I think he is a good example of someone who showed his weird side and it worked out."
"I want to grow more and take risks," Stern continues. "It's interesting when you finally find your voice. It's so hard to find it and then you have it, but you want to grow at the same time. It's a fine line. I'd like to push myself as much as possible."
And she will, haters; fret not.