We really wanted to ignore the fact that indie-rock femme guitar virtuoso Marnie Stern is kind of a babe. We think her face-melting matters more than her heart-melting attributes, and worry that mentioning her half-smiling, half-winking glow might undermine years of tireless struggle.
Her looks are beside the point, right? "Rock" and "cute" have nothing to goddamn do with one another. It's 2011, people.
But let's just clear the air and get the creepy fanboy part out of the way: Stern has looks to kill and an ax to match. She also has few qualms with playing up either of these facts. On a recent tour, the entrepreneurial Stern set up "kissing booths" — $3 for the cheek, $10 for literal lip service and a cool $100 for some tongue action — to help pay for a traffic ticket.
Sex and awkward hormonal nostalgia sell, it seems.
When we caught up with the guitarist-bandleader-jokester in New York recently, she was playing multiple gigs a day in scattered venues around her home turf. It was business as usual for a musician who has been at it for much longer than her quick rise into the upper indie crust would suggest. From age 23 to thirty, Stern played and gigged and grew, listening to technically savvy, dissonance-friendly bands like Hella, the Flying Luttenbachers, Deerhoof, and other outfits on the 5RC label.
"When I hit thirty, I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' But, oddly, that's when I got the record deal" with Kill Rock Stars, Stern says. "I'm not a shmoozy person, and you didn't used to be able to get a record deal from the Internet. But in the end, all of that playing to nobody forced me to get my own style."
That style would be finger-tapping, a technique first popularized by the likes of Frank Zappa, ZZ Top and Eddie Van Halen, and first heard from Stern on her 2007 debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, which the New York Times called that year's "most exciting album." The hyper-shredding riffs continued on her say-it-out-loud 2008 disc, 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, with Stern dancing on the frets with both hands, soloing throughout the verses and occasionally in the choruses, with little regard for traditional song structure or pacing herself. Percussion, too, is as important as ever to Stern's music, where fills sound like Ritalin-free temper tantrums.
It's working. All of it. Shows are selling out and critics are fawning.
And yet, on her newest, self-titled release, Stern focuses less on technique and more on honest songwriting — heart fully present on sleeve, audacious as a girl necking with random fanboys.
"It's a weird thing," she says. "I'm really proud of this record, because it's much more of me putting myself out there. I had much more personal things going on in my life, just a lot of mini-catastrophes that were happening over and over again."