[Photos by Shawn Brackbill]
Marnie Stern is the kind of person who can get away with saying straight-faced phrases like, “Who are the Killers? Are they like the Kills? Or Franz Ferdinand?” Much like that seemingly naive statement suggests, the singer/guitarist lives in a self-contained, and stylized, world–a rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment that allows Stern to shred and shout with nothing but old Who records on her mind.
“Classic rock is very primal, in the pull it can have on you,” explains Stern, adding that her listening habits don’t necessarily inform her actual songwriting. “I can’t believe that 99.9-percent of people are happy copying everything. I mean, I get it, but it’s shocking to me.”
True to its Philosophy 101 title, 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 is a breakup record that’s too arty and angular to actually sound like one (see the labyrinth-like progressions of “The Crippled Jazzer,” “Ruler” and, well, the rest of the record, really).
“There’s a similar dichotomy in the Who,” says Stern, “Where a lot of their music’s somber and uplifting at the same time.”
Indeed. We’re in need of a second opinion, though, so we asked drummer Zach Hill–Stern’s only creative constant outside of her longtime friend, cover artist Bella Foster–what life in the studio’s been like on Stern’s last two LPs.
Marnie was introduced to you through Slim [Moon] at Kill Rock Stars, right?
That’s correct. Slim told me she was in need of a drummer and producer, and that they had talked about asking me. I had heard her demo through the people at KRS, as Hella passed through their offices while we were on tour.
What did you think of the raw tracks he sent you? Hella is one of her favorite bands ever; did you notice a resemblance between you guys and her at all?
Straight away, I had noticed a freshness and honesty to what she was doing, and that with a little more focus/direction she could really make some classic, important records. I felt like I understood what she was going for and the ideas were great; they just weren’t fully realized yet. What she was doing was very different from our group, although I could see how we may have inspired her.
What did you think of Marnie’s personality and guitar skills when you first met her?
That she is special and one of a kind. I immediately recognized how much her personality mirrored her ideas and her music, and that reinforced my sense of the honesty involved in what she’s doing.
You’ve collaborated with a ton of people over the past decade. What’s one thing that made Marnie stand out from the others?
She’s very intuitive and seems to easily separate her identity as a player from herself personally, which is actually quite rare. [Laughs]
An obligatory camera phone shot from the studio (Zach’s on the far right)
Marnie doesn’t like to compare herself to other players, but you’ve drummed on her albums and a disc with Mick Barr, one of her heroes. How does she compare to Mick, you think?
Well, I wouldn’t compare them either. Those are two people you can’t compare with anybody else, really. They’re absolute individuals.
What was the recording process like for In Advance of the Broken Arm? How did it differ on the new disc? Marnie said she changed a lot of her guitar parts once she heard the drumming you applied to the original tracks. Did you notice the difference?
I feel like the process of both records were very similar–the same place, same people, and the same order of events. It’s the material that differed. She’s ultimately had to subtly change things that are part of the evolution of a song.
Marnie has said this is her “pop record.” Do you agree?
I certainly think it’s a pop record, but a smart pop record–progressive pop, not bubblegum shit. I don’t think anyone could throw on the album and be able to hear anyone but Marnie while listening.
While the last album had a lot of conceptual lyrics–some of which guided your drumming–this one’s more personal. Did this change affect your approach at all?
Not really. I would agree that these songs are much more biographical and a little more direct verbally–a little less avant–I just play what I hear, what my intuition tells me from track to track. I try to reinforce the power of the song and the color of the songs rhythmically. On this particular record, my personal mantra was “The Who”. [Laughs]