Marnie Stern hasn't taken shortcuts. Signed to Kill Rock Stars in early 2007 on the strength of a demo (which saw a cassette release earlier this year), she dispelled any lingering notion that she was just a guitar maximalist with last year's self-titled album. Its ten songs laid bare some deep personal trauma (the lead track is famously about her ex-boyfriend's suicide) and, at times, painful introspection, all rendered in breathless guitar and drums.
She'll be stopping at the Firebird on Wednesday between shows opening for the Flaming Lips. She took some time while visiting her grandmother to talk to us about the Lips opening gig (which she calls "the coolest shows I've ever played"), how she is perceived by the public and how she thinks being a music fan has changed over the last couple decades.
Kiernan Maletsky: You've played a couple shows now with the Flaming Lips - how are those shows going?
Marnie Stern: The coolest shows I've ever played. By far. Obviously I've never played to that many people before. But their show is just the most impressive thing I've ever seen. To be backstage when all the chaos is going on... they've got the confetti, the balloons, the people in the outfits dancing, he goes out into the bubble. I mean, it's just.... it's been really fun.
Have you played your shows any differently as a result of having to go on before all that?
Our set obviously isn't as long, I think we cut out two or three songs. And I'm not talking as much as I usually do in between because nobody knows who I am. You know, when the opening band talks it's kind of weird. But I haven't being doing any of my silly stuff, really - just playing the set and getting off.
Have the audiences been receptive?
Their fans are really avid and crazy for them, so they've been really nice and warm. No booing. So that's good.
How did you wind up on that tour?
Actually the drummer, Kliph Scurlock, came to one of our shows in Omaha a couple months ago. He called and said, you know, that he had been playing one of the CDs in the car with Wayne Coyne and wondered if we wanted to play a couple shows.
That has to be quite the change from the tour you just went on with Tera Melos.
Yeah, I thought it was a crank call.
That was a pretty quick turnaround after a long tour, to go back on the road again.
Yeah. For this last record, I've toured more than I ever have before. We were out even longer in September. And then we did CMJ, and straight to Europe through October, November and December. Then I had a little bit off and then straight to the Tera Melos tour, a little bit off and straight into this. And then another tour lined up for September and then to Australia. So I'm really hauling ass.
Is it the same band?
Yeah. That's also how I've been able to tour so long. When you're with the same people. Always before it was different people, so you'd have to rehearse from scratch. So this is great because we all know the material.
Will you work with this same group of people on the next record as well?
I don't know. With recording I always do almost everything by myself except for the drums. I'm very controlling. I was thinking of letting go of some of that control to try and maybe get a different sound. I'm not really sure. Also because I've been touring so much I haven't had as much time to work on new material. I've got a handful of things, but I'm not really sure what's going to happen with that.
You're very commonly pigeonholed in a couple ways, and they don't make a ton of sense. Like you've said before that you don't necessarily think of yourself as a guitar shredder. Why do you think you wind up being stuck in these tiny boxes?
Well that's the way life is, right, it's just something to grab onto. I've always said this: My focus has always been trying to write songs and having some form of expression. And the guitar happens to be the instrument that I play.
But I guess it's just easier for maybe people who don't listen to a ton of music or just listen to it very casually, the guitar is the thing you hear up front. So maybe that's why the focus is there. Also because I'm a girl and I play guitar, and there are not many girls that do that, even though there are. That too. And, I guess, because I'm not exactly a less is more person.
I would like it to just be me: musician. I think that's happening more as more records come out. Hopefully the songs are solid and people see it as not just some novelty shtick thing.
You're very pragmatic about being in a rock band and describing what that life is like. Is that again just a reflection of your personality?
It really is the least glamorous thing, especially in this day and age when bands at my level are not making any money. No one has any money. You're broke all the time. I could see why people would think it's this glamorous thing, but it really isn't.
All you really have is the show that night. Everything else is pretty shitty. You're not making a lot of money, you have to schlep someplace to play. The only good part - I was saying this to my grandmother, actually - is that I really appreciate each show every night and remember it. Because it's really the only thing you can take away.
Have you played in St. Louis before?
I think I have, yes, at a college though. There was a stage in the food court area and we played on the stage.
I'm excited for this string of shows, because I've never played some of these places were playing.
I'm sure you haven't looked into the local bands on the bill, but I'm excited for you to hear them. They're good fits.
Yeah, that's always really good. Hearing the state of music out there.
I'm sure you don't have a ton of time to dig and find new stuff, so it's got to kind of come to you.
Exactly. I just don't know how to dig properly anymore. It's always great at a show when someone plays and we all get so excited to see something awesome.
How did you dig before?
It was different. It was so long ago. It was before the Internet had gone full throttle. There was just a handful of labels that were making the kind of music I was listening to so I would just go to the label and then buy all the music.
And it was more word of mouth, like, "Oh, if you like this, you'll like that." There wasn't as much music. There weren't so many bands and the turnover wasn't as fast and everything wasn't so ADD: "Here this is for five seconds, OK, now move on to this." It wasn't like that. There were a handful of bands I loved, and I stuck with them.
Do you wish you were playing music and recording albums back then, when people could have found it that way instead of the way they find it now?
Yeah, a little bit. I agree with everyone that it's so great that there's so much available. I think that's really important and terrific. But at the same time, there was something kind of nice about being so obsessive and dedicated to stuff that I did like. Even when I would go to shows and see those bands play, the fans were so into it. The only thing I can compare it to now where it's still going on is like a Lightning Bolt, where it's sort of an underground, direct base of fans that will always come and go crazy at their shows. There was a lot more of that back then. And I just so badly wanted to be part of it. That was part of my drive. I wanted to be as good as them, and part of the community and just doing what they were doing.
That ties into the glancing characterizations of you. It seems like a byproduct of the way music is being talked about now.
Yeah. I don't know what direction what everything will go in. It's pretty fascinating. It probably was a lot more similar to now than I think, I just didn't know it because I wasn't touring, and I wasn't exposed to these bands that seem to flit in and out that aren't as experienced and are doing more for fun. I never really saw that side. I only ever saw the really hardworking, focused people. But we always tend to glamorize the past.