Three possible openings for this article:
(1) It takes exactly one unanswered email, one ill-advised tape recorder purchase, a morning's worth of dithering about voice recording apps and half an afternoon of solid procrastination before if becomes obvious that, in all likelihood, I am not going to be interviewing Marnie Stern for PEP! Which is, as the kids say in crudely fictionalised versions of the early nineties, a bit of a bummer.
Or at least, it's mostly a bummer. Don't get me wrong, I genuinely want to meet Marnie Stern – she's my favourite living songwriter, after all and her music gave me a kick up the arse in 2007 without which I probably wouldn't be writing this now - but as the realisation that the interview isn't going to happen sinks in the disappointment gives way to another feeling: relief.
Thank fuck, I find myself thinking, at least I don't have to go through with it now...
(2) So I'm standing in the cramped but chic basement of The Captain's Rest, in the West End of Glasgow on a Monday night in late November. Outside it's so cold that piss is icing up before it has time to splash in the gutter, but in here it's so hot that freshly spilled beer is quickly evaporating from my trousers. On the stage in front of me is Marnie Stern, aka Marnie “Fucking!" Stern (guitar, vocals); to her left and her right respectively are her bandmates, Nithin Kalvakota (bass) and Vince Rogers (drums).
I have managed to drag two friends with me out into this tiny rock club on this most inhospitable of nights: my pal Scott, who knows a bit about Marnie Stern's music, having been subjected to it by one of his more pretentious and objectionable friends (me), and my friend Liam K who hasn't heard so much as a note of it before tonight, and seems to have to have come expecting to see a folk act based on the garbled information he received from one of his more annoyingly cryptic acquaintances (me again).
The first two songs have already blazed past us but the levels have been decidedly squiffy so far, with Marnie's guitar and vocal parts buried under the almighty racket of her backing track and rhythm section.
I don't know about you but when it comes to recommending things (meaning: books, bands, songs, movies, television shows, comedians, etc) to my friends I'm so uptight I'm almost paralytic. I've suggested hundreds of books to strangers while working in retail, but ask me to recommend a book to someone who I actually know and like and I'll equivocate your til you give up dancing with the cows and decide to go home. So it's awkward, standing there, worrying about whether the people I've brought along with are enjoying the show, worrying, though I'd never admit it, about whether the show is living up to my (phenomenally high) expectations.
And then, as Marnie plays the frantic hammer-ons that signal the start of 'Transformer', all of these concerns start to seem terribly stupid. The sound problems quickly transform from a pressing concern to a hazy memory. Every frantic note is now ringing out clearly now, and the combined effect is simply immense – imagine, if you can, the intro to The Who's 'Baba O'Riley' played at speed. I look at Liam, who's currently in the middle of shouting “Oh shit!” as his jaw drops to the floor like he's a cartoon wolf. I can't see Scott, but I'm past worrying about what he's getting out of this now.
This is everything I'd hoped it would be, this is everything I needed it to be, and trust me – that's really saying something!
(3) No, stop! Don't flick away. Or at least, son't flick away yet.
Chances are that very few of you will have heard of Marnie Stern's, and that even fewer of you will have heard her music. I understand how that might put you off, but bear with me for a minute and you'll discover that what this article is really all about is fear, depression, self-confidence, communication, and genuinely awesome music.
If you care about any of those things, trust me, you'll be fine here. More to the point, if you care about any of those things then you might want to check out some of Stern's music too, since it deals with this stuff in a way that's both bracingly direct and endlessly complicated.
You Shall Know Our Velocity
Speaking of all things bracing and direct: those first two songs!
As I've already mentioned, the mixing wasn't great when Marnie's set started, but she and her band still managed to find a certain amount of grace during these numbers, despite the wonky sonics. Given that Stern's songs are often about working hard to achieve something, there was a certain poetic resonance involved in watching her battle to make those songs work – a battle which, having presumably been won several times over in the process of writing and recording the songs in the first place, you could all forgive Stern for feeling exasperated at having to fight over again.
So: while you might have struggled to hear the lyrics to set-opener 'Nothing Left', there were also plenty of fragments of meaning that you just couldn't miss (“The mad man told me not to walk that plank!”/“This DOES matter!”), and these poetic shards were given ample context by the guitar break that kicked in after the first chorus, a beautiful bit of mathy finger-tapping that sounded strangely calm until it fast-forwarded into the rush of Vince's drums, sketching out the meaning of the song before obliterating it over and again. It was a perfect example of the sort of controlled chaos that Marnie specialises in; more than that, the sound of a woman walking the plank, blindfolded, not knowing when she's going to drop and not worrying about it either.
In defiance of the still-muffled mix, the second song of the night, 'For Ash', was even better. The density of the recorded version was missed as the song lifted off, the glorious rush of drums and guitars lost in the sonic smog, but when it crashed back down into the first verse you got a pretty good idea of its trajectory. On the album version this shift is harsh, as it should be – this is, after all, a song about an ex-boyfriend who has committed suicide. The intro to the recorded version is gloriously unselfconscious, its wailing AAAIII-AAHH-AAY-AAH vocal refrain the sound of an artist free from gravity, but the time change into the verse brings everything back to earth. All memory of the triumphant beginning is buried by a juddering, stop-start rhythm which practically obscures Marnie as she sings:
Well I don't remember how you got away
And the sky and the trees were falling out of place
And the sky and the trees were falling out of place
Gratifyingly enough for someone with my English Lit damage, the sound and lyrics are working together to tell the same story here, a story of one life ended and another interrupted. At the Captain's Rest the effect was different, the sound was less full, the shifts between guitar parts less smooth. This should have destabilised the song, but instead it freed it up, giving it a immediacy that made a different kind of sense of the lyrics.
On record the most painful lines can be found in the chorus:
I cannot bear
No one compares
I miss your smile
Sadness all the while
These lines don't look like much written down, but in context they could break you like Ivan Drago. The key is in the arrangement, as it always is with Marnie Stern songs – these lines come through as little moments of clarity in the middle of all that chaos, and their openness seems startling rather than clumsy.
Played live, 'For Ash' sounds less like a song 'about' trying to make sense of a senseless death, and more like an example of someone trying to do exactly that; in the cluttered confines of the Captain's Rest, the most upsetting lines were ones that remain almost-inaudible to me on the record:
How can it be and I'll never, I'll never know why?
I want to be in your beautiful, limited light
Hearing this simple expression of longing and confusion as if for the first time on the night of the concert, I found myself freshly relieved that I didn't have to interview Marnie Stern after all. The chances are that I would have raved and gibbered and made a fool out of myself trying to talk about moments like this. Better not to bother, then, to let your relationship be confined to the music and to the occasional self-indulgent blog post, or magazine article...
Interview Fragment #1:
David Allison: On record, your songs are really intricately layered – does it ever give you a headache trying to work out how to play them live?
Marnie Stern: YES!!!!! This last record is the simplest in terms of layering, so that was at least a relief. But some of the others, boy! What a pain in the ass! Sometimes when I'm writing I think, “How the hell am I gonna play this live?”, but I usually manage to figure something out.
DA: One of the things I love about your music is the way that it plays with and against your lyrics – when you’re writing the songs, do you compose words and music simultaneously or is the process a bit more fragmented than that?
MS: More fragmented. Sometimes I write down words and sentences while I'm reading. That way, when I sit down and come up with a guitar part, I'll have something to try and sing. Most of the time though, because the guitar parts are kind of precise, the cadence doesn't fit properly and I have to sit there and try and come up with more lyrics. Sometimes when I do it that way, I find that the lyrics end up fitting the mood of the guitar sounds better than I would have expected because I am tapped into the emotion of the song.
DA: You’ve talked a bit about how you want to write a classic rock song without resorting to cliché. I think you’ve got a good run of cliché-free classics behind you now, but do you feel like you’ve managed it yet?
MS: Certain parts of songs yes, but as a complete whole song, no. Some of the classic rock songs have been such staples in my life that I often wonder if I really have any clear perspective at all on them. I wonder if I had heard 'Gimme Shelter' by The Stones when it came out, if I'd think it was as precious as I do now.
Ten reasons why Marnie Stern's new, self-titled album is the best album of 2010:
- For Ash
- Nothing Left
- Transparency is the New Mystery
- Risky Biz
- Female Guitar Players are the New Black
- Cinco De Mayo
- Building a Body
- Her Confidence
- The Things You Notice
"I've stood here and watched humans – frail flesh creatures – fight and die for their world. CAN I DO LESS?"
Of course, the funny thing is that I did manage to interview Marnie Stern in the end, just not face-to-face. The day after the gig, I received an apologetic email from Family Ltd, who represent Marnie in the UK. The basic gist of it was the person I'd been dealing with had been off on the day of the concert, so hadn't confirmed the interview – cue a chorus of boos from the gallery. But wait! He was nice, he seemed genuine, and he did ask if I wanted to do the interview either by email or over the phone, so...
A review of Marnie Stern's second 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, as written and published in September 2008:
“I cannot be all these things to you/It's true” she sings, that oddly childlike voice straining to be heard over the electric crackle of 'Transformer'. You’d almost say she makes it sound easy as she finds gaps in the noise in which to shout "The future is yours, so fill this part in", but nothing sounds easy on a Marnie Stern record. These twelve tracks are science experiments, attempts to understand the rush of new guitar knowledge that Stern discovered on her debut album. As such, there are fewer ecstatic revelations here, but listen to the way that obtuse guitar fragments joyously fail to cohere on 'Shea Stadium' or layer into something both dense and brittle in ‘Clone Cycle’ and tell me what you hear. Are these vain displays of virtuosity or acts of self-creation in sound? Album closer 'The Devil Is In The Details' answers this question in a typically giddy fashion, with Stern offering herself up to the world and letting it see her change from moment to moment, guitar line to guitar line. "The devil is in the details/If you are ready" she sings, and she's right. How can Marnie Stern be everything to you? She doesn’t seem sure, but she’s ready to try if you're willing to keep up. Soon Stern will be invincible, a chimerical machine made out of layered vocals and art rock histrionics, but right now it’s thrilling to hear her struggle to master the strange energies she’s unleashed.
“He was devoid of plus”
Marnie and her band played four songs from This Is It... at The Captain's Rest: the aforementioned 'Transformer', 'Shea Stadium', 'The CrippledJazzer' and 'Prime', which latter involved an audience clap-along that petered out early but was at least more coordinated that then sloppy communal time-keeping I once witnessed at a Radiohead gig in Aberdeen.
I've lived with these songs for the past couple of years, so to me they're already classics - hence the slightly fawning tone of my interview questions! Which... I'm being harsh on myself here, but at the same time I'm aware that I am completely incapable being objective about this music. Which makes me wonder if anyone but a vain egotist could ever truly think that they had created a “classic” in any medium. Doesn't this level of appreciation require a bit of distance, a bit of context, a bit of fannish enthusiasm? Don't let academics fool you on that count, they're just nerds who're good at paperwork. Don't let music journalists bullshit you either, cos they're just nerds who know how to make good on a few easy connections, no more and no less.
Anyway, there's something deeply gratifying and weird about seeing a cult act you genuinely love play live, to know that they're playing well and to know that other people know this too. It's oddly thrilling to see other people clapping along to 'Prime' as Marnie sings “I feel close to dolphins and no one else”; it makes you wonder if other people actively enjoy that gloriously awkward line to the extent that you do.
As such, it was massively gratifying to see Liam's face when Marnie was playing the into to 'Transformer', to just straight-up know that the song's arty pop-metal awesomeness is not just a niche concern, to know that for a moment there, you weren't on your own with this one.
On the way home from the gig, my friend Scott said something about 'The Crippled Jazzer' being so good that he wanted to die right there, and... well it was a ludicrously overblown, almost Morrisey-esque statement but if you're anything like me then you would have found it almost impossible to disagree too...
Interview Fragment #2:
DA: I loved your second album, This Is It…, right away, but on the first listen through I thought The Crippled Jazzer was the least exciting track on there. Since this is 100% backwards, I was wondering if I’m actually the stupidest man on the planet?
MS: That is a fun song to play live, but I can see how it can come across as pretty monotone and boring. It's pretty much straight up rock, with the exception of a few time changes, but for some reason when I play it live I never get sick of it. So I'm 100% with you on that one!!
In order to see it
You've got to believe it...
(Marnie Stern,'Transparency is the New Mystery')
Interview Fragment #3:
DA: Your new self-titled album rocks harder and looser than the two before it without sacrificing any of the complexity. Was this something you were consciously pushing for?
MS: Yeah. I was trying to make it looser so that there was more breathing room, but I find it hard to keep the quality and integrity of the parts intact when I'm trying that. The biggest lesson I've learned from songwriting is that space is so important to let the song grow.
DA: Marnie Stern is also probably your most overwhelmingly emotional album so far. Which… describing it that way makes it sound like a Korn album or something, but it’s really kicked my arse this year. Did you feel self-conscious, putting some of those feelings across so openly?
MS: After I had healed a bit from what I was going through emotionally and looked back at what I had put down, I sure was embarrassed. But in the end, I could never put anything down that wasn't honest to what I was feeling, so I think it turned out alright.
“I rip the desert up/But it's not enough...”
By the time Marnie and her band played 'Risky Biz', 'Transparency is the New Mystery' and 'Cinco de Mayo' at The Captain's Rest, the musicians on-stage had relaxed enough to make it obvious that what they have together is deeply idiosyncratic; a personal grammar of sound, if you'll allow me to get even more flowery for a couple of minutes.
I mean sure, you can easily work out who Marnie's borrowed some of her tricks from – you can tell that she's internalised and understood Sleater-Kinney's most intricately devastating album, The Hot Rock, better than anyone else, and the involvement of Hella drummer Zach Hill in all of her recordings to date makes it hard to ignore the influence of the more frantically experimental side of American rock (Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof, Hella et al). The tricky thing is that none of this train-spotting explains what Stern actually does with these influences.
Even at their most introspective, Sleater-Kinney were always raging against or reaching out to someone, whereas with Stern's songs every mention of “you” feels like a desperate attempt to remember the outside world made by someone on the verge of solipsistic collapse. And thrilling as they can be, none of those arty-experimentalists can match Marnie Stern for emotional impact.
These three new songs are case in point, and they show me quite how wrong I was about where Marnie would go after her second record. “Soon Stern will be invincible” I said - why, because she can play guitar better than me or any of my friends? Did it not stand to reason that she would turn whatever mastery she had found to do something else?
'Risky Biz' was the first of these three songs to be played on the night; it was a genuinely devastating performance, the perfectly controlled guitar patterns hinting at something beyond the singer's control as they broke apart in every chorus. As blogger and music critic Matthew Perpetua wrote on 5th October 2010:
“What kills me about “Risky Biz” is that it mostly sounds optimistic. She’s singing about knowing that she’ll have to give up, she’s singing about how whatever she does is not enough, but despite miserable chances, she’s holding on to the hope that things will turn out right. Why? Because he outshines them all, duh. And so the anxiety is somehow worth it, even when it’s so obvious that she’s giving up too much of herself, and she should just let go, cut her losses, move on. It’s so sad, and so sweet. The longing comes through in every note she plays, every aching syllable she sings, but most especially in that fragile, wordless backing vocal that punctuates the verses. That’s the pain, hidden deep below the surface, but totally obvious all along.”
He's right, of course, though it's worth noting that the backing vocal takes extra prominence in the live environment, since Marnie has to actually cut-off the end of the some lines in order to be able to sing it. Just another perfect example of anxiety encroaching on optimism, hinting that eventually it will overtake everything.
'Cinco De Mayo' was even more brutal than this on the night, not least of all because it was a hell of a lot louder! If 'Transformer' sounds like 'Baba O'Riley' played superfast, then 'Cinco De Mayo' sounded like the same song collapsing in on itself, the signal blurring into the distressed noise. It's the second song on Marnie Stern that's addressed to Ash, and again, its directness is astonishing, the chorus' clear statement that “You always be here, and hear, and hear, and hear” giving way to a final, pained wish: “I hope you see god...”
This one line is... I'll be honest, it's too direct for me to deal with honestly here. It's a sentence I'm incapable of thinking, let alone singing, so I wouldn't know what to do with it. I'm not brave enough.
Better to move on to the less intimidating traumas of 'Transparency is the New Mystery', a song that lives up to its title in terms of both its lyrics and its composition – seriously, the guitar part on the verses is just two notes going back and forth! It's almost a slap to the face of anyone who's written Stern off as a musical onanist! Turns out on the night that two notes are all you need when they're the right two notes, and you know how to play them.
Which Stern and her band clearly do, and did!
On the album, the way the verse dips at the end of the first “I do” is pretty much the most gutting part of any song released in 2010, all of those hopes dropping off into the stutter-pulse of bass and drums...
Live, it was still effective, but it was even more clear that this is what Marnie Stern (the album) is all about: no matter how much you believe in yourself, belief itself is not enough. Talent is not enough. Commitment, passion, and an honest-to-fuck personal vision? Those are all great qualities, but they're no guarantee of anything beyond themselves.
And so the chorus ran out, mantra like, in the uncanny heat on that November night I felt crushed all over again.
“It's not enough/I'm not enough” – well, we can all relate to that, right?
Like a Theme Park Ride, I Should Come With a Splash Warning...
This is all getting a little big bit hyperbolic, so let's take it down a notch with a boozy wee anecdote shall we?
Overly cautious nerd that I am, I was at the Captain's Rest pretty early. After kicking about in the bar for a while with Scott and a couple of friends of his who we'd bumped into (Emma and Olly, both very indie, both very good company!), we finally got downstairs and into the venue, drinks in hand. None of us could identify the music that was being played over the PA down there, but Scott was pretty sure we were hearing math rock covers of old computer game theme tunes. You're probably aware of the Shazam application, which identifies songs from samples taken live on the spot; it's is a bit of a thorn in my cock right, if I can be honest with you. I've spent a lot of time being working on my nerdy, pedantic knowledge of music, and it boils my pish to think that you can skip all that and get all the information you need by slapping a few buttons. Thankfully, I'm also fully aware of how ridiculous this position is, so a couple of button presses later and we knew that we were listening to a band called The Advantage, who were covering the theme from mission 5 in Double Dragon 2, and that they and who thought it was a good idea to call an album Elf-Titled.
While I was in the process of jamming my Mandroid phone back in my pocket, I somehow managed to throw the phone up into the air, away from my left hand and towards the plastic cup full of beer that was in my right one. While I was spasming to catch the damned thing, I also happened to tip a good third of the aforementioned beer over myself and the lovely Scott. If this sounds like a badly executed sitcom “incident”, then that's probably what it looked like as it happened too, going by some of the harsh glances it drew our way. The end result of all this stupidity was that while we were waiting for the bands to start playing, we were also sitting in a puddle of cheap booze, with me feeling less like a dynamic young intellectual and more like a clumsy arsehole.
Can you wax poetic while you look like you've just wee'd yourself? Can you interview one of your heroes while smelling like a football fan's armpit on the morning after a big defeat? You probably could, but I wouldn't fancy trying either – I'd feel too obviously ridiculous, if you know what I mean.
By the time the support act had started playing, I had apologised to Scott approximately four times, had made three variations on the same a joke about me not being able to hold my drink, and was seriously considering sacrificing my phone to the gods in order to appease my friend. Thankfully, it's hard to stay in a sulk when you're exposed to a act as preposterous as The Agitator. Take one mightily quiffed frontman, have him sing like “an agit-prop Grover” (Scott's words, not mine), provide him with two drummers for backup, and dress the whole group up like extras from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video (no exageration here: they were wearing grey short sleeved shirts with the word NO! printed on the front in giant black letters), and what do you have? “The worst support band ever!” according to more than one reviewer. To be honest with you, I actually enjoyed them on the night. I doubt that I'd ever listen to them again, but the combinations of drums, more drums, anti-Government speeches and sub Tom Waits vocalising was just so over-the-top and earnest that I couldn't help but enjoy it.
Typing these words I can hear Adam Ant touching himself and laughing - “See, I told you ridicule was nothing to be scared of!” he says before cackling like a loon from a Monty Python film. Still, maybe the daft bastard was right – is the fear of seeming absurd ever a good reason for inactivity? Life, art, politics – all of these things can be pretty ridiculous, but that doesn't preclude them from being exciting and scarily important at the same time, does it?
I'm not being rhetorical here, I'd really like to know!
Interview Fragment #4:
DA: You made a video for ‘Ruler’ that was a Rocky pastiche, and you did a cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ that made the song sound good to my jaded ears. I was wondering if these playful retro riffs were just a goof, or if they were actually a slightly different attempt at getting at some of your usual themes?
MS: Actually, The Journey song was done originally as a demo for the Shrek 3 soundtrack. I knew they wouldn't pick me, but I wanted to give it a go anyway because it seemed like fun. Rocky is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love sports movies that revolve around an underdog, because I feel I can relate. There are plenty of those movies ,but Rocky is my favorite one. Both those themes happen to be based in the 70's/80's, but that was a coincidence.
DA: There’s a really strong personality to your music – since your mid-set banter and blog posts are so crude and funny, I was wondering how much you filter these parts of your personality out when you’re writing your music, and how much these elements just end up downplaying themselves?
MS: I never put the silly, banter side into my songs. I don't know why really. Sometimes I'll throw in some funny singing part that is really goofy, but it always ends up sounding so incredibly silly, that I take it out. I guess because I spend so much time on the songs, they end up being of the more serious nature. Good question though! I need to think about that!
Vajamming dot blogspot dot com
Because all art events in Glasgow have a muppet quote, there were a couple of lumbering dafties down near the stage at the Captain's Rest that night, neither of whom could seem to stop yelling at the stage. “YOU'RE KILLING IT TONIGHT MARNIE!” “I HEARD A RUMOUR YOU WERE GOING TO KILL IT TONIGHT MELISSA!” “YOU'RE KILLING IT!” and so on, all bawled in what I think was a cappy Glaswegian approximation of an American accent. And no, I don't really know what the “Melissa” thing was about either.
Marnie seemed baffled by these interruptions – Glaswegian dialect has been known to baffle many an English act, so it's no surprise that an Amercan would struggle to work out what the fuck was being said - but Nithin helped her out, providing rough translations from the side of the stage. By way of trying to smooth the situation over, Marnie admitted that she's not good with the accent or the lingo, but that she had learned one Glaswegian word that she wants to test out. Turns out the word was “Clunge”, or as Marnie had it: “Clunge clunge clunge clunge clunge clunge clunge...” all of this said in that chipper, high-pitched New York accent of hers.
“Clunge”, for those of you who don't know, is a particularly grotty Glaswegian name for the vagina, which... one of the weirder things about getting into Marnie Stern's music via intriguing write-ups in Plan B magazine and on various blogs was discovering that she has a seriously scatological sense of humour. A sense of humour that is, in large part, predicated on jokes about her own vagina. Hence “clunge”, a word that makes more sense in the playground than at a rock concert by an earnest young talent like Marnie Stern. It's hard to convey exactly how this shtick works, but it does – partly because it's so jarring and unexpected, and partly because Stern has a great chemistry with her band, particularly bassist Nithin. I don't know, go check out her blog if you want to see copious examples of that – you can get the address from the title for this section of the essay.
Of course, just because I asked Marnie why this sense of humour is largely absent from her work doesn't mean that I think there's a clungey hole in her music or anything like that. After all, what works so well in concert as a way to keep a drunken crowd on side might seem merely incongruous on an album, you know?
That said, it's not like Marnie Stern's music is hideously po-faced. Stern doesn't make comedy rock (thank fuck!), but even at their most overwhelmed and overwhelming her songs are still too energetic to drag. What's more, the more you attuned to Stern's whims you get, the more you realise that humour does creep into her recorded output. It's there in the way the chorus to a thrashing rock song that could be genuinely be described as an experiment in suggestive synaesthesia ('Building aBody') references Field of Dreams. It's there in the Rocky pastiches too, and in the goofy cheers and screams that preface the haughtily titled 'Letters To Rimbaud'. The laughs are present, they're just more constrained than it is in concert, much easier to minimise while you're obsessing on other details. Also, let's be honest here: funny art is in no way less impressive than ostensibly “serious” art, it's just a different kind of difficult to make/appreciate.
It's all about investment and control, isn't it? You work hard on something and you're going to want someone else to lose themselves in it too, unless you're totally self-sustaining, in which case more power to you, you crazy inhuman freak! Of course once something's out there in the world you lose control of it to an extent. No matter how hard you worked on it, there's always going to be some loudmouthed asshole intent on hollering nonsense at you, or some geeky dude with a laptop full of overly verbose questions.
This is okay though! It leads to odd things like me thinking that Marnie's cover of 'Don't Stop Believing' is actually a bold, cunning statement of what her work is all about, even when that wasn't the intent at all. If art is a controlled space in which we can act out and play around with some of the shit that matters to us, maybe it's good that we (being both the artists and those engaging with the art) are frequently reminded that it's not too safe.
Otherwise, it might all just feel pointless in the end.
A review of Marnie Stern's first album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, as written and published in June 2008:
At first the blast of drums and guitars and vocals that makes up your typical Marnie Stern song might sound like an explosion in a music shop, but don't run for cover right away. Pay attention to the virtuoso fragments as they whiz past your ears and you'll realise that that songs such as 'Vibrational Match' and 'Plato's Fucked Up Cave' contain beautiful melodies in their jagged tangents. What does it sound like? Like Sleater Kinney blasted into a million art rock pieces, all intricate guitar parts and songs that combust and re-combust as they go on.
Forget such easy comparisons and throw yourself into the heart of the album and you'll discover the greater purpose of this musical shrapnel. It's there in the lyrics and song titles, which read like frantic notes to self: "Keep on! Keep at it! Keep on! Keep at it!", 'Put All Your Eggs In One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!', 'Every Single Line Means Something'.
This is music that constantly challenges itself to get better, more imaginative. It'd sound hectoring if there wasn't so much going on, if every song weren't a firecracker full of ideas, just waiting to seen, heard, described, imitated, and dreamed of. On album closer 'Patterns of aDiamond Ceiling', Stern describes her method while she demonstrates it. "The picture in my head is my reward" she says, and you believe her, but you know that the picture wouldn't be half so valuable if there weren't listeners to misinterpret it for themselves. By the time all of the elements in the song have been brought together to ignite, you've learned Stern's methods, and it's time to burn your own picture into the sky. You've got the tools, you've got the know-how: go!
“Mythology come take me away”
Marnie Stern and her band only played two songs from In Advance of the Broken Arm at The Captain's Rest: 'Vibrational Match' and 'ThisAmerican Life'. Both songs are less direct than anything else that was played on the night, but that doesn't mean that they were any less affecting - Stern's music is built on crazy, complicated drum/guitar/vocal patterns, and those songs both provided that in its purest form, with everything constantly ramping up towards a world of infinite complexity, infinite abstraction, never quite getting there but never quite giving up either.
The message is simple if you can bring yourself to believe it:
Don't stop believing.
Interview Fragment #5:
DA: I’ve read that you used to practice for a scary 6-8 hours a day, but that you now spend the time working on your songs. Is it important for you to always be working towards something? This theme runs through songs like The Crippled Jazzer and Logical Volume, and for a lazy schlub like me it’s both kinda scary and inspirational at the same time!
MS: Yes. I think I always have to have some kind of goal ahead of me, some kind of drive to get better and keep going. It's actually kind of sick though, because I can never seem to just stop and enjoy the moment I'm in! In other area of life, I am EXTREMELY lazy, and I have no idea why working on music is a different story for me.
Truthfully, I get that Marnie's music sounds like hard work to a lot of people. The introduction to this song, for example, is pretty much just a dead wall of guitar noise over a deadened drum beat. But when the verse starts, and you hear the biggest, scariest guitar riff of 2010 it becomes obvious that this is actually pretty straightforward in the end, that this is music that hits on the physical level first. It's the penultimate track on Marnie Stern, and it was the last song played before the encore at The Captain's Rest - as the drums skittered away from the power of that guitar part, daring you not to do the same, it wouldn't exactly have taken too much effort to see why it fills this slot both live and on record.
'Her Confidence' asks for a lot, but it delivers, oh yes!
The dichotomy between raw power and total collapse is central to Marnie's music and it's never been more clearly expressed than it is in this song. At the end of each verse, 'Her Confidence' tips down into the abyss of noise, but the band always pull it back again, finding meaning in the chaos. The song's instrumental coda makes good on its title, with that riff raging out again, winding down without sounding even a little bit defeated, the totality of the song sounding just that little bit more intimidating than it did at the start. It feels... well, let's not piss about any longer, it feels like coming out of a depression. More specifically, it feels like knowing that you could slip back down into that depression at any moment, and trying to stay hopeful that you'll be able to fight your way out again.
With the right help, that is.
You see, both live and on record, “Marnie Stern” is a team effort. For all that her songs flirt with solipsism, she's obviously driven by collaboration – primarily with Hella drummer Zach Hill, who has played on all three of her records, and with artist Bella Foster, who has provided arty for all of her albums, and who is apparently one of Stern's closest friends.
The live show is similarly collaborative in a way that few rock shows actually are these days. Nithin watches Marnie cautiously throughout the gig, his chunky bass patterns holding her most intricate flourishes together, while Vince flails away at his kit, trying to keeps up with Zach Hill's frantic drums fills without overpowering everything else – no small feat, given that Hill's recorded drum parts sound like an infinite number of drum kits falling down an infinite number of stairs.
Together, the three of them manage the almost-impossible: they manage to make a black hole of worry and noise sound like somewhere to escape to, rather than something to escape from, to paraphrase something Andrew Hickey saidabout Grant Morrison's Batman run.
A slightly absurd comparison to make, I know, but nevertheless – this is what it feels like.
Three possible endings for this article...
(1) We lingered about a bit after the show, trying to work out what to do next. Eventually Liam K, the incorrigible charmer that he is, bounded up to the stage to compliment Nithin on his bass playing, yammering away at the bewildered yank like the unusually articulate puppy he is. Upstairs Marnie and Vince were selling merch to anyone who would buy it, including the aforementioned lumbering dafties, with whom the band members chatted away amiably enough.
After a bit of prodding from Scott and Liam, I finally agreed to go speak to Stern. Liam wanted me to try to score the interview, and while I still had the eagerly purchased dictaphone in my pocket, I couldn't pretend that I was overly keen to use it. The whole idea seemed too gauche, too geeky, to openly embarrassing. Instead I went for the dignified option, which turned out to be babbling incoherently at Marnie while getting her to sign a copy of her new album. She was very sweet about it, but there was no mistaking me for someone capable of asking interesting questions To be honest, I've never known what to do with an easy connection like this. I'm too conflicted, too caught up in my own enthusiasms.
I'm a fan, in other words, loathe as I am to apply that word to myself
A few weeks later, the NME ran an “On the Road With Marnie Stern” article that made me chuckle when I read it in the newsagents (I don't pay for the NME, because I was raised to believe that you bought toilet roll before it was covered in shit, rather than after). It covered a couple of the gigs that Marnie had played just prior to her Glasgow show, and part of the hook was that at the end of every gig she plays, Marnie is approached by dictaphone-wielding blogger in search of an interview.
You can break chronology to add that to the list of reasons I didn't ask for the interview if you want. I'm aware that I'm typical of Marnie Stern's adoring male audience, and I would pay good money to avoid being transformed into a funny detail in an NME feature too. This might seem slightly pointless given that I've deliberately cast myself as a Charlie Kaufmancharacter in this article, someone paralysed by his own self-consciousness, totally overexcited but yet unable to live in the moment, all that crap. Rest assured: I AM VERY GOOD FUN AT PARTIES and I've got a letter from my mum to prove it.
Here's the thing though: when it became obvious that the interview wasn't going to go ahead as planned, I felt the outline of this article forming in my head. I saw the shape of it, knew that it reflected the themes that I wanted to write about, and knew that it was something I could do the way I wanted, for the most part. I could see that there were plenty of factors beyond my control, but that was okay.
I was pretty sure I could make them part of the story too.
(2) This piece was conceived as an interview before circumstances and my brain teamed up to corrupt it, so what better way to end than with another interview fragment?
Hey, what can I say, sometimes it's harder than it seems to get out of your own damn head!
Interview Fragment #6:
DA: What’s kicking your ass right now? Are there any books/bands/movies, either old or new, that you want to rave about?
MS: I've been reading a ton of books lately to try and come up with ideas for the next record. I usually work better off of books than music for some reason. Sometimes I read garbage too, but it all helps me to separate from this tiny bubble of the indie rock world, and it makes me feel connected to everyone out there trying to create things (as hokey as that sounds!). Last month, I particularly liked Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and The Book Thief by Zusak
(3) Imagine “It's not enough/I'm not enough” playing on a loop forever – I went to the Marnie Stern gig hoping and fearing that it would explode the picture in my head into something else, something more communal, a shared delusion. It was a great gig, and when Marnie screamed “WE ARE CONNECTED GLASGOW!” in the middle of 'Vibrational Match'... well, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought of Spinal Tap with a smile, but I'm also sure that I'm not the only one who wanted to experience that feeling too.
“What is this darkness you speak of?” Stern sings in the same song – well, it's only the space between Self and Other, right? Rock music will never be enough to overcome that, but it sometimes it feels like it might, and maybe somtimes that's enough.
–David Allison, Glasgow, December 2010