Conventional songwriting isn't really Marnie Stern's thing. Though her new record, The Chronicles of Marnia (Kill Rock Stars), is packed with beautiful melodies and sticky hooks, they're not exactly spread out on a platter for you. Instead they're woven into odd arrangements built from dense layers of finger-tapped guitar and heavily multitracked vocals. Stern has recorded with fiercely talented and equally idiosyncratic drummers—first Zach Hill (Hella, Death Grips) and now Kid Millions (Oneida)—and built her songs on their obtuse rhythmic foundations, giving her dreamy experimental indie-pop an excitingly weird and pushy feel. Yeah, there are some pretty tunes in there, but a whole lot more is going on.
Interviewing Stern for this week's Artist on Artist is guitarist and vocalist Dave Reminick of Chicago band Paper Mice, who approaches songwriting in a similar way—if you read between the lines of the Mice's wizardly, acrobatic math-rock songs, you'll find subtle hints that they also appreciate simple pop. Stern plays Wed 4/17 at the Empty Bottle. —Luca Cimarusti
David Reminick: In some of the interviews I've read with you, you've expressed . . . I don't know if I'd call it dissatisfaction, but uncertainty about the new album. Has that waned at all?
Marnie Stern: No. I mean, I'm always, always that way. That's just how I am. I'm always uncertain.
Have you listened to it yet? I know you didn't want to.
No, I have not. So I really don't know—I haven't listened to it, but I probably will in like a year. I just go off things that I remember from when we were recording—like thinking "ick" or "eek" when I was hearing it back. But it depends on what I've been listening to—if I've been in a crazy noise-rock mood, then I'm really gonna dislike it.
Was it your decision to work with a producer on this album?
Yeah. Zach [Hill] and I had always gone into the same studio and used the same engineer for all three of the records, and the studio happened to close down kinda recently, so that wouldn't have been an option anyway. So I went to this other producer and his studio, and we recorded everything from scratch except for some of the guitar loops. And that was different for me because I was used to a very specific tone that I use with Pro Tools, and that was gone. It's kinda like a cleaner, less distorted guitar tone, and I think that's probably what I'm not used to—as well as the really clean vocal stuff.
What made you feel like that was the direction you needed to go for this album?
Part of it was that I had gotten a new computer, and my Pro Tools compatibility was all messed up. And I didn't have the money to buy the new Pro Tools. So I downloaded it off the Internet, and it was a really messed-up version, so when I was recording, for a good six months, it just kept crashing every time I started. Maybe I'd work for ten minutes, and then if I didn't save it right away—or a lot of times, I would pull it back up and all the tracks I had done would be missing. So I started doing much more stripped versions, because I just couldn't sit for a long time and work on something because the thing kept crashing. It was so frustrating. Anyway—
That sounds terrible.
It was terrible. It was so frustrating. And so that's why a lot of the stuff I just did in a basic way—normally that would've been the starting point, and then I would've thrown so much shit on top of it. So I was like, OK, there's five tracks, and that's it. That was why that happened a little bit. Then I got a better Pro Tools and had time, but that was sort of the direction that I started with, so I just kept it going.
You mentioned in an earlier interview heading into the studio and then people telling you to take more and more off the top—more vocal parts. You seemed pretty unhappy about that, and you still kinda do.
Yeah, of course. Yes. That's very crazy for me. I'm a "more and more" kinda gal. That's sorta why I'm glad that I did do it, because it makes me so uncomfortable. But that's why I haven't been able to listen to it. No, that's not true—every time I make a thing, I don't listen to it. But yeah, that's hard for me to take, because no matter what, for me—I don't know, it just sounds different than what I'm used to doing.
Compared to your previous albums, which you don't listen to either, do you feel happier?
I don't know yet. I just couldn't tell. Here's the thing: each one, when I look back, I wish I could be less hard on myself. When I look back I think, "Oh, that record was so good because it was so fun! Why can't I be fun like that anymore? I want to be fun again." And then I'll listen to another one and be like, "That was good because it was just so raw—how do I get back to that rawness? Yeah!" You know, in all of them I find—like, don't you feel the same way? You find things that you like about it that maybe you've departed from a little bit that you'd wanna go back to.
Listening to this new album and reading a lot of your interviews, one of the reasons that I connect with it is because you and I share a lot of the same issues, you know? Always looking at past stuff and being like, "Argh, why did I do that," or "I wanna do this." Looking at other people's stuff and being, like, "Why can't I be more like that?" It's a terrible place to put yourself in as an artist.
It's horrible. Yeah. Because also you make it personal, but it shouldn't be. Last year or the year before, I saw this lady talk, and she was talking about deuses and gods and how in the past they used to believe—I don't know if it was the Greeks, maybe it was the Greeks—they used to believe that a fairy deus came and gave you your inspiration for art. And so if you made something terrific, you would say, well, it was because God came and gave it to me—as opposed to now, we make it personal, like it's us. And we hate ourselves if we do badly because it's our fault, whereas before if you did badly, you were like, well, it's not my fault. It's God's fault—he didn't come to me today. I'd like to live like that a little bit more.
At the same time, though, when you do well, you get credit for it. You just have to let yourself admit that you've done well.
That's right. I haven't. But yeah. That's true.
How do you judge when something that you've done is good?
Well, that hasn't happened for a very long time. Honestly, when I think of me being proud of myself, it was just all the years of not having a label and doing it. You know what I mean? And having all those peers that—they weren't my peers. Wanting to be part of it. And listening to my stuff, I would say, "I think this is as good as this band—I really think it's as good!" I mean, maybe it was just time and place, but I remember feeling very proud of myself. Yeah. I don't know why.
I'm wondering about how you're envisioning approaching your next album.
Last night I was lying in bed, and I was thinking, "OK, well, the next year I have down, because I'm touring and so I don't have to worry." And then I thought, "Oh my God, what if I don't get to put out another record? What am I going to do? I'm going to be homeless!" I really was panicking. I shot up in bed and I was like, fuck, what am I gonna do? And then I thought, I can't. I just can't worry about it. I can't think that far ahead or else I'll go crazy. And then I realized that's what normal people probably do, and then they say, "What am I doing? I need to get a job. Enough with this music stuff." They actually think a month into the future as opposed to just . . . not.
So you think it's best to not even worry about it for the time being?
I never do. You can't—you'd go crazy with the uncertainty.
What about musically? Do you think about the direction that you want to go with your—
What usually happens is that a record comes out, and—for example, with this one, this one's a little more polished or whatever you want to call it. So then at first, when I start writing, it's totally the opposite. Like, "Cra-zee!" And that'll go for like a month; I get it out of my system, and it shifts to a different direction.
What makes it shift?
When I'm constantly in my head going against the grain of what I've just done, it runs its course. Because it's just like all this angst, like surface angst—then I get down to the core of trying to find real new ideas, as opposed to just more superficial stuff. Honestly, I would like to go back to some more conceptual thinking. Because I remember that—you said when was I proud of myself, and when I remember that period in my life, all my stuff, I had ideas behind it. I would build a conceptual idea around it, and it was really fun to do. I haven't done that in so long.
Like the last record, I wanted to do like a choose-your-own-adventure, but I couldn't come up with a . . . I wanted it to be that you would follow—like each song, if you wanted to hear this kind of thing, you would go to this track, and if you wanted to hear this kind of thing, you would go to this track. And then I was gonna make it all about the planets or something. But it takes so much to make those concepts work, and if they're not good enough or solid enough, then it's really lame when people just do, like, "Bleh." But I would like to work that out. Then I really lose myself in those ideas, and I'm not constantly second-guessing myself as I'm working. So you've led me into some ideas again. Awesome.
That sounds like a really interesting album, actually. I would listen to that.
I would like to make it!
A lot of the talk about the album is focused on how much more stripped-down it is compared to your earlier work. Have you made other changes to your process that are more significant to you personally that we might not hear?
It sounds so trite when I say it, but always in the back of my head—in the front of my mind—I'm trying to make a memorable song, like, say, the Cars or something. Like where the song is just good and you wanna go back to it, as opposed to . . . or like a Bowie song, where it's just the song itself. The style is less important, you know what I mean? So I think that was in my head. And I'd been in Florida a lot with my mom, and she's been listening to a lot of 50s music in the car, and some of that guitar stuff kinda seeped through. And I had watched a lot of those Netflix documentaries, one on Roky Erickson and one on Harry Nilsson—that was a huge deal, what a prolific songwriter he was and just his beauty and texture. And I was dating someone whose music was a little bit softer—I would play him stuff, and he helped with a lot of the arrangements. Usually I didn't have someone's opinion next to me all the time, when I'd say, "Oh, what do you think of this?" He was super opinionated and would say, "No, yes, bad, bad." He was really a critical person, kinda, so he wouldn't hold back.
Did you arrange a lot of the stuff?
Maybe. I mean, sorta, for a change, yeah. A lot of the stuff I think was really good. He's more patient, so for example, he would say, "Now put . . . " I'm trying to think. Maybe it's "Immortals" or "Year of the Glad," there are a couple breaks. Even though the songs are short, there are a couple breaks in there, like 10 or 15 seconds with not much happening. I kept saying, "No no no, you can't put that in there." He was like, "Yeah, you want some space to breathe." And I was like, "No, no! I don't want breathing space. No no no."
It was really evident in "You Don't Turn Down."
Yeah, yeah. And that happened late. It wasn't originally like that at the end—that was just a rocker that kept going, and we changed it. I guess some of my fears were that, from the changes we made, it was gonna sound like art-rock, I guess, like 70s . . . I don't know. What's-her-name. Um . . . What's her name!
I'm not sure.
It was, like, Anderson? No. Laurie Anderson? Is that it?
I was kind of wondering if it was gonna come across like that. But yeah. The whole experience was different, but it was very . . . we just had little pockets of arguing. Otherwise it was really mellow and good.
What are you most looking forward to about coming back to Chicago?
You know, I'm there a lot now, because the bass player [Nithin Kalvakota] lives there. We've been practicing there, so I was there a couple weeks ago. And my doggy in the snow! There was that snow like a month ago—it wasn't bad, but the dog went out and got confused, and her whole body sunk into the snow and then her head was all that was left. She's so little! Oh, it was so cute. So, I guess deep-dish. There was a good wings place. Food, basically, I think.
I forget where it's from. But the bass player's a real food person, and he said it's a good place.
We all have our favorite deep-dish place.
I'm gonna throw it out there for My Pie, just north of Armitage, right on Damen.
I'm writing it down.
It's "My" and then the pi symbol. And you can't really sit down—there's not many seats there, so you usually want to call ahead for takeout. But it's my favorite ever.