Last week, a feature I wrote on "she-shredders" for the Wall Street Journal, which entailed sitting down with guitarist Marnie Stern to discuss a song like "Female Guitarists Are the New Black" and all the other baggage that comes with the territory. She bid me head to the Upper East Side and meet her at an ale house around the corner from her apartment. As she sipped an iced coffee and smoked Parliaments (careful to flick the butts way out onto the street), she talked about her failures in finding a male guitarist that could nail the parts to her new songs. We chatted about this topic and other things as well:
It was different awhile back for women. There weren’t many women doing it. Or at least, they could feel the currents against them. I never felt that. Thankfully, it’s because of Kill Rock Stars, Sleater-Kinney, that whole Riot Grrrl movement, helped make it possible for me to not think about it. So I never have, which is great, I think. I just wanted to become a good player and see good musicians. Take Ex-Models, I like seeing bands like that and feeling that they were so good. See, bands like Ex-Models, Hella, Lightning Bolt, and seeing them and just going home and practice, practice, practice.
It didn’t seem like a boys club?
No, that’s just good music. You can see wanking up there and it’s just garbage. But when it’s the music itself, the energy…that’s the thing. I only get inspired when it’s good music. I’m trying to make good music. I don’t want to just be good to be good, I want to put it in a song. That’s the whole point. When I see those bands that I love. At the same time, I remember going to see Erase Errata and thinking they were amazing and not thinking they were women up there. I thought they were neat. Of course, whatever gender you are plays a role in how you approach the instrument. But it’s not gender, it’s the person. See, it’s a difficult thing to have someone ask “what’s it like to be a girl playing guitar?” Well, I can’t tell you, I’ve never been a boy. I know how my brain works and what my make-up is.
Who were your models to look up to, as a female?
(Silence for ten seconds) Nancy Wilson of Heart. Kim Gordon. Um…see it’s different though. Debbie Harry. My perception when I was younger was rolled up with image. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between Madonna and Debbie Harry.
I feel like women have to engage with the image in order to have success.
So I’m learning. It’s hard when you start thinking about it in that way to dissect it. I get asked this question constantly. Generally, you can tell when a person is good at their instrument. You can tell a lot by their control and movement. What I think is interesting is that women are very good with coordination. Women are very organized. And part of the technical side of playing is brain organization. A lot of women play classical piano and classical guitar, which is fucking insane. That’s even harder than rock guitar. It’s just not amplified. i get asked why women aren’t doing shreddy stuff. It’s a hard thing to ask me. I don’t ask my girlfriends why they don’t like the shreddy sound. It just sound tacky or not beautiful or boring to them.
Your style evokes “Eruption” or “Thunderstruck,” the most masculine rock imaginable.
It’s so bizarre. I know in theory it’s “masculine,” but because I’m me, it’s not masculine to my ears. It’s just fun. I don’t think of it as masculine. It sounds cool and fun and big. These are all masculine things. Maybe I’m really lucky in the way I was raised. Maybe I’m dumb? I never thought about it. Even when I was in 6th grade and I watched GnR, I just thought it was cool, not masculine. Seeing Patti Smith was the same way. I didn’t think of her as a woman onstage.
In the 90s there’s female bands, bands with female bassists. But the exception never quite became the rule.
I’m sure a lot of it is a response to the trend in music. I can imagine if the trend in music was big 70s or 80s rock, I would be revolted. There are certain aspects of image that women did have to portray that is so absurd and unattractive. For women, the association with that is off-putting.
You have to wear fishnets.
Right. Everything is referential to what you know and listen to and like in your life. I guess that’s called “post-modern.” One person who’s never listened to experimental noise bands can hear this record of mine and think it’s crazy. And people from that world would think it’s really straight-forward. People will only hear Van Halen and not know that I’m referencing these newer bands. When my mom hears the songs, she likes this record a lot more. It’s more catchy, I remember them, she says.
Why is it just your name for the third album?
I like the songs a lot. It felt much more personal to me and I felt like this record was very reflective of who I am as a person, good or bad. Even when I was doing interviews a few months ago, I was just a mess and really forthcoming in interviews. When you start to heal and you look back, you go “woah.” I would like to come out of that little group of “guitar player.” I don’t know if I want to be considered a Joanna Newsom, but someone who is good at their instrument yet transcends it with song. When people listen, they hear a lot of guitar. Zach’s drums are everywhere so it sounds busier than it is.
But Joanna doesn’t arise from a lineage of iconic male harpists.
So, the roots of a song like “Female Guitarists are the New Black”…
That was just “Come on.” It’s just…this constant thing. It puts a lot of pressure on me to be seen as this very good guitar player because when I compare myself to all the guitar players I know, I’m alright, but I am not amazing by any means. I’m just trying to write songs. I want to do interesting stuff but it puts this pressure on me to where I feel like the Emperor’s new clothes. I know that I can play really well but not at the level of…and then it goes back to this whole female thing of how there aren’t that many female musicians to compare it to and that’s why it remains a talking point. This is where the uncomfortable-ness of it comes up. Is it just because I’m a woman that people say I’m a really good guitar player? Because there aren’t that many to compare me to? That bums me out. I would like to be good, period.
It’s like that bit in Mad Men where Freddy compares Peggy to “a dog playing the piano.” There’s a complacency and misperception about women’s capabilities. Both then and now.
It’s great and what am I complaining about? It’s great but it just seems to me to always be the focus. I’m just worried that the songs themselves are…wait a minute. Just for fuck’s sake let’s say I played guitar on the new record but so did someone else. Two guitar players like Deerhoof. Would it get the same kind of scrutiny? What do you think?
I’m sure my writing outlets wouldn’t go for it…
What’s it like on tour? Do you get coddled?
I’ve never been made to feel…that’s not true. Sometimes I’ll get to a venue and the soundguy will say: “Are you acoustic? Do you need a stool?” thinking I’m singer-songwriter. That’s when its funny, like when I do the soundcheck.
Do you still have to prove yourself?
No, but it’s because of who I am as a person, because I’m writing these songs and I’m just trying to show who I am as an individual. When we talk about these other things, where people make these assumptions and then I get pissed and feel I need to be doing more to get other women to play guitar. It’s selfish to say it doesn’t affect me who cares?
What do you think of Rock Camp for Girls?
Of course that’s great. But again, I think it’s great to get any kids to be doing music. I’m also naïve. I can’t imagine that a girl would feel that she couldn’t feel she could pick up an instrument and it would not be alright. I can think of people in the past ten years but even those people are in the underground scene. Kaki King is known as a great female guitar player, but again, the focus is on the female, the novelty of it. Shit! Yeah, you’re right. But what a little cloud I live in. the friends that I have who are creative as writers, painters, I’ve never heard instances for them of gender being an issue.
In pop, female presence is a non-question but hard rock remains off-limits.
But if I see a group of females doing hard rock but not being interesting, I could care less who they were.
Like Lez Zeppelin: it’s Led Zeppelin, but dude it’s chicks! It revels in the novelty of femininity and holds it back.
I’m always looking for something I can use myself, a certain style, a new sound. I’m looking always for an essence to use. It’s almost a job. This is what I do everyday. What we were saying about the macho thing is maybe I have a lot of that in me. Weird guitar shrill sounds good to me. Things that to a lot of people, not just women, that make you want to cover your ears, I really actually enjoy that noise. I don’t know why for me I gravitated towards loving that kind of stuff.
What made the album more personal for you?
The whole thing. All of a sudden…I didn’t have a personal life for a decade. I was just doing music and was pretty guarded. And then all of a sudden I had a personal life and it crashed down on me. A guy I had loved a decade ago committed suicide. Things over a two year period were all disappointing. Major disappointments, heart-crushing blows. I hadn’t expected that. I thought I would wait to date somebody and then when I did, it would all work out. So it came crashing down and it made it’s way in. I was so shocked.
That’s what your art is for, to take that blow.
Of course, so when the mood was reflective and sad, I was adjusting the music to reflect that. I was experimenting with reverb and it gave the album a softer thing. The first two albums are motivational and this is about sorrow and sadness and disappointment, telling myself it’s going to be alright. The part of me that feels embarrassed is the part that feels like I’m a sap, a sucker. Being myself, that opens you up for more.
Why did you pick up the guitar in the first place?
It’s the most bizarre thing. I was working as a proofreader at Columbia House, 12 CDs for a penny. I said I don’t like this, I’m going to do music. My friends and family didn’t understand. I didn’t listen to music really. I don’t understand it. There must have been something, but looking back, there was no impetus. Later I listened to PJ Harvey and weirder people. It was something I thought about but I didn’t was a possibility. You go get a job and get married and live a normal life. “You’re going to throw away your whole life?” Now that I have reviews and a record deal, hell no; That’s huge Mom points. Now she says: “I’m living through you, live your dream.”