Guitar heroine

The shreducation of Marnie Stern
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  November 28, 2008


VIDEO: Marnie Stern, "Ruler"

Marnie Stern, "Transformer" (mp3)

About that style: Great moments in two-handed finger-tapping. By Daniel Brockman.

There's Marnie Stern, the person, and then there's Marnie Stern, the rock band, and it's important to understand the difference. Marnie Stern the person is an unassuming woman who in her early 20s decided she'd start playing guitar. Marnie Stern the band, who come to Church on Monday, are the result, almost a decade later: an out-of-left-field fireball of guitar-and-drums insanity that pits the technical prowess of '70s and '80s guitar gods against the off-kilter oddness of '00s oddballs like Lightning Bolt and Deerhoof.

"I tried for a while to come up with a band name," the New Yorker tells me on the phone as she and her band comb Seattle for a parking spot, "but I just couldn't find one that I liked enough. It's like getting a tattoo, I needed to find something that I really loved. So I guess I just kind of stuck with my name."

Ms. Stern's journey of rock is an inspiring tale: while she was living in New York City, working an office job and trying to do music, a co-worker casually mentioned that she seemed to be becoming less of a musician with a day job and more of just a person with a dull office gig. Stern quit a week later and began practicing guitar eight hours a day and working up the material that would become her Kill Rock Stars debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm. (Take that, co-worker!) What was this force that altered her life?

"I don't know, there's no answer for that! Something did propel me, I just don't know what it was. I've always enjoyed music, but I think that when I was in school I just didn't think that it was an option. You know, you're told by your family that it's a hobby, but then once I graduated from school, something sort of hit me and I realized that I can do whatever I want to do, so I'm going to do this. And that's what propelled me most."

For someone who decided to lock herself in her room and write songs until she "made it," Stern chose an unusual guitar style, one of the most idiosyncratic and identifiable of the past decade: the two-hand tapping technique, which is often associated with the grossest excesses of '80s hair metal. The result is heavy, intense playing minus the bar chords and standard riffs that have come to be the bread and butter of rock guitar. Instead, her vocals work along with the zany guitar melodies to produce converging and diverging musical lines. (Zach Hill is her drummer/producer on disc, John Reed Thompson the bassist and engineer.) "I think that I had heard a lot of people doing similar things with guitar and vocals, like Satomi [Matsuzaki of Deerhoof]. She does it really well, very texturally. I really like it when the voice goes with the guitar, and that kind of high-pitched way of singing is pretty similar to my personality, which is why I started using it more. It felt more authentic."

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