arnie Stern has a Morkie named Fig. A Morkie is a cross between a Yorkshire Terrier and a Maltese. “My little Morkie Morkie Morkie,” Marnie says, in that low-pulse mantric way Danny said “REDRUM” in The Shining, before tossing off an incredible sigh that suggests were I to love this Morkie, Fig, any more than I already do, I would surely expire.
That spark—a noticeable part of our conversation is carried on the same thrilled squeal found all over her debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm—is infectious. She has a puppy’s spirit: unpretentiously curious; playful, sometimes to the point of violence. A little kid who figures out a way to fall in love with whatever passes in front of her face. I have the feeling she gets dangerously jazzed about public television (later confirmed). This is a woman who named a song “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave” and sang about Prometheus. A woman who named her album after a landmark piece of 20th-century conceptual art by dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp. Apparently, she “thought it was funny.” It is! Some might say, “I like small dogs”; Marnie says, “I have body dysmorphic disorder with the dogs. I wanted them to be the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest little Paris Hilton dogs,” the word “tiniest” getting slightly more shrill with each repetition.
Certain things though, particularly the way the press has treated her, brings the jazz down. She’s a woman. She makes noisy, virtuosic rock music that splits the difference between Sleater Kinney at their most epiphanic and the indie-prog ballast of circus shows like Hella (whose drummer, Zach Hill, produced and played on In Advance). She’s in a boys club. The New York Times recently placed her alongside folk-guitar dazzler Kaki King under a banner that said—I’m paraphrasing a little, forgive me—“WOMEN, NOW WITH GUITARS—AND QUITE GOOD AT PLAYING THEM!!” “I don’t think about it. And I was surprised that Kaki King does.” Sleuthing prevails, case closed, Marnie Stern: woman by chance, no big deal.
Then there’s the one about Marnie, Locked Up. That she was a secretary who quit, holed up for a year, and then emerged, covered in flames, with a really good, really inspired record, clearly the hand of black majick. She describes herself as “incredibly lazy”; in a recent guest track review for the site Paper Thin Walls, she wrote: “I've been listening to [TALIBAM!’s “Confused in New Jersey”] a lot while playing Word Whomp on my computer and paying my taxes online. For people like me who don’t do drugs, I also recommend listening to this while watching QVC.” During our talk about dogs, she asks me if I ever watch The Dog Whisperer:
“No,” I say, “but I’ve been told I should. I mean, I don’t have television.”
“It’s—that’s—geesh!—it’s!—I’m sorry, but that’s amazing—I—like-it’s—it can’t be! He just moves his body, and the dog goes into submission.” I once saw a kid with a faux-hawk at a Deerhoof show who, as soon as Deerhoof started playing, grabbed his faux-hawk and hung on very, very tightly. This is how Marnie Stern talks about The Dog Whisperer.
When I tell her that the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (America’s biggest) used to have a “general” category when it first started, she explodes:
“No way! I mean, this is a total tangent, but did you hear about that PBS show—that they can take your DNA and trace you back, ancestrally, thousands and thousands of years to where your origins are?
“They had this whole thing where the head of Black Studies at Harvard wanted to know where he was from, and Oprah wanted to know where she was from, and she was positive she was Zulu, but she traced it back and she wasn’t and she was really upset, and Chris Tucker, the actor, wanted to know, and they take him back to Africa to this tiny little town and everyone looks like him and it’s so crazy, and the head of Black Studies at Harvard was so excited to learn about his past—so excited!—and it turned out he was three-quarters white. I wanna know where I’m from,” she says, and I am out of breath for her.
Marnie Stern apparently spends a lot of time watching TV. A minute later, she tells me, “I’ll write something every day. I’ll work for four or five hours.” So I believe her when she says, “I don’t really go anywhere.”
Like a kid, or like a lot of really creative minds, she seems raw, unsocialized, content with her imagination. But insularity always walks a line. Some days you feel like you’re standing at the door of crackers, other days you piss gold; In Advance often feels dangerously close to falling apart under its own ideas. Clearly, her triumph was hard earned, and she doesn’t always make the costs abundantly clear. Her lyrics flicker between abstract connections and self-motivating sloganeering. In “Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!”—the title itself is a manifesto—she beams, “Time is all that keeps us blind!” and “I’m a contender!” Her background vocals, overdubbed into a small army, chirp “tick! Tock!” before she scrambles up and down the fretboard like a squirrel. Everything’s a very awesome, very electric, very fucked-up pep rally with Marnie Stern.
But when music comes up, she’s sober. She finds incredible inspiration in her best friend, a painter named Bella Foster (who did the artwork for In Advance). After tagging along with Bella to exhibitions and feeling awkward, Marnie borrowed an art-history textbook. “I remember getting it and saying, ‘Where are the pictures?’” It was all theory. “But it started the ball rolling for communicating on this completely different level where [Bella and I] could feed off of different time periods, and it really helped the music a lot.
“We started reading a ton of philosophy books. And she was wondering whether or not blind people dream. And I started thinking about sound. In philosophy, there’s so much talk about language. Everything, for us, is defined by language. Everything comes in a binary: hot/cold, good/bad—all these extremes. So I started getting interested in coming up with my own definitions for language through sound. Like, trying to use the guitar to come up with new words or emotions.”
Sound-painting or representation through sound isn’t a mindblowing agenda in 2007, but it is relatively abstract for rock. “Have you ever heard Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf?,” I ask. She hasn’t. “A narrator tells the story and they’ll introduce, say, the oboe and explain that it’s the duck coming through. It’s a weird, visceral, and really fun way of making connections. Like how the Coasters can do so much with silly voices.”
“Yes! And even at the beginning of The Twilight Zone, there’s the whole intro—A DIMENSION OF MIND—duh nah nuh noo, duh nah nuh noo—and that crazy crashing noise.” The Twilight Zone, of course.
In Advance an extremely claustrophobic, self-reflexive album. She talks about herself like she’s an abstraction; in her Peter and the Wolf, she’s the whole ark. The final track, “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,” is an attempt at creating a synaesthesic experience: she describes glass slippers and makes a clicky noise on the guitar; the “latecomers” are articulated by crawly arpeggios; the song builds, builds, builds; she piles more and more sonic signifiers on, narrating them until the basket overflows into heavy-footed metal, wailing, “SEE HOW EASY TO DREAM A SCHEME OF SOUNDS IN YOUR HEAD, WE MUST DREAM ON,” shortly before “THE PICTURE IN MY HEAD IS MY REWARD.” Of course, it’s sung by about eight Marnies.
“Everything going on now is absolutely amazing,” she says, "but I still feel best when I’m creating stuff. So that’s where all those sentiments come from—‘keep going, keep going, you can do it, you can do it.’” All of the sudden, she’s singing.