Though she may appear polite and placid—a brief chat reveals that she doesn’t do drugs and loves her dogs—Marnie Stern is a surge of sugary meth, a million-notes-a-minute rush of guitar bliss. Released in February, her Kill Rock Stars debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, is both challenging and deliciously listenable: Bubbly layers of finger-tap guitar textures blend with her angelic voice to soften the shock of violent, scattershot drumming by Zach Hill of the West Coast noise-rock duo Hella. On “Absorb These Numbers,” Stern pulls you in two directions simultaneously as bombastic noise squalls back up against hopeful, comforting, beautiful speed-metal riffage. Beautiful speed metal? The contradiction disorients and soothes in one motion while Stern shouts, “Where does this begin and hey! Now! Where does it end?”
Last time the Upper East Side native played New York—at a March show thrown by DIY promoter Todd P at Third Ward, a dingy performance space on the outskirts of Williamsburg—she did it alone, singing and shredding along to Hill’s drum tracks saved to an iPod and plugged into a PA system. Despite this less-than-ideal setup, she charmed an adoring audience of noise fanatics mostly there for the headliner, Lightning Bolt. Armed with a Fender Jazzmaster and a problematic iPod, she plugged in, prepared for the worst, and hoped for the best. “I learned how to plow through anything and keep a smile on my face, so I feel now that I can handle any technical problem,” she says. What followed was a whirlwind of sound: bubbly metal, swirling noise, trebly beats, and a blissful voice to tie it all together.
With Hill on board in person now, Stern has a full band for the first time, and seems happy that she’s done with the iPod. Playing with Hill and guitarist Robby Moncrieff (whose other band, the Advantage, does speedy covers of eight-bit Nintendo songs) “is entirely different,” Stern says. “But the best part about it is you have people to play off of—we can experiment a little, and that’s exciting. We played a surprise show in Sacramento last week—and I thought I’d be a little nervous for the show—but getting up there by yourself is so much more nerve-racking.”
Stern is somewhat oblivious to the hype around her—The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post have joined an army of Internet admirers in gushing about her guitar technique. It’s remarkable to think that Stern not so long ago dropped a go-nowhere, be-nobody office gig to focus on her music. “Some of it I’m aware of, because my mother and grandmother are so proud,” she says of all the praise. “Because for years, they were really concerned.”
Marnie Stern plays July 8 at the Knitting Factory, knittingfactory.com