Feb. 16 2011 10:23 AM

When it comes to her music, math-rock pathbreaker Marnie Stern craves evolution

Marnie Stern stays up for days playing guitar.
Photo by David Torch
Marnie stern shares a roof with her two harshest critics. One is Fig, a 7-year-old Morkie. During band practice in their apartment in the Upper East Side of New York City, she hides under blankets. “She thinks it’s the end of the world,” stern says, “and for her, it probably is.”

The other is stern herself. “Frankly, I get to the point all the time where I’m really fucking sick of my style,” she says, “sick of the go-to staples like the [finger] tapping or the layered voices. Most of the time, I’m really fucking sick of my sound.”

But the 34-year-old songwriter is selling herself short. In just a decade, she’s taught herself guitar and occupies a place on the prestigious independent label Kill Rock Stars with her favorite bands, Deerhoof and Erase Errata. Her 2007 debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, introduced pop melody and prominent vocals to math-rock, a genre in which even the subtlest vocals will often distract from the busy, driving guitar parts.

“For a few years, I just wrote instrumental songs,” she says. “But I wanted to try and figure out a way to blend someone like Karen O’s vocals with the mathier side of music. It’s been my biggest battle.”

It’s a battle she wins. The “layered voices” she’s sick of—high-pitched, ambient bursts of cooing and shouting—shine without cluttering her invigorating, finger-tapping guitar method. The mesmerizing “Transparency is the New Mystery,” from her most recent album, 2010’s Marnie stern, even trades complicated guitar parts for melodic vocals without compromising mathematic integrity.

Her bold experimentation manifests in her drummer, Zach Hill of Hella, a hugely influential musician, pioneer of the very music she’s making and one of her idols. Few things are more intimidating than playing with one of the most virtuosic drummers in mathrock, but bravery is a staple of stern’s approach to art.

“Being brave is... the only way to come up with anything worthwhile,” she says. “Most people who hold back and hide behind the easy way or the safe way are usually forgotten.”

But stern remains stubbornly dissatisfied with her music. “The only way I can make it work is to go in as though it’s the first day I’ve ever tried to write a song,” she says. “It ends up taking a lot longer to grab onto a part I like, but it’s the only way I know how to try and stay authentic.”

Her admittedly short attention span fuels her compulsive search for worthy guitar parts. “When I think I’ve found a formula, it sounds just that—formulaic and almost like a parody. Everything has to come as a surprise almost, in order for me to like it and for it to sound fresh.”

Stesays her ideal sound is constantly evolving because she is—so it’s forever just out of reach. Still, she relentlessly works for her own approval. “It’s that struggle within me that helps to make the process interesting for me. It certainly is frustrating, though. Part of me wants simple, part of me wants busy. Part of me wants emotive, part of me wants to be removed. Part of me wants concepts and part of me wants straight rock. Part of me wants to write sad songs, part of me wants to be uplifting.

“That’s where I am now, so that’s probably why I’m talking about it,” she says. “I really am craving evolution. I feel stagnant and formulaic, and it’s a terrible feeling.”

Her solution—as a functioning insomniac—is to follow any tangent that presents itself.

“I’ve been up for days trying to find different ways to use the guitar. Obviously, there are a billion, so I realize it might take a while,” she says. “The only good thing is knowing that if I sit there for long enough, I will come up with something new.

“New ideas are everything,” she adds, “and without them, I’m completely lost.”

Marnie stern plays with Tera Melos and Power Axe at Soda Bar on Saturday, Feb. 19. myspace.com/marniestern1