Sartorial splendour's not Marnie Stern's strong suit

Marnie Stern can't get a break. If the Washington Post isn't comparing her fashion sense to that of a soccer mom, then the New York Times is calling her "a Gap girl".

"Oh my God, listen, I have good fashion," says Stern on the line from San Francisco, where the Brooklyn-based guitar hotshot is rehearsing for her upcoming tour. "I just don't care that much. I'm not one of those people who get glammed up before the show. My focus is on the playing."

Once she starts in on her axe, the blond shredder could be wearing a clown suit for all it matters. Using a finger-tapping technique she first saw on a video by instrumental indie-rock band Don Caballero, Stern coaxes flurries of psychedelic patterns from her strings that sound like a mad cross between the fretwork of Robert Fripp and Eddie Van Halen, with maybe a little of Rush's "The Spirit of Radio" thrown in for good measure. But instead of flagrantly showing off her chops with extended solos, her debut album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, confines her guitar work to a three-minute pop-song format. Stern's strident vocals, jabbing melodies, and philosophical musings coexist comfortably with the barrage of notes underpinning tracks such as the jittery "Every Single Line Means Something" and the nursery-rhyme-like "Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!!".

Stern recorded much of the disc herself in her bedroom over two years, with Zach Hill adding drums later. It was a fortuitous arrangement, as Hill's two-piece band, Hella, was one of the first acts that the now 31-year-old; who spent most of her teens listening to what she calls "mainstream indie rock"; glommed on to when she began getting into more daring music. Sleater-Kinney was another inspiration; one that caused the self-taught musician, who began playing at 15, to switch from acoustic to electric.

Stints in a couple of bands followed Stern's conversion, but all the while she was recording her own songs with ProTools and her guitar. She was also exchanging ideas on philosophy and art with her friend Bella Foster, whose colourful, primitive artwork accompanies In Advance of the Broken Arm.

"I didn't really have any close friends that played music, and we started just sharing ideas off of each other and went into this crazy cave world for a couple of years where that's all we thought about and talked about and we just worked and worked and worked," Stern says. "It was great to have someone to talk to about ideas all the time."

Now that Stern has made the leap from the bedroom to the tour van, she is excited to be on the road with a backing band. "For me, it's so much easier to get up there with people," says the artist, who is accompanied by Hill on drums and the Advantage's Robby Moncrieff on guitar. "It's a breeze. I'd thought, 'I'm going to be so nervous because they're such good musicians.' But I was less nervous. It's like, 'Oh, good, I have a team up there. Let's go, team!'"

Now all she has to worry about is the fashion police.

Marnie Stern plays Pat's Pub on Friday (June 22).

Comments