Marnie Stern and Syd Butler (Les Savy Fav) Catch Up

The friends (and former 8G Band-mates) on why people hate creative people, and more.

Syd Butler is a founding member of the band Les Savy Fav, the founder of Frenchkiss Records, and the bassist for The 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers; Marnie Stern is a guitarist and singer-songwriter, and formerly the guitarist in The 8G Band as well. Marnie’s new record, The Comeback Kid, is out now on Joyful Noise, so to celebrate, the two friend got on the phone for a quick catch-up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Syd Butler: Hi. 

Marnie Stern: Hi. 

Syd: Good morning. 

Marnie: Good morning. What’s up? 

Syd: You know, living the dream. 

Marnie: OK, so what’s going on with Fav? What’s going on with your recording?

Syd: It’s ebb and flow. You know how it goes. The issue is — we’ll get it done. You know, there’s songs that I like, there’s songs that everyone likes, there’s songs that Tim [Harrington] likes. Everyone can agree on six. We started out trying to do 10, and then we wrote about 20 demos. Some are in better shape than others, and our budget allows us for about 12.

Marnie: Does it sound like the old Fav?

Syd: I’ll send you the demos if you want to hear them. They’re all super raw and they’re on their way, but… Some of the new songs are a different direction, and then there’s just classic how we write songs. You can’t escape it. [Seth] Jabour plays a certain way, and—

Marnie: Even with Late Night — he switches over to Les Savy Fav mode?

Syd: Yeah, I mean, he can play any song with Late Night. Eli [Janney, of The 8G Band] still loves to play funk songs and disco songs, or stuff from his dance days. I always like to play as much rock as possible. And Seth likes to just be a professional guitar player.

Marnie: That’s cool.

Syd: How’s it going with you?

Marnie: I’m in the total weeds right now with so much stuff going on. I have the record release show on Saturday night, I’ve been going downtown to practice… I did this interview with this woman, Jenn Pelly, who writes for Pitchfork. She was telling me about how she has an identical twin sister who is also a music journalist [Liz Pelly], who is writing a book on Spotify and how it’s basically ruining the music industry, and how people are writing songs based on — they want to market the song based on mood, and it’s almost like people will write songs now as though they were writing for a commercial, like a jingle or something. But you heard Bandcamp got bought too, right?

Syd: Yes. I introduced Lyla [Syd’s kid] this morning to the band Kleenex. They have 19,000 monthly listeners, and their biggest song only has a million streams. It was shocking to me because in my mind, this is a huge influence on so many bands.

Marnie: I know. Well, maybe they are an influence, but the bands don’t know it. 

Syd: Yeah. I mean, Sleater-Kinney would not exist without Kleenex. Shonen Knife — all these bands that we grew up with that were part of this punk way of thinking.

Marnie: How many rock bands are on the Orchard? [The Orchard own Frenchkiss Records.]

Syd: Thousands. The Orchard is the largest digital distributor in the world. They have Bad Bunny, they have so many metal acts. It’s insane, I can’t keep up. Thousands and thousands of bands.

Marnie: But what’s the majority? 

Syd: It goes in waves, like whatever is a trending style of music — like hip hop or dance or Latin. Metal is really big right now at the Orchard, so is Latin-influenced dance music. I would say that guitar rock is a tiny amount. When I go to my meetings with the Orchard and discuss things, everything is talking about huge bands. But you know, in five years from now, it could be Marnie Stern.

Marnie: Is Bad Bunny the biggest? 

Syd: Bad Bunny is, I want to say, the biggest artist through the Orchard. The joke is, it’s “Bad Bunny money.” 

Marnie: I read something that said Spotify is changing its royalty policy, that if you don’t make above a certain amount percentage, you will get zero royalties.

Syd: Yeah, I just saw that the other day. 

Marnie: Is that real?

Syd: That has to be illegal. I don’t understand how they can get away with that.

Marnie: [Laughs.] Isn’t the whole thing illegal? 

Syd: Yeah. That’s when you’re just like, “Dude, I understand that you have to kiss the ring of the Stock Exchange, but come on.” I find that to be just repulsive.

Marnie: I wonder what that number is. 1,000? 10,000?

Syd: And then, of course, that creates more demand for people to make shittier music because they’re trying to write music for the algorithms so that people will listen to it, and then we’re watered down with garbage.

Marnie: You and I talk about this stuff all the time. Where is anybody going to make a living, ever, in the arts anymore? Music journalism, it’s very difficult to make a living. Music, very difficult to make a living. Writing, very difficult.

Syd: I’m going to say this: I have hope, but it’s a dark, thin, precarious road.

Marnie: Well, how could we ever get pulled back the other way?

Syd: OK, this might sound really stupid, but I truly believe this: I really believe that there’s a difference in the brain between a creative person and a data, STEM-y person. And I really believe that people who are not creative hate people that are creative. In all my years of doing business and art, people hate creative people.

Marnie: Because they think that they’re like the kid who was just drawing in class, who really wasn’t trying? Is that it? They think if you’re creative, you’re not really working hard?

Syd: I don’t know what it is. Whether it’s how they were brought up, how their brain works, the difference between Democrat and Republican — whatever it is, I think that there’s a sense where creative people scare people that are not creative. It makes them feel nervous because their life has been organized based on data, and that works. Just being at NBC — most corporations have management to keep creative people in certain places. It’s like we’re wild, we’re unexpected, and we are kept in a pen where we’re needed for creative ideas, but we have all these managers around us keeping us in our lane, keeping us in our pens. But I make the joke with my accountant — who hates Apple, who hates everything to do with Steve Jobs, who hates everything he’s created. He loves his PC, he loves Microsoft. He’s like, “Your Apple phone is a toy, get a real device.” But I just laugh at him — I was like, “You know, Michael, no one lines up at the Microsoft store when there’s a new phone.” 

Marnie: That’s right.

Syd: So understanding creativity as a non-creative person, I understand that it scares you. I understand that logically in the brain, the Samsung Galaxy phones can do way cooler things in your mind. But I don’t want to hold it in my hand. I don’t want to touch it. Aesthetically, I look at the iPhone and it’s intuitive to my brain. 

Marnie: My fear in terms of kids being creative — you know, people say, “Oh, they’re more creative than ever because they have all this access to everything and they can record and do whatever they want in their house.” But creativity is also about context. You have to have good influences in order to make a good product. No offense to John Mayer, but if your influences are just John Mayer and Carlos Santana, and that’s it, how can you make anything other than that world? You have to build off of listening to other good things. I think about how you’re always having your kids listen to all of this good music — now, I can’t, my kids will not sit still. They’re too young. To them, supermarket music is the same as my music is the same as Paw Patrol. They just hear music and dance.

Syd: That’s right. But you’re also a creative person, Marnie. Your guitar playing and your approach to playing guitar is insanely creative, and there’s a reason why Rolling Stone nominated you as one of top players in the world. You’re getting all this amazing press because of who you are and your style of music that you play. There’s only a certain amount of notes we can play, and it’s how you approach writing a song that makes you and your creative process unique.

Marnie: Right. But for example, I got to my creative process because I was listening to all of this weird music and I didn’t know how they were playing it, so I was trying to figure out how to play it. And then I just played my way through trying to figure out how to play that. But if someone’s just listening to mechanical music, it’s going to be even more watered down. So then where does creativity go? It’s not good.

Syd: How about this? Let’s say your kids listen to Paw Patrol and supermarket music or John Mayer. If I pick up the guitar and I love John Mayer, and I’m trying to play like John Mayer — as a creative person, my brain works a certain way. I’m going to start putting things together that might not sound normal, and then my brain might go, Oh, this is actually really cool because it doesn’t sound like John Mayer. It was influenced by John Mayer, but we’re at a different path now. If you’re specifically trying to copy John Mayer, then you’re not going to do anything creative. You’re literally going to be playing John Mayer. And that’s fine, but if you’re trying to do something new and creative, then your brain is just going to make you this synopsis of like, Oh, I’m trying to play like John Mayer and this is what I came up with. It might fall into that sort of jam blues rock thing, but it might be something completely different. You might be a woman trying to sound like John Mayer, and you might have a high voice — all of a sudden, it all sounds like Sheryl Crow. 

Marnie: The other crazy thing is our references are — I don’t think anyone who’s young knows who John Mayer or Sheryl Crow are now. 

Syd: I think you’re right. There’s an intern on the show who didn’t know who Seinfeld was.

Marnie: Come on.

Syd: I was talking to Chris Zane, the producer who I might work with, and he was working with an artist who’d never heard of Radiohead. I laughed out loud. 

Marnie: Come on, that’s not true. 

Syd: Absolutely, it’s true. If you break it down, it actually makes sense. 

Marnie: He never heard of the band?

Syd: It was a she. She was 19 or 20, an upcoming pop artist, and she had never heard of the band Radiohead.

Marnie: Wow.

Syd: If you grow up listening to Christina Aguilera and Madonna, all of a sudden Radiohead is not on your path.

Marnie: Well, it used to be, though, that there were a smaller amount of bands in pop culture, so you kind of knew the names. Like, I know Bad Bunny because it’s in the ether. But I guess you’re right, they haven’t had a record in a long time. How would they know?

But my last question to you is: how could money ever come back? And I don’t mean money like big money, like, “Oh, I’m Bruce Springsteen.” But how can it come back to an artist making a living being an artist? I don’t see a path back.

Syd: OK, here’s my question: what is making a living? So, if I live in New York City, making a living is hard. If I live in Wisconsin or Ohio and it costs me $100,000 to buy a house, and I go on tour, then my rent is cheap, my mortgage is cheap, I can be making a living as a single person.

Marnie: I still think it’s a real reach to make $100,000 off your art. I mean, you have to be doing other things.

Syd: I think initially, if you’re 19, 20, 21 or just out of college and you hit the road, you’re going to suffer for a while, but then you can start to build a career.

Marnie: Yes. But I would say from my music, I don’t think I’ve made over $2,000 total from royalties combined.

Syd: I think that royalties are tough situation. Someone once to described it as, the music business used to be one giant rock, and that rock was crushed into a thousand pebbles on the beach. So now basically, you have to spend all this energy running around the beach, putting this rock together to make a living. So you’re going to find money from Spotify, you’re going to find money from Apple Music, you’re going to find money from the road, you’re going to find money from selling t-shirts, you’re going to find money from selling vinyl. 

I mean, I look at Hello Mary — they put out a record, then they went on tour, and then they played any show they could, and then they kept going on tour, and all of a sudden now on the same record, they’re doing a month long with Silversun Pickups. They’re also in the meantime trying to find some money here and there to record more songs for their next record so that they can continue this energy in their early 20s. 

Marnie: Yeah. 

Syd: And they’re using social media very well. They’re reaching out to people like, “Hey, we don’t have a hotel in this state” — they’re doing it like the old days, but they’re using social media and their fan base to help them and support them. Their fans come out and buy their t-shirts. They want to support this young band and they’re very happy. Now, are they going to get a big sync? I don’t know, that would be amazing. But the other thing is about syncs —Thunderbirds Are Now!, which is a band that’s been defunct for a long time on Frenchkiss, they just got a huge sync. So you just never know when the money will come in. And that’s what’s also frustrating.

Marnie: Right. Well, music has typically been a young person’s game because you’ve got to be slogging it so hardcore for a long time.

Syd: That’s right. 

Marnie: Well, thank you for doing this.

Syd: Oh, my pleasure, Marnie.

Marnie: I’ll talk to you soon!

(Photo Credit: left, Nick Johnson)

Marnie Stern is an American musician, singer-songwriter, and guitarist. She has garnered acclaim for her technical skill and tapping style of guitar playing. She currently resides in New York City with her dog Fig. You can follow her on Twitter here.