Marnie Stern is mad. "I can't get one f***ing drink," she complains in the documentary I am Marnie Stern. Why can't one of the best metal guitarists have a beer at SXSW? Because she doesn't have a wristband, and nobody recognizes her.
I've typed every variation of the phrase, "female guests sit in with 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers," into search engines, but no cigar. This only proves what we all already know: it's not that there aren't women doing stuff in fields traditionally dominated by men, it's just that nobody talks about them. Why do female backing musicians still have to clamor for visibility in 2014? Is it because it's a job in the shadows and women are designed to be looked at? Do we always need to stick out our tongues, bare our breasts and wail into a mic in order to play music on TV for a national audience?
The 8G Band (named for the studio in which the show is filmed) is led by Fred Armisen, with Seth Jabour and Syd Butler of Les Savy Fav on guitar and bass respectively, Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys on keys, and one woman, Kim Thompson, on the drums. The Wikipedia article on the 8G Band tugs its crotch and jokes that the dudes were hired via text message, while Thompson auditioned. Whether this is serious or not, the point remains the same: late night bands are a total boys' club. The fact alone that Late Night with Jimmy Fallon's The Roots is an entirely African-American hip-hop band is progressive. But if you're a lady drummer with Questlove aspirations, you had better have Beyoncé as your reference, or else you ain't gonna get hired.
So, I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce you to these overlooked rock starlets, at least, the ones about whom I could find any information. If I've missed a female musician who sat in with 8G, please let me know in the comments! For now, we'll start with Beyoncé's backup herself, the one, the only…
You might already know that Beyoncé, ever dedicated to supporting female talent, has an all-woman backup band, The Sugar Mamas, for which Thompson is one of the drummers. She's also drummed for Yoncé cohorts Jay-Z, Destiny's Child and Kelly Rowland, as well as George Michael and Kanye West. Watch her play a drum solo wearing a studded gold bikini top and a blindfold. With her mop of curly hair, gorgeous smile and command of any percussion style from hip-hop to samba to jazz, Thompson is truly the whole package. Drum nerds, make sure you're near a defibrillator: here's a list of all her current drum equipment. There's also a video of her taking a tour of Vater Percussion's factory, where she geeks out on the nitty-gritty of drum production and tells us the best sticks to use for smaller feminine hands.
You might know her better as one half of The Fiery Furnaces, her band with her brother, Matthew Freidberger. She's mesmerizing, and her quirky lyrics and catchy hooks in songs like "Tropical Ice-Land" are more than enough to secure her indie cred and a guest spot with 8G. "Tropical Ice-Land" is the single off The Fiery Furnaces' first album, Gallowsbird's Bark. If you haven't heard it, or aren't familiar with Fiery Furnaces, think Joanna Newsom gone wild. Their most recent album, Take Me Round Again, was recorded 2009 and is just as jazzy and disorienting in the same wonderful way, billed as the Freidberger siblings covering each other. Watch Freidberger sing the title track in a button-up with what can only be described as a Patti-Smith-esque haircut and slouch.
The thing that burns me up about Marnie Stern is, I had no idea she was so hilarious. Funnier than Fred Armisen, even. In the aforementioned documentary, she approaches forty and does SXSW, begs for cigarettes, sells a silk dress on eBay, and sings "Let Me Entertain You" wrapped in a towel, her beloved pooch groupie never leaving her side. Stern is a metal musician backed up, at least in the doc, by two dudes. She can finger-tap like a madwoman--a style of guitar playing where instead of strumming with one hand and forming chords with the other, the guitarist taps on the strings with both hands to play notes. Stern's Wikipedia article is sure to mention her "technical skill," a phrase which appears exactly zero times in articles about acclaimed male guitarists.
The overwhelming number of men at SXSW in the film comment on her appearance first. Her sexuality is readily tied to motherhood, but not self-satisfaction: one friend gleefully asks, "If you could pick any person to be the father of your child, who would it be?" When Stern asks him to elaborate, the friend falters, "Who do you think about when you're…when you're…" Stern, of course, responds with a bear hug, and this is typical of all her interactions. She loves the camera as much as it loves her: her most recent album is titled Chronicles of Marnia, in my opinion a more clever take on female egotism than something like Sheezus.
In the closing scene of the doc, however, the impact of Stern's gender is evident, despite her sassy, funny outlook. "You feel like you're failing if you're not popular," she says. She describes the "chutzpah" it takes to be recognized, and how a musician may have a lot of talent, but if they don't have a butt-load of confidence "it's more likely nothing will happen with them." It feels like the reverse for men sometimes: you're popular if you're at least not failing. Until there's, at minimum, one other girl with a permanent spot on a late night house band, we're going to keep on not wanting "to seem like a snot" for moving to the front of the line at our own shows.
So, girl internet, I urge you: share photos! Tweet articles! Learn everything you can and more about female musicians so we can shove them into the limelight. It's all about increased visibility. And audibility…most of all, listen to and buy their music!
The list of underrated female musicians is longer than "Free Bird." Who are some of your favorites? If you could put together an all-female band for a female late night host's show, who would you pick? Go crazy in the comments below.