The small, two-room apartment of Leni and Mike Stern in midtown Manhattan is filled with clutter—dozens of instruments of every description, audio equipment, travel cases and plants—plus two white cats. “Welcome to Mike and Leni’s House of Guitars,” Mike says, as Leni giggles.
Leni owns 21 guitars, including a birthday gift from Mike—a 1963 Gibson ES-335 (serial number 10,000)—and her favorite possession, a 1959 Fender hardtail Stratocaster—a truly rare instrument because it doesn’t have a tremolo (bar). “I use them all like a little guitar orchestra because I have something in every range,” she says. There is also a big-bellied, four-stringed Indian instrument called a tanpura as well as many thumb pianos. “I collect instruments wherever I have a gig,” Leni says. “I use the tanpura for my vocal exercises because of its rich, strong sound.”
“I make do with only two guitars,” Mike chuckles. “Yamaha made me a Mike Stern Signature Model. I use that and the one it was copied from, a custom guitar that looks like a Telecaster.”
A little over 20 years ago, Bill Frisell, who was her teacher, introduced Mike and Leni to each other. They lived in Boston at the time and were married shortly thereafter. In 1980, when Mike started playing with Miles Davis, they moved to New York. “I love New York. For musicians it’s a great city. There is so much to draw from,” Mike says.
“Ever since I grew up in Germany I wanted to live in New York,” Leni admits. “I saw all the movies about New York in the ’40s and earlier, and when I got here it was exactly as I thought it would be.”
Having two musicians in a small apartment poses its own problems. “We used to both rehearse at the same time and ask each other to tone down. And the neighbors would complain. So only one of us now rehearses,” Mike explains.
“We needed more space, so Michael got me a studio where I can work,” Leni says. “I also run my little record company out of that studio.”
“Well, I’m on the road at least half the year,” Mike says,”and although the logistics sometimes are hard, the music makes it work…. I only travel for the music. But we have a rule to never be apart for more than three weeks, so when Leni was in India for seven weeks studying rhythm and singing, I joined her and we spent the millennium in Bombay.”
Generally, the Sterns’ days are spent practicing, writing music and exercising. Mike says, “I play every morning and I swim no matter where I am. That’s how I keep in shape.”
Leni cultivates orchids and takes martial arts lessons as her form of relaxation. “I take lessons in Hung Ga, the original form, four times a week. This is a serious, aggressive style and in case of conflict you could do very serious damage. I have a red belt. It takes 15 years to get a black belt because you study 15 forms, each taking a year,” she says.
“She kicks my ass!” Mike jokes.
“No, but I do like not feeling afraid anymore.”
The Personal Files
What kind of computer & software do you use?
A Macintosh G3 Powerbook and an iMac with KRK KRoK speakers, Emagic’s Logic Audio and a Kurzweil K2000 synthesizer.
What is the last movie you saw?
Mike: The Insider
Leni: The Cider House Rules
Favorite clothing designer?
Mike: The Gap
Leni: Donna Karan
What is the last book you read?
Mike: John Grisham’s The Brethren, bought at an airport.
Leni: Is What It Is by the German poet Erich Fried.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?
Mike: Something in the arts.
Leni: Still an actress, doing films as I used to.
Favorite restaurant or food?
Leni: This small Vietnamese restaurant Pho Na Trang.
Mike: I’m not into food. McDonald’s is fine with me.
How do you write your music?
Mike: The old-fashioned way—on notepaper.
Leni: The computer and the K2000. Originally Published