The Magnetic Fields: Interview
“I sort of deduced from the fact that the car wasn’t in the driveway when I woke up that I must have written a song.”

It’s difficult to say something about Stephin Merritt that hasn’t already been presented, explored, revised, fretted over, and interpreted already in other pieces. But one thing that thankfully never changes is the remarkably consistent quality of his songs, even through all the wild stylistic changes, that his best-known songwriting vehicle The Magnetic Fields has undergone over the years.

Perhaps no time in The Magnetic Fields’ career has brought as much variation as the last decade, which has seen delicate chamber pop (2004’s i), oceanic guitar feedback (2008’s Distortion), and pristine folk (2010’s Realism); all parts of what Merritt referred to as his “no synth” trilogy. Love at the Bottom of the Sea, due March 5 on Merge, is in some ways a return to form. It has the kinds of bouncy keys, 1980s pop-inspired ballads, and direct love-lorn catchiness that we all remember from their classic songbook. More importantly, it expands on what Magnetic Fields fans love, with all the tricks Merritt has learned from years of sonic exploration.

Oh yeah, and the rumors of his prickliness have been greatly exaggerated.

What was it like coming back to the synthesizers after all the work you did on the “no synth” trilogy?

I wanted to make sure that I used them in a different way. Instead of the electropop model I went more with the experimental-music model, where indeterminacy was the whole fun of it. What’s foreground is not synthesizers simply playing notes, but more electronic chaos.

I used a number of sources of electronic chaos, including the Buchla Source of Uncertainty module, the Monotron key melody gen, and the Cracklebox.

Really? What’s a Cracklebox?

A Cracklebox is… well, it’s about the size of a deck of cards maybe. It’s a box of electrical contacts on the front. You press your thumbs against them to complete the circuit and you create a howl or shriek. It’s difficult to control the pitch, so you wouldn’t want to try and use it like a Theremin. It’s much more likely to make something like static or sounds of wounded mice.

On Distortion you used guitar feedback to create that same sort dissonance. Is that an element you’re finding more and more use for in your songs these days?

It’s nothing to do with songwriting. The instruments on the songs have nothing to do with each other, but I am having fun with disrupting the forms of the songs. All the songs on this record are pretty short by modern standards. They’re normal by standards of most of the 20th century. They have fairly simple forms, so whenever there was a repeated chorus I could put on some chaotic electronics without fear of disorienting the listener.

I don’t really like to be zany most of the time. I can be zany for short stretches, but I get sick of zany fairly quickly.

I recently had a chance to watch the 2010 documentary on the Magnetic Fields, Strange Powers. One of the things I found most interesting was the depiction of the unconventional instruments you use while recording such as plastic cups, whisks, and a frog call. I think it’s interesting that you keep the instrumentation for your live shows comparatively basic and don’t attempt to employ samplers to try to replicate that sound.

I really don’t like live music. For me the only point of seeing something live is if it’s pointedly different from the record, so we ignore the sounds of the record when we arrange the live sets. The instrumentation onstage is also determined partly by my hearing condition [note: Merritt suffers from hyperacusis, which causes loud noises to produce a “feedbacking” effect for him and become intolerable] and partly by what’s portable. I would love to play a church organ but it isn’t portable.

Right. And if you were to replicate it with a keyboard or sampler it probably wouldn’t have the same timbre as the church organ itself.

Certainly not.

Strange Powers ended with a good deal of anxiety expressed by [longtime bandmate and friend] Claudia Gonson at how the Magnetic Fields would function after you made the move from New York to Los Angeles. How has that new working situation fleshed itself out?

The film is not as truthful as it pretends to be. You see us recording i and then you see us recording Distortion, and they belied the fact that I actually moved my studio to L.A. in between. So the alarm about me moving to L.A. is actually resolved halfway through the film but they don’t mention that [laughs].

So that was some creative editing then?

They show Claudia being upset that I’m moving to LA, but they screw with the time line.

There was one scene early on that depicted you and Claudia working through the arrangement and melody of new material during the sessions for i. Has it been difficult to produce new work without having that same amount of easy one-on-one time?

It’s presented as if Claudia is my collaborator. She’s not my collaborator. I am shown in the movie teaching her a part, but we’re not collaborating. I’m just teaching her a harpsichord part.

It’s not more difficult than it would be if I didn’t have my studio in LA. The way we generally work is I record my parts and I write out the sheet music for everyone else’s parts. I send it to them ahead of time so they can practice it. Hopefully they practice it a little, then they come to the studio and can play it well enough and we don’t have to spend millions of dollars of studio time trying to develop things in the studio.

One of the things I enjoy about Love at the Bottom of the Sea is the presence of your trademark funny, sexy songs like “Andrew in Drag” and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration).” There were several of those kinds of songs on Distortion, such as “California Girls” and “Nun’s Litany,” but maybe not as many on Realism.

Realism also has “We Are Having a Hootenany” and “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree,” in which we sing in pidgin German.

True. Those were pretty funny.

I try to use humor as much as possible. Hopefully subtly though, most of the time, because I prefer that you be able to listen in a variety of moods. I don’t really like to be zany most of the time. I can be zany for short stretches, but I get sick of zany fairly quickly.

I also caught a murderous, or maybe just confrontational, theme on this album with “Your Girlfriend’s Face,” “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre,” and “I Don’t Think I Like Your Tone,” that I don’t think was really present on Realism.

I don’t know. Realism actually is shockingly lacking in murder ballads. You’d think if I had the opportunity to do a folk album I’d chalk it full of murder ballads but I seem not to have taken that opportunity. I don’t know why. There’s death but there doesn’t seem to be any murder.

There’s a lot of murder in the Gothic Archies, and of course in my theater work there’s lots of murder.

Have you ever been surprised at how someone interpreted themes in your songs?

There was a Swedish journalist who pointed out that, unbeknownst to me, Distortion was an album about solitude. I would never have noticed it. It’s not at all deliberate.

The songs you write often sound like they’re sung from the point of view of a character. Do consciously create these characters in your mind?

Only for theater. Onstage there have to be characters who will be inhabited by actors. In a concert band context it’s not necessary most of the time. “Papa Was a Rodeo” used characters lifted from The Wild Angels, with Frank Sinatra and Peter Fonda. But that’s not my usual way of working.

There was a Swedish journalist who pointed out that, unbeknownst to me, Distortion was an album about solitude. I would never have noticed it. It’s not at all deliberate.

As I understand it, your usual way of working involves sitting in bars and overhearing life as it occurs around you, then using that inspiration as jumping-off points for songs. How does that work L.A. as opposed to living in New York?

The problem with living in Los Angeles is I can’t drink for eight hours and then drive home. It’s not a good idea [laughs]. So I don’t spend as much time writing here as I do [in] New York. In New York I can waddle into a bar at 4 in the afternoon and waddle out again at 4 in the morning, whereas that’s just not possible in LA. But I spend a lot of time in New York as well so I make up for it. I have an apartment in New York but my studio’s in LA.

Right, so the problem with L.A. is that the geography necessitates driving.

Yeah, I do sometimes take a taxi home. When I wrote “Andrew in Drag,” I didn’t actually remember writing it. I sort of deduced from the fact that the car wasn’t in the driveway when I woke up that I must have written a song [laughs]. I opened up my notebook and there was “Andrew in Drag.” I remembered where I had been the night before and I took a taxi there to find my car.

It’s an occupational hazard.

I’ve read interviews where you call Irving Berlin your idol. Is that true?

In some ways he is, not in other ways. I’ve read that he basically stole “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from Scott Joplin. I wouldn’t want to do that.

But in some ways yes. I mean, he went to work every day. He had an office with a piano in it. He would work on songwriting in the morning and on administrative stuff in the afternoon. I am very far from being a morning person so that arrangement wouldn’t work for me.

Many people who knew Berlin also seemed to describe him as a workaholic. With everything you do, from the Magnetic Fields to the Gothic Archies, your other bands, and your theater and soundtrack work, do you think you have a similar propensity?

I really enjoy working. No… I go to a lot a movies… and I read a lot of books. It’s not like I do nothing but work. It’s true that the movies, plays, and books do tend to feed into my work. I will often tend to write something directly inspired by something I’ve just seen.

I think a lot of songwriters feel this way; it’s kind of easier to get inspired by art in another medium. I basically wrote all of Charm of the Highway Strip under the influence of the horror film Carnival of Souls.

People look to you as an important gay songwriter. I’ve heard two arguments on the subject of examining gay songwriting and songwriters. One says it’s valuable to be an example of and for the gay community and source of commentary from a homosexual perspective. The other argument claims there shouldn’t be as much focus on an artist being a “gay” songwriter, since a love song is still a love song whether the perspective is gay or straight. Where do you come down on this?

I’ve not ever swung both ways, so I’m not familiar with heterosexuality from the inside. I don’t consider myself an expert on straight people’s psychology. I don’t know if there’s an actual difference, psychologically. People have a wide variety of opinions about this and I simply just don’t know.

But I do have some bisexual friends who often say that men and women are completely different psychologically. They can’t obviously be completely different, but people seem to think that gender is a gigantic force. I grew up in an age of androgeny, where my gender was none of your business unless you were prepared to do something about it.

I don’t know… what do I know about straight people? I only know what other artists tell me about straight people [laughs].

[Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic]

  

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