March 1st, 2010 | Interviews

alice rutherford

Stream: The Magnetic Fields “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind”


(from Realism out now on Nonesuch)

With his unmistakably morose baritone voice, peerless pop sensibilities and endearingly quirky lyrics, Stephin Merritt is one of our best-loved songwriters of the last decade. With the Magnetic Fields, his 69 Love Songs made the unlikely ascent from blogger buzz to worldwide acclaim, but Merritt also juggles a slew of other bands (Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies, the 6ths, the Three Terrors) along with theatrical productions (Coraline, Peach Blossom Fan, My Life as a Fairy Tale) and side projects (film scoring, TV commercials, Lemony Snicket audiobooks). He writes all of his songs in gay bars, hates loud noises, despises live music and doesn’t own a TV. And though he moved from New York to Los Angeles over three years ago, he has yet to meet any Angelenos. This interview by Linda Rapka.

Why do you wear so much brown?
Stephin Merritt (guitar/vocals): It’s flattering and it matches my eyes. I think that everybody should wear colors that match themselves as much as possible. Just as one’s clothes should match, they should match what one looks like.
What happened as a child that made you afraid of Grace Slick?
Stephin Merritt: We went to see Odetta and the Jefferson Airplane. Odetta was intimidating enough for a child. And then there was the Jefferson Airplane, and Grace Slick said, ‘They’re killing children over there.’ Clearly to me now, she meant Vietnam, but at the time I thought she meant stage right.
The latest Magnetic Fields album, Realism, is the last installment of your no-synth trilogy. What’s next?
Stephin Merritt: Clearly there will be some synthesizers, but other than that I don’t know. Well, I know that there will be new synthesizers. There’s a new generation of synthesizers being made—more by visual artists than by synthesizer manufacturers—and they have interesting new sounds. It’s been a while since there have been new sounds in popular music. It’s been the same old sounds, on and out, again and again.
Do you think these new synthesizers give hope to modern pop music?
Stephin Merritt: Yes I do! I think the way that things move forward is generally through technical innovations rather than necessarily creative innovations, and not on the level of the artist as opposed to the instrument. Ultimately the artist is the instrument. Art consists of exploring possibilities of that particular instrument rather than exploring some other thing. Usually the person who invented the instrument is the last person you’d want to hear playing it, because they’re just showing off that instrument.
So you moved to Los Angeles three-and-a-half years ago intent on making 50 Hollywood musicals.
Stephin Merritt: I learned the hard way not to have conviction that has easily realizable components. I can’t be jaded until I’ve done 50 successful Hollywood musicals. Then I can be jaded.
Your approach to making music, with very specific self-imposed rules and restrictions, reminds me of the Dogme approach to filmmaking.
Stephin Merritt: My first movie score was in intentional direct violation of the Dogme 95 rules, so it required that I learn them. It’s a silly set of rules with the realities of filmmaking. Any set of rules is a good idea, if they’re not so referential that they prevent creative work at all.
The Dogme movement intended to make filmmakers and audiences rethink the art and essence of filmmaking by framing it around a set of specific constraints. Is this what you’re attempting with your music?
Stephin Merritt: I can’t say that it would be rethinking, because it’s not like I have a habit that I’m trying to break. It’s more like I don’t have habits and I’m trying to get some for long enough to make a record.
Is that why all of your musical projects are so goal-oriented?
Stephin Merritt: I need a reason to get up in the morning. If there’s nothing to do or no clear direction, why not just stay in bed?
You’re also scoring the silent film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which will feature lyrics that sync up with the movement of the actors’ mouths. How is that going?
Stephin Merritt: Um … no comment. It’s a hard time to find time to work on it because I’m also rehearsing for Magnetic Fields. I think once I’m on tour I’m going to be able to devote a lot more time to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because I’ll have nothing to do all day but sit in airplanes and hotels and sit around at sound check waiting to be called upon to play.
It’s well-known you don’t enjoy performing live or attending concerts.
Stephin Merritt: I don’t really approve of live music.
Then why tour?
Stephin Merritt: I don’t approve of live music where the sound is the point. Experimental music works well live because you can see what the experiment is. And music which is more about sentimentality than about sound works well live because you don’t hear what the sound is. I saw Tiny Tim in the ’80s, and he was amazing live. Him and his ukulele doing three chords over and over again in different combinations, playing only three-chord songs from the 1900s through the 1980s, with a little pickup band backing him up who’d never rehearsed together. They were just following him. It was so moving. He’s a great performer. But I am not Tiny Tim and I want my records to sound a particular way, and that’s the point of them. Playing live has nothing to do with my artistic vision.
You once had a job writing an astrology column for a local lesbian newspaper under the name ‘Madame Cheva.’ How did you get that job?
Stephin Merritt: How did I get that job? I don’t know. I had done a few articles for their spin-off magazine. I reviewed the local tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants, rating the fortune cookies at each one. The first fortune cookie I got was, ‘You will visit many exotic places.’ In the same office was the lesbian whom I started doing odd work for. I was doing layout and then I started writing articles, but they were only supposed to have women writing the articles, so I was ‘Madame Cheva.’ I believe I was not the only man writing for this paper. Presumably some of the articles were actually written by women. And of course I just made up the horoscopes. I don’t believe in astrology in any way, and I don’t think anybody who does it for a living does. I did it in verse several times.
The French shoe company Bluedy created an entire line of Stephin Merritt footwear in 2008. Have you ever worn them?
Stephin Merritt: No. I’ve seen tiny pictures half the size of postage stamps online.
It’s perplexing that they never sent you a pair.
Stephin Merritt: Not if you know French people. They take years to do anything. They could e-mail and find out what my mailing address is and send the shoes. They don’t have to fit me or anything. I’m not going to wear them.
In college you studied film as well as the history of the built environment.
Stephin Merritt: I was studying lampposts. Suburbia. It’s like urban planning without the urban part. It’s the opposite of nature.
Did these studies make any impact on how you think about music?
Stephin Merritt: Well, sure. I was fascinated with small-town life, especially in decay, which you see in (Bogdanovich’s) The Last Picture Show—towns in the middle of basically reverting to nature. Much of the lyrics on The House of Tomorrow are about that.
I read an interview where you said you find people from California shockingly shallow—that they’re even worse than how they’re portrayed by the media. Are we really that bad?
Stephin Merritt: Where did you read this? It was probably a New York magazine and I was trying to make the reporter feel better. Truly, I have no opinion whatsoever of Angelenos because I never meet any of them. Everybody I know in Los Angeles is from New York. I don’t know how people meet each other in Los Angeles other than coming from New York and knowing each other before.
Angelenos like bars.
Stephin Merritt: I go to bars every day. Everyone I meet is from New York. Or they don’t talk to me.
You do all your songwriting in gay bars. What makes a gay bar so conducive to songwriting?
Stephin Merritt: I need music in the background to drown out the music in my head that plays in endless loops. Like the Bumble Bee tuna jingle. Catchy songs stick in my head and there needs to be music playing to get those out of my head, and it’s best if it’s something quite simple and not demanding. Like thumping disco music, which is what they play in the sort of gay bars where people over 30 congregate. Mainly my taste in music is not thumping disco music, but for work purposes it works. If I like the music, it’s too distracting.
Have you yet discovered any contemporary hip-hop you like?
Stephin Merritt: Oh yeah, sure. I like Prince Paul. But I mean, not very contemporary. It’s so incredibly derivative of late ’70s and early ’80s hip-hop. I heard it the first time.
That’s true of all pop music, or anything mainstream today.
Stephin Merritt: Right, yeah. Lady Gaga is Kylie Minogue. And Kylie Minogue is Robin S. At least Kylie Minogue has done these wonderful murder ballads with Nick Cave. I would love to meet Lady Gaga’s costume designer. Which is nothing against Lady Gaga—it’s just that once you’ve heard it before, you’ve heard it.
Like alternative. Or indie rock.
Stephin Merritt: Oh my God. Calling all indie rockers: give up.