sun 26/05/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Stephin Merritt | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Stephin Merritt

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Stephin Merritt

Prickly pop genius turns out to be a misunderstood teddy bear

Merritt: not as cynical as he'd like to be

For those unfamiliar with his work, Stephin Merritt is like a modern-day Cole Porter: prolific, highly camp, and with a genius for beautifully crafted witty three-minute songs. He performs with the 6ths, The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes as well under his own name. However it is with The Magnetic Fields that he has achieved greatest recognition.

I'm here to discuss their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, out early next month. Fans are hoping that it might match the brilliance of Merritt's magnum opus, 1999’s triple, 69 Love Songs, where he exhausted every permutation of romance gone wrong.

Then, critics bandied around terms like “genius” and “unabashedly beautiful” along with “witty and schizoid” to describe the way Merritt played around with the central theme of popular songwriting. Genders were deliberately blurred with women singing the parts of men and vice versa. On one song, Merritt in his own lugubrious baritone, even managed to rhyme Ferdinand de Saussure with the word “bulldozer”. But what else would you expect from a man with an IQ of around 160 and a chihuahua called Irving Berlin?

The Magnetic Fields  photo by Marcelo KrasilcicOne thing an interviewer might bank on is a pretty hard time. Merritt has built up a reputation of finding interviews almost impossibly beneath him, often replying with monosyllables or going off on surreal tangents. And, despite the man from the record label claiming he's "chatty" today, when I meet him in his hotel room, nothing in his manner gives me any confidence that today is going to be different.

Merritt (pictured left with The Magnetic Fields) is very short, and wearing a beard, plain brown jumper, and a cap over the remains of his tousled hair. He doesn’t seem remotely like someone connected with the music business. His demeanour is precise and professorial and, as I set up my dictaphone, he fusses around with a Kindle, an iPod and a ukulele. When he talks his voice is clipped and just a little sarcastic. Suddenly I feel like it's me that's being interviewed, and anything stupid I say will be pounced upon.

But he doesn’t jump down my throat. It’s more of a crawl. He speaks so slowly that I could have taken the whole conversation down in longhand, there and then. But as our chat develops I begin to feel behind all the prickliness there’s an over-educated teddy bear wanting to get out. And soon, he intimates as such. The problem, it seems, is that outside of sardonic New York, no one seems to understand when he's affectionately teasing. And he’s only talking so slowly because he really hasn’t slept.

I don't think anyone could be more jaded than Cole Porter. I wish I was as jaded as Cole Porter

RUSS COFFEY: How have you been?

STEPHIN MERRITT: Jetlag, major jetlag. I came to London and Berlin and Milan and then back and I guess I'm more or less on schedule now. I'm not having those hallucinogenic experiences any more where I think it would be pretty nice to lie down on the floor and go to sleep at three in the afternoon.

Is it a good time to get inspiration, when you're in that zone of near delirium?

No, not at all, sadly not.

I was intending on describing you in my intro as something of a modern-day Cole Porter figure. What would you think to that?

How am I a modern-day Cole Porter?

I was thinking of the wit and campness, the intelligence and the craftsmanship.

That's flattering but why Cole Porter as compared to Irving Berlin or Gershwins or The Kinks?

I could have picked Berlin but I thought that would be too obvious seeing as you named your pet chihuahua after him.

I like Cole Porter but I get tired of the list songs. I don't approve of those. A lot of his songs are just lists that don't really go anywhere. Apparently on stage they could go on for minutes and then there would be reprises and then a little more dancing and then more “let's do it”.

Do you think that you're more jaded than he was?

I don't think anyone could be more jaded than Cole Porter. I wish I was as jaded as Cole Porter. Being a closeted millionaire without the use of his legs for decades I think he became quite bitter and quite rightly. And his actual experience of love was male prostitutes.

And still in both your music and his there is a sense of escapism and a world better lived in the imagination? 

He certainly had reason to escape. I don't think I've got as good an excuse. It's one of the main themes of gay art and art in general. And escapism, unbeknownst to me at the time that I sequenced the album, is a theme on three consecutive songs in the middle of Love at the Bottom of the Sea: “Going Back to the Country”, "The Horrible Party”, and” I've Run Away to Join the Fairies”. That's an accident on my part. But it's been pointed out to me on a few times in the last few days.

What is the significance of the title: Love at the Bottom of the Sea?

There is no direct significance. It was a song title - I threw out the song but kept the title. It echoes the plots of many of the songs on the record in that the bottom of the sea would be a very unsatisfying place for love.

I manipulate the controls to produce the sounds of a flock of birds or squirrels at play. It's difficult to describe but more fun to hear

Where did you record the album?

The part with me in it is recorded in LA and the other instrumentalists are recorded at my engineer’s apartment in New York and at a studio in San Francisco.

I think it's been fairly loudly trumpeted that this is the first in a while to feature the use of synthesizers. In your press release it's been described as a return to your old trademarks sound. Do you see it that way?

Oh dear no! It's disturbing to me if it says that in the press kit, especially as we've used almost nothing that we've used before. I didn’t have anything to do with writing that press kit. But hopefully I will be interviewed by people who will allow me to contradict that.

What fun have you had playing around with the new synth sounds?

Well instead of pressing a key to hear, for instance, the note C, I manipulate the controls, the highly ambiguous controls, to produce the sounds of a flock of birds or squirrels at play. It's difficult to describe but more fun to hear.

Watch The Magnetic Field's risque new video for "Andrew in Drag" below:

Has this been a liberating album to record, seeing as you haven't had the constraints of a theme or of arrangement and instruments?

Well there has been the constraint of having lots of synthesisers to play in our triumphal return, but I don't see that as a constraint because the synthesiser is my first instrument …..

I was thinking more of the fact that previously you gave yourself artificial constraints, like trying to sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain or only writing about love - and here you’ve had a free rein….

….and I'm still writing songs almost exclusively about love! I don't think it's so much that I write songs about love than that I'm so steeped in early 20th-century popular music then by default no matter what the song is about somewhere during the bridge it gets back to love. And then goes back to whatever the subject matter was. If I were writing a song about electrical safety, somewhere in there would be a reference to love, and then the rest of the song would seem to be a love song. I do that reflexively.

But we find in the album songs about jealousy between women, female promiscuity and a secret love nest. These seem like acute observations about lives and romance. Where do you draw inspiration from for those songs?

People think that I'm being brutal to them. When in fact I am just making a joke

Mostly from existing songs, but occasionally from eavesdropping. And in the case of "My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre", from seeing the phrase “my husband pied-à-terre” on the captions of the Oprah Winfrey Show where she was interviewing a woman whose husband had recently died. And she found out about his other family and his pied-à-terre where he kept having liaisons with various other women. What I did was take that phrase and ran it through my rhyming dicing process until now it's a plot about our woman whose husband meets every other single woman in the world  or at least in town. And we find out that she's in an insane asylum and is planning to escape to murder her husband and because of this she becomes an unreliable narrator and we don't know whether she even has a husband left alone he has a pied-a- terre.

Most of the songs on the album including that have a trademark sardonic humour that runs through much of your work. Do you feel that this is a market that you can exploit because so much other music is po-faced or is it just inherent in your character?

I don't experience it as part of my personality because I am a New Yorker and New Yorkers in general have sardonic humour so it's probably more my locale than my personality. When in Los Angeles I find that people don't know when I'm joking. And it can be kind of awful actually. People think that I'm being brutal to them. When in fact I am just making a joke and anyone in New York would hear it as telling a joke which would be being friendly to them. So clearly I am not aware of my sardonic humour. Or at least not aware of it as a changeable personality trait.

Do you work hard to make two or three minutes seem effortless and spontaneous?

No, I don’t think about that.

Watch The Magnetic Fields' video for "I Don't Want To Get Over You" below:

But you do think of songwriting as a craft?

I am familiar with the different ways of setting things up, yes. When I was a child there was prog rock. So I was raised with the radically formless music that thought that it was harking back to classical structures when in actual fact it was just a big fat sloppy mess. The first music that I liked, that I identified with, was after just before and after prog-rock. Those are the musical touchstones of my lifetime.

Do you mean Motown?

…and psychedelia and bubblegum. So it’s pre-prog rock and the reaction against prog rock although there is actually plenty of prog rock I like. It’s just not what I want to be doing, although you wouldn't know that from my first album which was quite pretentious.

I can definitely hear some Eighties sounds on the new album.

 Well yes there is a Moog in there and almost all of the percussion is synthetic.

And do you also like to look back to the Age of Jazz, and listen to showtunes?

Sure, most of the music I’ve listened to for the last 20 years was recorded before 1950. But I grew up listening to rock and folk my mother was a folk fan.

Do I detect something darker on the new album? Apart from “I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh” which might have a secondary meaning - I only heard that song on a stream– all the lyrics …

"I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh" is actually a very sad situation where A likes B likes C likes A, but they don't like each other in the other direction. Its three way unrequited love.

So then, inclusive of the sad "I'd Go Anywhere with Hugh”, things seem to be getting more complex for you. Why is that?

I don't know. [He pauses.] But there is a cute stuffed animal on the cover and its bright orange so I am imagining that most people, since they don't listen to the lyrics, will consider it a cute, stuffed animal kind of album. And maybe for the first 10 listens they won't realise that most of the songs are about impossible love. And grotesque situations many of which could be Grand Guignol plays.

Oddly, you have Shirley [Simms, guest vocalist] singing on the new album about God wanting us to wait (for sex). Is this your effort to woo the Sarah Palin demographic?

No, Shirley is actually an Italian Catholic from whose mouth could conceivably come exactly the phrase "God wants us to wait", so that joke is that really is sort of on Shirley, but with her lying naked on the floor during the song.

The songs on the album are all considerably under three minutes.

The average length is 2’15”.

What is the reason for that?

All songs should be an average length of 2’15”. I think radio seems to play longer songs these days because it's cheap. Weirdly they also speed up older songs. I don't understand the speeding up of older songs. It defamiliarises them.

You had chosen to sing on seven of the song what do you think makes a song appropriate for your own voice?

Nothing except the audience expectation that I will continue singing on Magnetic Fields records. If I had my way I wouldn't be singing at all I don't like my voice it's useful for Gothic Archies records but not for Magnetic Fields.

What makes a song a Magnetic Fields song rather than something for one of your other projects?

Nothing. The Magnetic Fields is the category “none of the above.” So the Future Bible Heroes is electro pop records that I make with Chris [Ewen] and Claudia [Gonson], the 6ths is celebrities singers, and the Gothic Archies is my Gothic band in which my singing is perfectly appropriate.

Your voice on "Born for Love" seems even deeper than it's normally does and it normally is pretty deep.

The treatment of women in pop lyrics is always revolting. And the least talented people are usually at the top

Maybe I'm not sped up  I'm almost always sped up on recordings ever since Get Lost.

You speak in one song about going back to Wyoming. But it is still in a very urbane way. Are you very much a creature of the city?

I have lived in the country but I have never lived there by choice, and I don't think that I would live in the country by choice, until the movie theatres close. If movie theatres close then I guess I would have a very different set of reasons to live where I live because plays change so slowly that one could just come twice a year to London and New York and see everything one wants to see, but with movies not at all.

What's your favourite movie theatre?

I love the silent movie theatre in Los Angeles. I just did a benefit there. Actually it's pretty small, maybe 150 capacity. And it's a bit of a misnomer because they are only silent on Wednesday and not always then but it was originally a silent movie theatre.

What do you think of the current state of music of popular music?

I think there's nothing to be worried about. Music is always incredibly stupid, lyrics are always insultingly horrible, and the top 40 is usually full of shocking racism and the treatment of women in pop lyrics is always revolting. And the least talented people are usually at the top.

What was the last album you bought or downloaded?

It's embarrassing to be dumber than usual while being interviewed, but I get so sleepy and I can't think straight

I don't download but I certainly would buy them if I did. (He thinks for a long time.) The Kate Bush album that came out last year and somehow I didn't know about because I was on tour I bought that two weeks ago. Ordinarily I buy records more often than every two weeks but I've been very busy and  besides on tour one doesn't buy albums because one would have to carry them.

Where does your dog stay when you are on tour?

At my apartment in New York. My friend Jesse babysits for him.

But you spend most of your time now in Los Angeles.

Correct [His face lights up at the mention of the dog.] Irving (pictured right) loves Los Angeles!

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about maybe about the nature of being interviewed?

I have decided that the next time I go to Europe to do a press tour, I'm going to start out by having a vacation in Europe during which I will have the jetlag and then I won't have  my brain go dead just when somebody asks me a perfectly intelligent question. It's embarrassing to be dumber than usual while being interviewed, but I get so sleepy and I can't think straight. This jetlag thing is such a bad idea and I haven't had a vacation since 1998.

But you have a reputation of conducting interviews in a certain way, and not giving fourth frothy soundbites. And I suspect that you kind of enjoy that.

What I'd really like to be able to do is to be like Robin Gibb, who I interviewed for timeout New York. He was quite argumentative in the most gracious conceivable way and he said that Bee Gees when not a disco group they didn't consider themselves disco and they never made any disco. They were an R’n’B group. He said a white R’n’B group. And I thought that sounds like a weird way of putting it!

Well I have found you a very gracious interviewee I guess we better let the next interviewer in now. Good luck staying awake for the other interviews!

Thank you.

Watch a trailer for the documentary, "Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields" below:

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