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Stephin Merritt is frank. When the songwriter behind The Magnetic Fields (and the Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, the musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline, and so on) isn’t pausing for mercilessly long periods of time between sentences, he’s giving blunt replies.
Whether the questions address something as off-topic as television fandom (“I don’t watch TV”) or something as essential to his career as his musical education (“I learned to write songs by doing it and I learned to play instruments by having lessons. The ordinary way”), Merritt delivers most of his answers in a deadpan as dry as the dustbowl. He hates touring and the record-label stamp on Magnetic Fields albums means little to him. But notwithstanding his reputation as a sourpuss (he was friendly in our talk), he has a genuine love for the art of songwriting.
The first Magnetic Fields album in 1991 produced a college radio hit (“100,000 Fireflies”), and the band hasn’t taken many breaks since then. Merritt’s often darkly romantic synth-pop reached new ears with the band’s breakout release, 1999’s style-hopping 69 Love Songs. That nearly three-hour album introduced the world to “Washington, D.C.” (“That’s where my baby waits for me”), “The Book of Love” (it’s “long and boring”), and 67 other pop gems.
Since that landmark release, Merritt has delved even further into themed albums with a trio of largely synthesizer-free works: 2004’s i (songs starting with the letter “i”), 2008’s Distortion (feedback-drenched, fuzzy pop), and 2010’s Realism (folk-style tunes free of digital effects).
This year’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea marks the band’s return to synthesizers and to independent label Merge Records after time on the larger Nonesuch label. In advance of Magnetic Fields’ two shows at Sixth & I this weekend, I spoke with Merritt about how themes help him construct albums, identifying with his songs, and dancing.
Washington City Paper: How are you feeling about the upcoming tour right now?
Stephin Merritt: Well, it’s not much of a tour, it’s only five days. So, it’s OK. I hate touring. But it’s only five days.
WCP: Did you ever enjoy touring in the past?
SM: Never enjoyed touring. I don’t like live music, I don’t like playing live, and I don’t like traveling. So, touring is no fun.
WCP: How did you wind up playing live in the first place, you think?
SM: [Band manager, singer, pianist, and drummer Claudia Gonson] talked me into it.
WCP: How is it to be back on Merge Records?
SM: What record label I happen to be on is really more relevant to Claudia than to me. We have the same distributor—between Nonesuch and Merge—so we get into the same record stores. So, from my perspective, there isn’t much of a difference, really. Claudia’s the one who talks to the labels personally, so I’m hard-pressed to think of a difference for me. In terms of how I feel, I don’t feel any different. We still talk to Nonesuch all the time because we still sell records there. There isn’t much of a difference. We never stopped talking to Merge and we haven’t stopped talking to Nonesuch. Nothing has changed in my life.
WCP: You’ve visited Washington, D.C. frequently over the years with the Magnetic Fields, and you wrote a song carrying the city’s name. You’ll be back in town next month for two shows. What’s your relationship with D.C.?
SM: I don’t have a particular relationship with D.C. I’ve actually never been a tourist there, at all. I think I’ve spent about 45 minutes in the Library of Congress and that’s it. I always would like to go to D.C. for something other than tour, but I’ve never been.
WCP: Do you enjoy traveling outside of the context of live music?
SM: No, because I do so much traveling in the context of playing live music that by the time I’m done, the last thing I want to do is travel.
WCP: So, it might be difficult to come back to D.C. then, for tourism.
SM: Well, I would’ve liked to have set up this tour—since the two D.C. dates are the last dates of the tour, I would have liked to be able to stay on for a few days, but I have not been able to set that up.
WCP: How did you first start writing music?
SM: [Mishearing the question] When I was three or four.
WCP: How did you learn to play instruments and write songs?
SM: I learned to write songs by doing it and I learned to play instruments by having lessons. The ordinary way.
WCP: So did you have some formal training when you were very young, or for a long time in your life?
SM: I took piano lessons, guitar lessons, and percussion lessons at various points. In high school, I took organ for awhile. But I was actually completely incompetent at the organ. Oh, I took flute, actually. I forgot. I took flute and I never produced a reasonable tone, ’cause I guess my lips are the wrong shape. I basically couldn’t get any sound out of it—-[laughs] the flute. I was a particularly incompetent player. And recently, actually, I took harp for a little while. But I travel too much to take lessons formally now, because I’m just never around to be practicing. … I played harp on several songs on Realism and a little bit on Love at the Bottom of the Sea.
WCP: Several of your records carry self-imposed rules or filters, like with Distortion’s distortion and with 69 Love Songs’ 69 love songs. Why have you made records with these goals or guidelines in mind?
SM: Well, hm. Other people are limited by having a band who do a particular thing. Like, Roxy Music makes the same record whatever year it is; they make essentially the same sound, changing it slightly over the course of the ’70s. And we don’t have that kind of constraint, so we need some unifying structure. Though, sometimes that’s a theme, as with 69 Love Songs. And sometimes that’s just a production style, like with Distortion. But the songs themselves have nothing in common particularly. Except they’re about three minutes long. The original idea for the theme of Distortion was that everything was three minutes long exactly. But two weeks before we started recording I just decided to switch to a production style—based on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album, Psychocandy—where I would take all of the instruments, except for bass and drums, and make them feed back. The results of the record are too noisy for my mother to listen to. She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t know how to listen to it.
WCP: Instead of these ideas being limiting, you’re finding them being useful?
SM: Hm. Why would ideas be limiting?
WCP: You mentioned constraints. Perhaps that word?
SM: Oh yeah. It’s not limiting, it’s defining. Without some kind of definition, I wouldn’t know what kind of record to make at all.
WCP: Have you made definitions for yourself for as long as you’ve been writing songs?
SM: No. They apply to albums. Not to songs. A song can go anywhere, but an album needs to sit there and do something.
WCP: Is the album format something that’s always been of interest to you?
SM: Yeah, sure. I grew up in the age of the album.
WCP: Why do you go to bars to write songs?
SM: Well, there’s always something I ought to be doing at home. So, I don’t have the psychic space in which to write songs at home. I need to go somewhere where there’s nothing else to do.
WCP: How often do you identify with the feelings or ideas expressed in your songs?
SM: I don’t actually think that I do express particular feelings and ideas, so much as name them. I don’t think they’re fleshed out enough so that the question of identification comes up—-most of the time. I think “Zombie Boy,” when the protagonist is a sort of mad scientist-sorcerer who raises a small, dead boy from the grave for kinky sexual purposes. I guess what I identify with is the sense of naughty fun. But I certainly don’t identify with any of the particular diversions or tactics. I think necrophilia is kind of icky. [Laughs]
WCP: A number of your songs may be about something a bit unflattering to most people, but they often, at least to me, tend to, as you mentioned with “Zombie Boy”—-there’s some kind of feeling of maybe jealousy or lust that somebody would be able to connect with.
SM: Mm-hmm. Sure. I think one can identify with practically anything. It doesn’t need to actually be there.
WCP: On the new record, it begins with “God Wants Us to Wait.” Do you consider that song to be a criticism of God-inspired abstinence or a celebration of what it could mean—-for example, that idea of anticipation? How do you view that song?
SM: I think it’s more of a parody of the kind of song in which a girl says, “You can’t do that,” or “We can’t do that yet.” It’s a parody of the chastity genre. In this case, it’s the reductio ad absurdum of that. They’re literally lying naked on the floor when she suddenly says that they can’t have sex because they have to get married first.
WCP: You’ve written a number of songs concerned with dancing, including the closing track of Love at the Bottom of the Sea, “All She Cares About is Mariachi.” Are you a big dancer?
SM: No, I used to go to nightclubs every night and dance the night away. Now I go to bars and sit in the corner and write songs. Subtle difference.
WCP: Do you have any recommendations for being a good dancer?
SM: Move your hips.
WCP: What is the status of The Three Terrors [Merritt’s group with 69 Love Songs vocalists LD Beghtol, Dudley Klute]?
SM: Oh yeah, we don’t do that anymore. We did four shows and they were a huge amount of work for no particular money or reward and we did all the shows we thought were necessary. And that was that.
WCP: What’s your relationship with the opener of your D.C. dates, author Emma Straub?
SM: Emma Straub—she is an old friend of mine and she sometimes works in our merch booth. And used to be my personal assistant. And I’ve known her father for 12 years or so. She’s a good friend.
WCP: Emma will be reading before the shows. Did you have the idea to have authors or writers be the Magnetic Fields’ opening act?
SM: We often like to have people who are not bands. We always like to have people who are not bands. For one thing, bands are always louder than we are and that’s weird. Because when people have gotten used to a certain volume level, the quieter volume level doesn’t have the same impact. So, we need opening acts who are quieter still. And that’s generally nonmusical or a solo artist.
The Magnetic Fields perform with Emma Straub Nov. 17 and 18 at 7 p.m. at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. $35. The Nov. 17 show is sold out.