Hyperreal: Magnetic Fields Arch Duke Stephin Merritt Interviewed
, January 20th, 2010 05:55
With his hand on the tiller of Realism – the most caustically satisfying Magnetic Fields album since 69 Love Songs – New York’s least excitable raconteur has a few (not exclusively self-chosen) words squeezed out of him by Charlie Ivens
Hi Stephin. Let’s get Christmas out of the way first, since it’s already January. There’s a Christmas song on the new album, but everyone writes those – do you think you could maybe write one about Easter? It tends to be ignored.
Stephin Merritt: I detest Easter! Although I suppose I could write a song called ‘I Detest Easter’.
You've previously been painted in the press as something of a misery, a contrary curmudgeon – is that a fair assessment? Do you just not get on with journalists?
SM: [sighs] No, it’s not that – it’s just that some journalists seem to hate me…
You used to write for Spin and Time Out New York, didn’t you? Would you consider returning to journalism if your hearing problems [Stephin has a condition called hyperacusis] force you to stop touring?
SM: Certainly. I derived a great deal of pleasure from my forays into journalism, and I could never rule out a return to… the fourth estate [laughs].
I saw you at Cadogan Hall in 2008, and it seems your hyperacusis was causing you a lot of discomfort – we were asked to click our fingers rather than clapping, for example. Can you envisage your hearing improving? What are the chances of you having to give up touring altogether?
SM: Notwithstanding a giant leap in medical research into the condition, no. I’d love to stop touring though! Aside from promotional necessities, I don’t especially enjoy the touring process. Playing, yes; touring, no.
I noticed you sat to the far left of the stage – is this to protect your left ear from what’s happening on stage?
SM: It’s more to protect from the noise of the floor [the audience]. There’s actually not much noise coming from the stage; we don’t use monitors and I can’t understand why anyone does.
It’s ironic that you made an album called Distortion, full of feedback, when you may not be able to bear listening to it yourself…
SM: Well, it’s not ironic, actually; in the studio, loud sounds are easier to listen to than quieter instruments, which need to be turned up to extreme levels in order to mix them properly. So, [making] this latest album… was actually a far more uncomfortable process than the previous album.
You’ve provided music for both Lemony Snicket [aka occasional Magnetic Fields accordionist Daniel Handler] and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Have you thought about writing dark childrens’ fantasy books yourself?
SM: I’d love to, yeah. Unfortunately since I’m good friends with two other people who do it they might seem a little… they might feel like I was competing with them.
It’s no fun competing with people you don’t know, though.
SM: Maybe you have less competitive friends…
I was thinking actually I could write a wildly popular series of gothic children’s novels, become a hundred-millionaire… and then I would just send all my friends a different book – disguised as mine – that was really terrible. And then they’d all say: “Wow, this is a terrible, terrible book…”
But maybe they wouldn’t – maybe they’d feel obliged to be nice about it.
SM: Well, then I would know they were lying!
OK, here’s a question from the floor: if “Papa was a rodeo and Mama was a rock & roll band”, which band was she?
SM: Thank God you didn’t ask me which rodeo! The answer is… [gargantuan pause] Jefferson Airplane.
[Following a brief detour about whether Amy Winehouse has been around long enough to be crowned queen of UK rock’n’soul, or indeed of anything at all] Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick is acknowledged by some as one of the original queens of rock & roll. If you were the king of something, what would it be?
SM: The king of retro, maybe?
Can we expect anything more from The 6ths and/or Future Bible Heroes?
SM: Oh yes. There should be some new Future Bible Heroes material soon; I had also been working on a new 6ths project but it fell apart…
Because you’ve had trouble finding appropriate vocalists this time round?
SM: No, I mean the whole concept of the album fell apart, so it’s… gone.
Am I right in saying The Magnetic Fields are named punningly after the Jean Michel Jarre album Les Chants Magnétiques?
SM: No you’re not. We’re named after the André Breton book [Les Champs Magnétiques, from which JMJ also presumably got the name].
I understand you were raised as a Buddhist. Are you religious at all now?
SM: There was an attempt to raise me as a Buddhist, yes. But I’m a militant atheist and an anti-religious crusader. I urge everyone to leave their religion immediately.
How does that tie in with your thoughts about marriage being a part of the path of love, togetherness and so on?
SM: Have I expressed any ideas about marriage?
Well, certainly in some of your lyrics, marriage crops up as what seems like an important part of the process of love.
SM: [indignant] But I also write songs about fucking zombies! Just because one of my characters seems to enjoy something, doesn’t mean I endorse it.
Have you been compelled by anybody to state your opinions on the ongoing gay marriage debate in the US?
SM: Well, at least in America, people on Death Row can get married: serial killers can get married. I don’t understand why I can’t.
I like the old feminist slogan: “Keep your laws off my body.” I totally believe that. I don’t understand why other people feel they have the right to prohibit me from doing things that they themselves can do.
There are certain states in which it’s legal, right?
SM: Yes, there are a few states where [gay] marriage has been legalised. It was briefly legal in California but they reversed it.
But one can’t hunt down half the electorate and kill it, much as one might want to. Then again, no one would ever vote against gay marriage again if everyone who had voted against gay marriage in the entire state of California were suddenly to disappear…
How do you feel about the institution in general?
SM: I have no problem with people making contracts saying what they are or are not going to do. But for there to be only one kind of contract governing this gigantic field of human relationships seems kind of outmoded to me.
One final question from the peanut gallery: are you still planning a 10-disc The Magnetic Fields Play Songs Of The 20th Century set, as mentioned in the 69 Love Songs interview booklet? What will be on it?
SM: It is an idea I’ve not forgotten about. As to what would be on it, we have historically tried to avoid cover songs so it’s somewhat tricky to discuss. The trouble is, I find it hard to disregard the original recording, which makes arranging in an original way very difficult; so the only way to do it would be somehow to record versions of songs I’d never heard before.
Do you pay attention to people’s covers of Magnetic Fields songs? Do you have any favourites? YouTube’s full of them…
SM: No comment! I am aware of some cover versions, but I’m not going to be drawn on my thoughts about anything specific for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
Spoilsport. OK then – who’s the greatest songwriter of the 21st century so far?
SM: Well, Stephen Sondheim hasn’t done a new play in the 21st century so it can’t be Stephen Sondheim… umm… me, I guess! Who’s the competition? [long pause] I guess Tom Waits.
Thanks for talking to us, it’s been a pleasure.
SM: Thank you. Where are you? London? It’s evening there? And there’s snow? Fun! I’ve never actually seen it snow in London. Are the trains running late and all that? Every time I go to England there’s a different reason why the trains are running late. It’s usually leaves…
The Magnetic Fields’ Realism is released on 25 January 2010 by Nonesuch. Their European tour starts in Manchester on 19 March; see House Of Tomorrow for details.