Curious Orange: Stephin Merritt Of Magnetic Fields Interviewed

Simon Jablonski speaks to the Magnetic Fields man about meditation, musicals and writing new music

It is intriguing that people consistently offer the same reaction when I tell them I’m going to interview Stephin Merritt, mastermind behind the brilliant Magnetic Fields: a severe wince and a comment of caution as if I were about to go do battle with a giant bastard, hell-bent on verbally twisting and pulling my legs off one by one. Common consensus definitely held that, while a unique talent, he would be as spiky, violent and coarse as a rusty battleaxe. Of course this turned out to be nonsense – the man’s a delight and the antithesis of his reputation.

He comes across as guarded, but not defensive, slightly wary with an impish inquisitiveness and enthusiasm that juts out in short bursts before he quickly pulls the shutters down again. Though he’s anything but ostentatious, he’s obviously aware of his talents. This suppressed showy-ness expresses itself in playful reserve and flashing wit, giving him the captivating presence of a mysterious vibrating wooden box that engrosses not because it’s a box, but because you want to see what will leap out of it. As such he’s a joy to interview, but he makes it feel a lot like work.

Earlier this year saw the release of the film Strange Powers which followed Stephin round for ten lengthy years. He is a fascinating individual with seemingly boundless talents, but the fact he’s incredibly guarded does not make for fascinating cinema. Diehard Magnetic Fields fans will obviously love it as it offers some insight into the workings and creating of their music and shows the spats and fondness between Stephin and Claudia Gonson, but unless you already love and care about the MF, you’d walk away from the film still wondering others saw in them.

Stephin formed The Magnetic Fields with lifelong member Claudia some 20 years ago during the fusty confusion of grunge to play songs with simple yet immense melodies that could cast the listener back to Phil Spector’s 60s. Disguised with an elegant beard of experimentation, behind it lay the sound of Stephin’s wry reserve which emotionally reached out to the perplexed, the angry and the fed up. It speaks to people who asked, ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m pissed off about it but also slightly confused.’ They stood at the centre of a Venn diagram of souls not angry enough to embrace Nirvana, not mopey enough for Galaxie 500 and who cringed at the sentimental wetness of Belle and Sebastian.

He swapped NYC’s East Village for LA four years ago, which seemingly hasn’t affected The Magnetic Fields’ musical output, given that they have a new record and tour on the horizon. He’s also just released a collection of early recordings under the title Obscurities, which we don’t talk about at all, that would be far too easy.

I saw that the film about you was ten years in the making, was it originally intended to cover such a large time span?

Stephin Merritt: I don’t know if they planned it that way, but they didn’t tell me. I think they were waiting for something to happen and after ten years they realised nothing was going to happen, so they figured they would just make a documentary about the steady state of The Magnetic Fields. The only thing of any drama whatsoever was me moving to LA, which wasn’t very dramatic, but they managed to find me being upset one day or something.

Did they keep trying to tamper with your life to make interesting things happen?

SM: Yeah, they put down landmines.

How long have you been in LA?

SM: Four years. I didn’t move all the way to LA I kept an apartment in New York.

Was the move to LA partly prompted by a desire to be more involved with film?

SM: Yes, but it was also the desire to have more space for my studio, I now have a whole lot more space. I have an attic here. There’s no such thing as an attic in Manhattan.

Were you more interested in writing soundtracks or story?

SM: I’ve done some soundtrack work although not since I moved to LA. I’m more interested in making musicals: theatre and film musicals. There are so few film musicals though that I think I’ll have to become some giant Broadway star before they’ll let me make film musicals.

Do you have any particular favourite musicals that you’d like to emulate?

SM: I really love the Tim Burton version of Sweeney Todd, I’d be happy to have done that. It’s hard to separate the music from the mood. It’s over the top and gothic, which is a mood I particularly like.

Do you write songs from the perspective of characters?

SM: I have lots of characters, but I don’t know whether they reoccur from song to song. In a three minute pop song there’s not enough time to flesh out a character. When I want to flesh out a character what I do is sketch out a situation, and maybe the listener can identify with the situation or find it so unusual that identifying with it directly is out of the question. it’s more funny or something. Like in ‘Zombie Boy’ the protagonist is a scientific witchdoctor, paedophile, magician or something, you can’t quite tell what’s happening, whatever it is, it’s over the top, totally evil but sort of sexy.

It’s not such a leap to go into writing for theatre if you’re already creating characters.

SM: No, the leap was more to do with the instrumentation and the singing style. My singing style is pretty low key, and I can’t sing very loudly anyway. I wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for filling a theatre with my unamplified voice.

So you’re writing for other people?

SM: I’ve sung on less than half of my recorded output. The percentage of songs I’m singing on has probably gone down rather than up.

Are you working on a musical at the moment?

SM: Working on a musical but not with a director at the moment – I can’t say what it’s about.

Are you still going to have an emphasis on weird instrumentation?

SM: In the theatre you’ve only got a certain amount of space to put the instruments in, so the number of instruments I’ve been able to use in my shows has been limited to four players of five instruments, is the most I’ve ever been granted. Generally the amount of physical space allowed to musicians is about the size of a bathroom.

Would you prefer to do something on a large Broadway scale?

SM: Not necessarily, I’m actually comfortable with chamber musicals, but Broadway scale is more likely to be noticed by a larger amount of people but I don’t think it’s better in any particular way. Spiderman has been written about three times in the NYT this week even though they don’t like it. The show’s sold out for the indefinite future even though the reviews have been awful. In other news about The Edge, apparently he’s building a compound in Malibu with five gigantic houses, so I guess he’s doing pretty well.

What style of musical do you work with?

SM: I’ve done four. The first three were with the director Chen Shi-Zheng who comes out of Chinese opera, so the first three had a lot to do with Chinese opera. The fourth one was Coraline, which we did off Broadway, which was one musician, apart from the actors, who was playing piano. None of them have been in the cliché Broadway style.

Is that a style you’d like to write for?

SM: Sure, yes.

Would you star in it yourself?

SM: No, I wouldn’t star in it, I’m boring enough in concerts. I’m not an extrovert. I need a microphone to be heard. I’m 5’3" with limited lung power, it probably didn’t help that I smoked for 20 years. I quit now though, I quit three years ago.

Is that to do with moving to LA and hanging out in juice bars?

SM: I don’t know of any juice bars. But I don’t know what straight people do, I only know what gay people do.

What do they do in LA?

SM: They go outside to smoke. In California it’s been that way for much longer. They have bars whose architecture is based on these laws, so that a huge percentage of the bar is based outside but not exposed to the elements

Was it a significant lifestyle shift from moving from New York to LA?

SM: Well for me the biggest block was driving round not on a grid. I’m used to Manhattan where you can’t get lost because most of the streets are numbered, you can only get lost in West Village – I still get lost in WV even though I live there. I’d be totally lost in LA without my GPS system. I know my way around my neighbourhood. I’m actually geographically disabled. I can do the NY Times crossword puzzle, I regularly finish the Friday crossword, I never finish the Saturday crossword alone. I’m a smart person but put me down in a simple grid that isn’t numbered, I will get lost immediately.

[Here we drift wildly on a 10 minute conversation about reading maps, which then blends smoothly into a chat about molestation in boy scouts. It is here we shall rejoin the action]

…It’s good to learn these things early before you meet your drama teacher.

Did drama school spark your interest in theatre?

SM: I’d done a bit of theatre before that in elementary school. When I was five years old I was the dog with antlers in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. My mother said I was magnificent. There was opportunity or comic effect and the such.

Were you more extrovert when you were younger then?

SM: No, less extroverted in fact, thus the non-speaking role of the dog.

You must have had to bark though, that’s quite a dramatic statement.

SM: I think the dog just had to look put upon. I can do that well.

In the film it seemed you had an upbringing that promoted expression? Where did this introversion come from?

SM: Well, we travelled round a lot so I didn’t make friends easily. And I was a sickly child so was out of school a lot, I was much smaller than all the other boys, I’ve always been the smallest boy in school, usually there’s one girl who’s smaller than me and that’s it. Generally in school my only friend was the girl who was smaller than me, whoever that was. The next larger boy was always the one who wanted to beat me up, because I was the only one he could reasonably expect to beat up.

Was it all gloom? Seemed like you got on well with your mother.

SM: Yes, my mother was not the problem. She paid me to meditate, which was fun. She didn’t want to present it that way, but that is what she was doing. I think other kids have to go to Sunday School and if they don’t go they don’t get their pocket money, which is essentially being paid for religion, but for me it was ‘Meditate, here’s some money’.

Did meditation help with your writing?

SM: I think I didn’t need to be taught to meditate in the first place, my natural mode was sitting quietly and thinking by myself. I’m an only child, I’m really good at sitting alone and thinking. So being asked to meditate was being asked, not to think, but in this context anyway, to label every thought ‘thinking’ and concentrate on my breath.

Do you still meditate?

SM: No, not at all. It’s not something I need in any way. It may be good for people who have difficulty sitting in one place for a long time, and people who have obsessive thought behaviour, but I’m not either of those people.

In quite a few write ups you get compared to songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Willy Nelson and other such gigantic American songwriters.

SM: That does make me sound more famous than I am. The advantage of that is so the writer can be assured that the reader will know what they’re talking about. So I get compared to Cole Porter whereas I probably should be compared to The Moments, but if they compared me to The Moments, then most of their readers won’t know who they’re talking about. So comparisons for anyone, not just me, are limited to household names. Every heavy metal singer is going to be compared to Robert Plant in a certain way, because Led Zeppelin are the only household name amongst heavy metal bands. And also Black Sabbath. It’s particularly difficult for women. Is PJ Harvey more like Patti Smith or is Liz Phair more like Patti Smith. Or if a woman plays the guitar, is she like or not like Joan Jett?

But do you consider yourself a songwriter of the same ilk as these household names?

SM: Yes, I actually do consider myself a songwriter like Bruce Springsteen. A few years ago he came out with this wonderful song called ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’, and all my friends came out and went ‘OMG Bruce Springsteen is directly imitating Stephin’. And it turned out that it just sounded like The Ronettes, and I’ve written a lot of songs that sound like them. [Springsteen] isn’t imitating me by imitating the Ronettes, but he is definitely imitating The Ronettes. So yes, I consider myself as being like [him] in that we like the same things – The Ronettes and folk music. I also like experimental music, which I think he’s probably not particularly captivated by. He also likes bar room rock that I don’t really care about. I wouldn’t feel too depressed about having to limit myself to the rock of the early sixties, fortunately I don’t have to limit myself.

Is it the imagery as well as the sound that captivates you about 50s and 60s?

SM: I didn’t say 50s, I’m not a fan of the 50s at all. I’d start with the girl groups really. I keep trying with 50s rock, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the end of the 50s. But I recently bought Esquerita’s Greatest Hits record and it’s just not my thing.

What happened in that period in American rock that suddenly made you take interest?

SM: It was the women singing. Women singing in groups. It was all about the melody and not someone improvising and hooping and hawing. Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’, which is ten minutes long, where she takes two minutes to sing the first two words, is one of the best recordings of the 20th Century, but it’s not the kind of thing I want to listen to. I never went to church as a child, I don’t like church-y singing, it doesn’t have the associations for me that it does for other people. I want to hear the melody. I don’t care about vocal improvisation, or instrumental improvisation for that matter. I’ve never been big on Gospel or Jazz. I’m much more about Billie Holiday than Ella Fitzgerald. I like the cooler, calmer delivery where the melody means something to the singer.

That inspiration seems more obvious on your first couple of albums – especially The Ronettes – is that period still core inspiration for the songs on Distortion?

SM: Yes, Distortion was all about going beyond the first Jesus and Mary Chain Album, and JAMC were all about The Ronettes, really specifically The Ronettes, not so much Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans as The Ronettes. You get the feeling they liked Ronnie Spector more than Darlene Love.

With living in LA, has your writing taken a different method?

SM: I’m supposed to be putting a hold on it whilst I work on this musical, but I keep working on The Magnetic Fields.

Is this for a new album?

SM: Yes.

How far through it are you?

SM: Well, it’s always hard to tell. I’ve begun recording, but I don’t know how many of the songs I’ve recorded for the album will end up on the album, so there’s no way of knowing.

Are you still working with same line up?

SM: Not yet, it’s just me for the moment.

Are you recording demos?

SM: No, I never record demos. I always think demos are a complete waste of time, because I always think ‘Why not just record something you can actually put on the record?’

Do you usually record on your own?

SM: Yes, I recorded the first two Magnetic Fields records by myself. My intention is not to record the whole album by myself, but record a lot of it before I get the other people involved, which is normally what I do. I have little tiny studio in New York and a house in LA, I travel back and forth about once a month. I’ve already done two MF records before moving to LA.

What do you miss most about New York?

SM: I miss what the East Village used to be, but now it’s just a shopping mall. So what I miss most about the East Village has gone anyway.

Are your retro music tastes mirrored in your film tastes?

SM: My retro referencing in film is much more extreme. I go to all the silent movies I can, I think colour was a mistake, but sound was a worst mistake. I’m an ultra reactionary in movies. The movies that get nominated for best picture, for me, are largely insultingly stupid. I don’t understand why one is supposed to follow a narrative for an hour and a half and nobody bursts into song. I have the Chinese approach, which is: tragedy is fine, but every ten minutes someone has to burst into song. I think the only mainstream movie I bought this year was Black Swan, which is over the top tragic and they burst into song or dance anyway.

Do you prefer the theatrical aspect of film?

SM: I love Black Swan but it’s definitely cheating. It’s basically a silent movie in aesthetics, the dialogue is irrelevant. All they have to do is play Swan Lake under the dancing and terrible things happening, and it’s a silent movie, it’s The Perils of Pauline in fact.

Do you have favourite actors from silent films?

SM: It’s not about the actors for me. I liked Buster Keaton a great deal, but BK is so much like me that [the reason is] probably more because it’s like watching a home movie. I feel like I could understudy for Buster Keaton and no one would notice. I’d put on platform shoes and no one would notice that it wasn’t Buster Keaton.

You look or act like him? Do you fall down stairs a lot?

SM: Both. We have puppy dog eyes, no particular facial expression, reacting to other people’s foibles.

What do you find so attractive about watching silent films?

SM: I do know that I enjoy watching the organist and [thinking about] what are they going to do next. For someone who hates improvisation, I do see a lot of improvisational music going to several silent films a week. I think that’s different though, its improvisation for the service of the film rather than a form of self-expression.

Would you like to score a silent film?

SM: I just did that, I did 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the 1916 version.

Why that film?

SM: I was asked by the San Fran international film festival to score a film, and I’d been thinking about what I could do with that, and I saw 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea at El Segundo where they have a gigantic theatre organ with various attachments, it was all very exciting. It definitely spoke to me as being a science fiction movie. I thought really the way to score it would be to make it strange with unfamiliar instruments. So the way I did it was I had a giant theatre organ at the Castro din San Fran, and then I musicalised it so that we were singing along with the movements of the actors’ lips. I’m pretty good at reading lips, so what I had them say was largely what they actually were saying. It was impossible to get it perfectly in synch, but I think I more or less replicated the entire dialogue. But I also had them burst into song. I got Daniel Handler to do the accordion and the women’s parts because he has a great falsetto voice. He’s the accordion in Magnetic Fields and also the author of Lemony Snicket.

What approach did you take to scoring the film in the end?

SM: Typically for me, I did it in a megalomaniacal way that meant it couldn’t be reproduced by anyone else. I did modern electronics and we made familiar sounds with the theatre organs and unfamiliar ones with the electronics. And extremely unfamiliar to that movie by singing, which was traditional in Japan but never happened in US or Europe where there was a musical narrator, who was an artist and people would go see whatever show he was doing regardless of what the film was. Before the actors were stars, the live narrators were stars. So I was trying to draw on that tradition. The reaction from the audience was split down the middle with a lot of people thinking that what we were doing was heretical and rude – my dialogue was a little sexier than the original was supposed to be. And the other half of the audience said they’d never seen anything like it and whether it was good enough or not is hard to tell. I regarded it as an experimental project, I’m well aware no one has ever musicalised a film before, for excellent reasons. It’s impossible to do, but we did it pretty closely.

Do you have plans to do another film?

SM: No, it took about six months of hard labour to do that. I’d be very surprised if anyone tried to musicalise a silent film again. It was more ambitious than 69 Love Songs. People were stunned that we were trying to do it, not that we were failing to do it accurately.

Did you tour the film?

SM: Yes we went to Portland Oregon and LA. It’s an inherently difficult thing to tour because we could only play places with theatre organs.

[Here we have a conversation about the various differences between theatre and church organs and pontificate on why perhaps there are fewer theatre organs in London. I then try to book him to play at a venue I have no authority over.]

It seems common opinion that you’re quite difficult or aloof. Where does this come from? Have you come across this before?

SM: I have a prickly reputation. I think it’s from young college journalists who haven’t done a lot of interviews before and ask me a lot of stupid questions and try to make a joke out of the interview. I can’t deal with these people, so I’ve had to terminate some interviews early. But that’s only three or four interviews in my life, unfortunately I’ve got a reputation from those.

What kind space do you like to write in?

SM: I like the gay bars where the old men happen to hang out because they don’t like loud music, they don’t like it too dark as they can’t see, they want to be able to talk to each other. That happens to be what I like too. I don’t want to listen to very loud music as I have a hearing condition, and because I don’t especially enjoy loud music and I need to be able to see what I’m writing. I can barely write at all in my house as there’s always something else I’m supposed to be doing.

The old man bars you hang out in…

SM: I don’t mean that I only like to hang out with old men, but that my taste in bars is that of older gay men. I want the same music that the old guys want, which is late 70s boring disco, before everybody died.

What’s the appeal of pumping disco when writing?

SM: I like pumping disco because it’s music that gets the Bumblebee Tuna commercial music out of my head, but it doesn’t demand any attention and it gives me a framework to work with and just enough vaguely interesting things to latch on occasionally. Whereas hip hop generally doesn’t have enough complexity for me, I find it unbearably boring unless it’s so old that it’s basically disco in the first place.

Does that environment recreate this meditative state?

SM: For me it’s not a primal state, it’s going to the office. Far from finding that mystical environment, I find it intentionally boring. Putting myself in a state where I’m not thinking about something else.

For songwriting you have to be in a state of boredom?

SM: Yes, it’s a state where I have to think about work, so I have to be bored, a bit bored but not totally bored, by what’s going on around me.

I guess your dream scenario would be to get stuck in a lift.

SM: A lift that serves alcohol.

Is alcohol an important aspect?

SM: Alcohol is not an unimportant part of this process too, I need alcohol to turn off my horn-rimmed glasses wearing super ego who says, ‘Meh, someone already did that 70 years ago in an obscure off Broadway operetta. You can’t rhyme those two things, someone will know.’

Is rhyming a game or some form of playful challenge?

SM: I don’t usually go for obscure rhymes because they call attention to themselves – medium I would say. Not too hackneyed like love and dove. In the 69 Love Songs interview book there’s a little section that’s me and Daniel Handler trying to come up with orange rhymes. You just have to have a sense of the absurd.


SM: That doesn’t rhyme with orange.

Obscurities is out now on Domino

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