The return of indie pop's favorite crank

Notoriously terse Stephin Merritt talks to Salon about his new record, bad techno -- and his sunny attitude

Published March 5, 2012 7:30PM (EST)

“Oh, Stephin, behave!” That’s what a lot of people seem to want to say to Stephin Merritt, the impresario of the ever-changing musical ensemble the Magnetic Fields, whose tenth full-length album, "Love at the Bottom of the Sea," rises to the surface this week.

For years, journalists and others labeled him morose and “difficult”; in 2006 some critics even accused him of racism because, for one thing, his musical tastes didn’t include the approved proportions of rap (a charge you’d probably then have to apply to every other gay, middle-aged fancier of show tunes out there). Such absurd extremes aside, though, he certainly didn’t make himself easy to like: When I first interviewed him a decade ago, he was so terse and condescending that it was hard not to take it personally. Yet something is different today. Merritt now proves to be a convivial and entertaining conversationalist, although still given to long, pregnant pauses.

Perhaps his new base in Los Angeles, where he moved from New York a few years ago, has helped sunny up his disposition. (He still keeps an apartment in the historical capital of pop songcraft, where he speaks to me by phone.)  Perhaps it’s from spending much of the past decade working in theater – from opera with Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng to the musical "Coraline" in collaboration with author Neil Gaiman -- about which he says, with rare pep, “There’s nothing as exciting in the world as working in the theater! It’s so much fun that it seems ridiculous to get paid to do it.” (New projects await on that front but he won’t divulge details.) Or perhaps, at age 46, he’s simply mellowed a bit.

His more affable mood seems to produce more whimsical, lusty and even outright jokey songs. But then fans and critics complain that they miss the more wrenching emotion of his earlier work, even though Merritt has always said that the feelings in his songs are really only Warhol-style tinted silkscreens of pointedly appropriated clichés. Merritt Dark or Merritt Lite, he can’t seem to win – or perhaps, no matter what mode he’s in, he wouldn’t be Stephin Merritt, that pop conceptualist with an excess of “i” in his name (which gave an earlier album its title), if he played along with anyone else’s expectations.

As if to make sure no couple ever again adopts one of his works as a wedding song (as many did with “The Book of Love” and other tunes from his 1999 triple-disc magnum opus, "69 Love Songs"), the new collection dwells on desire misfired at impossible barriers, as ill-fated as romance on the ocean floor: It includes ditties of dogmatic celibacy (“God Wants Us to Wait”), rampant promiscuity (“The Only Boy in Town”), profligate betrayal (“My Husband’s Pied a Terre”), drug-fueled violence (“Your Girlfriend’s Face”), petty paranoia (“I Don’t Like Your Tone”), choreomania (“Infatuation With Your Gyration” and “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”) and compulsive punning (“I Would Go Anywhere With Hugh”).

I ask him if it’s possible to take the comedic aspect too far. “I think it works as long as one goes too far in multiple directions at once,” he says. “Like ‘Zombie Boy’ [from 2008’s "Distortion"] is definitely going too far lyrically: It tries to combine every offensive thing one could put in the lyric, not only pedophilia but necrophilia with kidnapping et cetera, gay, pedo, necro, possibly interracial – all the hot buttons, but in a silly way.” It’s parallel, he agrees, to the way filmmaker John Waters combined deliberate “bad taste” with an old-fashioned sense of craft.

The most obvious change on the new disc from the “acoustic trilogy” of the last three releases is the return of Merritt’s hazy way with synthesizers, taken to new extremes. People who’ve visited his L.A. home say the place is packed wall-to-wall with synths he’s collected, many of which didn’t exist the last time the band used electronics, and they’re given free rein on "LATBOTS" – encouraged, one might say, to misbehave.

“What I was trying to get away from was the synthesizer as a glorified electric organ, although I like electric organs,” Merritt says. “And now we have synths that don’t imitate keyboards – that don’t even have keyboards. You can’t tell them what note to play, and you wouldn’t want to bother because they’d be ridiculously inefficient at doing that. You tell them how to behave. The area of your thumb pad over the circuit determines the pitch. It’s so uncontrollable that you’d never try to play a scale. You get screechy and staticky noises.”

He mentions one more antique synth module, Buchla’s Source of Uncertainty, which resembles the console of a 1960s sci-fi starship if it were piloted by a telephone switchboard operator. “It allows you to adjust the randomness with the voltage. It’s a lot of fun but you can’t play a single note on it … Traditionally in pop music there’s two kinds of instruments: drums and ‘other.’ The drums do unpitched and not particularly focused sound, and everything else is supposed to have a tone you can identify easily. So on this album we’ve added a category, the unpitched electronic sound; they’re right up there in the foreground, buzzing away, confusing you. It’s analogous to the way we used feedback on Distortion: I’ve taken my Jesus & Mary Chain admiration into a different context.”

Otherwise, the personnel and instrumentation on the new album are the same as for most of the past decade, including cello, guitar, accordion, banjo and guest vocalists. He credits a couple of non-musical influences: “I’m encouraged by Fassbinder and Ozu to keep working with the same people and try and get different things out of them. The taste in music of the band members of the Magnetic Fields seems to be laughably nothing to do with what they end up playing in the Magnetic Fields. … I think of them as a repertory of actors. I just wish I could put them in different wigs and things.”

Touring (which he hates, and which begins this week), the band will play acoustically, on guitars, ukuleles and the like, as it has ever since Merritt developed hyperacusis, an oversensitivity to certain sounds, in his left ear. (His reputation for “difficulty” has not been helped by the fact he puts his hand to his head and winces whenever audiences applaud too enthusiastically.) Rearrangement isn’t a problem, though, as Merritt keeps his recording decisions completely separate from the style and content of the songs. “I always pretend that as the writer I have amnesia, and the producer comes into the studio with no knowledge whatsoever of the song.” 

Given his penchant for synthesizers, his long-established songwriting routine of sitting in loud gay bars with a notebook and a drink, and his mimic’s gift for nearly every genre, I wonder why he’s never composed in any mode of contemporary dance music, like Euro or house.

“Anyone can make a techno record,” he says. “I’m willing to defend that statement. I could probably teach my mother to make a techno record in a few hours … One thing that I never do is the genre happening at that moment; by the time it comes out, it will be old hat. It would be ridiculous for me to try to make a dubstep record. Although I did hear a new genre that sounds appealing, at least for a laugh: deathstep – more aggressive, involving guitars of the heavy-metal variety. Which opens up a whole rainbow of possibilities, like death calypso, death samba, death New Age.”

There is at least one song on the record, however, that’s very 2012: “The Machine in Your Hand,” in which the protagonist wishes he could become a smartphone in order to get his beloved’s attention. Merritt is surprised when I suggest there’s never before been a Magnetic Fields song acknowledging the existence of digital culture.

“Really?” he says. “That would be an elaborate coincidence … Well, now there is.” But, true to form, the actual inspirations are older: “It’s an answer song to two different original songs, Ultravox’s  ‘I Want to Be a Machine’ and ABBA’s ‘Dum Dum Diddle.’ ” He sings: “ ‘Dum dum diddle/ to be your fiddle/ I think then maybe/ you’d see me baby’ – but instead of a violin it’s a gadget, and instead of a pocket calculator it’s now a personal machine.”

Does Merritt himself have an online life? I know most Magnetic Fields business over email is conducted by his bandmate and friend Claudia Gonson. “I’m not on Friendster, Myspace, Twitter or the other one,” he says, “but I do play Scrabble and Words With Friends with multiple people at the same time. So I’m totally guilty of the behavior mentioned in the song. But almost everyone is. My own mother has become one of those people with whom you can’t have a conversation.”

His songs, though, still dwell on human-on-human interaction, in whatever social-sexual configurations and however doomed – most impressively on the new album on “Andrew in Drag,” in which a straight man is hopelessly smitten with how another straight guy once looked in a dress: “I’ll never see that girl again, he did it as a gag/ I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag.” It’s practically a gender-studies thesis in comic verse, with, as in all Merritt’s best, a bitterly poignant undertow.

In 1990s-era Magnetic Fields songs – the first synth period, starting when they formed in Boston - that subtext tended to emerge instead from images of iconic environments, such as the beach, country roads and city streets, and the kinds of music associated with them. But at some point it became much more about dialogue and characters.

“I don’t think it was deliberate in any way,” he says. “It was to do with my personal psyche: I got interested in people. I don’t know why, but a lot of music people are not interested in people, so much as in places and things ... I think it’s more true of men than women: Not that it’s an innate difference, just that women are encouraged early on to be interested in people while men are encouraged to acquire a facility with things, more directly. I have nothing more to say about that, but it certainly is conspicuous in my life.”

I ask if that shift also meant that his songs became more about life rather than songs about songs, as he usually frames them. “I still feel like the conversation is mostly about music,” he says. “But music is still something that’s done only by people – except for the Thai Elephant Orchestra.” (That’s a real thing, by the way, billed as “the world’s biggest orchestra, at least by weight” – look it up on YouTube.)

The Magnetic Fields is not Merritt’s only band, although in recent years theater and film work has largely taken the place of his once-abundant side projects: “In the past 10 years, I’ve only put out one Gothic Archies, one Future Bible Heroes and one Sixths album. And four cast albums and two film soundtracks. But other than that I haven’t really been up to very much.”

The Magnetic Fields, however, remains his prime and best-known gig. As the band attains the legal drinking age this year, I wonder if he hears their influence among younger musicians. He hesitates. “There was that Strokes song that sounds conspicuously like the Magnetic Fields [‘Ask Me Anything’]. But how would you go about being influenced by the Magnetic Fields? We change all the time.”

Many bands labeled “chillwave,” among others such as the Dum Dum Girls, I suggest, marry 1960s-style beach, girl-group and bubblegum pop to dense low-fidelity textures in a way that recalls the early Magnetic Fields.

“I can think of combinations,” he allows. “Like if Vampire Weekend were producing Robyn, you’d come out with basically a Magnetic Fields song. If ever I win a billion dollars, in some fictional lottery in which you don’t have to buy a ticket to win, I could hire Vampire Weekend and Robyn to complete my career for me. They’re both wonderful but each on a completely different level.”

If it’s more difficult to hear the influence of more recent-vintage Magnetic Fields among other musicians, that may be a matter not only of time but of adaptability: The newer songs are not so much diminished in emotion as higher in specificity, with fewer gaps for the listener to project into psychologically. To go on a limb, it might partly relate to cultural changes (along with the settling effect of age) that make it more comfortable for Merritt to write unambiguously from a gay perspective and with a gay sensibility, rather than the way he once navigated through the indie-rock ghetto with a slippery-pronouned, allusive and elusive queerness that was very 1990s in affect.

If Merritt is currently writing less like some amalgam of Morrissey, Cole Porter and Hank Williams and more like a salon wit such as Noel Coward, there’s an ease there that he has earned. And if his past record is any indication, his muse won’t stay in place for long. As they say about the weather in New England, where the band began: If you don’t like what the Magnetic Fields are doing now, wait a minute. But first, perhaps, try listening again.

By Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson is a Toronto-based writer on music and culture who is the author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste and one of the proprietors of Back to the World.

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