Magnetic Fields Feeds Back

By Brock ThiessenStephin Merritt likes a good metaphor as much as the next guy; in fact, his songs are loaded with them. But when he christened the Magnetic Fields’ eighth album Distortion, he was being strictly literal.

"Originally, we had two different titles that were not about the sound of the record, but once we decided to call it Distortion, everything seemed to click into place,” says 41-year-old Merritt. "I believe in calling the record after the most prominent, unpleasant quality. That way, you’ve got it out of the way.”

Wanting to sound "more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain,” the group’s composer, producer and occasional show tune writer isn’t kidding. Distortion is a record where the feedback squeals, the echo bounces and distortion blankets everything in reach. It’s one that erects walls of noise rather than walls of sound and, above all, is the first Magnetic Fields record to actually kind of rock.

Distortion marks a sharp change of pace for the hollow-hearted baritone, who’s rarely associated with anything remotely loud or at all rockin’. The Magnetic Fields’ last release, 2004’s i, was a solely acoustic, orchestral affair, while more recent projects found Merritt writing three Chinese operas and releasing a "bubblegum goth” album as the Gothic Archies (one of his several monikers). Even the Magnetic Fields’ seminal and wildly eclectic 1999 masterpiece, 69 Love Songs, seldom showed any real rock’n’roll tendencies. In fact, little of the band’s 18 years of back-catalogue has.

But Distortion is still a Magnetic Fields record at heart and continues to explore Merritt’s back-to-mono, ’60s pop fetishes. Much of this is thanks to 69 Love Songs enlistee Shirley Simms, who lends her radio-friendly, unisex voice to half of Distortion’s tracks and who Merritt considers "the best living pop singer.”

"As soon as you get beyond the fact that it’s seriously distorted and filled with shrieking feedback, it’s a relatively conventional rock record. And I think one gets beyond that pretty quickly because it’s right there in the title,” Merritt says. "But if there is any lyrical application [to the title], I leave it up to the listener to interpret.”And although Distortion’s multi-layered screeches and squeals make for a complex listen, the album comes from a simple aim: to make a record quickly and to do so with the same instruments on each track. "Whenever I start on a record I wonder what kind of album it will become and I start to make guidelines, otherwise what’s it going to be? Partly Chinese opera, partly shrieking feedback and partly 69 Love Songs?” he says. "So I thought, ‘What sort of template could I use?’ And I thought Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy would be perfect — just make everything feedback.”

However, even with the JAMC’s blaring 1985 debut as a model, Merritt kept i’s chamber-pop ensemble intact for Distortion, forcing him to connect each instrument to a complicated series of amplifiers to gain the right level of feeding-back circuitry. "We had to basically invent feedback piano, feedback accordion and feedback cello,” he says. Luckily, to get the echo-y drums, all he needed was the 17-storey stairway of his old New York apartment, which he has since left for L.A.

Ironically, in the end, Distortion was neither quick nor easy, and what was supposed to take a month instead took a year and a half. But Merritt says it was all worth it because he has finally passed the true test of rock: "My mother hates the record… She doesn’t get it at all, and I’m delighted. I wouldn’t have thought that in this day in age there was such a thing as music your parents would hate.”
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Article Published In Feb 08 Issue