Stephin Merritt

BY Vish KhannaPublished Feb 5, 2010

Stephin Merritt is the man behind remarkable musical projects like the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and the Magnetic Fields. Now splitting his time between New York and Los Angeles, he's one of the most accomplished and significant pop songwriters of the past 20 years. He's also highly regarded for his forays into cinematic soundtracks, musical theatre, opera, and writing jingles for TV commercials. The ninth album by the Magnetic Fields is a stellar one called Realism, which was released January 26. They're set to kick off a world tour that brings them to Montreal on February 6 and Toronto on February 8. Stephin Merritt spoke with us ahead of this road trip.

Realism is meant to conclude something called the "no synth trilogy," which includes the 2004 Magnetic Fields album i and the 2008 release, Distortion. I can understand your compulsion to explore a new sound or direction for the band but why a trilogy?
Well, actually the problem was that there were no interesting new sounds to be played at the time. So, I thought I would give up the synthesizer for a while until there was something. Three albums seemed to be long enough and now, in fact, there are new synthesizers and I've been collecting those. So, clearly the next Magnetic Fields album will have synthesizers on it but probably all new ones ― probably no synthesizers that people have been familiar with.

Synthesizers from the future?
No, synthesizers from the present. But not from the past.

All right, that makes more sense. Thank you for clarifying that.

You've said that Realism and Distortion are particularly connected to one another in this trio of records ― a kind of vague "True and False" dynamic. Why is that?
I wanted to originally have albums called True and False but I couldn't actually decide which one was which, so I called them Distortion and Realism. Distortion is about doing to other instruments what say, the Jesus and Mary Chain, did with the electric guitar, which was to make it sound more like a vacuum cleaner than a classical guitar. So we made the accordion sound more like a vacuum cleaner than an accordion and that sort of thing. It was all recorded in the live room of the studio. It's not mixed to sound like that; it was recorded that way. The musicians kept thinking they were being incredibly loud and wanting to turn down but, actually, they were quite quiet. In order to make the speakers overdrive, you have to turn the speaker down and the input up. So, what sounded like [makes static sound] "Kweeeeeeck," was actually pretty quiet. So that was the sound of Distortion. And for Realism, I decided to make an out-and-out folk album. An orchestral folk album anyway; since one of our band members is a cellist, we couldn't make a straight folk album. But my favourite folk albums are the two, mid-'60s Judy Collins albums, Wildflowers and In My Life, where she has arrangements from Joshua Rifkin that are completely changing the incantation with every new song and there's no two songs in the same genre. That's what I thought of as folk when I was little and that's what I think is good folk now. There's hardly any acoustic guitar on the whole record, unfortunately, but it's folk.

I think it's folk; I see where you're coming from. One of the things that strikes me most about Realism is how surreal it actually is. Songs like "We Are Having a Hootenanny" and "The Doll's Tea Party" in particular seem to have a psychedelic haze about them. I'm not trying to insinuate that you've made some kind of stoner record here but do you suppose you were exploring some kind of "heightened realism" with this album?
Oh, I don't know about that. I was probably just overly influenced by Judy Collins in 1967. That's why there's backwards piano and such things.

Yeah, and a general haze if that makes any sense.
Hm (pauses). I'd have to listen for it.

I'm not saying it's a distortion hum. Just a playful, dreamy aspect to the record.
Right, that's probably also true of Distortion actually.

Yeah, and a few of your records to be honest. But something about this one grabbed me that way and I wondered if that was intentional on your part.
Um, not as far as I recall.

Okay. My impression of the last Magnetic Fields record Distortion and now Realism is that, while you're employing the terms playfully, these albums are conceptually based around their sonic make-up or production approach in some way; the former has a distorted fuzz, while the latter has a particularly acoustic, intimate feel. In terms of their lyrics, do these songs also relate to these umbrella concepts of distortion and realism in any way?
Not in my brain but in the brains of some reporters and presumably some listeners. But I can't be held responsible for that.

But you've pointed us in that direction so we're bound to read into it that way.
Well, I see no reason why titles have to be applied to the lyrics.

I can appreciate that but you're renowned for tying your records together by some theme and that's why people think of the title, as almost a clue.
Sure. But the theme needn't be lyrical and in Distortion and Realism, the theme is the production style, whereas for i, the theme was the first letter of the titles of the songs.

Right. But, for example on the new record, there's a song called "You Must be Out of Your Mind." I get the impression that the subject of the song is being told to "Get real." Y'know what I mean? Like, "Come to your senses."

Ever think of that?
No, I hadn't thought of that. I haven't used the phrase "Get real." I've heard it though.

"Get realism." See what I did there? I'm tying it all together.
Right. Well, that's a bit of a stretch for me but that's okay. Each interpreter is free to choose.

Yes, yes; that's the beauty of our society really, when you think about it. Throughout your life as a working artist, you seem drawn to concept-based projects. Why does that focus making a record appeal to you so much?
Well, they're not exactly concept-based. I mean 69 Love Songs, I thought of before I did it and I decided that it was going to be titled so that nobody could say, "Oh, there are too many love songs on this record."

Right, you were very open about your intention there.
Right. And similarly with the last three, I've felt like, why not cut off possible criticism by titling the record after exactly what people are most likely to complain about. You can't complain about it if it's being used as a selling point.

So, you thought people might be like, "This record is too real!"
Right. Y'know, "Where are the synthesizers?" "Where are the electric guitars from the last record?"

So you're one step ahead of your possible detractors.

I see, well that's very clever. Very, very clever Stephin.
Thank you, thank you.

You're welcome. I know you spent part of 2009 working on a theatrical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. How was that experience by the way?
It was a lovely experience. I've never done a literally off-Broadway play before. We were in a cute little theatre, the Lucille Lortel, on Christopher Street, the gay main drag of Greenwich Village. So, I would go across the street and write songs while drinking, which is what I do when I write songs. I would go into rehearsal, right across the street the next morning. It was a lovely experience.

That's interesting to me; for those who follow you, you're known for working in bars. You're still doing that.
Oh yeah, because it's fun.

You're often multi-tasking and working with different people on different projects; beyond this upcoming spate of touring activity with the Magnetic Fields, what are you up to or working on for the future?
I'm working on a score for the 1917 silent film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's going to be performed at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 4, I believe.

So the film will be screened and a band will be out front playing the score. Will you be performing yourself?
Yes, I'll be playing and singing, I believe. I'm going to try to musicalize it to be more or less in sync with the moving lips of the actors, who actually talk a great deal, considering it's a silent film.

That sounds quite interesting. How'd you come into doing that?
I was asked by the San Francisco Film Festival.

And will that be a Magnetic Fields project per se?
No no; although it will be myself and the accordion and tuba players from the Magnetic Fields, it's just billed as me, as far as I know.

Excellent, so people can look forward to that in May.
Yes, if they live in San Francisco.

Although, knowing you, what seems to happen is that you work on these things and, eventually, they seem to get compiled on some kind of record. So hopefully that happens with this.
Yes, I hope so.

Latest Coverage