Interview: Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields)

During a long-distance  phone call with The Magnetic Fields’s Stephin Merritt, I could hear as many pauses as I could his own words.

From his hotel room in Brighton, England, the low-key Merritt seemed to play down any hype  associated with the musical project he has fronted for the he past two decades, a body of work that has earned him a cult following and much critical acclaim.

“My writing process is that I sit in gay bars with a cocktail in one hand and a pen in another and I write what I am hearing, what music they are playing… I just eavesdrop on people around me,” he said.

This month, he is touring Europe to promote “Love at The Bottom of the Sea”, a new record that goes  back to their  traditional use of synthesizers and sends us straight to the bottom of the tempestuous sea floor that is  Stephin Merritt’s mind.

Every song in the new album is less than 3 minutes long. They are funny, strange morsels,  delicacies packed with elegies, nostalgia, escapism and voyeurism.  There are  sweet melodies are laced with the notoriously acerbic sarcasm of Merritt’s lyrics, American folk music juxtaposed with  the sonic feeds of John Cage’s “4’33″ and the cheerfulness of Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds.”

“Some of them are so short, there isn’t much time to tell a story,” said Merritt.  ”They are a little longer than a haiku and music shorter than a short, short story.”

Merritt, kind and courteous, could  be exasperating for the uninitiated, journalists like myself trying to squeeze meaning and symbolism from Merritt’s work, soon to discover that these are  the very elements he uses randomly, throwing every musical and cultural cliché into a magnetic void where they rearrange themselves into what is known as his music.

“The name? I had earlier written a song called Love at the Bottom of the Sea but I wasn’t that interested in the song but I liked the title a lot,” said Merritt, who added that he chose the  title and the cover  because “it had absolutely nothing to do with the songs.”

The randomness of machines like the synthesizer mimicking vacuum cleaners and radio static, is a crucial part  of his composition, especially in this new album. Merritt said he likes his machine to behave unpredictably.

“I use chaos as a herb or a spice,” said Merritt.

“I have a lot of machines that will behave in somewhat unpredictable ways and you can’t control how unpredictable it will turn out,” he said.

“With these machines you turn them on and turn them off and  but you never get the same behavior   twice. You probably have the statistical probabilistically of what’s going to happen but you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”

It is no wonder that he used surrealist Andre Breton’s Les Champes Magnetiques for his multi-instrumental  group that has been around in different combinations and collaborations, since 1989.

“It’s like a sex club,” Merritt said. “You return to the club and keep seeing the same people over and over but there is always new people too.”

The Magnetic Fields  started off  in the early 90s as a studio project between Merritt and other fellow musicians. Merritt’s collaborators today include Shirley Simms, whose harmonic voice you can hear singing Merritt’s funny words on “Your Girlfriend’s Face” :

In the evenings I devise your death/Being buried alive on crystal meth

“Love at the Bottom of the Sea” is the offspring of a very prolific mind, an artistic antenna that picks up on humanity’s static, from Oprah’s  live audience,  bar gossip  and everything else.

In “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre”,  Merritt tells the story of a woman who was on Oprah who discovered her was not who she thought he was.

“The original phrase came from a woman who had discovered that her husband was leading a secret only when he died he left more of a mess than  other people do,” said Merritt.

All the satire and mischievous storytelling is discreetly dramatized by Merritt’s deep voice and the harmonic chorus, that 1970′s sound of the Mamas and the Papas or Abba, as in the song “Quick”!:

Quick! before it all ends in tears/what a waste of all those beers

Merritt  suffers from hyperacusis, an intolerance to everyday sounds and a oversensitivity to certain frequency ranges. While the condition can create a high level of discomfort, Merritt plays it down.

“It does affect how we play live I can’t be around loud shrill sounds we have to do without

drums and no onstage amplification.”

Love at the Bottom of the Sea, The Magnetic Fields’ tenth album, is their first release with Merge since the 1999 69 Love Songs.

The album was recorded Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York with Merritt’s usual partners, Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, John Woo, Shirley Simms, Johnny Blood and Daniel Handler.


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