Drenched in Distortion: Stephin Merritt on Magnetic Fields’ stab at chamber pop
Propped in the corner, below billowing speakers that spill out dreary lounge music filling out the lapses in lunchtime chatter, sits Stephin Merrit, Magnetic Fields lynchpin, contented with his three-disc This Is Psychedelia acquisition and hefty pot of green tea. Weary and bleary eyed from jetlag and an appearance DJing at London dive The George & Dragon the previous evening seems far from the ideal circumstances to meet Merritt. He is renowned for being an awkward proposition to interview, possessing an austere sense of intellect, who within two minutes has already asked to swap seats twice in order to hear through the tin can din.
But immediately there seems a sense that so many of Merritt’s critics (most notably the Chicago Reader journalist Sasha Frere-Jones’s attempt to label Merritt a racist, link) are blind to the bitter irony that soaks his conversation, because if there is one thing Merritt can not be accused of it is lacking consideration. Throughout the interview each response is methodically laboured, interspersed with unnerving long pauses of deliberation, refreshingly removed from the reels of spiel delivered by so many artists.
Distortion, the band’s eighth record, marks another move away from the New York cohort’s previous synth-pop groundings. Alongside the familiar Magnetic Fields line-up of cellist Sam Davol, guitarist John Woo, accordionist Daniel Handler and pianist Claudia Gonson, Shirley Simms - a central contributor to the seminal 69 Love Songs - returns to the fray following 2004’s wholly Merritt-fronted i; her grand melancholic delivery again sits brilliantly beside Merritt’s hollow-hearted baritone bawl.
Since releasing i, Merritt has focused attentions on his other outlets, namely with his “goth bubblegum” outfit the Gothic Archies, producing a compilation for Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, and Showtunes, a collaboration with Chinese theatre director Chen Shi-Zheng consisting of three pieces of musical theatre. So it seems strange when Merritt responds with a shrug when questioned over which moniker he most likes to produce records under, declaring that he places little regard on the name of the project his work is released under, nor upon the musicians he works with, later revealing the distanced relationship that he and the rest of Magnetic Fields share, tending to only see each other at wedding functions.
But Merritt can never be expected to go by the script. Having stated a few years back that he was tired with what rock music had to offer, Distortion is an interesting direction for him to take. It is a record drenched in feedback, with amps attached to every instrument in an attempt to “sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain”.
Merritt: “I was told this morning that it [Distortion] sounded like Lush. I don’t think it’s very accurate but was just very curious that they would say Lush rather than the Jesus and Mary Chain.” He sounds somewhat put aback by the comment. “Psychocandy is the last significant event in popular music production. That’s the last thing I’ve heard which sounds blaringly original. I haven’t heard anything else since then that says, ‘this is a new way of making records’.”
Asked about what it was he most hoped to echo from Mary Chain’s 1985 debut, Merritt is succinct: “Huge masses of shrieking feedback; the sense of singing over an espresso machine.” But through the feedback the same unabashed pop sensibility and Merritt’s affections for the glorious pop melodrama of Phil Spector and ABBA, for not striving for realism but being content in their own cocooned idylls, remains, with the songwriter seemingly having found his own current comfort zone.
Now that I’m only singing alternate tracks, no-one thinks those alternate tracks seem angry. Psychology: can’t live with it, can’t live without it
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“If I were told that I need to continue making records featuring lots of feedback but I don’t need to keep it to the same instruments doing it I don’t think I’d be very unhappy about that. What I love that it brings to the music is the extra notes that I didn’t have to write and the element of indeterminacy, that it isn’t just somebody else’s ego intruding but the machine, the circuits.”
New York and its infamous avenues have always seemed central to the narratives Merritt has offered up, so it seems surprising to learn that the 41 year old has packed up and moved from his Manhattan studio to California since recording the album. Revealing how the choice of vegetation for his new home in Los Angeles effected Simms’ vocals and provided her with some additional grain on the record, it eventually transpires that, peculiarly, the decision to include Simms was made particularly late in the recording process.
“I thought that I was going to sing the whole album, and did sing it – we even mastered it with me singing the whole album and then decided that it would be more entertaining if we were to give half the album to Shirley.
“For some reason people thought that I sounded angry singing throughout the whole record. Whereas now that I’m only singing alternate tracks, no-one thinks those alternate tracks seem angry. Psychology: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
“Perhaps it is that people feel less threatened by a woman’s anger. Or, that people are less likely to imagine anger from a female voice because it’s ‘mama’,” he continues. “The way tracks were split between us had a lot to with the key which the tracks were in. We didn’t want to have to go back and redo all the backing tracks or degrade the sound quality by changing the key on the computer, so we chose what songs Shirley would sing based on what keys were appropriate for her.”
The ability for Merritt to chop and change vocal duties on Distortion underlines the sexual ambiguity that runs throughout Magnetic Fields’ lyrics. Rarely do his and Simms’ voices meet on record, always seeming together but apart, to the extent that it has always seemed a deliberate polarisation. But it turns out Merritt’s decision to divide each contribution was far more straightforward a decision than expected.
Video: 'If You Don't Cry' (live)
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“I don’t like duets, so I only use duets for comic effect. The duet on ‘Please Stop Dancing’ is pointedly arbitrary, so we don’t even have gender assignments. I’m the one who sings, ‘I will never be your wife’; we’re not singing to each other but instead alternating lines from maybe the same protagonist, if there is one. It ordinarily wouldn’t occur to me to stick the two of us together in the same songs. It’s not so much that I was deliberately keeping us separate as it wouldn’t occur to me to put us together.
“When I was the only singer on Distortion, it wasn’t really clear what the gender of the protagonists were in the songs. I think you now notice the female protagonists.”
It’s often a struggle to figure how much of Merritt is within his music, to decipher where he ends and his beguiling characters begin, with any clear-cut sincerity often hacked at moments later with a moment of cynical absurdity. Openly gay, a sufferer of hyperacusis - a condition that leaves him particularly sensitive to loud sounds - and rarely seen without his pet Chihuahua - named after Irving Berlin - cradled in his arms, Merritt is a fascinating individual. But how much of this that shines through in on his songwriting seems debateable. Merritt seems to relinquish a distance, side-footing the issue when questioned on whether he feels his characters, however ridden with irony, often denote exaggerated representations of his own perspectives.
“Take ‘Zombie Boy’. (A track with the sample lyric, ‘No blood ever drips, when I widen your holes’.) I wouldn’t say it was an exaggeration of my actual life because there is nothing that I do that would resemble digging up children’s corpses in Haiti for sexual gratification.” Another long pause sits between sentences as he thinks through his response. “And ‘California Girls’: I don’t disappear to California with a battleaxe to attack thin, tanned teenagers. So I wouldn’t say that my characters tend to be exaggerations of me.”
He continues: “In fact, I’m not at all irritated by the California lifestyle. The character is one of the many women we hear about, in the media at least, that feels oppressed by media portrayals of a certain ideal of women and she decides to take it out on the models rather than the media. I identify, maybe, with feeling oppressed – not even that, I don’t feel oppressed by media portrayals of the perfect body and such. I certainly feel oppressed by media portrayals of myself, but not since I stopped reading my press. Now I’m perfectly happy with media portrayals of myself because I don’t know what they are. It’s very refreshing. But, no, it’s not something I particularly identify with, but more a character than I enjoy inhabiting for the several hours it takes to write the lyrics. Maybe if it were a really involved, intricate song with a riveting rhyme scheme and was going to take me weeks to write the lyrics, maybe I wouldn’t be so happy about spending those weeks method acting.”
I think I like dramatic lyrics with conflict in them and nastiness, unpleasant protagonists and unreliable narrators
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Though Merritt likes to think of each character as another distant creation, it seems odd that someone as opinionated as he is - previously acting as an editor for Spin before deciding he was tired of slaying artists - feels that this does not spill over in to his narratives.
“I think that some of my lyrics are opinions exaggerated in some way, but maybe even those lyrics only are coincidently my opinion exaggerated in some way and actually they are just whatever rhymes well and has dramatic content. I think I like dramatic lyrics with conflict in them and nastiness, unpleasant protagonists and unreliable narrators and the whole modern agenda with maybe some post-modern deliberate inconsistencies and self-contradictory stories.
“Like in Sergeant Pepper’s…, where each song has its own set of characters, maybe its own aesthetic. But it’s something that I do naturally. In fact, it is far more difficult to maintain the same aesthetic, the same character viewpoints, from song to song. It’s very tempting to change the characters according what happens to rhyme.”
Merritt and The Magnetic Fields found mainstream renown when they released the gargantuan 69 Love Songs in 1999. As Merritt plunged the knife in on Ferdinand de Saussure and dryly wore his heart on his sleeve, it lead to comparisons to Cole Porter and subsequently a new focus upon his work. Merritt, though, is still perfectly pleased to be affiliated with the three-disc epic.
“69 Love Songs is really iconic enough to use as a calling card, so if someone asks ‘Who are you?’ I can say, ‘I’m the ‘69 Love Songs guy’”; I’m perfectly happy about that, it doesn’t upset me. If in 50 years I am still primarily known for 69 Love Songs, that’s not going to bother me. I spent a great deal of time on 69 Love Songs and hope that I will never have to spend that much effort on anything ever again in my whole life, so I’m happy to be known by it.”
Providing those same skewed Scott Walker pop symphonies and tragic comic tales - albeit now entrenched in a ditch of feedback - Distortion underlines why the diminutive Merritt, so removed from the usual brouhaha, remains a brilliantly unlikely pop deity.
Distortion is released on January 14 on Nonesuch.
Download The Magnetic Fields’ bemoaning of sobriety on ‘Too Drunk To Dream’ from our Drownloads section/RCRD LBL.