DiS meets The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt
With a career spanning two decades both as a solo artist and most notably, the focal point of The Magnetic Fields, Boston-born singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt requires very little in the way of an introduction.
Currently based in Los Angeles, his dalliances with various musical subgenres, culminating in 2008's critically acclaimed Distortion, has led both fans and commentators to predict where his next venture will take him. The answer, of course, lies in the contents of The Magnetic Fields' latest and ninth studio album Realism (Stream the album on full on DiS here), a concept record that draws its inspiration from late 1960s to early 1970s orchestral folk music, albeit in a very questioning manner.
In what was a very rare opportunity to get an audience with the man himself, DiS spent a cold January evening chatting to the quite amiable Merritt - a man dubbed "the most miserable man in rock" on more than one occasion - and found ourselves discussing the sincerity of folk music, the influence of alcohol on creativity and future ventures into writing stage and film musical scores.
DiS: Hello Stephin, how are you today?
Stephin Merritt: Not too bad I guess. And how are you?
DiS: Not too bad either, despite all the snow...
SM: There's no snow here at the moment in New York. It's cold though, very very cold.
DiS: Your new album Realism is out in the UK on Monday 25th January. Are you satisfied with the finished product or with the benefit of hindsight, would you change anything about the record?
SM: Well, when I finished Distortion, there really wasn't any going back without really annoying the record company. Before I started Realism I was listening to the MC5's greatest hits album quite a lot, and I realised that they sounded quite a lot like Distortion, only with handclaps. In hindsight, I guess that's what I'd like to have done with Distortion, added some handclaps, because I'd actually recorded some in my old hallway - where I used to live the hallway acted like a wonderful reverb chamber. There's a whole lot of elements on Realism anyway compared to Distortion. I think we only used seven different instruments on that record and you can hear them on every song. On Realism my intention was to have no two elements appear on any more than one song together. I guess I was so displeased with myself for not putting the handclaps on Distortion that I made sure there was going to be nothing missing from Realism.
DiS: Which songs in particular do you think would have been improved by the addition of handclaps?
SM: All of them.
Video:The Magnetic Fields '100,000 Fireflies'
DiS: The more I listen to Realism the more apparent it becomes that there's a lot of attention to detail gone into the majority of its thirteen pieces.
SM: Yeah, although I'm not sure that most people would consciously get that. I do, and the only thing that appears on every song is cello; even the vocals are pretty damn varied split between three different vocalists and I sing in many different octaves as well.
DiS: Realism is a drastic change once again from its predecessor both musically and lyrically. I've read a quote where you've said the concept of the album is to "explore the sincerity of folk music and its lyrics". In what way?
SM: I don't believe in sincerity in music. I don't understand what it would mean. It's the same as with cooking or any form of art really; sincerity has no meaning. Folk is a marketing category rather than a musical one. In the United States for example, Billboard Magazine used to have three categories for folk to be broken up into; folk, which was essentially white people singing in southern accents, race, which was black people singing in southern accents and anything else was just seen as pop. To me these categories just sound like the civil war. The north versus the south and the south is divided into two. We could even use that analogy elsewhere, for example traditional music from the British Isles is often classed as folk, whereas traditional music from anywhere else where they don't speak English is called World Music. Racism defines the whole category of folk. Ewan MacColl said that the only music that really qualifies as folk is acapella singing unaccompanied and I guess that's his "purism", but in the US that's just baffling. We have a whole category of folk instruments where anything that features for example a dulcimer has to be folk.
DiS: I guess when examined in that context it could be argued that folk music is driven by a racially connotative underbelly.
SM: I wouldn't even call it an underbelly. I think it's right there perched in the very definition of folk. Untrained isn't part of the definition for some people. Joan Baez, to me, is very "trained" sounding, but she almost defines folk in the 1960s.
DiS: Do you not feel that folk could also be defined by class in many ways?
SM: Well, Pete Seeger went to Harvard. You could say that folk music is the middle classes singing the songs of the lower classes, and not attributing them to particular songwriters because they're too condescending to bother to find out who wrote the song. You could actually say it's wholesale theft, which it was in the case of The Carter Family. A.P. Carter blatantly lifted songs from other people and that was called "the folk process". Others would call it theft. I guess my definition of folk music would be a contrived collision of racism and theft.
DiS: I guess there's not a lot of music around at the moment that you could honestly say is totally original without borrowing from elsewhere...
SM: Well, there's The Thai Elephant Orchestra album where some musicians went into the Thai jungle and took some instruments which they played, and then recorded the elephants alongside the music. They definitely sound like they're in Thailand because they have Thai scales, and it actually doesn't sound as if human beings were playing the instruments. The playing on that record doesn't sound humanly possible, which to me is what makes it unique. There's different definitions of unique as well. To me, having an ability to do something that someone else doesn't have can be unique. Antony Hegarty is probably the most contemporary artist at the minute that falls into that category. He has a voice that is not directly comparable to other people. He doesn't sound like Alfred Deller or any of the artists he's been compared to. You can't imitate Alfred Deller and I don't think you can imitate Antony Hegarty either. Bon Scott from AC/DC is another. You could try and imitate him, but he really personifies the sound of someone who is about to die.
DiS: Going back to Realism, which artist or artists had the most influence on the record from a song-based point view?
SM: The template for the record was derived from listening to two Judy Collins albums from the mid-1960s, Wildflowers and In My Life. I've been using those two records as a template all my life because they basically have this new genre every three minutes or so. I think what this recording really stems from as a whole is the instruments themselves. In a way it's really important that I moved to L.A. in between Distortion and Realism because the music stores here have a wonderful selection of instruments from central and South America, which is something you'd never find in New York. There you'd tend to find more European and African instruments. It's actually the sound of me discovering these new instruments but not bothering to learn how to play them, which is perfect for folk as you're not particularly expected to be able to play something well.
Video:The Magnetic Fields 'Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits'
DiS: My favourite song on Realism is 'Seduced And Abandoned'. Some of the lyrics such as "seduced by a smile, I walked down the aisle, waited a while, then no one came..." sound quite specific and personal.Who or what inspired them?
SM: Well, they're not personal issues as such. I love the song 'The Wedding Of Ramona Blair' by The Mirage. I've always been a big fan of Victorian cautionary style ballads where something happens to an innocent young woman, THE END, or something terrible happens, she has a baby, THE END, or she has a baby, she kills the baby, THE END. In 'Seduced And Abandoned' I've combined that kind of logic with your typical drinking song, where the girl in the song and her baby are going to get drunk, so in a way it celebrates drunkenness, which is the exact opposite of the average Victorian cautionary tale I guess.
DiS: It's interesting you say that, what with 'Seduced And Abandoned' being a drinking song and 'Too Drunk To Dream' on Distortion also focusing on a similar theme. Would you say alcohol plays a large part in your creativity?
SM: Alcohol is almost indispensable to my creativity actually! I do sit around in bars writing songs, and after half a drink it really gets my juices flowing. My internal editor, which usually says everything is stupid and not worthwhile, tends to relax and loosen up and I'm able to write pages of stuff. I think it's a more labour intensive way of working and can lead to a lot of new ideas. The hardest part is deciding which ones aren't worthwhile and which are the better ones. It's also a good process to conjure up outrageously bad ideas like 69 Love Songs, which really could only have been generated in bars.
DiS: Do you have many unfinished ideas hidden away in the vaults that you may return to work on in the future?
SM: Most of the ones that are unfinished tend to have either great lyrics but no melody, or stupid lyrics but a great melody or chord progression. Sometimes a song gets shelved because it is just so obviously close to the song I was listening to in the bar when I wrote it.
DiS: What kind of bars do you find tend to inspire you from a musical perspective?
SM: Mostly gay bars with thumping disco music playing, hopefully not so loud that I can't eavesdrop on the other people in there though! Listening to music and eavesdropping are two of my favourite sources for songwriting material. The song 'Xavier Says' on Distortion is absolutely borne out of eavesdropping and I can even remember where I was when I was writing it - at the Rawhide Bar on Eighth Avenue in New York.
DiS: Again touching on Realism, 'The Dada Polka' is the only song on the record that uses electronic instruments. Do you think that some people might say that in favouring more traditional, acoustic based instruments that you're actually conforming to folk musc stereotypes on the album?
SM: Well I'm trying to conform to folk music stereotypes that's the point. On Distortion I was trying to conform to noise pop stereotypes. A genre is a deliberate set of stereotypes and the category of folk, whatever it means, is possibly the most stereotypical genre of them all. The two Judy Collins albums I mentioned earlier probably don't conform to these stereotypes and therefore only loosely fall into the folk category, because there are hardly any traditional instruments on these records at all. The name "Judy Collins" is the only thing remotely folk about either of those records.
DiS: Although Realism may get classed as a folk record in some quarters, to me it actually sounds like a lot more modern influences went into making the record. 'You Must Be Out Of Your Mind' for example is quite reminiscent of early REM rather than traditional folk arrangements.
SM: And why not? Early REM records would definitely have been classed as folk rock in the 1960s. They're heavily influenced by The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, so there's still that connection. I think I'd like Realism to be seen as an orchestral folk record rather than a traditional one.
DiS: What were the main differences in the way you approached Realism as a concept as opposed to any other albums you've recorded?
SM: For a start, the main idea on Realism was to try and use as many different instruments as possible without any of them falling into the non-folk category. There's definitely a wider palette of sounds here than on almost all of my previous recordings. We were also able to mix this record as we went along recording it so in total the whole process only took about a year, which would have been possible with say Distortion which took six weeks to record then a year-and-a-half to mix. It was such a nightmare to mix that record because everything had to be washed with distorted levels of feedback while still retaining the songs' melodies.
DiS: Did the fact you suffer from the hearing condition Hyperacusis contribute to the length of time it took to make Distortion?
SM: No, not really. We mixed it at a low volume anyway.
DiS: The Magnetic Fields are going out on tour at the end of March. What can fans expect from the set lists?
SM: It will be a mix from all the various Magnetic Fields records and then three songs from The 6ths. There's also gonna be a cover version of a Hans Christian Anderson song, 'The Little Hebrew Girl'.
DiS: You wrote the score to the musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline' last year. Is this an area you're likely to become more involved with in the forseeable future?
SM: Yes, definitely. I'm working now on the score for the 1916 film version of '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' and I'm going to be performing that at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in May.
DiS: Are you planning to record the score or is it just going to be for that one performance?
SM: No, I haven't any plans to record it. It's just for that performance at present.
DiS: Finally, which direction do you see your music going in the future and are there any plans for a follow-up to Realism?
SM: Well, as Realism was the final record in the "no synth" trilogy after i and Distortion, the next record will almost exclusively feature synthesizers! I've been buying the new generation of synthesizers designed by artists rather than musical instrument manufacturers and they tend to make sounds that I haven't heard before, so I'm anxious to put them on record.
Video:The Magnetic Fields 'Love Goes Home To Paris'
The Magnetic Fields will play the following UK shows in March:-
March 19 Manchester Cathedral
March 21 Leamington The Assembly
March 22 London Barbican Centre
The album Realism is released on Monday 25th January through Nonesuch Records. Stream the album on full on DiS here