Incredibly, it has been twenty-one years since The Magnetic Fields emerged with their debut record Distant Plastic Trees. Twenty-one years of beautifully crafted songs, set to wildly disparate arrangements and continued innovation – from swirling feedback and crunching fuzz to baroque and minimalist folk. But since the success of the glorious, sprawling 69 Love Songs in 1999, the band has deliberately side-lined the heavy emphasis on electronic and synthesised sound that characterised much of their earlier work. This resulted in three records - the organic I, the heavy Jesus and Mary Chain feedback and smoke of Distortion and the folk leanings of Realism – which came to be known as the “No Synth Trilogy”. Returning from this self-imposed electronic exile, the new album Love at the Bottom of the Sea (out 5th March on Merge Records) is a resounding return to the electronic sounds of their earlier albums, though Stephin Merritt’s love of twisted and unusual tales remains unbridled, as witnessed with the superb lead single ‘Andrew in Drag’ and its accompanying cross-dressing video. In support of the album, the band are due to play at the rescheduled Jeff Mangum ATP Festival in March, and for a brief three-date sojourn in late April. But before that, Drowned in Sound was lucky enough to meet Stephin Merritt in London to discuss the new record and an assortment of other subjects from pop music, to love in the Facebook generation. Relaxed, continually peppering his conversation with dry and sharp quips; he's an engaging person to speak with and far more jovial than you might expect. But if you get trip up on anything, he certainly won't humour you with platitudes. As I found out from my very first question...
Having had the chance to listen to the new record, the first thing that struck me was just how stridently electronic the record is. Coming as it is after the so-called “No Synth Trilogy” as it’s been dubbed, it’s full of samples, dance beats and a heavily electronic sound: more so than I’ve ever heard from The Magnetic Fields. Was there a real urge there to go back to that type of sound, did you feel that you’d been away from it for too long?
SM: There are actually no samples on the record at all.
Really? So everything is done organically and from synthesisers…
SM: Well, synthesisers but not necessarily keyboard-style synthesisers.
Right. So how did you piece together the sound of the more heavily dance-influenced tracks? For example, the beats on ‘God Wants Us to Wait’ could almost be a club remix…
SM: Um, well I assembled that bit by bit. It’s not like I took a commercially available drumbeat or anything. I have a lot of rhythm units and I spend a lot of time editing. I recorded all of the drum sounds off all of the rhythm units…which took quite a long time! But I also recorded the rhythm units themselves doing their little patterns. But I didn’t actually use much of that, most of what I used were patterns that I made from what I call my “fake rhythm units” which are the various analogue synthesisers in my studio and I made each one do a sort-of bass/snare/hi-hit/high-low tom. Some of those synthesisers are definitely not adapted to one or another of those sounds! And then I actually do have a drum kit, so I actually played some of the parts!
When you last spoke to Drowned in Sound back in 2010, you mentioned that you were looking to utilise synthesisers that were custom-made by artists, rather than commercially available ones. Did you end up using any of those on the record?
SM: Not for the percussion so much, no. Well, a little. Not for a lot of the parts, but for the special relationship that we have with synthesisers on this album which are disruptors of the otherwise simple forms of the songs. So for example, on ‘I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies’, instead of having a cymbal hit on the beginning of measures where the parts of songs change, which would be the clichéd place to put a cymbal hit…for good reason. Instead, there’s a sort-of squiggly static-like electronic sound which my mother, for example, finds really upsetting! And it’s louder than you would have a cymbal hit be but it’s in the same place. So it’s used percussively but it goes on for a lot longer than any percussion sound except a cymbal would be allowed to. So its sort-of used like a gong, but it sounds more like something has gone terribly wrong with your stereo for three seconds. It’s particularly disturbing in headphones!
Listening to the songs themselves, despite obviously being heavily decked in electronic sound, there almost seems to be a continued theme of story-based sketches from what we had on Realism. Do you see there being any through-line from the last record?
SM: From Realism? (long pause) Erm, I wasn’t thinking of there being a through-line particularly. A lot of the songs on Realism are particularly put there to reflect the folk theme of the record, whereas this record doesn’t have any particular theme. I suppose ‘The Horrible Party’ is sort-of connected to ‘We Are Having a Hootenanny’ in that both are obnoxious celebrations taken too far so the listener is quite clear that he or she is not supposed to be enjoying this on the same level that the protagonist is.
So there was never a plan to develop a specific lyrical theme for this record?
SM: No. It’s a delightful respite from having any theme at all. If there was a theme then it would be simply our triumphant return to synthesisers.
The lead single from the album – Andrew in Drag – struck me as being particularly interesting in that in terms of a song referencing gender confusion, homosexual attraction and alternative lifestyles, it’s more blatant than I’ve heard any song of yours reference in the past. I mean, there have always been subtle allusions on songs such as ‘When My Boy Walks Down the Street’ but on here, it’s far more strident. Do you think that it’s easier to express those particular themes with more confidence these days; is it a sign of the times that we’re more open in that way?
SM: Well, that song actually has no gay characters in there.
But the protagonist of the song, he’s almost had his sexuality twisted around at the end surely? I mean, in terms of “He’s the only boy I’d shag” and “I’ll pine away forever more for Andrew in Drag”, does that not imply something deeper?
SM: Well, the protagonist is not only not gay, but quite bigoted. And his presumably straight best friend Andrew is specifically….umm…it’s about impossible love of someone who doesn’t actually exist: in this case the woman who happens to be Andrew’s Drag persona. But Andrew only did that once for a lark and will never do it again. So there is no woman. And presumably it’s secret – it’s a secret impossible love. (Thinking) It’s not clear who he’s singing to. He does seem to be singing to someone because he feels the need to explain himself.
I suppose the main point of my question was that the song is touching on something that, for people who have come across your music for the first time, they may not have heard a lyrical theme like that before…
SM: I can’t think of any other example! That’s kinda why I wrote that song, because I’m not really aware of anything that treats that subject…I guess M.Butterfly is about that, in a way. But there is a whole persona to the non-existent woman in M.Butterfly. And in Kiss of the Spider Woman, similarly, there is a whole developed persona but in this case, the drag character only appears once and is gone. So there is no possibility of a continued relationship.
Is it easier to write songs about that sort of topic now, as opposed to 10-15 years ago? Has the perception and acceptance of such things changed?
SM: No, I think it could have been a music hall song from 1910! Cross dressing is pretty old hat, especially in England!
We certainly do tend to find it rather funny…it’s a basic cornerstone of most English humour to see a man dressed up in women’s clothing!
SM: Right! So how cruel to have the character fall in love with that?
Very! That’s an interesting point; I hadn’t really considered the cruelty in the song!
SM: I like torturing my characters. And since they don’t exist, it’s harmless!
Does the title of the album refer to anything in particular?
SM: No. I had a song with that title and I didn’t like the song as much as I liked the title so I used that as the album title.
I recall you once commented that “all art adheres to the conditions of top-40 bubblegum pop”…
SM: I think I said that when I was very young. I don’t necessarily agree with that anymore.
The reason that I brought it up was that as someone who seems to draw from a very traditional songwriting style, albeit framed in a very unusual and unique manner, I was interested in how you see modern pop music. For example, there always seems to be this rather irksome divide where people class chart pop as being less valid and “throwaway”, whereas guitar-based bands as somehow being more worthy…
SM: What about it being “throwaway” would contradict it being art?
Well, I would agree with that entirely, but it always strikes me that people are too quick to divide up music into what is popular and what is seen as being underground or alternative. It almost seems that the two sides are being driven further apart by this desire to label things?
SM: Well, what about when monks have hit records with their Gregorian chants? That happened ten years ago. It doesn’t make it any more throwaway because it’s popular.
But does that tradition of interesting, crafted, melodic pop songwriting still exist? Or is it being phased out in favour of other things?
SM: It’s there more in Britain. In the U.S., people are yelling over samples, whereas in Britain people are reviving 60s Stax, Motown and Atlantic sounds.
I assume you’re referring to someone like Adele, who’s obviously had massive success both over here and America?
SM: Or Duffy. Or Amy Winehouse. Or even Seal or Terrance Trent D’Arby. That tradition has been kept alive in a way that I hope will cross the pond. But haven’t yet.
But when someone like Adele goes over to America, she’s had sensational sales over there?
SM: Number one album of the year, I believe?
Exactly, I think she’s sold something like four million copies over there. So it just surprises me that there are not more American acts doing when that America gave us the seeds that are growing into that kind of success?
SM: So am I! We’ll have to get working on it.
I recently watched the Strange Powers documentary recently (Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields – a 2010 documentary made by two filmmakers who were long-time fans of the band) and found it really interesting to watch. Was it a strange experience having a film focus on something as intimate and personal as songwriting is?
SM: Umm. I wouldn’t want people to take it as gospel truth, any more than they should take my Wikipedia entry as gospel truth. I mean my Wikipedia entry says that I’m from Canada…
SM: Yep. Wrong country and year of birth. Similarly, the documentary doesn’t mention that I’ve ever done any theatre music, which I spent much of the time of that documentary doing. Four of the six albums I put out during that period were cast albums and it doesn’t mention that I do that at all. And it presents my move to LA as this life-shattering event. And Claudia as being epically upset with it when in fact that was just a mood she was going through. And by later that day, she had gotten used to it. And I was only moving my studio there and I kept an apartment in New York which the film doesn’t mention. So it wasn’t that I was actually moving to LA, more that I was moving my studio to it. Anyway, there is a lot about that documentary which is dramatising things that are not particularly dramatic; in order to keep the viewer entertained.
So anything in order to keep the viewers interested?
SM: Right. Like at the end of that Goddard movie where they had to kill that teenager. [I assume Merritt is referring to Sympathy for the Devil but the Meredith Hunter murder is actually in Gimme Shelter. Eitherway, I assume he’s being sarcastic] But we didn’t bother killing a teenager!
No, that could have been some interesting and unwanted publicity!
SM: It was for them!
So did you enjoy that documentary on any level? Is it possible to enjoy something like that?
SM: Umm, no. It’s impossible to enjoy if it’s about me.
With regard to your songwriting, especially considering how it is portrayed in the documentary, I’m interested to know – I see you’ve got a ukulele there in the corner of the room – I’m interested to know if songwriting is integral to everything in your life. Is it something you just have to do?
SM: Well, I have the ukulele because I’m going to play it on the radio, not because I sit around and write songs in my hotel room playing the ukulele! I do sit around and write songs in bars, but I don’t bring a ukulele to do it (laughs)
Do you still do that then? Is that still your creative muse?
SM: Oh yeah. There I was last night as 79 CXR, trying to write a song while a drag singing duo sang a Chicago medley at ear-splitting volume. It was one of the rare occasions when I had an earplug in my ear and my hand over my ear because they were so loud! If it wasn’t after 11pm then I would have just gone somewhere else. And now I know I can make sure I don’t go back on drag singing duo nights!
Aside from The Magnetic Fields, you’ve obviously been very involved with scoring and theatrical projects, including the Coraline adaptation and the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea soundtrack; both of which have been well received. Are there more of these projects in the pipeline?
SM: Yes. I’m doing two musicals but I can’t really talk about them until they’re more developed.
Are you able to say whether they are new musicals or adaptations?
SM: One is a new…actually, no – they are both new.
I’ll be interested to follow that and see what happens. I think that would be a perfect combination. I’ve actually been listening to a lot of musicals recently and discovering some great songs within them. For you, what is it specifically that draws you to musicals?
SM: (long pause) They have better lyrics. There is an expectation that people will actually listen to the lyrics. I mean, they actually do; which almost never happens in popular music where people usually can’t tell what the lyrics are and really don’t want to know for good reasons, because the lyrics are insultingly stupid. If you consider them to be communication on an adult level in any way, then you’ll find them horribly disappointing. Whereas if you consider them to just be decorative and only an idiot would actually listen to them, then they’re fine. In musicals, you get stories. They’re expanded on; drawn out. They deliver a certain level of intelligence and they demand that back from the listener.
One final question, and this may seem a strange one but I’m interested to know your thoughts. As someone who has written so much about love and romance in almost a courtly and fantastical level, do you worry that the likes of social media are effectively ending the concept of romance? I’m interested to know your thoughts, especially as we’re in the run-up to Valentine’s Day
SM: Hmm (thinks for a moment) What sort of things do you mean?
Well, letters replaced by emails; text speak replacing endearments; Facebook relationship statuses effectively being the sign of something being “official”. People sitting in the same room commenting on each other’s Facebook page rather than talking…
SM: I think that would be an improvement!
An improvement? In what way?
SM: Well, they’re not being directly mean to each other, which means that they might take longer to blow up at each other. And they’re certainly not going to hit each other because they’re too busy typing! I mean, there would be a drastic lessening in domestic violence if people are just going to communicate entirely by cellphone.
So what if someone doesn’t “like” someone’s status or posting? Could it not all still spill over then?
SM: Well, sure. I mean, there have been murders associated with it. But things escalate less into physical violence when people aren’t in the same room! It’s like letters – it’s rare that letter writing exchanges rarely escalate into physical violence. They are more likely to escalate into not speaking to each other, which I suppose is the opposite of violence!
So romance will survive the Facebook generation?
SM: Oh. I don’t know if romance survives now. I think romance is mostly a memory of a myth at this point.
A memory in terms of the concept being out-dated; or in terms of the pressures and persuasions of modern life diluting it?
SM: I don’t think that it’s what most people want at this point.
So what do people want then?
SM: Oh, you know. Sex and money. And power.
Well, I was sent with a brief to get a quote for Valentine’s Day, and that certainly fits: “Stephin Merritt: Romance is dead. All people want is sex, money and power”. I think that will do nicely!
SM: Well, there you have it (laughs)
Love at the Bottom of the Sea is out 5th March on Merge Records.