C&T exclusive: A chat with Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields
As C&T's readers may be aware, Stephin Merritt is bringing his Magnetic Fields to Woodruff Arts Center on Friday night. With all the buzz about the show, I was glad that Cable & Tweed was offered an interview with Mr. Merritt. The duties went to contributor Tiffani Harcrow, who spoke to Merritt last week. The result is transcribed here in all its awkward glory:
When I was asked to do a phone interview with Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt, I thought “Neat! Sure I’ll do it. Sounds fun! No big thang, right?” Then I saw this interview from Good Day Atlanta. Then I discovered that there is a veritable genre of literature devoted to failed Stephin Merritt interviews which left red-faced reporters shamed and dejected. Then I realized that I couldn’t hear much of what he was saying. Then I apparently offended him with my first question.
So here is the latest submission to the prodigious cannon of failed Stephin Merritt interviews. At least he likes ABBA.
TH: Hi, this is Tiffani from Cable & Tweed.
SM: Hi, this is Stephin Merritt.
TH: Excuse me?
SM: Hello, this is Stephin.
TH: Hi, well thanks for taking time to talk with me today.
SM: Thank you for calling.
TH: All right, well, I guess it seems best to start with your most-quoted phrase about Distortion, that you wanted it to “sound more like Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain,” and this seems to be a pretty popular musical conceit, at least over the past two years, with a lot of bands like A Place to Bury Strangers and No Age taking on that sound, and I’m just wondering why you think that…
SM: I’m sorry, who taking on that sound?
TH: Um, a lot of kinda Jesus and Mary Chain imitators lately, like A Place to Bury Strangers and No Age, Belong, bands like that…
SM: No Age Blonde?
TH: No Age, and then the next band that I mentioned is Belong…
SM: Oh, um, I’m not familiar with either one.
TH: Well, well, the question is just, why do you think that this sound has taken a hold so strongly again?
SM: Um, well, when I recorded the record, none of that had happened (smug chuckle), so, I was not responding…um, uh, why do I think the sound has become popular? I think it, uh, should have been popular all along. But now that Toys R Us commercials sound like punk rock, say, sound like Shonen Knife, it seems appropriate for pop that isn’t trying to sound actually like a commercial, to be a little, a little more difficult listening than that. But, uh, competing against the toy store commercial has become more difficult, so I think there’s hardly anywhere to go but Jesus and Mary Chain, really.
TH: So, it’s a polar opposite of Toys R Us and Jesus and Mary Chain?
SM: No. Toys R Us commercials sound almost like Jesus and Mary Chain at this point, is what I’m saying.
TH: Oh, I guess I haven’t been up to date.
SM: I’m sorry?
TH: I guess I haven’t been up to date on the commercials.
SM: Ah, ah.
TH: Well, um, given the imitation of Psychocandy, I was wondering if you, um, if it was a conscious decision to mirror a lot of the song titles on this album over classic bands like, “California Girls” is obvious, but then “Xavier Says” reminds me a lot of the Velvet Underground habit of doing the “Lisa Says,” “Stephanie Says,” and then…
SM: Yes, that’s an intentional parallel, yes.
TH: And then uh, “Too Drunk to Dream,” which is, you know, the Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck…”
SM: Uh, yeah, personally I had forgotten all about the “Too Drunk to Fuck” until people started asking me about it. Uh, you know, “Too Drunk to Fuck” has its charms. Um, that was not intentional theft…It’s always best when your theft is intentional, but there’s been the inevitable unintentional theft, so.
TH: Well, in an old Pitchfork interview you are quoted as saying “There’s a whole kind of melancholy that you can only attain with reverb,” and Distortion has a lot of really funny songs on it, like “The Nun’s Litany,” so is it wrong to apply that standard to this album?
SM: The standard of having a whole, uh, individual kind of melancholy that can only be attained through, through technique?
SM: I’m sorry, is that, is that what you mean by the standard?
TH: Um, just that, were you trying to, by the heavy use of reverb, were you trying to achieve a kind of melancholy with this album?
SM: Only indirectly. I was trying to imitate the Jesus and Mary Chain, and all the things that they use, their sound to do, happened automatically. I was applying Jesus and Mary Chain production style to a set of songs that had nothing to do with it, mostly. Maybe “Zombie Boy” sounds kind of appropriate, but the rest of them don’t particularly sound appropriate.
TH: So for this album, did you write the lyrics first or the music?
SM: I wrote the music and the lyrics together, but they had nothing to do with the production style. The production style we decided on less than two weeks before we started recording, after all the songs were finished.
TH: (Pained and with resignation) Okay.
TH: So, you know, you were obviously listening to Psychocandy when you recorded this, but do you generally let other albums influence your work so thoroughly?
SM: (Long pause) Um, well, people keep pointing out to me that I’m living in one big Fleetwood Mac Tusk, um, so I guess Tusk has influenced me in the long term, maybe more than any other record. Uh, uh, hmm. Yeah, I wouldn’t be me without Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk or Tom Wait’s Bone Machine. Um, but a lot of music that I’ve incorporated has been singles rather than albums, especially Phil Spector.
TH: Do you let the things that you read, were there any books that were in heavy rotation while you were writing this album?
SM: Uh, I actually wrote the album over a really long time, some of it is fifteen years old. I didn’t sit down to write the album and then look up and have written it.
TH: Do you have, so you’re going on tour October 10, do you have any pre-tour routine that you go through?
SM: Um, well, being interviewed is my big tour routine. Being interviewed in every spare moment while I try and finish some recording before I go. So, uh, my mother called yesterday and I told her I’d call her on Friday (chuckles)-- such is my schedule.
TH: Do you bring your dog along with you on tour?
SM: Uh no, not anymore. I just read that Emmylou Harris has a road dog, and I liked the idea that Irving would be a road dog, but, uh, he’s not really well-behaved enough to be bringing around on tour. Ever since he hit puberty.
TH: That might make backstage a little more interesting.
TH: Well, you’re currently working on the musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline…
TH: And how much do these side projects influence your work with the Magnetic Fields?
SM: I don’t think of them as side projects. Um, I’m not sure that I can say how they change my work, (mumbles) Well, I mean I can say that it’s unlikely that there will be a Magnetic Fields song about a child going through a doorway on the next album, because if I have such a song it would be used for Coraline, that kinda thing. It may, it may influence me negatively, I don’t know. Short answer, how would I know?
TH: Well, I think, um, my last question is just going to be, since I’ve heard that you’re a fellow ABBA enthusiast...
SM: Oh yeah
TH: What’s your favorite ABBA song?
SM: Say again?
TH: What’s your favorite ABBA song?
SM: Um, today, I think it would be “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room.”
TH: So it changes on a daily basis?
SM: Oh yeah.
TH: All right…
SM: If you were to ask me what ABBA song I wish I were listening to right now, it would be “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room.”
TH: All right, that was my…
SM: And you?
TH: Mine? Mine’s “Mamma Mia.”
SM: Ah, forever and all time, it doesn’t change?
TH: I think so, runner-up is “S.O.S.”
TH: But I’m pretty established in “Mamma Mia.”
SM: Mm-hm. Uh, at what age did you realize they weren’t singing to their mother?
TH: Um, (dog growling on his end of the line.) I would say my consideration of ABBA was pretty superficial until about three years ago.
SM: Oh, I see, um, yeah, I thought until I was twenty-something that they were singing to their mothers, and somehow didn’t realize that it was about a dysfunctional, possibly abusive relationship.
TH: Well, they’re…
SM: (mumbles)…you know, didn’t get along with mother.
TH: Well they’re one of those…
SM: “Like My Mama Said” is actually about that. And they’re on consecutive albums, so I kinda thought that “Mamma Mia” was a sequel to “Like My Mamma Said” (mumbles)….
TH: Well, that uh, was it for my questions, so, uh, thanks for talking to me.
SM: Thank you.
TH: Have a good tour.
SM: See you soon.
(Stephin hangs up.)
The Magnetic Fields appear at Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center on Friday, October 17, and tickets are still available.