Stephin Merritt

The full GT interview with The Magnetic Fields singer and songwriter, who if you've ever spoke to him, takes regular, long pensive pauses... so just read this to yourself as a Harold Pinter play and you'll get the gist.

What does your mother think of your last album Realism?

Well she likes the new album much more than she likes Distortion. She finally came to appreciate Distortion but only after ten listens or so. But I haven’t actually given her her own copy yet so I don’t know any more details. She finds it unshocking.

Is that something you aimed for?

No, the general idea of this album was based on two Judy Collins albums, Wild Flowers and In My Life, that my mother had when I was little… [honking horn sound] Tea’s ready! Since it’s based on records from my mother’s record collection I would expect her to like it atleast in that line.

Is making tea part of your usual morning routine?

No, usually I go out. But I can’t do that today… so I’m making my own.

You use a lot of acoustic sounds on the new record, what is the strangest thing you did to create a sound?

Well we couldn’t get a high enough sound tambourine to fit into the texture, the tambourines could never be higher than the dulcimers so we ended up using a twig covered in dry leaves. So I had Claudia actually banging a twig, a branch really - it had hundreds of leaves on it.

And one of them was recorded in a bathroom

Oh yes, From A Sinking Boat was recorded all in a bathroom, except for the piano. Like all the reverb in Motown.

Claudia’s talked about your ‘sad fans’, that anyone with a certain level of intelligence will have an air of melancholy about them, is that something you’d agree with?

Uhh… erm. [even more pausing than normal] Well I can’t think of any exceptions. I don’t know that I agree with the principle.

Do you think you attract a certain type of fan?

I have no idea, I have no way of knowing.

I know your songs strike a chord with me personally, I use your songs on mixtapes. Do you ever use mixtapes in that way?

Have I ever made a mixtape? Um... If I have it’s been decades. I have assembled sets of music on particular themes for particular reasons, but not to give to someone else. Do you mean by mixtape as a gift?


No, I don’t think I’ve ever done it to give to someone else. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other peoples. Like when they were on cassette. I love cassettes, it’s a great medium. I mean it doesn’t sound all that great but it’s really convenient. Nifty looking.

But there is an inconvenience to cassettes in that you have to listen to the whole thing. It’s less easier to skip.

Well, eventually there were cassette players that would allow you to skip

It would still take… It can’t have been that instant

No, it would take you a few seconds.

Ok. Clauda and I spoke about the symbolism of the artwork on the previous two albums, she said you should explain it to me.

Well, the way we think about it is on the cover of Distortion, is Distortion lady – she’s wearing pants, she’s black, she seems to have been decapitation, we don’t know if she’s standing up or she’s being seen from above and on the cover of Realism, she is now wearing a dress and she’s a ghost, her neck is still missing. Her head is still floating above. That’s my little counter intuitive narrative. The more obvious one would be a sold man and the outline of a woman, either one is a perfectly common referencing.

So is that your gender queer analysis?

If you like.

Right. One of the themes that comes up in your lyrics – im not saying this is autobiographical – but there’s a lot of drinking that comes into it. Is that because you write your songs in a gay bars?

Well there’s a chicken and the egg problem here. Am I an alcoholic? Or am I someone who happens to work [writing songs] in a bar? Am I expressing my alcoholism in song? Or am I just thinking a lot more about drinking because I’m seeing everybody else drinking?

There’s no answer to that is there...

There are those who would say that if I was just an alcoholic then I wouldn’t be writing about it, I’d be trying to conceal it. But then maybe they’re not familiar with The Pogues.

So there’s a lot been made about the fact there are no synths on these two albums…

Or the previous album. Realism completes the no-synth trilogy.

I was wondering what parameters you were going to give yourself for the next album?

Can’t know that before hand. And if I knew I certainly wouldn’t tell anybody.

Could we ever expect a big epic – well not “epic” - synth pop record?

Well sure, the first Magnetic Fields record is, so I’ve sort of done that before, but usually I save all the synthesiser sounds for Future Bible Heroes records.

Do you have any plans to do more Future Bibles Heroes stuff?

Oh yeah. We’re working on something.

So, listening to Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree, can you speak German?

Well as you can tell if you can speak German, I cannot speak German. I took German in college for a year and had a very dull teacher and kept falling asleep. It was one of the two classes in my life were I actually fell asleep. The other being in high school I had an African History class in which the teacher fell asleep

So do you look forward to Christmas?

I don’t celebrate Christmas. But yes, Christmas is a day on which nobody calls you. But I think I will probably be spending it with my mother.

Lovely. On the single We’re Having a Hootenanny, when I first heard “take our personality quiz”, it made me think of scientology, was that the intention?

Well, I wanted to be a bit more vague than that, but scientology fits the bill. It’s about groupthink, to use the Orwellian word. Crowd mentality, I don’t mean it as an attack on Scientology – although why not? – I just mean it more as an exposure of the lie of the twelve-string guitar.

What is the lie of the twelve-string guitar?

It tells you that there is more than one guitar playing, but there really isn’t. Similarly, just because more than one person is saying something, doesn’t make it any more true. And just because they’re smiling and telling you they’re having a party, doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s a lot of American advertising that tell you that ‘come on down, we’re having a party at… the car dealership’ so… you can come on down and be part of our social event. But it’s completely fictional. Beware of American salesmen with a big smile.

You tend to play seated venues, would you ever have a Hootenanny and play a more dancing friendly environment?

Well no, we play in theatre so the audience will sit down and not talk. As soon as everyone has to stand up they feel free to mill around and make noise. We play so lightly that if the audience is making noise there’s complication, you can’t hear anything. So no, no and hell no.

I was reading about a music festival for dogs. Is your Chihuahua receptive to your – or any – music?

When Claudia sings a G in rehearsal, Irving sings along. It’s really strange. So he’s not entirely unmusical, though he only sings along when it’s Claudia and only when she sings a particular note. But he matches the note so he’s not tone deaf. It’s a phenomenon he can’t explain. But I can tell you that he doesn’t like – yesterday I was playing a record by The Pop Group – Irving really didn’t like that one. There’s a lot of dissonance, along dub lines in The Pop Group, you’re probably too young for them but it’s very influenced by new wave and there’s a lot of shouting, so that left him very unhappy.

Would you ever record him singing?

It’d be hard because he only sings along with Claudia.

How would you sum up the decade that’s just passed?

Last night Claudia and I played at a monthly event called El Hit Parade, the theme of which is that various down town New Yorkers get together and perform songs that are in the top ten. And the theme last night was that we were able to choose from the top ten songs of each year of the past decade. By the time Claudia and I were choosing songs we were down to two years, 2000 and 2004, all of the songs were insultingly stupid and there was nothing that we could find that we could perform seriously, in that we could memorise the melody, and try to perform it with some subtly. All of the songs were rambling, formless, didn’t go anywhere, might aswell be one minute long instead of five as they all seem to be. They all depended on their percussion lines, and we don’t have a percussionist. And they didn’t have any counter melodies, so there might as well be only one instrument. In short, the popular music of the entire last decade has been the worst music in history, there is nothing good about it. It’s shocking, fortunately only teenagers and gay men who like teenagers actually buy these records and the sooner that gay men who like teenagers stop buying these records, purely for their camp value, the better it will be. I think most of them largely are turning away from these records as I don’t hear the current popular music in gay bars anymore, gay bars seems to be back in house music land. Which is music that only gay people could ever like. Out of Detroit and Chicago. How much do you want me to go on about this?

No that’s interesting… do you think gay men have inherently bad music taste?

Everyone has bad music taste, but gay men in groups, have particular kinds of music taste, some of which are fine, Judy Garland is infact an amazing performer, straight people are missing something when they fail to appreciate that and ethel mermin. I love the bay city rollers. I’m very happy for ABBA who have been nominated into the rock’n’roll hall of fame. I think it’s a bit provincial for some reason.

And finally, we’re asking everyone this: what’s you favourite album and favourite song?

I think for me it’s safe to say Back To Mono, the Phil Spector Boxset, it contains every major song not by The Beach Boys of the sixties. And favourite song, Where the Bees Sucks by Shakespeare.

Words: Bob Henderson. Photo: Marcelo