Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields

Upon reading an article conducted by MTV, entitled ‘Stephin Merritt Would Rather Not Talk About His Abstinence’, a hint of trepidation came over me. Trepidation and a fierce disdain for music journalists with a sensationalist agenda.

The article begins:

“Walk up to a stranger on a city subway, stand uncomfortably close and ask if he’s been circumcised, and you’ll get roughly the same reaction as asking Merritt about his creative process.”

Fielding questions both invasive and intimate, the interviewer becomes increasingly despairing in attempts to coerce Merritt into a response. Unsurprisingly the piece amounts to much of nothing.

Merritt himself is no stranger to the press. Having previously written for Spin Magazine and Time Out New York, he morosely laments, “if I had known what I now know…” He’s since embarked upon a distinguished career, having released eleven records with The Magnetic Fields alongside a host of solo and side projects. His outlook on the press appears disparaging, or at the very least ambivalent. During interviews he’s often alluded to his preference for unescorted music, without any of the supplementary reportage. “Do you find it sufficiently satisfying to just behold a record on its own?” I query. Wistfully he contemplates the “idealistic dynamic between a thoroughly intelligent listener and a counterpart artist” whereby intent and understanding are communicated discerningly, before dusting aside the prospect.

Seemingly embittered that his articles are rehashed digitally without authorization fifteen years after the original date of publication, his stance softens as we discuss highlights of his journalistic career. He cites an interview conducted with Nick Cave following the release of his seminal record The Boatman’s Call [1997]. Merritt recalls the candid manner in which Cave “emotively spoke about a recent break-up and its influence on the record”, before adding, “he need not have done so.”

The glaring sunshine causes us both to squint as a waitress arrives with a chickpea burger. “Berlin is typically overcast and miserably bleak”, I remark almost apologetically. He finds the hyperbole amusing. With suitable pretext, I ask whether he abides by a staunch vegan doctrine. Unexpectedly and nonchalantly he replies, “I don’t actually believe in animal rights. I’m just on a vegan diet. I’m still wearing leather jacket and shoes.” His pauses are languorously drawn out, prompting some hesitation, yet as I start to speak he interrupts like a grandfather clock, “It’s uncivilized to be boorish to animals but I’ve never read a coherent argument that explains a basis for animal rights.”

In spite of the melancholy, Merritt is brilliantly personable. Sat in a square beside the ornate Passionskirch, he reproaches the booking agent. Churches, he claims, are inappropriate venues with unsuitable acoustics. Merritt has a condition in his left ear whereby loud sounds are escalated to a deafening degree. Readily he describes a festival in Murcia, yelling frantically whilst being driven in a golf-buggy across a field during Pulp’s clamorous sound-check, later taking to the stage with a hoarse voice and a ringing in his ear. Quizzed on his stance that “playing live is a cynical ploy to sell t-shirts”, Merritt drastically retorts that the live performance is only the focal point for “bands who release bad records”.

Setting aside this dour rebuke, Merritt discusses the exceptional charm of Brooklyn’s Klezmer scene, the opulent Town Hall on West 43rd street and other NYC haunts he habitually frequents, amongst them several gay bars in which he sits to write and swig Vermouth. Drowned out in disco he draws inspiration from passing faces whilst evading disruption. He also expresses a fondness for silent movies and, in an effort to disguise my ignorance on the subject, I ask whether he considered The Artist [2012] a successful pastiche or homage. “It’s not technically a silent film… and I haven’t had the chance to watch it”, was the deadpan response.

The diverse scope of Merritt’s cultural consumption is palpable when listening to 69 Love Songs [1999], an astounding collection in three volumes resembling a treasure chest of gems and jewels. The record is borne of an admiration of Broadway musicals, conceptually conceived in a Manhattan piano bar during a performance of Stephen Sondheim numbers, redolent of the show-tunes of Irving Berlin, after whom Merritt has named his pet Chihuahua. With this as its basis, The Magnetic Fields audaciously appropriate an alphabet of stylistic forms that is irreverently genius. Like a bath spilling over the brim, one can sense the indiscriminate appraisal of the lowly and the grand mingled in cohesion. Merritt shies away from enumerating specific influences with the tips of his fingers, a reasonable preference it would seem, considering the reductive trend of wearing one’s citations like ornamental brooches.

He thus dispels suggestions that the band derives its name from Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault’s Les Champs Magnétiques [1920], having become familiar with the Surrealist work in earlier times. “Would you speak of literary influences per se?” I inquire. “No, these are completely separate spheres.” Mitigating the pressure of comparison, Merritt praises the imaginative excellence of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, the recently deceased writer and illustrator of Where The Wild Things Are. Remaining on the subject of children’s literature, [though I’m sure Merritt would agree that there isn’t a thing childish about the aforementioned] the conversation veers towards The Gothic Archies: a dour and dismal collaboration with Daniel Handler, known otherwise as Lemony Snicket.

Comprising Merritt on ukulele and Handler on accordion, The Gothic Archies penned The Tragic Treasury [2006]: a befitting soundtrack to the audio-book rendition of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, featuring narration from none other than Tim Curry, star of such classics as Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975], Clue [1985] and Muppet Treasure Island [1996]. As though this merged hybrid of genius weren’t sufficiently mind-boggling, I coincidentally came across a rendition of Science Fiction/Double Feature, the theme-tune to Curry’s cult musical, performed by Merritt alongside Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, Moby the electronic wizard and comic-book author Neil Gaiman, creator of The Sandman.

Merritt bemusedly smirks at this recollection, his only television performance to date. “Has the oft overlooked ukulele received the repute it deserves?”, I question. Merritt may not be a vegan, but he is certainly a staunch supporter of the ukulele. “It spares others from the acoustic guitar,” he quips, disdainful of the bonfire repertoire of badly executed covers. Known to feature an array of peculiar instruments on his records, I imagine Merrit to have bestowed his favourite Harmonium, Tremeloa or Autoharp with a name? He hasn’t. But he is the owner of a mini-cooper called Vera, equipped with a Queen’s English enunciating satellite navigator.

He in contrast occupies a sonorous low-pitched vocal range inhabited by a meagre few songwriters. Johnny Cash and Lee Hazelwood by comparison are more akin to a toddler and a castrato. Yet drawn by the high frequencies of Chinese Operas performed at the Brooklyn festival, Merritt composed three of his own: Orphan of Zhao [2003], Peach Blossom Fan [2004] and My Life as a Fairy Tale [2005]. In a recent review, Matt LeMay of Pitchfork alleges that Merritt’s formalist approach ‘embraces artifice where other musicians disavow it’. I’m eager to discover Merritt’s response to this critique. “All art comes with artifice” he proclaims, “just take Tori Amos’ embodiment of Kate Bush.”

 

Interview by Era Trieman