The Magnetic Fields
A conversation with Stephin Merritt
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Published in abridged form on Metromix
On Distortion, Stephin Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields consider necrophiliacs, murderers and nuns, running the resulting storyline through a Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired wave of—you guessed it—distortion.
It’s a surprising output from a group better known for sprawling indie-pop opuses like 69 Love Songs (the three-disc album containing, literally, 69 love songs), and perhaps even more surprising coming from Merritt, who suffers from hyperacusis, a hearing condition in which certain frequencies can seem magnified to painful levels.
To celebrate the release of Distortion, Merritt and The Magnetic Fields played mini-residencies in cities around the country, culminating with six shows at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music.
Before the tour, Merritt talked about staying sane on the road and why Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love might be the worst album of all time.
Playing live isn’t your favorite activity, due at least in part to your sensitivity to volume. How do you tailor the performances to maximize your own enjoyment?
Well, we’re hardly amplified. It’s more or less an unplugged show. There are no electric instruments and no rhythm section. The loudest thing on stage is going to be the accordion.
Do you have a regimen that keeps you fresh night in and night out?
We used to have a two-cocktail minimum and maximum. I think now we’re more or less down to one glass of wine.
Any particular wine?
No, whatever happens to be backstage. We try to all consume the same substances before we go on. Since we have no rhythm section, there’s an endless tempo war on stage, so it’s important that no one has taken any stimulants or depressants that the others haven’t taken.
Much has been made of the influence and impact that [JAMC's] Psychocandy had on Distortion. You think that was the rare pop or rock album in recent decades that’s had anything pioneering to say from a production standpoint?
No, I was saying that it was the last important event in production, butthere have been a lot of incremental progressions. Psychocandy was the last bang in pop production.
Were you on board as a listener from the beginning?
Yes. I had bought the single, “You Trip Me Up,” before the record came out.
The concept for Distortion was to out-do Jesus and Mary Chain at their own guitar-feedback game. When did you decide on that for the album’s direction?
I actually decided on not just the songs but even the running order of the songs before I abandoned the previous idea for the record and jumped, a week or two before we started recording, into [the Jesus and Mary Chain] production style. There was a previous idea and no one will ever know what it was—unless they bribe the engineer. He’s asked me to put in that qualifier.
Is track sequencing a cerebral process or gut process?
Nothing with The Magnetic Fields is a gut process. We don’t approve of those things. A typical running order for me is alphabetical - not because I figured that it doesn’t matter, but because I actually wrote the songs to be in that order. We’ve had two records that actually ended up in alphabetical order and several that were supposed to be but didn’t end up there - including Distortion and 69 Love Songs. If you put 69 Love Songs in alphabetical order, the first eight songs or something end up being acoustic ballads. That just didn’t work. It didn’t show off the variety of the record and it was actually really misleading.
Do you feel like the traditional album is a sinking ship?
I think the bad album is a sinking ship. The album that is only done to promote the single is obsolete. That’s why Distortion was at No. 77 on the Billboard charts, which for us is a huge placement. In ordinary years that would be inconceivable. I think it’s a good thing. Say, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” which is, of course, a brilliantly produced song that radio programmers never seem to tire of. But as an album, [Midnight Love] is painfully awful. If it didn’t have “Sexual Healing” on it, it would be unreleasable. That kind of album should not exist and need not exist anymore.
Should knowledge of artists affect how their art is perceived?
Have you heard Charles Manson’s album?
I actually never have.
There’s a perfectly nice folkie, soft-rock song, “Look At Your Game, Girl.” [Sings] “Look at your game, girl.” That could have easily been a David So single. It’s kind of the “Sexual Healing” of the album - it’s the only good song, and it’s quite a good song. Everyone seems to agree on that particular song as a standout track. I think people can hear that song and divorce it from its context because it’s generic enough. It is kind of arrogant - look at your game, girl - arrogant and possibly sexist. But that was par for the course at the time - 1969. Judging from that, I would say it shouldn’t be too difficult to divorce it from context, unless it had a lot of lyrics that skirted the issue of, say, mind control or serial killings or even maybe Topanga Canyon or something like that.
You used to wear the critic’s hat. Do you miss those days of padded envelopes and press kits arriving on your doorstep?
The free records that I used to get a lot of were, by and large, from record companies that appreciated the fact that I and only I was reviewing their records in New York. So I have a lot of records by a few labels. I’m happy with those records on, say, Yazoo and Smithsonian Folkways and Ellipsis Arts. But it’s fine that I’m not getting more records from them because I feel like they probably don’t have the money to be wasting on throwing me free records.
The padded envelope days are coming to an end - it’s more a world of digital downloads. From a selfish perspective, it just isn’t as much fun.
Well, I hate the fact that we send out these promo CDs that just come in cardboard sleeves and don’t have lyric sheets. I think if anyone needs a lyric sheet, it’s a reviewer. No one seems to disagree with that statement, and yet labels send out specially made promo CDs specifically to reviewers - that doesn’t make any sense to me.
It’s very rare that I get supplemental lyric sheets.
I think most kinds of music don’t lend themselves to having their lyrics quoted in the first place. But mine does.
Is that something you’ve addressed? And they say no?
I beg, I plead, I tear out the hair of the marketing director. Nothing happens. I beg, I plead. They say “Yes, yes, next time.”
What a pity. Well, we are approaching our time, so I'll cut my questions off there. Thank you for the chat.
Thank you. And remember: the death of the album is not all bad.
That's refreshing. Thanks for the optimism.
[Laughs] Sure. If only the death of the single would follow.