The Only Boy in Town: An Interview with Stephin Merritt
After a trilogy of albums that slowly moved away from the synth-based sound that landed him on the map, Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt comes back in full force, and talks to PopMatters about dealing with record companies, the Future Bible Heroes, and introduces us to Hootie, the star of his new album's cover.
"I decided years ago that I would have the trilogy [of] i, Distortion, and Realism," starts Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt, "and after that I would have to do something that wasn't the trilogy, and I planned then that this would be our triumphant return to synthesizers." The album he's referring to, of course, is Magnetic Fields latest disc, Love at the Bottom of the Sea ...
... and that's exactly what Merritt and company have done on this record; a return to the form that made 69 Love Songs such an indispensable collection. The rapid-fire synths on "Your Girlfriend's Face" ,a song featuring vocalist Claudia Gonson singing about hiring a hit man to bloody up her rival in love, are just one moment where the electronic turn shines. "Actually, a lot of the electronics are not exactly synthesizers. For example, there's the instrument called the Folktek Microgarden. One of the sounds on the record I made that way sounds like galloping horses on 'All She Cares About is Mariachi,'" Merritt adds.
In addition to being the first album in years to feature electronic instruments, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is also the Fields' return to Merge Records after a stint away (save the Obscurities album Merritt released on Merge in 2011). Merritt argues that the change in labels means very little for the band: It's not different for me at all. It's only different for Claudia, my manager, who deals with record companies on a daily basis."
One song garnering a lot of press, with good reason, is the NSFW video for the catchy first single, "Andrew in Drag". Featuring drag performers Darrell Thorne and Stormy Leather as they transform back and forth into their drag personae, the video shows off gender performance at its best. Director Scott Valins told NPR:
"Stephin came to Valins&Co with this extraordinary song and together we explored the concept of playing with the ambiguities of gender and attraction. We took the opportunity to create a vibrant collage, exploring the intimate process of transforming ones gender. The backbone of the piece is a series of intimate portraits that lead the viewer to their own complex conclusions of what they are attracted to."
Merritt claims his own role in the video-making was small. "Well, I was only there for 20 minutes. Claudia and I were standing on a little turntable with glasses of cognac in our hands. And then I guess there was the shot of me with the crossword," he says.
Asked about the cover-art, a close-up of a stuffed owl, Merritt replies, "[That's] Hootie. Because it had nothing to do with the title, but it sort of resonates with the series of cover images I've been using since 69 Love Songs. That has nothing directly to do with the music or lyrics, and nothing to do with the cover art, so they all mix in an entertaining way." Similarly, he chose the album's title for its lack of relevance to the music.
Merritt, known for being quite prolific, says he only wrote one song for the record that didn't make the final cut, and that song is the B-side to the "Andrew in Drag" single. Unlike a lot of artists, Merritt doesn't get any of his writing done on the road: "I hardly get any writing done when I'm on the road. I just went to Europe for a week about a week ago, and I had forgotten to bring my notebook, so I started a new notebook on the way there. Unfortunately, I lost it a few days ago, but I don't think there's anything in it. I didn't do any songwriting at all in Europe. I might have written down a title or something. I was too tired. Jet lag. Jet lag is not conducive to songwriting."
Merritt is at another disadvantage thanks to a hearing disorder that impairs his work and performance. "I can only hear at really low levels. I have a hearing disorder, hyperacusis, where things in my left ear sound louder than they are, shrill sounds. There's a range of frequencies that sound louder. It is a very inconvenient disorder to have as a musician. What it affects is the way we play live. When we play life, we're an acoustic group. We have no monitors onstage."
The hyperacusis doesn't stop Merritt from tackling other projects, such as also leading the Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and even working on stage production. Asked what's next for his side projects, Merritt quips," I don't have any side projects. Everything is -- when I'm doing it -- that's my focus. I'm in the middle of working on lyrics for a new Future Bible Heroes album, which I hope will be the most popular album I've ever recorded. I have a proposal in the works for the Gothic Archies." He also says he is in the middle of writing two stage productions, one with Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket, aka accordion player for the Magnetic Fields), and one with writer Neil Gaiman.
It's all in a day's work for Merritt. We can only hope that one track from the new album, "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies", isn't a predictor of things to come. Though, truth be told, he would probably start a genius fairy band within a week.