The Magnetic Fields - The Stool Pigeon
Negatively charged Stephin Merritt sees no attraction in writing from the heart.
You might think that one of America’s finest songwriters — a man who has soundtracked countless break-ups and budding relationships — would be a source of warmth and whimsy. When his biography includes writing an astrology column for a lesbian newspaper under the name ‘Madame Cheva’ and once having wardrobes filled with jumpsuits, you might also imagine a colourful character exuding charisma and sharing sage-like advice.
But this is Stephin Merritt, the curmudgeonly mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields. Since 1990’s Distant Plastic Trees, he has rarely repeated himself, blazing through introspective synth pop, bubblegum garage rock, folkish cabaret and even a three-disc survey of every kind of love song conceivable in the 20th century.
Tying it all together are his intricate arrangements and ramshackle production, every word painstakingly sculpted into darkly comic poetry. Add to that his offshoot bands (The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and The Gothic Archies) as well as scores for Chinese operas, musicals, cartoons and commercials, and Merritt is arguably one of the most prodigious figures in music.
Yet anyone intrigued enough to find out more about this phenomenon inevitably makes the same discovery. Interviews with Merritt make, as author Neil Gaiman once said, “Lou Reed seem like little orphan Annie,” portraying a songwriting savant who communicates almost entirely in a monotone deadpan, cutting people open with contemptuous yet perfectly placed retorts.
This is a man who likens making albums to ripping a parasite from his body with a camera crew in tow; a man who believes live music only survives because people want to try on t-shirts before buying them. While working as a music critic and copy-editor for Spin and Time Out New York in the mid-nineties, he would leave withering comments in the margins of articles and delight in trashing whatever album was under consideration. He treats interviews no differently.
In the London offices of Domino records, a bearded Merritt shuffles resignedly towards the interview, hands in pockets, his baseball cap bowed. It’s the final slot of a two-day promotional slog on the date several websites are reporting as his 45th birthday [serious fans insist it’s February 9, but Merritt won’t say]. He is, as always, dressed entirely in various shades of brown, which he feels is flattering, as it complements his eyes. It’s a difficult look to pull off without looking like a 5’3” turd.
Slouching into a seat, arms crossed high above his chest, it doesn’t take Merritt long to pick questions apart, sniffing out grounds for dismissal. Asking why his songs are teeming with wit when there’s so little humour in music initiates the first of many contemplative pauses.
“Musicians are dumb,” he says finally. “They also tend to have quite miserable lives and not a lot of perspective. Routine music death is an overdose, suicide or liver failure. I like to talk about violence and death, misery and heartbreak — especially heartbreak. But since I want it to rhyme, I know the wording is going to be awkward, so why not make it awkward enough to be funny?”
In the hundreds of songs Merritt has composed since forming The Magnetic Fields in Boston back in 1988, his own perspective often seems strangely absent. He routinely writes in character, preferring to keep things vague in order to reach as many as possible, emulating his heroes Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin — two of the most successful songwriters and Broadway composers in history.
Where Merritt’s writing process differs, however, is that he lounges in gay bars, cocktail in hand, while listening to thumping disco music for up to eight hours a day. He needs a place where his mind will be forced to wander, interrogating the mundane songs he’s hearing, allowing them to spark imaginary conversations. Sometimes he’ll eavesdrop. Sometimes a face across the bar will suggest a story. When all else fails, he’ll let the booze take over and resort to a drinking song.
Drinking does not, he says with a scoff, impair his judgement. “If I start writing a song without any alcohol, my first concern is, ‘Is this original to me? Should I go on the internet and see who else has had this idea before?’ Frankly, I think alcohol helps quieten my internal editor; the mean parents who want to kill off creativity. If I had my superego going at full speed, there is no song. So yeah, I’m a big advocate of drugs and alcohol. Otherwise, I will obsess.”
As the sickly short kid who didn’t make friends easily, Merritt had a solitary upbringing, accompanying his mother on 33 relocations in 23 years. A mine of material, you might think, for the admissions of loneliness and longing on songs like ‘Don’t Look Away’ and ‘100,000 Fireflies’. Yet the notion of using music for self-expression leaves Merritt cold.
He prefers cobbling together his own form of insight — new song ‘My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre’, for example, was taken from reading the subtitles to Oprah while in a bar — like the writers of Tin Pan Alley, dashing off intoxicatingly simple songs as if they were short stories. New album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, a reboot of The Magnetic Fields’ fizzing synth pop, features some of Merritt’s catchiest work yet.
But compared to Leonard Cohen, who considers his songs convictions of the heart, Merritt’s approach may seem lacking in sincerity. The songs hold an illusory quality that, in his own words, “suggest meaning rather than have meaning”, penned behind a shield of sentimentality and subverted clichés.
“Um, no,” says Merritt, his face contorting in revolt. “On ‘Zombie Boy’, I do not in fact go to Haiti and dig up dead bodies, animate them and have sex with them. But there is a certain similarity between doing that and relating to other people. Some people relate to others completely mechanistically and this song makes fun of that.”
Another pause. “You can take a picture in extreme close-up, showing all the pores and blemishes, or be further away and more composed, airbrushing it a little to be more flattering. The way most people are going to prefer the photo is further away. That’s how art works. It’s not that one is more sincere than the other. They’re different ways of looking at the same topic, one of which is going to have more universal appeal.”
A common criticism of manufactured pop, however, is that aiming for universal appeal in the first place is inherently detached and calculated. “Music is like cooking,” he replies. “Sincerity has nothing to do with it.” Clearly bristling now, he lets that one hang there, daring a comeback.
But if music is like cooking, does it require any emotional intelligence to do what Merritt does? “‘Emotional intelligence’ — I don’t know what that is,” he says dismissively, before cutting off the next question about being on the autistic spectrum. “You mean if you have an Asperger’s diagnosis, like Gary Numan, can you write beautiful melodies, like Gary Numan? Yes.”
We’re not talking about melodies here, though, but emotional substance people can connect with.
“Who could not have an emotional connection with ‘Please Push No More’? Or ‘Cars’? That’s actually a beautiful encapsulation of the feeling of isolation someone might feel with Asperger’s. I think ‘Cars’ is kind of the Asperger’s anthem. So emotional intelligence, whatever that means, is probably in the way.”
The atmosphere sharpens; more questions are cut off. “But anyway,” he interjects, slipping into another pause. “Um… why are we still stuck on the sincerity issue?” A silence follows. “What’s your agenda here?”
There is no agenda, just an interest in a worthwhile discussion about the nature of his craft. “What’s your interest based on?” he asks.
The music, naturally, and his interviews over the years.
“Yet I feel like I have so little to say about sincerity,” he says haughtily. “I’m just puzzled that other people find it to be of value in music… Are James Joyce and Gertrude Stein sincere in what they’re saying? How would you begin to evaluate that? Why would you care?”
Because wanting to know how artists feel about things is human nature, particularly when their music provides a framework that listeners filter their emotions through.
“I just feel like people are going to have their ‘I’m not alone’ moments no matter what I do. It has nothing to do with whether they are in fact alone or not.” Merritt lets out a laugh. “People think they’re relating to me on various levels that of course are completely imaginary. And that’s a good thing… I think it would be kind of cynical to plan for it.” He says this slowly but decisively, adding: “What I’m trying to communicate to an audience has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I recently broke up with someone. That would be insane.”
Since he believes he’s little more than his record collection and taste in films, Merritt argues that putting more of himself into the music would just mean writing songs about writing songs and watching movies.
“What do you need to know about me? I’m the kind of person who writes 69 Love Songs and then actually releases it. That’s a pretty narrow personality type. I’m obsessive compulsive enough to think of the idea in the first place and then, shockingly, obsessive compulsive enough to actually do it, in a year, with enough force of personality to talk a record company into putting it out. Then I guess I have enough verbal acuity to write an entertaining 69 Love Songs so that, even though I can’t really sing, I can get some other people to sing it and have it still be popular 13 years later.”
There’s a knock at the door. A car is waiting to take Merritt to the airport. He begins packing up his things carefully but with the indignation of a jilted lover leaving in the middle of the night. As he does so, he reluctantly considers the qualities that make a worthwhile album.
“If my mother likes it, there’s probably something wrong with it,” he says. “I try to make sure there’s something I’m going to have to explain, because if the record company immediately gets it, then everyone else is going to immediately get it.”
He yanks the retractable handle on his suitcase up with a final flourish, turning for the door. “And then what good is it? It should take people a while to get something.”