When his band released its three-disc opus 69 Love Songs in 1999, Stephin Merritt became an instant hero among the lovelorn indie set. Sad-sack lyrics, sure, but only sometimes. What's characterized Merrit's songwriting for his band the Magnetic Fields more than anything else is an infatuation with catchy melody and wry lyric — Sondheim, Porter and Tin Pan Alley translated for the indie set.
Since then, Merritt & Co. haven't eased up, releasing a number of albums (including 2008 and 2010's thematic cousins Distortion and Realism), and touring just because they have to. Merritt, meanwhile, has involved himself in musical theater, film scores, audiobooks, and more — all while the 2010 documentary film Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields captured the process.
The band — Merritt, percussionist/vocalist Claudia Gonson, cellist Sam Davol, and guitarist/banjo player John Woo — swings through Atlanta on April 14 to play a sold-out show at the Variety Playhouse. They've got a swell new album on hand called Love at the Bottom of the Sea, and Creative Loafing recently got Merritt on the phone to chat about songwriting, why he’d rather make videos than tour, and what the Strange Powers documentary got wrong.
I assume you've seen the documentary made about your band.
Is that something you're comfortable watching?
Oh no, for me it's boring see my friends say things that we all say every day. There's certainly no point in me watching it. I don't learn anything.
How does it work as a representation of you and the band, and of what you do?
Oh, well, not at all. [Laughs] But I don't think it's intended to be an accurate work. It took about 10 years to make, and much of what I was doing was making musicals, and that's not even mentioned. I did four musicals in a 10-year span, but you wouldn't know it from watching the film. Just because to film that you'd have to pay the actors [in the musicals] royalties. But they could have mentioned it.
Also the plot of the movie seems to be, "Claudia gets upset that Stephin moves to L.A." — none of which is actually true. Claudia may have been upset for a few hours; and I didn't move to L.A., I just moved my recording studio to L.A. and I kept an apartment in New York. But the movie didn't mention that. I go back and forth all the time, and they screw with the chronology so that it seems like I move to L.A. at the end of the movie, but what you see happening onscreen I'd already moved things to L.A.
They made up a narrative, as many documentaries do. But of course, it doesn't matter. The point was just to have some conversations on the screen. It's not like it was supposed to be an exposé.
Can you tell me about some of the unorthodox instruments you used on Love at the Bottom of the Sea? The album has a lot of interesting sounds.
Thank you. I used a lot of electronic instruments that were not keyboards. I used hardly any electronic keyboards, and the ones that we did use were not used as keyboards, traditionally. There were some non-synthesizers like the Cracklebox, which is a little handheld device with electronic contacts on the front panel that you put your thumbs on, and the amount of the area of the pad of your thumb that is applied to the contact increases the pitch. It's not something you can make a melody on, but it's something that's very good for making animal howls, static noises and high-pitched squeals and shrieks.
Sort of like a tactile theremin
Well, except that theremins can only make pretty, ethereal sounds and the Cracklebox often makes nasty, difficult sounds. But it's as hard to control as a theremin, but just as fun.
How did the instruments you used affect the songwriting? Do you write songs with certain instruments in mind?
No, I write songs and then arrange later. Some of the songs are also written years before the albums are conceived.
Do you tend to try different arrangements with each songs?
I arrange the songs before I record. Mostly, I add a few things here and there. When I start recording they're ready to go.
You've said before that you write melody and lyrics together.
Do you ever find a situation where you come up with one but are never satisfied with the other? I suppose this is a question about stuff you've thrown away.
Um… I wouldn't keep going after one thing didn't satisfy me, until I had both parts. Only then would I continue forth, because I work on both at the same time. What does happen often, though, is I'll have a section that I won't know if it'll be a verse or a chorus, but I can't think of anything else to use it for. Or I can't figure out where to go with it. And those will sit there in notebooks for decades, until I do or don't figure out something to do with them.
When you have a song that's sat around for 10 years, is it easy to approach with a new eye or ear?
Well, sure. I have shelves of notebooks that I do go back and look at things when I'm trying to write an album, I'll actually look through the notebooks every year or two and see what's lying around.
You've worked in theater, film, and a variety of media. What brings you back to recording an album?
Well, lately I've been in a cycle where I make a record every two years and tour in the spring of the even numbered years. I'd like to speed that up.
Why… why… because I find this slower pace lurching. I would like to be more constantly working. It's easier for me to say, "I'm not going to put this song on this record because I'm going to put it on the next record,” and I know what the next record's going to be, and they can relate to each other. I actually did this with Distortion and Realism as a pair. I didn't realize how long it was going to take to make Distortion, but I did indeed see them as a pair.
Does that desire to increase the pace of what you're doing now include more touring?
Well, no, I don't care for touring. It's tiresome. I would say the same amount of touring would be fine, or less, but we're going to keep doing it.
It seems like you're able to get music out there without going on the road every year. People still anticipate a new Magnetic Fields release. Do you think it's essential or necessary to tour?
I don't know.
But you still do it.
We will continue to keep doing it and assume it's necessary until proven otherwise. And just because the logistics people all seem to think it's essential. Frankly I think videos are more important, but what do I know? [Mild chuckle.] Maybe we can do a tour with videos.
Have you considered working more multimedia and videos into the performances? Maybe that could freshen the experience for you.
I think to do a successful multimedia performance you have to be a conceptual artist on the level of Laurie Anderson to make that work without overwhelming the concert aspect.
I don't think I'm in the same medium as Laurie Anderson.
If this tour is part of your accelerating your schedule, how far ahead have you planned?
But you'd like to?
Yes. But at the moment I'm on tour, so my brain isn't working and Claudia's brain isn't working, so until May rolls around we're not going to be doing any planning.
I'm curious about your hyperacusis [an ear condition that increases sensitivity to sound frequencies]. How does it affect your performance?
I don't have any monitors, and we have a very low volume in the house. We're not amplified at all on stage. I have an earplug in my left ear, so I can't sing very loudly. It dictates much of the performance.
To the point of limiting what you're able or would like to do?
Very much so. We could sound like a hundred things, but what we do sound like is dictated entirely by what I am able to physically stand.
I imagine that's frustrating.
With Devotchka. Sold Out. 8 p.m. Variety Playhouse. www.variety-playhouse.com.
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