Misanthropic Fields Forever

A delightful chat with the delightfully sardonic Stephin Merritt

On Distortion, the Fields' eighth record (if you count 69 as one entity), Merritt's outlook hasn't improved, judging by such lines as "Sober, life is a prison" and "I have planned my grand attacks/I will stand behind their backs/With my brand-new battle ax."

More than once, Merritt has avoided attempts to conjoin his lyrics with his life, and so I suggest that —in Magnetic Fields as well as his other projects, which include Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies—at least he is obviously open to songwriting as a thematic exercise or experiment. As evidence, I offer not only 69 Love Songs but its successor, 2004's i, wherein all 14 songs begin with the ninth letter of the alphabet.

"It's a fair assumption," Merritt says, "but not really a fair extrapolation. It is more about the song titles that began with 'I' that were already in my trunk. I wrote three-quarters of them before deciding on that album title. I wrote very little of 69 Love Songs before deciding on the title, though. But they're love songs, so it's not an exercise. Most of my songs are love songs to begin with, so it wasn't an exercise to write more. If I had ideas that weren't love songs, I just didn't complete those songs until later. Being constrained to write a love song is like being constrained to use a C-chord somewhere."

He's a fun-loving guy, honest
Marcelo Krasilcic
He's a fun-loving guy, honest

And with Distortion, Merritt's songs stay the same—at least in the writing. Witness a hatred so vital to "California Girls" that it serves as the chorus, an ample dose of holiday self-pity in "Mr. Mistletoe," and even a postulant's petition to perform as a prostitute and Playboy Bunny in "The Nun's Litany." But this time, Merritt's output is dressed in the altogether appropriately wired wistfulness of grunge-via–Velvet Underground clothing. Which is a matter of style in more ways than one. "I don't know that there are particular lyrical references to distortion or anything like that," Merritt says. "That's the whole point of it: taking a random sampling of songs and subjecting them all to the production style of Jesus & Mary Chain's Psychocandy."

(Well, not exactly random. Distortion had an earlier, eventually discarded linkage: "They were all on the album before I decided on that production style," Merritt says, "because they all fit in with the previous concept for the album, which was abandoned in favor of this one. And since that concept is still usable, I don't talk about what it is." And he doesn't even bother to deadpan about it.)

In any case, JAMC is a longtime Merritt favorite, a personal preference made public a long time ago. And yet he has caught none of the Reid brothers' reunion shows: "I can't go to rock concerts anymore." The villain here is the singer's self-diagnosed struggle with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes loud, shrill noises exceedingly unpleasant—like, say, the ever-present guitar feedback screeching through Distortion. The affliction compelled the album to be mixed "at low volumes," Merritt notes. "And that's why there are two other people doing the mixing as well."

But maybe it was never about overwhelming the listener anyway. "When I saw the Jesus & Mary Chain twice in the late '80s, they were not loud," he recalls. "In fact, they were reasonably moderate in volume. I think that's why they were able to get that sound, because the feedback was quite controlled, so they had just the perfect sound. Very British. It sounded just like the record, like any British band."

But feedback, intentional or not, isn't Merritt's only occupational hazard. "We're playing quite small venues—Town Hall is the largest we're playing—in an effort to try to manage the volume level," he notes of the Fields' imminent tour. "From an audience, I find applause in a place larger than 35 people really quite awful." Which, from a man whose songwriting saunters between self-loathing and misanthropy, is a response that covers more than one question.

Magnetic Fields play Town Hall February 21 through 24, the-townhall-nyc.org.

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