Navigating Stephin Merritt's Many Shades of Dry
Should you ever get a chance to interview Stephin Merritt—and I imagine that we all deserve to one of these days—his publicist will explain that when he answers a question, he will take a long pause, answer in a complete thought, take another lengthy pause, and issue a follow-up. It is vitally important that you do not talk during those gaps.
This stop-start rhythm and the songwriter's deep, flat tone of voice make him hard to read on the phone. You feel as if you are constantly disappointing him; he is not afraid to correct you. But in person, or at least over some nice pasta, Merritt's disaffection opens up to reveal many shades of droll, from disinterest to something too weary to label as contempt to something that, if you can look past the buzzard-picking-at-a-skeleton delivery, seems to indicate bemusement.
And then he'll get giddy.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge) is the first album by his flagship band, indie-pop icons the Magnetic Fields, to foreground synthesizers since 1999's 69 Love Songs, a loving annotation of the American Songbook that established Merritt as one of the pop-formalist geniuses of his time, able to write mathematically perfect melodies in nearly any genre, whether country or Broadway. The Magnetic Fields captured critics and college radio's attention with Cole Porter–Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark fusions like 1994's The Charm of the Highway Strip (quite an outré move in the all-feedback-everything early '90s indie scene), but the band's last three records were part of a self-imposed "no synths" trilogy that saw a focus on ukuleles and strings.
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"I was bored with the use of synthesizers. I grew up with synthesizers denoting futurism and an either dystopian or utopian worldview, and it seemed like by the end of the 20th century, synthesizers sounded retro and actually denoted the early '80s," Merritt says. "Because nothing happened in synthesizers in the intervening time, so they were being used, essentially, as electric organs. So I wanted to wait until something new happened in the technology. And as it turns out, a lot new has happened, fortunately for me."
Merritt gives off the image of man who spends his time rereading his favorite Noël Coward plays in hopes of finding a bon mot he missed the first 12 times around. But dude is a serious gearhead and seems relatively thrilled to talk lovingly about some of his favorite new devices, such as "a module called the Source of Uncertainty, which allows you to control the randomness of voltages in several different, entertaining ways" and the cracklebox, which is "a little box that you play by connecting two circuits together with your thumbs, and the more your thumbs touch the contact . . . the wilder the static gets." (Merritt's demonstration of this device resembles someone playing Air Gameboy.)
Employees at gear shops like East Village Music and L.A.'s Big City Music regularly call him up when exotic new shit comes in. ("And I'm getting very tired of hearing 'You can't have this one—Trent Reznor got it.'") He estimates that he has hundreds of instruments in his L.A. studio, about 10 of which are ukuleles. "I have three Dewanatron instruments, but there's a fourth one that I don't have," he says. "It is replicated by one that I do have. So I go out of my way to remember not to buy the one that doesn't do anything I can't already do with the other three. But it's very pretty and would look really great in my living room."
The result of all this new electronic gear is an album Merritt allows "is certainly clubbier than the last record, which was a folk record that had no percussion whatsoever except tablas and leaves." But Love is not just a return to synth-pop hedonism; it's also the first album since 69 released on indie-rock institution Merge Records, as the last three Fields albums were released via the Warner imprint Nonesuch. It's here that his droll barometer dipped driest, as Merritt cannot be arsed to explain how the Magnetic Fields found themselves back on Merge.
"I try not to talk about record labels in interviews because the slightest misquote, and I mortally offend someone. For me, there's almost no difference between Merge and Nonesuch. They have the same distributor [Alternative Distribution Alliance]," he says, surely wishing the conversation would go back to the Dewanatron. "It's certainly not an ideological shift or anything like that. I'd certainly be happy to put out more records on Nonesuch.
"I can't even think of anything entertaining to say about it."
In the 2008 autobiography Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, Merritt said that the subcultural importance of Merge was meaningless to him, and "I ridicule the ideology of the so-called indie-rock ethos. I have nothing to do with that, and I'm sorry that [label founders and Our Noise co-authors Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance] do. No doubt they are completely insincere about it and are just using it to sell records. And I am not joking."
No hurt feelings, though. "We've known Stephin for a long time," McCaughan says. "I appreciate his sense of humor. And I also appreciate that he is not like anyone else we work with, both in terms of his art but also just in terms of the way he approaches things." He says that the band kept in touch while Merge was reissuing their catalog on vinyl. "There was never a falling out or a bad scene or anything in the first place; I think maybe it just made sense to them. And to my ears, anyway, the new record has more of a similar feel to their old records than, say, a record like Distortion."
The Magnetic Fields recently started their third decade. Merritt admits that he makes more money from his theater career than his bands, and that all the real lucre is in the merch anyway. "T-shirts are all important to the music industry at the moment, which is actually an arm of the garment industry." (He's so proud of the "God Wants Us to Wait" shirt, he shows me a picture of it on his phone at the mere mention of the thumping opener.) At this point, there's nothing left for him to prove, and as fun as Sea is, the band isn't likely to become much bigger than cultishly worshipped. He jokes (I think) that as time goes on, "we could gradually change our name to something . . . more or less fashionable. We could be the Jefferson Magnetic Fields," before getting more sincere after a lengthy pause. (I think.)
"I write songs compulsively, and if I got paid not to write songs, I would have to do it on the sly," Merritt says. "And the fact that whatever I say goes helps. Because the band's part may be boring, but the music part is not boring at all."
The Magnetic Fields play the Beacon Theatre on April 4.
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