Photo by Chris Buck
Stephin Merritt, the musician behind ventures as diverse as the Magnetic Fields and the Lemony Snicket audiobooks, is having a good year. The Magnetic Fields’ eighth studio album, Distortion, a twisted, feedback drenched homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, came out in January. More recently, Merritt’s been immersed in writing the music and lyrics for a theatrical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, timed for release at the same time as the film version, directed and animated in 3D by Nightmare Before Christmas creator Henry Selick.
We spoke on the verge of the Magnetic Fields’ first full US tour for Distortion, which kicks off October 10 and lands in Jersey City, at the Loews Jersey Theatre, on October 23. In between rehearsals for Coraline and recording new Magnetic Fields material, Merritt still found the time to converse about New York’s financial collapse (which his mother may or may not have predicted), the fundamental untrustworthiness of the French (and of Europeans in general), and about how everyone in Merritt’s new hometown is shockingly shallow.
You’re known to be pretty averse to loud noise. Are you making any concessions to the feedback or volume of Distortion when you’re playing live?
Ordinarily we completely ignore the sound of the record when we develop the live show, but in this case I have made one tiny concession, which is that instead of playing the ukulele, quietly, I’ll be playing the bouzouki, quietly. And the bouzouki is a little bit louder than the ukulele: It has metal strings. So it seems a little more heavy. A little more uh, slightly towards the sound of the record…but only slightly. So that’s the difference with the instrumentation, and the other difference is that Shirley Simms, who sang half the album, will actually be coming along and singing. Not half the songs, but a lot of the songs.
On Distortion, there was a lot of effort put into avoiding synthesizers, and doing all this really painstaking work with reverb and feedback to get the sound of the record. Is it tough to let that go? I know you were really enjoying the way that feedback was filling in some notes that you then didn’t have to figure out.
Well, it would be impossible to get more than one instrument at a time to be in that sort of feedback boat.
I think a song like “Old Fools” might be unbearably sad without some sort of triumphant kind of noise behind it.
We specialize in unbearably sad.
Actually, I thought Distortion was a really funny Magnetic Fields record.
You thought it was funnier than other Magnetic Fields records?
Thank you for saying that. Because I have been worrying that Distortion had less–not less humor on it, but that people couldn’t really tell that it was being funny.
I think “Three-Way” is really funny. I think “California Girls” is really funny…
I think it’s all really funny. But you know, my mother doesn’t get it. Because she gets distracted by the distortion and feedback, I guess. My mother says she misses the humor. But I think that’s just cause she’s not used to listening in that way.
It’s tempting in fact to think of Distortion as your ‘California’ record.
Well, it isn’t, since I wasn’t living in California at the time. Everything was recorded in New York except for Shirley’s vocals…The only possible California influence on the album is maybe Shirley sounds more allergic than she does on 69 Love Songs, because she was allergic to some plant or other growing in my courtyard. So she’s hopped up on Benadryl.
What’s your experience of California? It seems like a bizarre choice for you, who’s a little bit famous for being an ironic guy. They don’t understand irony out in California as I understand it. Does anybody understand you out there?
Does anyone understand me in New York? I don’t know that Californians are as lacking in irony as New Yorkers think they are; I think it’s more that the humor is different. New Yorkers have a certain sort of macho that Angelinos don’t have. We like to complain and our humor is often based on that. Midwesterners think that we’re being grotesque, horrible people whenever we make a joke. But Angelinos think we’re being sort of morbid. They get our jokes–they just don’t make them.
And maybe don’t like them.
I think people in LA think people in New York are kind of pompous and self-important, and incredibly negative: ‘If they’re complaining so much, why don’t they just leave New York and go somewhere where it isn’t raining?’ They kind of have a point I suppose.
You probably can identify with a New Yorker’s perspective as well on that, though.
Of course I can, yeah. I definitely have a New Yorkers’ perspective on Los Angeles: I can’t believe how shallow people are, for example. It’s a lot worse than we think it is. It’s just shocking how shallow people are.
Yeah. And when you come from California to New York, it’s just shocking how people completely ignore you. And I understand that as a New Yorker, and I understand exactly why we ignore each other, because it’s rude not to here. But from the outside perspective it takes some getting used to.
Well you were notorious for writing in New York city bars, where people presumably ignored you.
Oh yeah, my entire way of making a living depends on people ignoring me in bars. Because if they don’t ignore me I can’t get any work done.
Can you get any work done in LA?
Well you know, gay bars are a different thing. Gay bars have a certain etiquette that has a lot more in common with New York, where you have to ignore people or they think that you want to sleep with them. So in fact people ignore each other. And there’s a whole etiquette around where you’re looking and for how long you allow your eyes to rest on someone.
In your case, you’re mostly looking down, I assume.
Well no, I am staring off into space. If I were looking down at my notebook the whole time it wouldn’t matter where I was. So I’m staring off into space. And I can’t do that at home, because the first thing I look at, I’d see a book– Doctor Seuss: The King’s Stilts.
Well, since we’re talking about New York: Your mom appears to have predicted our city’s financial crisis.
You have to understand that my mother has been prophecizing the coming economic explosion since the late ’70s. She has always thought that the economy was about to go down. So for her to be right once in 30 years doesn’t mean anything about her prophetic skills. Even Chicken Little is right some of the time.
You’re working on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. How’s that coming along?
It’s coming along very well, thank you, I wrote another song for it last night. Yesterday–I’m in New York to do a workshop for “Coraline”. So yesterday the director and writer and I were looking online at the trailers that they have on YouTube for the Henry Selick film adaption, and the stop motion is really quite gorgeous. And they’re doing it in 3D, so being a fan of 3D movies, I will go see absolutely anything in 3D. I will go see sports movies in 3D. Last year I saw The Nightmare Before Chistmas adapted to 3D, which was beautiful, but it clearly wasn’t rendered that way. But this is. And I’ve never seen anything like it. So I’m actually excited to see the film. I was living in dread before yesterday, thinking that they were going to do something horrible.
Is there anything specific in the material that drew you to the project?
Well I did the music for the audio book, which consisted of the song “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home,” which essentially sums up Coraline’s attitude for the entire book. So it’s a whole musical in one song. Obviously I can’t use that song for the musical, but once I had written that, it seemed a smaller step to just write the whole musical. That song convincingly demonstrated that it would make a musical.
What about Magnetic Fields?
Tomorrow I’m going into the studio and recording. Today, I’m doing a Coraline workshop, and tomorrow I’m recording Magnetic Fields.
Are you inclined to unveil the direction of the new material?
Well, it will be the third record of the ‘no-synth’ trilogy. So I’m willing to unveil that it isn’t an electro-pop album.
Have you seen the line of footwear supposedly inspired by you?
I’ve seen it online. I haven’t actually obtained it in person. Because…Oh these French people, they haven’t sent me anything! If I named an album after their shoe line, I would send them the album.
They haven’t sent you a single pair of shoes?
They haven’t sent me a single shoelace.
Yeah. You know, I’m supposed to be honored that they named some shoes–a whole line of shoes–after me, but they don’t send me anything? Nuke Europe!
That seems like a great place to stop. Thank you for talking to me…
…Unless you care to clarify that latter comment?
Smash the European Union.
Great. Thank you Stephin.
I want my shoes. Destroy the world. Goodbye.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 1, 2008