A generation of terrified journalists and collaborators will tell you that Stephin Merritt is a fundamentally unknowable guy–prickly, dismissive, and exact in his tastes, which are manifest in the charming, sardonic twenty year output of the Magnetic Fields, Merritt’s main songwriting and performing outlet. But notoriously glum Merritt is also beloved for these qualities, as is his band, and though he might seem at first glance to be an unlikely subject for a documentary, it makes a certain amount of sense. He’s a singular artist, and a vivid personality, and in Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields, a new film from directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, his charm shows.
Strange Powers follows Merritt through the last ten years of the band, focusing in particular on his close relationship with his longtime collaborator, Claudia Gonson, moving backwards in time to recount the duo’s early days making music together, then returning to the present to chronicle their fraught, temporary split as Merritt moves, circa 2008’s Distortion, to L.A. Along the way, Peter Gabriel, Sarah Silverman, and Daniel Handler profess their Magnetic Fields love, Gonson and Merritt bicker endlessly, and three records get made. Perhaps most surprisingly, the film also delves into the band’s darker moments, specifically when, in the middle of the last decade, Merritt faced charges from several influential music critics that he was a racist.
On Monday, the Brooklyn Arts Council will host the film’s New York City premiere at the Bell House as part of its second annual Scene: Brooklyn May film series. And then, on October 27th, Film Forum will host the film’s official theatrical opening. In advance of the Strange Powers New York premiere, we caught up with director Kerthy Fix.
So Strange Powers was shot over ten years-what took so long?
The other director of the film, Gail O’Hara, was the music editor at Time Out and she worked at Spin. She knew Stephin and Claudia and ended up hiring Stephin as a copy editor at both places. She started shooting mainly shows. I mean, Stephin is a very private person, so sometimes it takes longer to investigate someone’s personality and world when they are more private. So it’s not like we shot nonstop for ten years–we were doing it in the cracks of professional lives.
It also took a long time because we were waiting for something to happen that would be dramatic and have a dramatic arc that we could hang the structure of the film on, and it just sort of never happened. As a friend of mine said, Stephin is an everyday sort of genius. Like, he just shows up every day. He may show up at the bar to write for eight hours, but he’s not going to be some wild, drug addicted freak-out kind of genius. He’s a hard-working guy who just plugs away. So in some ways, nothing really happened. And we realized we had to, instead of ignoring that, show how this person’s mind works: let’s try to reveal his unique kind of librarian approach to music and his particular pop sensibility.
Your background is as a producer. What was it about the Magnetic Fields that turned you into a director?
I really like eccentrics and I thought that Stephin was someone that wasn’t being read correctly, partly because he wasn’t comfortable in the pop space that wants to forefront someone’s personality and their identity. Stephin is not really interested in that as an artistic project – he’s a songwriter first and foremost. I felt he was being misread and so there was sort of a desire to correctly explain him and, also, I just follow my own questions – I wanted to understand him. I came to the project not as a super-fan; Gail was definitely a super-fan. She had a fanzine for ten years, chickfactor, in which the Magnetic Fields and Stephin’s other projects figured prominently. But I didn’t really know the music that well, I didn’t know Stephin and Claudia that well. I think I was interested in the eccentric personalities and how people could have a 20-year collaboration–like, what does that look like? Because you don’t hear about that in pop and rock, the people who are still working together after 20 years. That’s not really what’s celebrated.
Though the one or two times I’ve interviewed Stephin, he’s been quite nice, I imagine a lot of people warned you about how supposedly difficult he is to deal with. People probably laughed when you told them you were trying to make a documentary about one of the most notoriously standoffish guys in music.
I think your experience with him is what I found as well. His reputation precedes him but when you have an interaction with him on a professional level, he’s really courteous and thoughtful. He and Claudia were both were super generous. They were very clear right from the outset. I remember sitting in Chelsea, ordering a chocolate croissant, and both of them saying very clearly that they didn’t want their personal lives in the film, which could have been daunting. But at the same time, they would also be available when I would call up and say, “What’s gong on?” And they would tell me and they would let me come just hang out for 10 hours while they’re trying to record, which can be a distraction and an intrusion. But they were super generous. Stephin has never been anything but thoughtful and kind.
Give me one really good Stephin Merritt anecdote that didn’t make the film.
Well, I hope it’s going to be in the DVD extras, actually. There is a scene that the editor Sarah Devorkin fought for really hard, because she loved this moment. So picture Stephin and Claudia in a car with me and my friend Cindy driving from Austin, Texas to Houston Texas, where they have a show. It’s the last show of their tour, they’ve been arguing the whole time, they’re just sick of tour. We stop in Lockhart, Texas for some barbecue at Black’s BBQ. And Stephin is standing out front smoking a cigarette and – I don’t know if you’re familiar with Texas, but in these small towns they have these old court houses that look very Bavarian and atmospheric. And Stephin kind of looks over at it and he’s kind of delirious from tour and it’s a little too early for him, and he just starts riffing on how Mad King Ludwig went around Texas sending out his Ludwigettes that were like spores and they built these castles all over. It’s some sort of crazed Busby Berkeley-extension of his brain and you’re like, Oh! It just didn’t work out in the film, but that’s one of my favorite moments, because he’s just being himself, which is sort of a mind at play.
So you said you guys were waiting around for something to happen and nothing ever did, but of course you do get kind of this dramatic thing at the end when Stephin decides to move to L.A. Claudia is clearly pretty distraught at him leaving. It’s sad, but it’s also serendipity for the film. What was your reaction when that started happening?
My filmmaker instincts went into high gear – can you picture Stephin Merritt in the sunshine of California? It’s just incomprehensible. Is this really happening? And what does that mean for the band and Claudia? I could tell that she was worried. It’s sort of funny because it was a shock to them and a hard transition, more so than they were able to reveal on camera and yet, now that it’s several years behind them, they’re like, “Eh, it worked out.” They talk just as much. They’re in just as close collaboration, so in some ways things haven’t really changed. And Stephin still has an apartment here, so he’s in New York a lot. I think that was definitely like, “Yay something’s happening,” but at the same thing we couldn’t really shoot too much of their personal life. It was sort of like this Catch 22.
In the middle of the last decade, a series of comments Stephin had made about rap and race led to several music critics accusing him of being a racist–an incident that gets recounted at length in the film. I was surprised to see those charges get such a thorough airing in a general-interest documentary about a band that’s been around for over 20 years.
Well, I just felt morally, the fact that someone’s reputation–he’s not Henry Kissinger. He’s not a statesman. He’s a songwriter, and the fact that his reputation was besmirched in this way, that I can go Google and the third thing that comes up is that headline from that Salon article: “Is Stephin Merritt a racist because he doesn’t like hip-hop?” [Ed: Slate, May 9, 2006: “If you don’t like rap, are you a racist?”] What an assault when he’s kaleidoscopic in his musical tastes. It was so wrong and immoral, and it had never fully been cleared up. No one had put a face to the words that were said. And of course Jessica Hopper refused to be on camera, so she doesn’t put a face to it. Sasha Frere-Jones had the guts to apologize–and, you know, more power to him, it shows a lot of integrity on his part. But I just felt like–Stephin can’t fuel the fire. So he can’t really defend himself–it’s this horrible position. Not that he asked me to. I think they would have preferred that we had not put it in the film at all. But I just felt strongly that that was a big question, and it left this sort of dirty feeling about his music that was wrong.
Although you do, earlier in the film, include a part where Stephin says, about writing to techno and other kinds of boring music in clubs, as he does: “I have difficulty writing to hip-hop because it’s actually a little too boring.”
But that’s not an issue of racism, that’s an issue of musical taste. He’s going to like Lena Horne, not Billie Holiday. He’s not going to be interested in James Brown the way he’s going to be interested in Dionne Warwick–I don’t know if those are his tastes exactly, but he’s interested in a particular pop, smooth, crafted sensibility. He’s not really interested in stuff that’s booty-shaking, which I love and have a big collection myself personally, but that’s just not his interest. And I think that’s actually where the divide happens with him and Sasha Frere-Jones, because I think Sasha’s taste is very much in that roots music, blues, African American musical traditions that are much more raw and raucous.
There’s something perverse as a filmmaker and producer about making a full-length documentary about a band that is as relatively small and unknown as the Magnetic Fields.
It’s true and yet the people that do know them are very well placed. It’s like the intellectual elite are fans. Writers, the press, film festival programmers, people who are really creative artists themselves in their own field, respond to this music. It’s almost like what gets filtered down because I’m always so grateful when people turn me on to new, great stuff. I feel like everyone’s on a mission: “Let’s have good stuff out there” because there’s a lot of crap out there.
I think it’s Claudia’s line in the film about how the typical Magnetic Fields fan is a New York Times reader, which I thought was pretty funny.
It’s funny, it shows. If I’m going to a screening at a festival, it’s like, “Oh, they’re coming to the movie.” I can pick them out. I’m part of that class as well. I certainly can be identified the same way.