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The Magnetic Fields’ new album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea (Merge) is the first in more than a decade to feature the shimmering synthesizer lines for which the endlessly malleable indiepop icons first became known. As I learned when writing this week’s Voice profile of Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephin Merritt, he loves talking about the gear that helps him command those sounds—he gets downright giddy, which is both unexpected (given his cantankerous reputation) and endearing.
Below is a gear-centric excerpt from our conversation, which took place at an old-timey Greenwich Village restaurant that uses real anchovies in its Caesar salad, and where the waitress brought him his pasta before he even cracked open a menu.
How did the no-synth trilogy come about?
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. Because nothing happened in synthesizers in the intervening time, so they were being used, essentially, as electric organs. (Pause) And often, actually, instead of using actual synthesizers people were using samples of synthesizers, which just made it sound the same, only more boring. I think samples are useful, but terribly, terribly overused right now. And, certainly in 1999 they were. 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. Buchla, the manufacturer, has come out with a module called The Source of Uncertainty which allows you to control the randomness of voltages in several different, entertaining ways. And there’s the Dewantron instruments made by Brian Dewan and his cousin, Leon. They make a beautiful machine that allows you to dial knobs and flick switches and such with no interface that you would play in real time, figuratively. And the Melody Gin. You tell it how to behave and it sort behaves for you, but you can’t tell it to play a particular note.
It’s not too precise.
Mmmm, yeah, the idea of precision doesn’t even come into play. It’s…it’s very organic in the sense that it tends to sound like crowds of animals or plants doing something. Or, or a Cy Twombly painting rendered into sound.
Are you the type of person who really gets into the gear and figures out what it does, or is it something you use but don’t really obsess over?
I try not to be an obsessive collector. I have three Dewanatron instruments, but there’s a fourth one that I don’t have, and 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. So I’m in between. I have hundreds of instruments at this point.
Many of them are very small. Percussion instruments and such. But of instruments that play notes, I don’t know, I probably have under a hundred, but a lot. So I don’t know how I could possibly move my studio back to Manhattan. I don’t really spend any money except on instruments, so. (Extended pause) I do use them all.
How many ukuleles do you own?
About ten or so.
So, in about ten years you say—
—but they all sound different and they all do different things.
The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew In Drag”
How was it kind of diving back into this synthesizer arena and discovering what they can do now?
A great deal of fun, since they all do different things. They… they’re all surprising, y’know? And I miss being surprised. In the ’70s, every new record had a new sound on it that you’d never heard before. And now it’s very difficult to find new sounds. Even, um, Bjork or a Matmos record—several songs can go by without there being something you recognize as a sound you haven’t heard before. It’s just not presented that way. They… they try to integrate their new instruments into existing structures. I guess I miss the excitement when if there was a new Human League record, you’d never heard half the sounds on it before.
Were there times making the last three albums where you kind of missed it? Where you thought, “I’d really love to put something right here, but we have this rule”?
Well, I did use Farfisa organs on Distortion. So there were electric keyboards. That’s about it. No, I like the challenge of having to find another way of making an unusual sound.
So you say there’s no real plan or overworking theme going on for this one.
Only the inherent plan in knowing that it was after the no-synth trilogy, so it had to prominently feature synthizers. So almost all the percussion is done either with existing rhythm units or with the imaginary rhythm units that I set up by recording percussive sounds on stereo synthesizers. I don’t know how much real rhythm unit actually ended up on the album. I think it’s mostly percussive sounds played on existing synthesizers. A lot of the electronic sounds on the album are not synthesizers proper, or not traditional ones where you play a C on a keyboard and it goes through a filter and an envelope generator and a ring modulator. This is more either modular synthesizers, or things that aren’t really a synthesis approach to an oscillator. Like, one of the instruments—I think the one you hear on “God Wants Us to Wait”—is a CrackleBox, which is a little box that you play by connecting two circuits together with your thumbs and the more your thumbs touch the contacts… the wilder the static gets. (Merritt proceeds to mime playing the box with his thumbs.)
You just kind of make static?
Yeah, like (makes static noises with mouth) wwwwrrrrrrr…
Where do you find stuff like that?
Very fun music stores. Like Big City Music in L.A. Or there’s one on Haight Street in San Francisco that I’m forgetting the name of right now. Or Noisebug in Pomona. And a few things from East Village Music—there’s a nifty little percussion synthesizer, a standalone percussion synthesizer that, literally, you hit it and it goes “ping,” that I got at East Village Music.
Do you have music store owners calling you up and saying, “I got this new thing in; I don’t even know what it does, you’ll love it.”
Yes. (Pause) And I’m getting very tired of hearing, “You can’t have this one—Trent Reznor got it.” Because apparently we have the same tastes in, uh, instruments… only he’s faster than I am.
He’s a big fan of yours, so if you yell at him for taking your stuff, he’d feel pretty bad.
Well… I love his use of the Swarmatron on The Social Network soundtrack. Swarmatron is a Dewanatron instrument that not a lot of people own—me and Mr. Reznor, and I don’t know who else. It’s really not all that clear what you’re supposed to do with it. It’s a very, um, unique instrument. There’s a YouTube video of someone doing the THX theme; it sounds like a gigantic orchestra slowly going from chaos gradually coalescing into one big note. Or chord—not even a chord, a big note. That’s the Swarmatron: a great and beautiful instrument… with no keyboard. It would be very difficult to play in tune, like the Theremin was difficult to play in tune. I guess it helps to have great gear or be a trained violinist or cellist, which I am not.