Interview: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

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The Magnetic FieldsStephin Merritt has written hundreds of love songs. His seemingly effortless ability to write tunes that tap into the bliss and melancholia that come into play with our desire for love is what makes him challenge himself with new and inventive ways on how to present his craft.

Five years after releasing his ambitious masterpiece “69 Love Songs,” The Magnetic Fields resumed their progress, stripping their sound of all synthesizers, an instrument that had been an essential component to the group’s early work. On 2004’s “i”, they made a “soft rock” record, recreating the organic textures of their live show. 2008’s “Distortion” found the band drenching their songs in a sea of feedback à la The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Psychocandy,” while 2010’s “Realism” emulated the world-folk recordings of Judy Collins.

Now with their synth-less trilogy behind them, Merritt has garnered a new set of toys for new album “Love at the Bottom of the Sea.” Creating a wall of textured sounds with a wide array of cutting edge keyboards, they’ve created a record that returns to the aesthetic of their roots, without retreading any familiar territory…well aside from the lyrical content, which is another round of amusing, lovelorn ditties.

We recently spoke with Stephin, who gave us some details about the new record, along with answering some curiosities about the band’s past, and the miracles of auto-tune. Here’s what we got out of him in detail:

This is a totally synth based album like the majority of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘90s work, but it sounds a lot different than “Holiday” and “The Charm of the Highway Strip.” What would you say your approach was to this record that is different than its predecessors?

Stephin Merritt: I liked to avoid using the synthesizer to make notes. A lot of the electronics [on the album] are making unpitched sounds. Almost all of the drums on the record are synthetic and most of the songs feature some chaotic element that destabilizes the form….like a repeated chorus will have a repeated sound over it which is basically drowning out the vocal, but it’s okay because you know what the vocal is doing because it’s a repeated chorus.

This is getting a little technical but can you tell me a few of these new synths you’re working with?

SM: Sure. For example on “Andrew in Drag,” the first sound you hear is the Dewanatron Beat Melody Gin, and on “All She Cares About is Mariachi,” what sounds like galloping horses is the FolkTek Micro Garden. The effect on Claudia’s voice on “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” is extremely new…it actually came out the day we mixed it.

How do you decide who sings what?

SM: That’s pretty much the last thing that happens. So it’s basically what key the song happens to be in. Some songs just wouldn’t work. I mean some songs just wouldn’t work being sung by the other gender, but a lot of times we just ignore that.

What keys are best suited for you, Shirley Simms, and Claudia Gonson, respectively?

SM: Unfortunately all of us sing best in G [laughs]. Claudia can sing a little higher than Shirley can, I obviously can sing lower than anyone else in the history of pop music. Shirley can sing a lot louder than Claudia can, etc.

Shirley sang on “69 Love Songs” but wasn’t present on “i,” or its accompanying tour. What brought her back into the fold on “Distortion”?

SM: Well, we thought of “69 Love Songs” as having guest vocalists, and on “i,” we wanted to pare back to just the touring band and make a soft rock record. But then when I sang all of “Distortion,” we realized it would be a lot better if the voice changed more….vastly improving the album…and really everyone’s favorite Jesus and Mary Chain songs are the ones with female vocals.

When you pen an album’s worth of songs, do you have the intention of pursuing a certain production aesthetic while you’re writing, or do you just put it through the filter later?

SM: In the case of “Distortion” and “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” they were not written with any production style in mind, and that’s true of most of the songs on “Realism” as well. I like to blindly ignore the genre when I produce the record.

How have these new songs translated to your live format?

SM: We’re still working on that.

After “The Wayward Bus,” you began singing lead vocals in The Magnetic Fields, but your voice was typically buried in the mix until “69 Love Songs.” Do you feel you’ve become more confident as a singer as the years have gone on, or do you feel that there’s another component to your vocals becoming more in front?

SM: It was absolutely crucial to “69 Love Songs” that the vocals be audible at all times without a lyric sheet. Everyone in the world has more confidence in their vocals now that we have Auto-tune. Because nowadays you can get the best take in terms of the feel of the song rather than the best take just by pitch.

So you regularly use Auto-tune?

SM: Yeah, I mean I don’t splatter it on. I use it to correct things…to correct awkward pitches. I actually sometimes use Auto-tune to introduce more variety. Not necessarily the correct pitch. You can use to it make things a little sharp, which introduces more energy. I am not a singer who does sharp. Like [Soft Cell’s] Marc Almond, who is more of a classical singer — his vibrato is deliberately sharp in the pitch. Generally I’m either flat or spot on. So what Auto-tune does is provide me the ability to sing sharp.

Are there any styles you’ve thought about doing a whole record in that you haven’t ventured into yet?

SM: I used to think I should just make a Stereolab record. I have Farfisa organs and Moog synthesizers and guitar, bass, and drums, and that’s pretty much what they use. I have in my house the technology for which to make a Stereolab record.

Your songs are rarely, if ever, personal, but you have written songs in the past that were based on real things you saw and heard. For instance, I read that the song “Xavier Says” was based on something you overheard in a gay bar. Is there anything on “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” that is based on first person experiences?

SM: [On “Xavier Says”] It’s not a single conversation, but a whole set of conversations typical of the Rawhide bar in Chelsea, incorporating actual quotations. I’m sure [the line] “don’t make me cut you” is taken from some television show but not owning a television I don’t know where such things come from.

The phrase “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” came straight from the caption on the television that was playing at my local bar. It was “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where an unfortunate woman was telling about when her husband died, that he had a secret pied-a-terre, and a whole other family she had no idea about, and the story went on and on. In my short pop song version, we find out at the end that she’s a lunatic and a very unreliable narrator.

Your sound live is often quite different from the studio records, yet it complements them very well. Have you ever considered releasing a live album?

SM: I don’t like live records….When we made “Realism” it was done in the sense that it would be like how we sound live. So that’s the live record.

In the documentary, “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields,” you said you occasionally get recognized where people will often ask, “Hey, 69?”, to which your token response is “No, thanks.” Do you find since the release of the film that this happens more often?

SM: Actually, since I stopped shaving, nobody recognizes me at all.

“Love at the Bottom of the Sea” is now out on Merge, which is The Magnetic Fields’ first record with the label since “69 Love Songs” in 1999. Check out the video for the single, “Andrew in Drag,” below.

The Magnetic Fields – “Andrew in Drag”