Interview with the Vampire

An encounter with the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, the surliest conversationalist in indie-rock

The only thing I remember about 1998's MTV-produced Dead Man on Campus is the Corey Page character--a gloomy, suicidal death-rocker who in public moans on and on about the pain of living but in private is a Three Stooges fan who loves fuzzy slippers and show tunes. "Matt" goes on to become a huge smiley pop star, creating music that rivals Tiny Tim's in its sappy, contagious joy.

Like his fictional counterpart, Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt is a pretty good study of How to Be a Rock Star, though he hasn't yet become one. Merritt has cultivated a gloominess that might be informed by beret-wearing poet/artist caricatures on Saturday Night Live or Laverne & Shirley (the beatnik episodes). Yet somehow he manages to get some of the nicest and most interesting people in indie rock to collaborate with him, from Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley to Flare's LD Beghtol. In addition, he has written a surprisingly humane (and critically revered) three-CD opus truthfully advertised as 69 Love Songs, which compiles gems such as "Let's Pretend We're Easter Bunnies" and the comparatively unpolished "Punk Love" and "Love Is Like Jazz."

So he can't be all that bad, can he? Should we expect an album of silly cartoon music from him in the near future? Close enough: Merritt has written songs for Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete, with more Nick soundtracks in the works. He has his cute personal "hooks," too: His Chihuahua, Irving, appears in all Merritt press photos. Still, all his live shots show him chain-smoking cigarettes. "I've always had a deep voice," he says when I ask him if his one-to-two-pack-a-day habit has affected his singing. He speaks in a low, sonorous rasp over the phone from his New York apartment.

"My voice literally changed overnight when I was a teenager," he explains. "I was in the choir and everything, and in one day, my voice dropped an octave. I was four foot tall with this very deep voice, and every time I opened my mouth, people would laugh at me."

Unfortunately for your interviewer, and thus for you, I make the mistake of responding to this little anecdote by laughing at him, instead of delivering the apparently expected sympathetic response of, "Aww, poor Stephin." And so an already cool interview drops below zero.

Merritt, like alt-rock luminaries from Marilyn Manson to Patti Smith, first honed his attitude as a music critic, writing for New York's Time Out, and working as a copy editor at Spin. Music journalism and dreams of rock stardom often go hand in hand, in case you hadn't noticed--believe me, when you spend half your waking life listening to what makes music go, pretty soon you'll think you have an inkling of how to build the perfect music machine. And as author to some of the most acidic rock criticism to reach print, Merritt apparently decided he knew it all pretty early on. He has variously opined that there hasn't been a truly "studio-recorded" album since the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy and that Tom Waits is nothing but "an erudite wino who finds it so easy to write classic songs that he rarely bothers to do so." (He wrote that in Chickfactor Magazine last year.)

Merritt's acerbic wit truly shines in his interviews, however. He allows the music press to speak with him for the pure purpose of giving his former profession nothing to work with (as well as saddling said press with enormous phone bills with nothing to show for them but half an hour of insults and dead air). And he knows from experience that by doing this he will be seen as a challenge to other journalists who convince themselves that perhaps they can get something useful from him, that they will be the one mighty music writer who can get the perfect Stephin Merritt interview.

As it happens, my own Q&A tape is painful to listen to even the second time around. "What does that have to do with music?" he demands when I inquire about his personal life. "Are we still talking about music here?"

Ask him about his music, though, and you won't get any better. "Anyone who can reveal herself in 50 to 100 words is appallingly shallow and not worth revealing," he once said about why none of his songs are personal or reflective of himself (Magnet, January/February 2000). On other topics he's just as succinctly surly: His idea of a perfect day? "Lying in the bathtub watching the life ooze out of your wrists," he told Chickfactor magazine this year. His snubs go so far as to encompass his musical contemporaries as well. "I have no interest in remaining in the indie-rock ghetto," he told the Village Voice this March (although Britney Spears fans wouldn't know him from the copy editor at Spin). "I think indie rock is over."

But again, this is a show put on purely for the benefit of critics. With little or no radio play or appearances on MTV and less than 15,000 copies of 69 Love Songs sold, Stephin Merritt's work and name is meaningful only to the indie set. Perhaps this proves that there's no real connection between a musician's success and his interaction with the press: While people may like to read interviews, the deciding factor in buying a record or seeing a concert is always the actual music. You may be the nicest person in the world and the most sparkling conversationalist, but if your band sucks crap through a straw, people aren't going to come out and see you play.

Confidential to Mr. Merritt: If you hate interviews, there isn't any point in doing them.

 
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