The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt on songwriting, the Spice Girls, and hating John Lennon's "Imagine"

The Magnetic Fields' frontman and songwriter Stephin Merritt can be best described as the Eeyore of indie pop. Perhaps it is his deep, baritone voice or melancholy, yet clever, lyrics that suggests there's a little raincloud following him constantly. In many interviews Merritt is notorious for long pauses, short answers, and dry responses. To our surprise, he was very pleasant and had a lot to say regarding his songwriting, drinking habits, why John Lennon's "Imagine" is his least favorite song, and an interview with the Spice Girls. 

As a lead-up to tonight's show at First Avenue, Gimme Noise got a chance to chat with Stephin Merritt the day after Halloween from his home in Hudson, New York. Living two hours outside New York city, he only experienced mild weather from the Hurricane.

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[jump] Gimme Noise: What inspires your writing the most?

Stephin Merritt: Alcohol.

You like to write in bars?

I used to write in bars and cafes but now my caffeine tolerance has gotten so terrible that I can really only write in bars. If I had a cup of coffee I would have a heart murmur... or a heart thingy, whatever that's called. I went to all of the gay bars in L.A. and realized which ones I could and couldn't write songs in, and the ones I could and couldn't stand to be in.

What makes for a good songwriting bar?

The music has to be not too loud, and ideally the music is something I've heard all my life and that I'm totally familiar with, so I'm not going to be listening intently for having a new experience. Rap is hard to write to. Not hip-hop, but rap in particular. I write best to melody that I'm hearing. I'm not good with rap or metal or industrial music or nothing at all. It's best for me to sit in a room and hum a melody. I'm not describing music I like, I'm just describing what I like to write songs to. I absolutely never listen to this music at home, because I hear it for hours on a day.

Do you drink a lot when you write?

I don't actually drink a lot when I'm writing, usually. I drink Cognac which you have to sip very slowly. I can't actually drink a lot, I'm 5' 3", I would fall down and go to sleep. I just drink really slowly.

I heard you don't remember writing "Andrew in Drag". Are there any other songs you don't remember off of Love at the Bottom of the Sea?

Right. That's the exception of the rule. [I remember] Everything except "Andrew in Drag."

Do you consider writing drunk and writing sober to be very different styles?
I can't write drunk, and I rarely write entirely sober. I think just a little bit of tipsiness is a great asset for turning off that super ego that tells you to Google every title you can think of, because someone might have thought of it before. Of course someone has thought of it before, who cares?

How much do you actually write on paper? Do you scribble every thought or do you edit in your head first?

If I'm scribbling down everything that comes to mind, I'm in trouble. Sometimes I do that early on. When I'm on a real strict deadline, and I've got to get stuff done by tomorrow morning then I actually start out by writing down everything that comes into my little head, but usually not. I don't like wasting paper.

What kind of music do you listen to when you're not writing?

A lot of times I listen to experimental music that is harmonic or melodic. I've been into the Pauline Oliveros box set of her electronic tape pieces from the late '60s [Reverberations]. It's wonderful. Ten CDs worth of stuff. All these tape pieces are really different from each other. Pauline Oliveros was and is a main component of improvised electronic music. She actually helped invent tape echo. Kind of like what Robert Fripp would do for "frippertonics" -- getting tape wound around the room. Anyways, her new box set is great. I recommend it as record of the year, especially the 1964-69 [discs].

What is your least favorite song to listen to?

[long pause]There are so many choices. I think it would have to be John Lennon's "Imagine." It makes me want to shoot him. I violently object to the political sentiment and I also hate the piano playing. It's like being forced to read a greeting card very slowly [pause] at gunpoint [pause] in the Soviet Union in 19[pause]71... It's funny that a billionaire would say, "Imagine there's no possessions, I wonder if you can."

I guess it is an interesting song.

I don't think it's an interesting song at all, and I wish it would go out of print.

How many songs have you written in a day?

Never more than three.

When do you consider the song to be fully written? After you write the words down or after you record it?

Neither really. When it's released. I sang all of Distortion before we decided to have Shirley [Sims] sing half of it. It was all mixed and mastered and ready to go, and we decided to go back and do half of the lead vocals with Shirley singing it. So never think it's done until it's out.

Speaking of Distortion, you've got a lot of interesting sounds happening in the album. Do you create sounds through trial and error or are you fitting an idea in your head?

It's very much trial and error. I like unpredictability in my electronics. I do have fun with the electronic instruments that are just not very predictable. You'd tell it to play C, you can tell it to behave in a particular way, but it may or may not get around to playing C, but will probably play octaves and timbres you weren't expecting. That's what I like. I don't like synthesisers that behave like organs, because I already have organs. I like to characterize organs themselves. I don't need instruments that imitate other ones. I have those instruments.

How do you feel borrowing ideas and melodies from other songs?

Perfectly happy. [It's a] major artistic tool. Shakespeare wrote almost none of his plots.Build a structure and content will take care of itself.

How do you pick your setlist for playing live?

Arguments. We have weeks, sometimes months of arguments on the goddamn set list before we play live. It's a really an imperfect process.

Do you have to re-arrange your music?

Yes. Every song is a re-arrangement from the record to the way it is live.

How long does that process take?


What can Minneapolis expect from this show?

We're playing only Magnetic Fields songs as opposed to the 6ths, Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heros. We're playing a smattering of songs from every album that we've done. We're probably playing half of the new album. We're entirely acoustic except for one little electric keyboard, the pocket piano.

You have a condition known as hyperacusis, where any sound louder than normal sounds like feedback, is that the reason you play acoustically?

That's part of why, sure. It's more controllable, I know what it's going to sound like. Just strumming an acoustic guitar, there's only so many things that can go wrong. If you strum an electric guitar there's an infinity of sounds that might come out. [It's] a lot harder to control live than an acoustic guitar. It's fewer decisions to make...because there's already too many decisions to make. Ditto with ukulele and the cello.

Well thanks for being so pleasant, I was admittedly a little concerned from reading your past interviews. You used to be a journalist for TimeOut New York, have any stories from that?

I have had scary interviews before. The Spice Girls were really horrible to me. I interviewed both of the Mels, Mel B and Mel C, over the phone. I was having problems with the tape deck, which happens like every third interview. People should be used to it, but they were not, they thought I was grossly incompetent because I was having problems with the machine, like everyone does. And they tried to turn around and be all funny and girl power-y, it just didn't work. So I printed everything they said.

Check out The Magnetic Fields tonight in the First Avenue Mainroom. 18+, $30, 7 pm. Purchase tickets here.

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