The leader of pop-music juggernauts like the Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes talks about his music and his place in the entertainment world.
Singer/songwriter/genius Stephin Merritt has crafted dozens of pop gems as the leader of The Magnetic Fields, The Sixths, Future Bible Heroes and Gothic Archies. Before going on tour with Yo La Tengo, Merritt spoke to The Onion about writing, producing and recording his music; his definition of uncool; why sampling is a necessity; and 1963.
The Onion: Going on tour soon?
Stephin Merritt: Um… yeah. As The Magnetic Fields, not Future Bible Heroes.
O: The difference being…?
SM: The Future Bible Heroes record [Memories Of Love] is an album of pop songs in the electro-pop tradition with two singers—me and Claudia (Gonson). The instruments were done by Christopher Ewen, and I wrote the lyrics and vocal melodies. I sang on some and Claudia sang on some.
O: How is that different from making a Magnetic Fields record?
SM: Oh, I make the Magnetic Fields records [myself]. Claudia plays drums for some of them, and does background vocals, and sometimes does other things—like on Get Lost, she played ukulele. Claudia's a classically trained pianist, and she can play better keyboard lines than I can. She also, because she's primarily a drummer, sometimes plays rhythmic lines that need to be steadier than I can play them. Except for lead guitar, Claudia can play basically anything I can play. She has that hidden contribution. We can refer to her as a drummer, though.
O: How do you decide to make one Magnetic Fields record different from another?
SM: You know, other people seem to find them all very much the same. I'm mystified by that. I find them all very different. The Charm Of The Highway Strip I set out to be about country music. There was one review of Charm which basically said the record was a total waste of time, and that I never should have tried to replicate country music. I didn't think I was trying to replicate it. I was just trying to adjust it enough so that I could make different sounds which would replace traditional country sounds. I wasn't trying to change it, to do an interpretation of it. Also, that reviewer doesn't understand that the things he thought were guitars were synthesizers. And this reviewer wasn't stupid; he's quite intelligent, actually… Excuse me, this phone…
O: Are you on a cordless phone?
SM: Yes. Aren't they horrible? Such a stupid invention. They're a bad idea. I can never find the phone.
O: Plus, people can hear you coming over their radios.
SM: Yes. I never say anything on the phone that I don't want the world to know… There. Where were we with the interview part?
O: Did you try to do something specific with each of your records?
SM: I can describe them as I see them, if you want. Distant Plastic Trees is a small record, intentionally small, influenced by the Young Marble Giants, an electro-pop record. The Wayward Bus: The first half is influenced by Phil Spector; it's a comment about Phil Spector songs. The second half is whatever I had lying around. Most people listen just to the first half of the record and assume it's all like that, a Phil Spector tribute or something, which it really isn't. The House Of Tomorrow EP has no synthesizers, just keyboards, drums-guitar-bass-cello. All looped songs, one chord progression over and over. No deviation. Holiday is synthesizer, almost all manually played, no MIDI. Charm Of The Highway Strip is an album of travel songs, road songs, which is necessarily an album about country music, alternating between all-electronic and Phil Spector-style, [with] dozens of instruments layered on top of each other. People keep telling me that everything on Charm Of The Highway Strip sounds the same, and I point out to them that every other song on Charm Of The Highway Strip sounds the same. But there are definitely two different short records literally alternating all record long between two different things. Get Lost is all over the place intentionally, because I really liked the Pavement record Westing (By Musket And Sextant), until I realized that it really was a compilation instead of just sounding like a compilation. I loved the fact that every minute it would completely change, as if it weren't the same band and there was a completely different way of recording every few minutes. The fact is that it is what that record is, so my replication turned out to be a little more work than I had to do. So I recorded it in a lot of different ways and recorded it in a lot of different styles, from rock to new-wave dance songs to ukulele… Irving Berlin-type front-porch serenades on ukulele. The Sixths record, Wasp's Nests, is an intentionally indie-rock record, although it came out on a major label, with indie-rock singers singing my songs. I'm working on another one right now.
O: With the same people?
SM: Different people. I can't talk about the people beforehand, because the legal stuff has not been completed yet.
O: Is it true that you asked the singers on Wasp's Nests to sound bored out of their minds while they sang?
SM: Well, not out of their minds, no. Not really really bored, just bored.
O: How often do you, and your band in one of its incarnations, actually play live?
SM: There would be lots of problems if we tried to duplicate the records at all. It would cost a great deal of money and time to duplicate the record live, and the records are also considerably electronic and would therefore be boring to watch. So what we do is have two guitarists, a cello and drums. We don't try to sound especially full or large. I saw… I believe it was the Charlatans, or the Chameleons, at CBGB, and they sounded exactly like their record, only much louder, of course. And I was really impressed by that. I'd never heard someone sound so exactly like their own recording before. But evidently they record their records so they can sound exactly like them, using the same equipment live as they do in the studio. They sound precisely the same. Right down to the echo, just like the record. To do that myself I'd have to spend all of my time in the studio, and they probably do spend all of their time in the studio.
O: What do you yourself listen to most?
SM: What I listen to most would probably be ABBA. An important band. And basically the people who are doing what I'm doing, which is plagiarize. Stereolab, for instance. There are dozens of people who are sampling and then rapping over the samples, but I don't do any rapping. There's no reason to add anything new if you just take from a few different sources. If you sample George Clinton, and you layer George Clinton on top of that, you're going to end up with a record that sounds like George Clinton, and what's more, you're going to give George Clinton all of your royalty money. But if you sample the Hilliard Ensemble, it's not going to sound all that familiar. I think records should sound somewhat familiar. They should grapple with what's gone before. Right now, there's been no new technology in music for the first time in a long time. There's been nothing new for three or four years, and three or four years before that there was something trivially new, a MIDI control tilter, which Daft Punk uses all the time. There being no new technology, we have only the old stuff to recombine all the time in hopefully slightly new ways.
O: So you're forced to be an electro-pop traditionalist.
SM: In electro-pop there is only tradition now. There is no innovation. There's no cutting edge. Do you have a candidate? Can you think of anything even remotely new? You can be dumb as a doornail and know there's nothing new at all right now.
O: Perhaps you noticed that Entertainment Weekly chose electronica as the next big thing.
SM: Well, it's still new in that it isn't popular in the U.S. Entertainment Weekly standards of new are probably not my own.
O: And your standards of new, or cool, are…?
SM: Well, a few months ago I thought the idea of cool had completely died. But then I started listening to all the records that I get in the mail for free, and I realized that there are some people and some things that are really, really uncool. You don't actually appreciate cool until you've heard uncool. There are some industrial bands who think they're the new J.D. Salinger. [They think] that aggression and dissonance are still avant garde, when in fact, they sound like it's 1981—or they haven't listened to anything since 1981, but their producer has, unfortunately. I don't want to single out industrial bands as particularly uncool, because there are plenty of popular bands that are uncool. Alanis Morrisette is obviously uncool. She's popular because she's uncool. Erasure. Most people who are successful are fairly, marginally, cool in some way. But there are lots of people who are not successful because everyone knows how uncool they are. Whitney Houston is in touch with her gospel roots, as we now know from The Preacher's Wife soundtrack. She may not be the coolest person in the world, but she's not completely clueless, although there are lots of people who are completely clueless. I try to be like Sarah Cracknell, the lead singer of St. Etienne. She's sexy and hip, she cares what people think because she likes people and she wants them to be happy, not because she's afraid. I want to fashion my records out of what people's expectations have been in the past, and usually not what they are now. Sarah could easily fit in back in 1963, but she always seems contemporary.
O: Do you try to live your life so that you could have fit in in 1963?
SM: I would have been very unhappy. Being gay, for example, would have been a huge problem in 1963. Also, the technology that I use wouldn't have been around. A lot of it was around in 1973, and almost all of it was around in 1983.
O: What do you spend your time doing? What are your recreational drugs of choice?
SM: Alcohol. I don't like marijuana. I've done ecstasy a few times, and that mostly makes you realize the next day that it was a mistake. I did acid once, and I lost my keys. That's my entire drug history. Oh, and I had morphine, but it was in the hospital, and I had some weird reaction to it.
O: Twice you've mentioned that you wrote songs about songs—songs about Phil Spector songs and about country songs. How is that different from writing an actual country song, or a Phil Spector pop album?
SM: That's a pretty involved question… Um, well, those genres are really pretty tightly confined, and I'm not in the situation those people are in. I'm not in Nashville. I'm not with country pedal-steel players and fiddlers doing it the way they do it every day, a pedal-steel player who knows to make just the right ghostly slide into the chorus. In my case, if I write and record one of these songs, it's completely out of context. If I write a song for Ronnie Spector to be produced by Phil Spector, it's not going to happen. I have to do it myself. And if I write a dance-pop hit, it's not going to be a dance-pop hit. So, basically, anything I do is just going to be something like those things. It can only pretend to be something else. And it almost always does pretend to be.
O: Then how do you actually go about writing Stephin Merritt songs? Do you consider yourself primarily a lyricist?
SM: I suppose I consider myself primarily a songwriter. I'm involved with both lyrics and music, intertwined, usually. The lyrics are about the same thing the music is about, usually. They comment on each other, and if I wrote one without the other, like I did on the Future Bible Heroes record, it wouldn't mean the same thing. Which it doesn't on the Future Bible Heroes record.
O: Do you prefer to sing yourself, or have other people sing?
SM: I prefer to have other people sing, because it's a lot easier to judge how well they're doing. Everybody hates the sound of their own voice when it's played back. My voice in my head sounds completely different from how it sounds recorded and played back on tape. I always have a horrible problem with interviews, for instance, done on the phone. I always sound like I hate the other person, like I'm on drugs, I sound dumb, I can't stand it. I naturally talk so slowly… I've only done one radio interview, and I hope I never have to do another one. It was on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and my speech didn't speed up at all.
O: Are you big in Canada?
SM: No. Our biggest fan base, for no apparent reason, is in Florida, where we've never played live. Odd.