Sea Faring
Frontiers speaks with The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt
Lawrence Ferber

Photos by Marcelo Krasilcic

His register deep and delivery unmistakable, The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt speaks in carefully measured and quite funny sentences. He sings in much the same way (albeit more rapid-fire) on ditties like new single “Andrew in Drag,” a catchy, first-person reflection about a doomed crush on a casual cross-dresser (“I’ll never see that girl again, he did it as a gag/ I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag”).

A Los Angeles-New York dual citizen in recent years, alternating between work with his prolific roster of bands (The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes) and theatrical productions (Neil Gaiman’s Coraline), Merritt was profiled in 2010’s documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.

Today we’re discussing the latest Fields album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, which boasts Merritt’s trademark wit, frequent collaborators/vocalists including Claudia Gonson and an arsenal of instruments and aural textures. Here, Merritt, who famously whips up his songs while hanging out at gay bars, provides a sort of track list commentary, dishes on SOPA and spices up the lot with a peppering of trademark snark. 

Stephin, the press release noted that all the songs on Love are under three minutes long. Coincidence or intentional?
The average length of the songs on the album is 2:15 and under. On Distortion all the songs were three minutes long. I wasn’t imposing a time limit. I was just writing short songs. I don’t believe in adding on eight more choruses at the end. Leave them wanting more. Like "Andrew In Drag" ends on a verse. The idea being 'play the song again.'

May the audience add on a chorus refrain themselves when you perform the songs in concert?
Yes, after I’m finished and [leave] the stage, they’re welcome to do whatever they like.

Did you use some new instruments on this album? The notes also point out that synthesizers have returned after a three-album absence.
Yeah. Almost everything is new. Except the percussion, [which] I made mostly with vintage synthesizers. There’s a little bit of Korg Sigma, which is a pretty obscure vintage one. But these are almost entirely new synthesizers. These didn’t exist when we were last using synthesizers.

Where else does this album deviate from the rest?
I guess in the chaotic bit. Most of the songs—or all—have elements of chaos. Disrupting the simple forms of the songs, the sounds.

As with 69 Love Songs, there is good bit of stylistic play here. Is there any musical genre you haven’t touched upon yet?
Hip-hop. Acid house. Mmm. Klezmer. And a million genres that are in other languages besides English. Mambo.

What’s the inspiration for "Andrew in Drag?" 
I read a lot about impossible love and difficult and unrequited love, and it’s a theme that concerns me personally. Like Cyrano De Bergerac and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I don’t think it was any particular situation, though.

The vengeful "Your Girlfriend’s Face" is one of the few pop songs to explicitly reference crystal meth in its lyrics.  
I never had it personally. I had ecstasy, but never meth. It wouldn’t be my thing. The song is autobiographical, though. Not in the sense I have in fact ordered a hit on someone, although I guess if I had I could still write a song about it and nobody would believe me, but I have had that revenge fantasy.

You could do that as a theme album. 69 Felony Songs. Would you?

No comment.

Is "The Horrible Party" about the GOP?
No. Nobody’s asked me that yet. No, it is not. It’s about parties and how horrible they are. I hate most parties because I have hearing trouble, they’re kind of a nightmare for me.

I also like the song "God Wants Us to Wait." Do you think those young religious folks actually say those words out loud while debating hot slutty action?
I think Mormon teenagers probably have it all worked out. It’s not like they didn’t know they were going to become Mormon teenagers. They discussed it as children probably.

"I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies." Did you watch True Blood with the faeries last season? It was silly.
I don’t own a television. The only thing I watch is Jeopardy with the sound off in bars. So I know all about Jason Keller. The Jeopardy bear.

How much has California changed you?
Not at all. I may have changed it, but I don’t think it’s changed me.

What were your thoughts on the failed SOPA? And for that matter, any efforts to stop piracy on the internet?  
Well, as an artist, I would like the internet to be closed down completely forever. It basically is piracy. As a person who is not entirely an artist, I am very happy there’s an internet. Although I have to say, playing Scrabble with friends online is a terrible social disease. And what’s worse is online dating. For gay culture. It stops us from going out. We just meet for sex and kick them out. I of course sit around imbibing alcohol for hours a day, so I’m not part of the problem.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge Records) will be released March 6. A tour also commences that month.

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