MAGNETIC FIELDS: Stephin Merritt

Dancing Queen: Stephin Merritt bares his comedy breasts
Hearsay #17 / 1998 / Interview with Anna Domino

"As a gay man I consider it my vocation to understand, almost exactly, Eartha Kitt"

In just-Spring of last year, when Stephin Merritt (gravitational core of electrolegends Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies and the 6ths) spawned a new project, The Future Bible Heroes, Hearsay attempted to speak to him. Alas, the impending album was subjected to more scheduling and rescheduling (by two separate record companies) than an episode of Noel's House Party. Stephin gamely mimicked this prevarication by being in London and being not in London within the space of several minutes.

Plan Two: call up our hospitable pal Anna Domino (interviewed in #14b and a twelfth of the 6ths) and get her to pop some questions at her collaborator in the spirit of Interview magazine. The recording and transcription of their discussion was hampered by an alarmingly combustible dictaphone paying its own quiet homage to Mission: Impossible hence occasional ellipsis and illogic but it all makes sense if you let it [the transcript was stitched together from fragments in good faith; we hope it does justice to Stephin’s comments]. The Future Bible Heroes release Memories of Love is out in the US on Slow River records and will finally be released here in April on Setanta

So, there he is, at a favorite 'dank bar' (dark, pressed tin ceiling, few lights beyond the permanent Christmas strand behind the bar, carved-up tables, dog, empty otherwise). Stephin announces that he feels like real alcohol and orders Pimms...

ANNA DOMINO How did you get involved in music?

STEPHIN MERRITT I don't know, how did you get involved in eating? My first instrument was a turntable. We always had tape recorders around the house, a reel-to-reel. I love in movies when they put on a reel-to-reel to listen to music, the very latest in technology.

Are the traffic-choked streets of NYC conducive to living and writing?

I majored in landscape studies and cars are the perfect use of the landscape. In New York I'm in the unfortunate position of feeling it's my duty to know everything going on as I work at Time Out [the New York version]. But I always knew what was going on a week before, so I was out of sync. I'd show up at TKTS [theatre ticket dealership] and wait in line and it wasn't out yet. I moved to New York to do the 6ths, to be near all those musicians that sing and play in New York, which consists of Dean Wareham and Anna Domino. On the new 6ths record everyone is in Paris, London and Tokyo. So here I am paying two times rent, or not paying, as I'm three months behind. And, lest you get the wrong opinion, the IRS has seized my royalties.

How compatible are the roles of music-maker and music-critic?

I just think of them as different jobs in the same field. As far as I know nobody has ever bought a record because I recommended it. People have stayed away from records because I said they were trashy. But nobody's ever said 'Oh, I bought this record because you recom­mended it in Time Out NY'.

The image of going dancing recurs in your writing. Is dancing an escape? Are you running away from something (and if so are you wearing proper shoes)?

I always wished to disguise myself, but I'm too obvious. And I look preposterous in drag. I went to Danceteria [80s club] for six months in 6-inch platforms—learned how to walk up flights of stairs—with a pink paisley housecoat from Woolworth's. I paired it with a mink thing. I know it was a mink because a lady said, with insult, "do you know you're wearing a mink?" —probably stolen from her car earlier that evening... I thought I was monstrously ugly as a teenager, and so I wore clothes that could only be taken as a joke. But sometimes kids took it seriously and would come up and say, "ha ha ha you look like Madonna." And I thought, yes, Madonna has begun wearing what I did six months ago. Those conical breasts I was wearing, or one of, six months ago...

But wearing shoes is not entirely about walking around. If you're really fashionable, people will carry you in and out of the silver orb you've built to drive across the country. And on horseback it doesn't really matter what you have on your feet as long as there's some kind of spur...

Are you a technophile?

The equipment I own consists of electric keyboards and plucked strings and 'exotic' percussion. Also, Modular and Prophets and a Vocoder that won't vocode. My philosophy of synth-buying is look for the wood and you'll find a good machine. When I make a sample it's always of a wooden instrument. The ear wants the complex resonance of wood... [Stephin scans a lone customer at the bar] According to my Gaydar, he's either gay or from Northern California...

Do you enjoy working within the limitations imposed by the home recording environ­ment? Would you leap at the chance of going in to the studio with a full orchestra, say?

I work at home but when I do go into a studio the results are the same. I don't want to sing. I don't know what I'd do with an orchestra but I like to work within limits. I'm sure I would prefer to work within my limitations even if there were more limitations. That's what's fun in 'Pop'. Limitations are the soul of 'Pop'. People with a certain level of skill have to impose limitations on themselves or suffer chaos. People who failed to impose limitations... Orson Welles's The Trial, how could that fail? I can't think of a musical example... David Bowie, yes, 80s post-RCA... people without limitations are just making chaos.

Do you find honesty in simplicity?

No, I find integrity in simplicity. If it wouldn't spoil it for you I'd have an arranger, producer and singer on every song, like Carole King.

Where do you locate yourself in the landscape of contemporary music? Do you fit in?

I use a collage of music 'post-form', I'm getting earlier and earlier. Someone like Brian Eno has a gift for the obvious I wish I had. It's not that I'm not dumbed down enough, it's the breaks of the music industry. I've done a number of things wrong. Being openly gay is not a good idea—not that kd lang has done any proselytizing to the masses... why am I so angry at her?

What are you listening to now?

Irving Berlin. I get compared to Cole Porter — I don't like that. I like mathematics. Music in its purest form. So I prefer Bach to Mozart. I feel classicism should explain. Wouldn't it be lovely if mathematics were all there was to music?

Will the band names you've used eventually spell something?


Later, in the erstwhile home of AD up above New York, sitting on a window ledge and drinking vodka... It's dark, but for candles, and noisy from a festival in nearby Little Italy. He attempts to go over some of the questions sent from Hearsay HQ from the start...

Are you a good collaborator? Although the 6ths involves all manner of people and you've helmed no fewer than three bands, there's a strong sense that all the results are filtered through your perspective...

I do work with a full band, but I don't collaborate very well. I have much stronger opinions than most other people.

So you're an old grump.

Well, I was once a young grump, but I was still a bad collaborator.

[At this point the candles begin to flicker and Stephin remarks as how they don't like the word 'chaos' so he says 'order, order, order'. And the room is filled with light.]

Do you enjoy hearing other singers vocalise your songs?

I would certainly prefer to hear Dionne Warwick sing Burt Bacharach songs than Burt... they mean a lot more when she does. When the Shirelles sing Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow it means a lot more than it does when Carole King sings it or Jerry Goffin, though I haven't heard his voice... Maybe he's a great singer... Maybe that's not an answer.

Are you comfortable with your own voice?

I could speak more from the front of my mouth but I sound ridiculous. [in a voice forced, jovial and eerily familiar:] Speech classes pretend it's the nineteen-twenties! The value of a low voice is people take seriously what you say even when you're trying to be humorous. So that everyone with a low voice is said to have a dry sense of humour.

Which dream singers would you consider stalking for your next project?

Dream singers I'd like to work with? Eartha Kitt? I saw her recently and she does exactly the same schtick that she did 40 years ago and I won't comment... I would like to work with her because she means something. If you were singing the laundry list she would make it sound like the Sex Kitten Laundry, and she is not a sex kitten... in the traditional sense. I don't know how wrong I am but as a gay man I feel like it's almost my vocation to understand, almost exactly, Eartha Kitt. I may not understand it but I may identify with it more than if I were, certainly, a straight man. And possibly a black straight man, I don't know. It's not like I think I understand Lena Horne. It's something about the larger-than-life camp icon that Eartha Kitt is, whether she wants to think so or not. She is so tenacious! Eartha Kitt is still performing and most of her generation is not.

[Then there's a sidetrack to Nina Simone... which, like all Nina Simone stories, we are not allowed to divulge]

[again] Do you think your songs try to find honesty in simplicity?

Balderdash. I don't understand the question. I think the most honest thing in the world is coming up with extremely personal songs with very idiosyncratic music that perfectly expresses your soul. I don't think honesty is a value in music or any other art form.

But simplicity is an honest aim. If you're going to aim at honesty then you have to acknowledge the complexity that is us. All that noise.

How would you be a dishonest minimalist? By connecting notes that were actually extraneous?

Stephin suddenly goes off on the view: the I.R.S. building, the police condo... When AD first moved here the 'Police Building' was abandoned except for scores of guard dogs that would raise hell at 5pm (feeding time) and people tossed them hamburgers from the next roof.

Stephin: "Why didn't they just let them die?"

AD: "'Cause they were puppies."

Stephin: "Puppies, oh you can't do that, that's quite true. If their paws and eyes are bigger than the rest of them..."

The racket from the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy wafts over...

There are a million stories in the naked city...

And this is one of them.

Who do you belong to ethnically?

I've never had any ethnic affiliations. My ethnic makeup is Irish and German and I don't think I approve of either Irish or German solidarity. If the Irish were left to govern themselves they would have an extremely oppressive government. For the sake of the freedom of individuals in Ireland I would rather they were governed by the British. Catholicism and democracy aren't all that compatible. But then again the Germans aren't Catholic... I'm all for the freedom of the individual. Democracy is not exactly the same thing but it's a step in that direction... But the candles don't like that one whit! There should be as little government as possible so that freedom of the individual should be unimpeded by other individuals. We now know the political affiliation of the candles: Anarcho-Libertarian!

The 6ths embodies all manner of curious folk, from singer-songwriters to the more heavily alternative. How did you arrive at the line-up?

Anna, do you consider yourself 'heavily' alternative?

I found myself with one hand frozen in a bag and missing an ‘ist'. Am I terminally alternative?

And what is this bag?... Heavily alternative snares. Most of the singers were drawn from college radio and they were chosen by Claudia Gonson, my manager, not by me. I like this process, it keeps it game-like. And I think the 6ths is, and should be, a game. The new one, however, somewhat accidentally, will be less rock. Which is good because the music I'm doing is. There are songs that are just piano and voice... A lot more 20s than 50s.

So what is this thing you have between Cole Porter and Irving Berlin?

Well, I like Irving Berlin because he was not trying to write outside of cliche, he was trying to write the best possible... cliche. Whereas Cole Porter was trying to show off how clever he was and I'm much more enchanted by music that's emotional rather than music that displays its intelligence. I really don't care about the intelligence of a songwriter.

Cleverness and emotion are two sides of the same coin, no?

Well, I have known really stupid people who are not capable of a full range of emotion. Nevertheless, I've known a lot of very smart people who are also not capable of a full range of emotion. I wait for psychology to fill the gap. That's not my job. Yesterday I learned that Claudia knows almost nothing about architecture and can't identify any of the work of IM Pei even though she lived in Boston for most of her life. And I thought, I should lend Claudia some books. Then I thought, which books? Why should Claudia know anything about architecture? Why does everybody need to know ? However intelligent she is I can't think of any reason that Claudia needs to know anything about architecture. She is perfectly capable of living in buildings and walking into buildings and being fairly sure that they are not going to fall down without knowing the slightest thing about fine art architecture. And summarily I don't think people need to know about the structure of music. People should be able to know nothing about music and everything about how to experience Irving Berlin and not get Cole Porter at all and, for me, Cole Porter is like Noel Coward: just a prissy show-off.

Have you ever been to Las Vegas?

I am dying to go to Las Vegas.

Don't die to go to Las Vegas.

And he tackles the Concert Master Electronic Accordion that sits in the middle of AD's now empty loft. Stephin lets off a few resounding chords and leaves. AD moves to the desert.

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