The Magnetic Fields
Move Songs About Love and Hate
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Since forming in 1990, The Magnetic Fields have proven they can play pretty much every genre of popular music. The band’s principal songwriter, Stephin Merrit, composes short, concise, catchy ditties and has employed a wide range of instruments beyond their typical applications. While he has long had a sweet tooth for electronic pop, on the group’s last three albums, he avoided using synthesizers altogether. But for the Fields’ latest, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, he has returned the band to its silicon roots (as well as its old label home, Merge). It may not be a magnum opus like 1999’s triple-album, 69 Love Songs, but the new record has everything you could possibly expect from a Magnetic Fields album, only in a condensed form that is more grown-up and clearer than any record before it. Merrit’s lyrics push the boundaries of wit and turn-of-phrase, nearing the realm of Wilde or Thurber. And while the lyrics definitely lead the music, the music carries each song smoothly over rocky patches that would cause lesser musicians to stumble . I talked with Merrit on the phone while he was between gigs, having recently shared a bill with Phillip Glass and now getting ready to tour in support of Love at the Bottom of the Sea.

You’re preparing to tour, have you played many of the new songs live yet?

Stephin Merrit We haven’t played anything live together yet, but I did “Andrew in Drag” live on radio in Europe. I played a few songs at Carnegie Hall for the Tibet House Benefit, and people laughed at the appropriate times during “Andrew in Drag.” There was no audible gasp when I used the word “fag,” which I was a bit worried about as it wasn’t a crowd of Magnetic Fields fans.

Magnetic Fields songs are, by nature, short and to the point. But how do you decide what is superfluous and warrants editing and what stays?

SM: Well, it’s not like there’s an existing 10-minute song and you have to whittle it down. Every song begins at point zero, so you have to build it up. Recently, I got curious about whether it’s true that my songs have been getting shorter and shorter, so I wrote down the average song length. My songs actually have not been getting shorter. The average song length on Love at the Bottom of the Sea is 2:15, which matches the average song length of Holiday. Those are the two shortest averages. The average song length of House of Tomorrow is 2:28. On Distortion, to my surprise because I did that album thinking they would all be three-minute songs, the average song length was 2:58.

If every song starts at zero and you build from there, do you have a particular method you like to use to build them?

SM: Repetition is the standard way. I try not to do repeated choruses unless there’s a good reason. I think this is a habit I got into from working for theater, wherein you just don’t do repeated choruses unless there’s a damn good reason to. You could always repeat it later in the show, if you really feel like it needs to be repeated.

There’s just no need for redundancy or repeating lines.

SM: Unless you’ve made it mean something akin to the music. Or unless the repetition means something, as is the case in any Kraftwerk song.

You’ve sort of had concepts for the last few albums...

SM: Well, not really. Distortion had no concept aside from a certain production style. It has a production style in the same way Psychocandy has a production style, but it is not a theme.

So it wasn’t exactly an idea you came up with and decided to write the songs to that style?

SM: No, in the case of Distortion, the only thing I had going before we started recording was I knew the songs were all going to be three minutes long. Then when we got to the studio, we decided to do it in the style of Psychocandy except updated, with not just guitars, but everything, except bass and drums, feeding back. We had, for instance, the feedback accordion and the feedback piano.

Was that s struggle to get the accordion to feedback?

SM: It was, in fact, a struggle to get the accordion to feedback. It turns out that if you tape the amplifier to the bellows—we used those little cigarette pack amplifiers—if you tape them to the bellows, then the feedback changes with the bellows position. So you can’t make the notes feedback, but you can make the dynamic feedback.

Was the “no-synth” trilogy a reaction to people pigeonholing you guys as a synth-pop band?

SM: Oh, I don’t know. I was bored with the way that synthesizers were being used at that time, basically as electric organs. I prefer actual electric organs; I have several of them. They’re actually built on acoustically based mechanisms, like little spinning wheels and such. I wanted to get rid of the synthesizer part of the pallet for a while until synthesizers changed. And they did technologically. Now we have a new breed—at least for me—a new breed of chaos manipulators, and I’m having great fun with them.

So even though Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a return to synths for you guys, it wasn’t exactly like you were returning to familiar territory.

SM: Oh no, completely unfamiliar territory. Well, largely unfamiliar, except that I did make all the percussion sounds on relatively traditional synthesizers, and in some cases actual drum machines.

As opposed to...

SM: As opposed to an actual drum kit. What I didn’t do was use much traditional electric percussion. You can identify a drum kit on only one song, “I’d Go Anywhere with You,” but other than that it is synthesizers being used to create bass drum–like, snare drum–like and hi-hat-like sounds.

As far as writing lyrics, do you write them first and then snap the music to it?

SM: I write the music and lyrics at the same time, hanging around in gay bars night after night listening to disco music.

And the words sort of have a melody to them already?

SM: What I write down is the words, then I remember the melody. I always want memorable melodies, and if I don’t remember it later, then it wasn’t memorable.

Did the popularity of 69 Love Songs change the dynamic of the band?

SM: I think the other people in the band realized they were in a band and it was something they were doing for a living. I definitely thought of myself as a professional musician to some extent before that, but I had to quit my day job. After 69 came out, the other people in the band had more complicated relationships with their day jobs.

Did you feel pressured to come up with something that would compete or build on the popularity of that album?

SM: No, I explained to Nonesuch (Magnetic Fields’ label for the three albums that followed 69 Love Songs) that there was no possible way we were going to come up with an album that was anywhere near as popular as that album. They understood that. If we followed it up with The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, it still wouldn’t have been as popular.

There’s been a running theme of vampires throughout your work. Do you follow the recent popularity of that sort of goth fantasy world?

SM: No, not at all. The recent crop of vampire stuff is for teenagers, and no adults really get it or care. It’s about growing up, and once you’re grown up, who cares? I unfortunately know a whole lot of gay novelists, and everyone’s first novel is a coming out story. It can be kind of embarrassing. You know, once you’ve read four or five of these coming out stories, you realize they’re all the same. Teenagers as a subject matter get pretty boring pretty quickly too.

What is it about vampires that resonate with you then?

SM: A whole lot of things. One is the necessity to keep moving. The amount of travel vampires have to do is analogous to the amount of travel musicians have to do. It also reminds me of my childhood because I moved around a lot. When you travel you are removed from society in a major way, in a very vampire-like way. In particular, the sleeping schedule tends to become completely irregular. There’s a lot of nighttime.

I have an anecdote about your city before you go. The last time I was in Columbus, I was nearly killed. Someone in a car shot a pistol across my path and missed me by a foot or so. It was near a parking lot of a gay bar. I don’t know if the gunshot was meant to hit me or scare me or just had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t what I was expecting from an evening out in Columbus, Ohio.

That’s crazy. I’m glad you escaped my city alive. It’s uncanny because the club you played at in 1999 (Alrosa Villa) was this hair metal club where Dimebag Darrell ended up being shot.

SM: Oh yes, I remember this. I remember the voicemail for the club was like, “And on Tuesday, the Maaaagnetic Fieeeelds!” We hung out with the guys from Great Plains backstage. That was a lot of fun. Ron House is one of my favorite lyricists. We all made great friends and remain that way still.