This year marks a decade since the beloved New York based Magnetic Fields rocketed to public (and critical) consciousness, care of the behemoth 69 Love Songs. Often called the voice of Noughties indie-rock and the acerbic conscience of modern Manhattan, the Fields' singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt has spent ten years demurring to the endless, hoary descriptors the music press have foisted upon him–"musical curmudgeon", "poète maudit", "lyrical genius", et cetera. Merritt's insistence on a non-biographical appreciation of his lyrically trenchant and, often confessional, songwriting style has deepened the mystery among critics and fans who puzzle on the secret meaning of his verses. The Magnetic Fields' new album, the aptly titled Realism, might provide a musical solution of sorts to the Merritt quandary, although one likely not to appease the band's diehard fans. I spoke to Merritt recently in New York about Realism's sound-world, the all-important use of reverb, and nostalgia (or lack thereof). (PHOTO CREDIT: MARCELO KRASILCIC)
ERIK MORSE: There was an interview recently in which you said that had considered naming the last two records True and False–instead of Distortion and Realism–but you ultimately couldn't decide which one should be named True and which named False.
STEPHIN MERRITT: Well, I don't agree that one is more real than the other. That is why I called them Distortion and Realism, because I didn't want to be seen as actually using the labels True and False. Distortion is actually accurate on some level in the lay sense, because one has an internal image of what an instrument should sound like and when they don't sound that way they are considered distorted. But, in fact, an electric guitar is no more distorted when it gets "fuzzier" than the way it was before it got "fuzzier".
MORSE: How does the atmosphere or environment impact how you compose?
MERRITT: I wrote most of 69 Love Songs by splitting my time between St. Dymphna's and Dick's Bar. I would sit for eight hours drinking tea at St. Dymphna's until I was thoroughly caffeinated and then drink for eight hours at Dick's Bar until I was ready to go to sleep. I don't generally remember where I wrote a song. I don't think that place is particularly important for me. For one thing, I rarely finish a song in one place. I generally don't finish a song in one sitting. And the places where I write songs, gay bars, are fundamentally the same place. Generally I am listening to "I Will Survive" or "Ring My Bell" and eavesdropping on the same old conversation. I may as well be writing in airport lounges as they are so much the same.
MORSE: Have you written in an airport lounge?
MORSE: When you write Magnetic Fields records, are you trying to compose and record the music in such a way as to evoke or encapsulate a certain personal or cultural moment in time?
MERRITT: I don't remember things initially when listening to music. Like, I don't remember where I first heard a song, I don't have nostalgic attachment to a song in that it reminds me of such and such a time or place. I think I probably did experience that somewhat when I was not a full-time, professional musician, but I don't think music works that way for people who are in it constantly...I would say that the evocative qualities of music are usually put there in post-production in the reverb. It's really not much about the musicians as the engineering. The reason that surf music evokes the beach is the spring reverb on the early 50s Fender amplifier. It's post-production that's being done by the musician at the time. It's what we call post-production now. Surf is that music which is entirely about evoking something. There's never any vocals, so it's not about the lyrics, it's about the reverb.
MORSE: Speaking of surf music, I'm interested in your recurring use of water imagery and watery sounds. On the new album you have the song "From a Sinking Boat" which was recorded in a bathtub, right?
MERRITT: All of instruments on "From a Sinking Boat" except the piano are recorded in the bathroom. All the ambience in that track is from the sounds of the bathroom.
MORSE: So what is it about the trope of water, then, that fascinates you sonically?
MERRITT: Well you must realize since our band is named after an Andre Breton novel, I'm sworn to secrecy about my use of imagery and I will forever pretend to be naïve.
MORSE: Fair enough.
MERRITT: You can't interview a surrealist.
Realism is available now from Nonesuch Records.