Magnetic Fields | A Study in Opposites

I hate playing live, and I particularly hate touring.




You can never be too sure of what to expect when you hear that Magnetic Fields are releasing a new record. I felt the same way when I had the chance to spend a few minutes chatting with Stephin Merritt. Much more affable than his reputation precludes, Stephin is a dry-witted, tongue-in-cheek straight shooter.

We discussed his new record, Realism, which he describes as “orchestral folk” heavily influenced by Judy Collins. It is certainly an eclectic mix of songs and an album that is in stark contrast to 2008’s Distortion. During our chat, Merritt affirmed his disdain for playing live and touring and his affections for horror films and gay bars, and discussed a few of his favorite airports.


Let’s talk about the new album Realism a bit. How would you describe the record to someone who hasn’t heard it yet?

Have you heard it yet?

I have heard it.

OK, ’cause occasionally I get that question from people who, in fact, haven’t heard it yet. I describe it as orchestral folk along the lines of the mid-’60s Judy Collins albums where she change genre every three minutes. But it’s all sort of within the marketing category of folk because Judy Collins was marketed as a folk singer. So, folk, in the widest possible definition of folk.

How about songwriting. Magnetic Fields has always been extremely eclectic, maybe even a bit erratic, what are some of —

Erratic? Oh.

Just off the top of your head, what are some things that inspire song ideas for you or musical thoughts?

Everything in the world. I try not to write the same song twice so I get ideas from anything.

Any specific moments of inspiration that you could reference?

I generally write songs sitting around in gay bars or someplace that has music in the background, with my notebook in my hand. So, I write songs while eavesdropping the clientele and while listening to music. If there is a television then sometimes I’ll get an idea from television as well.

How about the last two albums, Distortion and Realism. I understand they were meant to be a pair, kind of partner albums but representing two extremes. Does your songwriting reflect more your current state of mind or is it more of a conscious, conceptual decision?

It doesn’t really reflect either current state of mind or any type of particular conceptual decision I might be making. I assembled these songs for these records more than I had written them for this record by collecting an interesting batch of song and song fragments and stuck them together in sort of a peanut brittle, and then applied a production style which didn’t have anything to do with the song. In the instance of distortion, the production style is particularly jarring and inappropriate for some of the songs, but in Realism it’s not as jarring of juxtaposition.

How about Magnetic Fields live? Your presentation is very minimalist. Is this just the way you feel is best to present your music, or do you kind of frown upon the theatrics with the colorful lights and projectors that other artists use?

I am all in favor of a theatrical concert experience; we just do something different from that. We do a very un-theatrical show. In order to not have a rhythm section, we have a more sedate approach to playing live, and that allows us to skip from genre to genre more easily. That means the audience has to pay closer attention, so we try not to let the lighting directors use a whole lot of bright colors and moving lights and so forth. No one has ever asked me about the lighting before.

How about the experience of playing live. Is it something that you genuinely enjoy or does it make you uncomfortable — or perhaps a bit of both?

I hate playing live, and I particularly hate touring. I’ve always been open about this. I’m a recording artist and I play live to sell records.

Let’s talk about touring for a minute. Obviously, you get to travel around and see the world. What are some of your favorite cities to visit?

I guess the favorite cities would depend upon what their airports look like. Oslo has an interesting airport and Paris does. Most of what I get to see of cities are their airports. I have had the opportunity to spend a few days free in Barcelona, which was a great place to have a few days free.

Let’s get away from music for a minute. What’s the last great movie you saw?”

The last great movie I saw was House, the movie from the early ’80s. They show a lot of schoolgirls going from the country going to a witch’s house, and they are killed off one by one in very artificial ways. One of their heads turns into a watermelon, for example.

How about books. What’s the last great book you read?

Well, I’m in the middle of reading Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. Which is much better than the last biography of him that I read.

Hopping back over to music, what are some of your earliest musical memories, something that made you want to pick up an instrument and give it a try for yourself?

The Judy Collins album In My Life is the first album I ever felt wild about. It was in my mother’s record collection; I was three or four and I loved her genre hopping. I waited until this long to do my own version of that, but I would love to buy Judy Collins dinner at some point.

How long have you been playing music for and what’s the first instrument you really felt comfortable with or kind of fell in love with?

Hmm. Well, I’ve been playing music since I can remember, but the first instrument that I really enjoyed playing was the organ. I took organ lessons in high school and it was amazing to move your toe and hear the air fill a huge low note

Heard any good records lately? Anything that really caught your interest; something memorable?

Yeah, I just discovered Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and I have their album Ruthless Children. I had never heard them before. I’ve also been enjoying the new Crystal Antlers album.

Anything you’re looking forward to on tour or just getting it over with?

[Laughs] Umm, I’m looking forward to being in San Francisco because we love the hotel we stay in there. I’m looking forward to seeing people that I haven’t seen in a long time. There’s a bear bar in St. Louis that I quite like. There’s the amazing hotel we stay at in Milwaukee. Yeah, hopefully I can have some non-airport experiences on this tour. | Chris Sewell


Magnetic Fields play a reserved show at The Pageant on March 6 to a sold-out audience. The minimalist, intimate nature of their shows should translate well at the venue. If you weren’t lucky enough to score tickets then don’t fret; you may still be able to catch Merritt while he is in town; as he mentioned, one of his favorite bear bars is in St. Louis.


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