Stephin Merritt on Songwriting, Sondheim, & Katy Perry

The Magnetic Fields return this month with a new album of familiar tunes. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a return of to the synth-heavy sound and a continuation of the charming and sometimes morbid take on unrequited love. We talked to bandleader and songwriter Stephin Merritt last month — a phone call that took place on Valentine’s Day, which is probably the most perfect holiday to listen to a lot of The Magnetic Fields. The notoriously grumpy Merritt didn’t waste time to share what bugs him, but you may be surprised to know what he’s listening to these days. 

You’ve spent a lot of years writing love songs of some variety, but there has always been a theme of unrequited love. Why is that something you’ve focused on?
Well, unrequited love is more dramatic than requited love. And I have lots of first-hand experience of it. It’s an easy thing to return to. There’s so much to say about it.

You also return to a more synth-heavy sound. What sparked that return?
Well, it’s not really that something caused the return as much as something caused the deviation.

Because your albums have been so different, does that create a challenge when putting together a live set? Do you group things together by album or by sound?
Well the live show has nothing to do with the sound of the album. We don’t have a drummer and we have no rhythm section. We play acoustic instruments and we have no amplifiers on stage. So there’s only one album we’ve done that sounds like that which is Realism and even when we did that, the instrumentation was quite different.

Have you ever been at all interested in recreating the sound from the album in a live setting, or do you really prefer the small–
No. I don’t see the point in playing live – it seems just like a record only worse. But then I don’t really see the point of playing live in the first place. I guess to sell T-shirts.

Has it always been that way? Have you never enjoyed it?
I don’t like live music as a counterpart to recorded music. I don’t go to concerts, I don’t enjoy them. Except classical music. I go to recitals basically. I don’t go to amplified shows except unfortunately Broadway musicals, which are hideously over-amplified.

Do you see musicals frequently? You’ve written a lot of musical theater pieces. Do you keep up with that sort of scene at all?
Yeah, I see all the musicals.

Do you have any recent favorites?
I saw Merrily We Roll Along a few days ago. It’s a beautiful score. The underlying Kaufman and Hart play has a ridiculously arcane structure which undermines it, but the score is fantastic. Just sort of ignore the plot and listen to the music.

Have you been inspired by musical theater composers when it comes to writing songs for The Magnetic Fields, or is it sort of separate?
It’s pretty separate. It’s hard to be inspired by Sondheim while writing your own act.

Sondheim has such a playful way of writing lyrics, and I was wondering if that ever influenced your lyrics with Magnetic Fields, too. Because your lyrics are very funny and deadpan, and especially in the broad genre of indie rock, there’s a real lack of humor.
I don’t know anything about indie rock, but I know a lot about Sondheim. If there was a dearth of indie rock bands influenced by Sondheim, I’d listen to indie rock. When I think of indie rock, I think of The Supremes. So I’m especially invested in the idea of indie rock. I like Melvin Johnson but it doesn’t mean I espouse his views.

It’s sometimes hard to avoid using that term.
You can just call it Pitchfork music. When I was a teenager, REM was considered college radio, and there was an idea in people’s minds that there was such a thing as college radio music. So they started College Music Journal, and that seems to reinforce the idea that there was a genre of college radio music. But now I don’t think anyone has that idea. People like to make up genre names every once in a while. The people who make dubstep are exactly the same people who were making drum and bass — it’s just that they don’t want to call it drum and bass anymore, or jungle, the American word for drum and bass. Genre is a tyranny in music and it’s usually imposed from without.

It’s easy to assume that a person singing a song is singing about themselves, but your songs are mostly about characters.
Most of my music is vague enough so that it can be my personal experience and someone else’s. It’s only when it gets to the pronouns and proper names that the character starts to emerge. When I’m writing a song, I don’t think of myself as creating a particular character, I don’t come up with demographic character traits most of the time. But “My Husband’s Pied-à-terre” – the title came first and the rhymes led me along to the setting in an insane asylum so we don’t know what’s true and what’s not.

There’s a lot of gender ambiguity in your songs. Do you think that attracts a diverse audience?
I’d do anything to keep things ambiguous. I don’t want to feel like the audience is listening to my biography, why would I do that? If I want to confess I’ll go to a therapist.

So you sort of see it as more storytelling as songwriting?
Sure. I was actually thinking yesterday about as aspect of Abba that I have not fully appreciated before which is their vast diversity of characters that they write. And sometimes that’s directly connected with musical theatre and in fact they have done a few musicals. But it’s also connected to folk music. Most folk songs are not, “I love you, baby,” but, “He loves her and then he killed her.” Most folk songs are in third person and they’re about stories and characters and intrigue.

It seems not a lot of people are writing songs like that anymore.
Well, Katy Perry writes in character all the time.

That’s true. I was trying to think of pop music that has a sort of sense of humor and her stuff is really the only thing I could think of that is so very rooted in humor and maybe a little bit with Ke$ha, too. They’re both sort of playing characters as opposed to just singing ballads.
Gangsta rap consisted entirely of characters. That’s like horror movies – you don’t expect them to be autobiographical.

Do you like the Top 40 sensibility?
I listen to Top 40 for hours everyday when I’m writing songs. So I’m extremely familiar with it but I’m not always familiar with the artist’s name. I don’t see the videos; I just hear the music. A year can go by with me not having any idea that the video corresponds to the music. Even when I do see the videos they’re usually with the sound off.

When do you start touring with the new album?
We tour in North America and Europe until May.

Do you stick to a general set list with the tour or do you mix things up each night?
Not doing that this year. We’re just doing a single set.

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