by carl wilson

Ixnay on the Ovelay: Stephin Merritt, Continued

I'm seeing the Magnetic Fields tomorrow (Fri) night in Toronto. Will try to review. Meanwhile, as sorta-promised, here are some of the things SM talked about that didn't make it into the piece. Some of it is probably better than what did, I'm chagrined to say. (Also see the bottom of the interview for further notes from me and others on i and other things under the sun.)

On continuity/discontinuity between 69 Love Songs and i:
"I wanted to continue doing a variety show. I didn't want to make it as varied [as 69LS] because it wasn't going to be three hours. There was an album made in the early Sixties titled Music to Break Any Mood which deliberately set moods and then shattered them. It was a really great record. But I didn't want to make that again. It would end up being unified by a 'soft-rock' approach, though of course none of it actually sounds like rock."


In several interviews after 69LS, Merritt said that pop was bankrupting itself, and that his next interest would be in trying to invent forms that were still pop but not just a repetition of the same forms. This album definitely doesn't do that, so I thought I'd ask what became of that idea.
"I haven't come up with a new musical form. What I have come up with is much more variety than other people. ... We're not doing anything new, what we're doing is using variety show as a genre. We were using love songs and now we're taking the variety aspect and running with it. I wouldn't presume to claim that this is doing something new."

I asked if he concerned himself with the relevance of what he was doing to contemporary currents in music, culture and politics, and whether there was any implicit critique in his approach, especially as it relates to i. (I was thinking of its more exaggerated retro feel, for instance, or the "i" concept itself.)
"Not in any way that i'm conscious of, no. ... I listen to pop music of the last 100 years and a lot of it responds to music from a few decades earlier. Most people have wide-ranging record collections -- why pretend that that's not the case? There are very few people who only like one genre of music or one period anymore, and I bet these are not people who buy a lot of records anyway, so why concern yourself with them?"

I said: Outside of 69LS your albums seem to be concept albums only in the light-handed way that Frank Sinatra's or Ray Charles' albums in the fifties and sixties would be, where a theme like late night or girls' names or what have you would be selected and then songs are drawn from the repertoire that loosely fit around the theme. Is your own songbook so wide that you're able to do that - can you treat yourself as a repertoire - or do you have to write to the theme?
"I distinguish between concept albums and theme albums. Songs for Swinging Lovers is a theme album, In the Wee Small Hours is a theme album. I generally choose themes that I've done something in before, so I may have songs in my trunk. I have a notebook full of unused songs. But I do write songs for the albums."

How do you distinguish between what songs, which lyrics, will go to your different bands? Has the definition of a Magnetic Fields song changed since 69LS?
"I usually write songs for particular projects. I have no definition for Magnetic Fields songs. Future Bible Heroes has a sort of science-fiction atmosphere that we can't sustain in the Magnetic Fields because we're switching it up from genres and periods. The synthesizer approach of FBH goes well with science-fiction lyrics, so I rarely do those in the Magnetic Fields. I use more horror there. And in the Gothic Archies. I'm speaking of genres in the sense of movie genres. With something like She-Devils of the Deep the song lyrics didn't really exist without movies. A lot of Future Bible Heroes Songs are like that. Papa Was a Rodeo was a Roger Corman movie."
(As I say in the piece, I don't really buy the claim that there is no definition of a Magnetic Fields song, anymore.)

Do you see pictures or try to get the listener to see pictures when you write, lyrics and/or music, as opposed to approaching it in terms of pure sound, themes, and the sound of language?
"I write a lot of different types of songs. One of the variables is whether there's a lot of visual imagery. Sometimes I am definitely trying to create a picture in people's minds. But you can't create pictures with music, other than with novelty sounds like the pop of champagne corks. I suppose you see pictures when you hear a harp. And hearing Black Sabbath you may well think of what Black Sabbath looks like - marshall stacks, long-haired people. You hear Black Sabbath and you don't visually conjure up the Cowsills."

Do you have any feeling of being too canny about your craft now, finding solutions to problems too easily - is there less a freedom of feeling than when you were starting out as a songwriter?
"I've been thinking recently about how on the first MF album I was doing almost exactly what i'm doing now. I used to leaf through the Alan Lomax compilation, Folk Songs of North America, and the first Magnetic Fields album is not a straightahead rock record but electronic settings of very folk-like songs - it genre-hopped wildly. I think my songwriting's gotten better, my lyrics have gotten better, but I don't think I've actually changed what I'm doing very much. I've only recently realized that, though."
I think this is revisionist, somewhat. Magnetic Fields songs used to have a little more to do with the surrealist aesthetic for which the band was named, and they had a certain consistency of synthesizer approach for all the albums leading up to Get Lost, which began a shift towards the acoustic-based Great American Song concept that developed on 69LS and if anything, hardens on i. It's not uniform, as yet, but close to. And folk song and Tin Pan Alley lead in very different directions even if they both have a formal accent.

You've been working in a bunch of theatrical forms - is that more of an attraction for you right now, even than recording albums, maybe? If so, why?
"Last week i was doing a workshop for a new one, My Life as a Fairy Tale, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen that will play in New York, Florida and Copenhagen next year. It's also with Chen Shi-Zheng ... I can't say what it will be like. We only just started. The instrumentation seems to be bassoon, pi po, some chinese woodwinds including a zhang - which is a cross between a flute and a church organ - and Stroh violin, which is like a violin with a victorola horn attached."

Yeah, I say, Tom Waits used Stroh violins and violas on Alice... What did you find interesting about chinese opera - how did it combine with your own style?

"I grew up on Brecht and Weill, and Brecht basically cobbles his theatrical style together out of Chinese opera, so it was not unfamiliar to me. I like non-western instruments, I like the collision. I wanted to do it that way and Shi-Zheng wanted an entirely Western instrumentation, and I won the coin-toss. But I wouldn't want to be doing it with entirely Chinese instruments. Chinese music can't be performed in English - it doesn't work that way, and no one really cares anyway - it's very basic and uninteresting, like Row Row Row Your Boat. I didn't even bother listening to the traditional music for Peach Blossom Fan. I just went ahead and did my own: marimaba, chinese hammer dulcimer, steel pan drums like caribbean music, and upright bass. Oh, and a marching band bass drum. And a lot of singers, some of whom were trained and some untrained. And nine ukeleles, singing a song about ukeleles, so that was fun."

Did you have any degree of involvement in writing the book for it?
"I think that's a professional secret. I think that's indiscreet. So: I had no hand in it whatsoever."

Will there be a cast recording of Peach Blossom Fan or Orphan of Zhao?
"We're right now working on recordings - not sure when they'll be out."

You have so many of these projects on the go - is this the real drift of things?
"I just have the chance to do them now. I want to expand what i do. It's not so much to move away from anything but to move towards everything else."

What about doing the Brill Building thing - have you tried to sell songs to other pop singers?
"I think that whole approach is dead outside of nashville. People hardly ever cover each other's songs, except for movie themes and Nashville. And even in Nashville it's not as common - half the country top 40 is original songs by the singers now."

That's not quite true.
"Well, they don't really like gay New Yorkers to come down to Nashville and write songs for them. Though maybe I could start a trend."

I'm sure there are a few down there already. But what about R&B; - they still buy songs...

How about R&B; or soul singers?

Well, industry stuff aside, who would you like to cover your songs, ideally, a particular pop singer or - ?
"Oh, all of them."

What would you do if you didn't write songs?
"I'd learn." [Pause] "I could go back to journalism."

There's no attraction to other pursuits at all?
"Certainly writing songs is what I'm best at."

Did you quit doing journalism because it was getting awkward being a musician and writing about musicians? (I find it awkward talking to you and then going off and talking, as it were, behind your back.)
"Yes. I didn't want to savage anybody who I was going to see backstage the next day. And I didn't want to write blandly."

What common misinterpretation of you and/or your work do you most dislike?

"Since I stopped reading my press I don't know what people think i'm up to. I know people have largely stopped using the phrase 'indie rock' in response, but we're now getting, in the Chinese operas, we're getting the equivalent - 'folk opera.' Drives Shi-Zheng crazy. He thinks it's racist. Anything non-european is folk, Europeans have a monopoly on high art. He thinks it's racist. So I'll pick 'folk art.' "

Some questions I didn't get to ask. Future interviewers, consider them 'open source' --

"Who's the audience among whom you'd most love to have your songs catch on, different than the collegiate audience you're typed with now? teenage girls, bollywood movie fans in india, eastern-european businessmen?"

"Is visual art important to you? who are your favourite artists, why?"

"At Harvard you studied the built environment, industrial and urban landscape, an influence that showed up on Charm of the Highway Strip among other places. So: What do you think should happen at ground zero?"

"What aspect of the built environment most needs to be written about in songs right now? Video-screen billboards? Airport security stations?"

"You wrote a list for Time Out of the best recordings, one a year, of the 20th century. What are the best recordings of the past four years?"

"What's the question you most hate being asked? - You asked Marc Almond this once, adding that everybody hates being asked that."

Supplementary materials
Stephin Merritt's list of the best recordings of each year of the 20th century, as concocted for Time Out.

What he really thinks is the best, aside from "Cheeze Doodles!", as related drunk in a bar, according to some guy on the interweb. (Scroll down one-third of the way or search "merritt".)

A debate I wish I'd been able to get into in the column. The 'folk opera' stuff above seems relevant. And the R&B; silence.
First S/FJ goes apeshit at Merritt. Then Matos does too, more calmly.. Various people at TMFTML go apeshit back. Then Franklin Bruno brings some much-needed perspective. (search "merritt" again). So S/FJ chills out a little. And ... the matter drops.

What I wrote to Aaron today:
"It's always hard to interview your personal heroes, and he's reasonably high up on my list of great songwriters, even if I liked him more back when he was doing surreal synthesizer cheeze-scapes instead of tasteful chamber pop and more imaginative scenarios, pre-69LS. I mean, 69LS is one of my favourite albums ever, but its use of cliche is part of the exercise - a part that he's now somewhat fixated on at the expense of other things - Holiday and Charm of the Highway Strip use cliches much more lightly, and are much more full of fresh imagery. 'I Wish I Had An Evil Twin' or 'In An Operetta' are both merely competent recitals of hoary ideas that he doesn't put to much unpredictable use. The exception is 'Irma,' a song so tough to absorb in the context of the straightforward stuff around it that I couldn't figure out how to work a mention of it into the column."

Other people who wrote about Stephin Merritt around Toronto this week:
1. Mike Doherty
* His piece contains the valuable information that the band pronounces the album title as a short "i" as in "it" - or, I would add, as in, "Stephin," which supports my contention yesterday.
* Also contains Merritt's hilarious suggestions that (a) if we removed radio censorship, for awhile every song would go, "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck!" but then everyone would get tired of that and it'd be back to normal; and (b) that if he had to place another song in the album's alphabetical order after "It's Only Time," it could have been called "Ixnay on the Ovelay." That titled really really really should have been a song on 69 Love Songs.

2. Sarah Liss
* Who is very nice but, um, WRONG when she says, "i is arguably stronger musically, featuring live instrumentation and lovely arrangements in place of Merritt's twee synth noodling"

3. Mary Dickie
* who should just be commended for getting something about the big queer Magnetic Fields into the Sun

4. Vit Wagner
* whom I've picked on enough this week

5. And Tim Pratt from the Detroit Free Press, whose Q&A; includes this revelation I haven't seen elsewhere:

A: The songwriting was a little more challenging than I'm used to because I have a new rule that I'm only using two rhymes.

(Thanks to Chromewaves for those last few links.)

And now I'm going to bed. (Well, actually I'm going to leave the office, where I've been writing this, get a cab, go home, read a bit and go to bed... Hey, for a moment there this felt like a blog!)

"I was writing our dreams down, making maps of an unseen plane;
and I noticed anomalies that you'd rather not see explained."
- The Magnetic Fields, "Jeremy"

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, July 01 at 11:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



bah, Wilco, Magnetic Fields, what's the diff? I ain't listenin' to neither!

Posted by A. Nonymous on July 2, 2004 10:20 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson