Realism and magnetism
an interview with Stephin Merritt

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The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields gets real on “Realism” (Nonesuch). Once again proudly proclaiming “no synths,” the band puts aside the fuzzy (and aptly titled) Jesus and Mary Chain homage of “Distortion” and goes for a more folksy and cuddly acoustic sound.

The group’s constant is the deft and delicious wordplay of out frontman Stephin Merritt. Unquestionably the Stephen Sondheim of his generation, Merritt is the king (or queen, if you will) of the cruel turn of phrase. He writes the kind of pithy quips that we wish we would have said to a deserving ex, as in the CD’s opener “You Must Be Out of Your Mind.”

That track is followed by “We Are Having A Hootenanny,” which is as much a rootin’-tootin’ jab at the hipster insurgent country crowd as a foot-stomping celebration. The CD also has some international flair, from the plucky Asian influence on “I Don’t Know What to Say” to the glockenspiel gallop and German lyrics of “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree.”

“Seduced and Abandoned” could reel in The Dresden Dolls crowd and “The Dada Polka” may do the same for fans of Devotchka and Gogol Bordello.

WiG spoke with Merritt about “Realism,” synths, Sondheim and other topics shortly before The Magnetic Fields embarked on a tour that comes to The Pabst March 4.

Gregg Shapiro: There is a “no synths” declaration in the CD booklets for “Realism,” “Distortion” and “I.” Why was it important to get that out in the open?

Stephin Merritt: I was doing it in tribute to Queen, who did that for every album until the soundtrack to “Flash Gordon.” Making “Flash Gordon” without synthesizers would have been just perverse.

GS: Yes, the synthesizers give it that necessary 1980 feel. There is also an international flair on “Realism.” What was the impetus for that?

SM: I think it was the music stores in Los Angeles. I moved my studio to Los Angeles in June of 2006 and started going to the music stores, where they have a very different selection of instruments than in New York. They have a lot more Central and South American stringed instruments, and also they have larger instruments in general because real estate (isn’t) an issue (i.e, spaces are larger). So I was able to get large instruments like a vibraphone and a guzheng, which is the Chinese version of a koto, and a hammer dulcimer – things that real estate in New York were forbidding me from even contemplating.

GS: You’ve cited Judy Collins as an inspiration for “Realism,” which made me think of the way she balanced being a performing songwriter with being an interpreter of other people’s songs. In your various musical incarnations, you’ve had the opportunity to both sing your own songs and have them sung by others. But what is your opinion when someone from outside your circle interprets a song of yours, such as Kelly Hogan’s reading of “Papa Was A Rodeo”?

SM: I’m thinking of Peter Gabriel and “The Book of Love.” Peter Gabriel’s voice is fantastically different from mine. His interpretation is basically unrecognizable. If I could sing like Peter Gabriel, I too could afford to live in England.

GS: Are you comfortable with other people covering your songs?

SM: Oh, yes. I would prefer just to be a songwriter.

GS: “Realism” contains more of your trademark wordplay, some of it reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim. Is Sondheim an influence?

SM: I never liked the word influence. Stephen Sondheim is the competition, as is Tom Lehrer. I interviewed Tom Lehrer when his box set came out, which was soon after my box set (“69 Love Songs”) came out. And I sent him a copy. He actually listened to some of it and said, “Now you realize that “69 Love Songs” is 67 too many.” He went to summer camp with Stephen Sondheim. He had a sort of parallel, though shorter, career in some ways, as the (other) faction of strict rhyme. Tom Lehrer disapproved of my loose rhymes.

Just after that, I started doing theater music, which requires strict rhymes. So I fell out of the habit of doing loose rhymes at all. The loose rhymes that you will find on “Realism” are all signs that that part of the song was written before the year 2000.

GS: When you write a song such as “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” do you have a specific person in mind or is it intended to be universal?

SM: It’s a universal. People who write mean songs about recognizable other people are doing something that shouldn’t be done in art.

GS: In the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, the new Magnetic Fields disc received a favorable review and an A- rating. Do you pay much attention to reviews?

SM: Usually not. I try not to.

GS: Do you have any interest in writing a book?

SM: The way it’s going, it seems that I will be the last person I know to write a book.

GS: We’re speaking a couple of days after the Grammy Awards aired on TV. Did you watch the show?

SM: I don’t have a television. If I had a television, I would never get any work done, like everybody else who has a television.

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