US - New York - Full Moon 47 - 08/15/00
The Magnetic Fields
- an interview with Stephin Merritt
The Summer of 69 - Stephin Merritt talks (albeit very slowly)...
You have - no doubt - heard many things already about 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic
Fields amazing 3-CD-Box set, featuring indeed 69 songs about love over the course of three
hours. What you may not know - especially if you live outside the US - is, that MF mainmain
Stephin Merritt has in fact put out many records under various names over the last ten years,
including The Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths and The Gothic Archies. Merritt's first two albums
as the Magentic Fields however, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees, were
recorded in 1991 and 1992 and featured cover art painted by Wendy Smith, who was also the cover
artist for Weekend, an early-80's band on Rough Trade. After original singer Susan Anway
relocated to the other side of the country, New Yorker Merritt took over the vocal duties
himself, earning a lot of attention with his House Of Tomorrow EP (now also the name for
his official website) which in many ways
predates the current box set. In addition to Merritt on vocals and a long list of instruments,
the three albums also feature guest singers Claudia Gonson (also Merritt's manager), LD Beghtol,
Dudley Klute, and Shirley Simms, who sing six songs apiece. Simply because nobody should sing 69
songs all by himself, says Merritt. Not even Billie Holiday.
The story has it that Merritt came up with the idea for 69 Love Songs while sitting in
an elegant midtown Manhattan gay piano bar. (There was no need for a "coming out' for Stephin,
as he once said famously, because nobody would've thought that he was heterosexual anyway.) In
the press he's been compared to Cole Porter a lot lately, which probably has to do a lot more
with sexuality and geographics than with music. 69 Love Songs has been hailed as one of
the best albums of 1999 in America (it was released in the States last September) and now looks
to repeat that success this fall in Europe. Merritt won over Brian Wilson and Lou Reed with his
past albums already, Moby is said to be a huge fan of 69 Love Songs and Mary Lou Lord
recently became the first artist to cover a couple of songs from the box set, When My Boy
Walks Down The Street and I Don't Want To Get Over You.
Merritt originally planned for it to be a live musical revue, performed with a rotating cast
of singers in the plush hotel bars and cabarets of New York City. In fact, at first the concept
had been "100 Love Songs". We met Stephin - who's maintaining his usual insane schedule, that
included prestigous shows in both London, England, and his hometown New York City within eight
days - right inbetween those shows, when he stopped over in Cologne, Germany for some interviews.
He had a pretty bad toothache that day and had taken some painkillers, so he wasn't in the best of
moods, and talked even slower than usual, but fortnautely he talked to us nevertheless.
Lu.Ka.: 100 songs, eh?
Stephin: The original idea that popped into my head was, that it would be 100 love songs
in a theatrical revue. But within FIVE SECONDS that was 69 love songs as a Magnetic Fields album.
100 love songs is too long for a theatrical revue. It would've been four hours long even if all
the songs were only two minutes long. I didn't produce the record in order to still put it on as
a review either. With the band we've played the entire record in order a few times as "The 69
Love Songs Show", over the course of two nights, but with the same audience both nights.
Lu.Ka.: So the title of the album was the starting point?
Stephin: Yes, I had the title, 69 Love Songs and I decided to do it. So it's not
that I had 69 songs sitting around and thought: Hmmm, what shall I do with these!?
Lu.Ka.: Did you really start from scratch or did you have some finished songs
already that just happened to fit in with the theme?
Stephin: I keep notebooks full of song ideas, which I am always referring back to. So yes,
I started from scratch, but by going back to my notebooks. I think think I had a few completely
existing, written songs already, but not many. I did write 100 love songs all in all, which I
chose the best 69 of.
Lu.Ka.: When you put down idea in your notebooks, do you usually know already for
which of your many projects you'll use it? Are there any typical Gothic Archies, MF, 6ths or
Future Bible Heroes songs?
Stephin: For Future Bible Heroes it's different, because I co-write the songs in that
band. I generally write songs for a particular project, so I usually don't chose which record
they are going to be on so much as writing them for a particular record. But 69 Love Songs
and the upcoming 6ths album had some cross-fertilization.
Lu.Ka.: Do you write the music or the lyrics first?
Stephin: They come together. There is only one exception on the record, a song called
Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin. I wrote that as a poem, which is weird, because I was
writing in the middle of writing 69 Love Songs, but I probably just didn't have a medlody in
mind at the time.
Lu.Ka.: The albums obviously sounds very varied and touches many different musical
genres from jazz to pop, indierock and even electro...
Stephin: Since it is 69 songs and three hours long, it was important to me not to spend
too much time on recording, so the record has an overall sound of a somewhat minimal production.
It's only one instrument per song sometimes and even if there's a band or an electro-pop
arrangement, it's always at the more underproduced end of the scale. I could've done 69 highly
produced songs, but if Trevor Horn had produced the record, it wouldn't be done yet. And it
would also have detracted the continuity of focus on the songs. I didn't want to do an album
called "69 Love PRODUCTIONS".
Lu.Ka.: Did you record the songs in groups? The more country-ish stuff one week,
the electro-pop songs the other?
Stephin: I was recording a lot of the songs at the same time, so it was literally bass
guitar-week, when I did very little apart from playing the bass guitar on like 20 different
songs. I assembled the record like a car. Genre in music is mostly about the arrangements rather
than the song, particularly in the über-genre of love songs. A typical love song like,
Yesterday can be done as a rock group or a string quartett and it's one of the most
widely covered songs ever written and it can be done in a wide variety of styles. It doesn't
have any genre affiliations outside of itself.
Lu.Ka.: I guess usually artists don't have to think about genres at all, because
they are only centering on a single one...
Stephin: Yesterday I spoke to an interviewer who said that in his record collection
everything is sorted according to genre. Rather than saying FUCK YOU! [right on! - author's
note] I said: "Where on earth are you putting 69 Love Songs?" And he told me and I was
horrified, so I'm not gonna tell you now!!!
Lu.Ka.: Is there anything you wouldn't want to touch, musically?
Stephin: Rap?! I just couldn't do it and I don't think practise would help either. It's
not that I don't like it, I just think I'm very bad at it. I also can't do the heavy metal voice
à la Robert Plant or the death metal voice.
Lu.Ka.: One thing i noticed is, that the UK version of the box set doesn't have
the fancy 75-page book that came with the US version and it's also sold at half the price, at
least in England [apparently the German list price was yet to be finalized at the time of our
interview - author's note.], where it costs the equivalent of $22, while it's usually around
$35 in the US.
Stephin: I think it's too cheap in England. It cheapens the album to have it discounted
like that. I'd like it to be as expensive as you'd think it is.
Lu.Ka.: So the $32 plus shipping that Merge charges for the mailorder version is
a fair price, then?
Stephin: Well, I walked by a record store in New York a week ago and I saw a 69 Love
Songs box set sitting there in the window with other box sets and they are charging for it
$69,99. I assume that they are not in fact going to get that for it and I'd feel sorry for
anyone who pays that and then walks around the corner where it's on sale for $30 less...
Lu.Ka.: ...over here in Germany they could charge DM 69, which is almost excatly
Stephin: Oh good!!! I'll tell the label that!
Lu.Ka.: Silly last question: Any future plans apart from the upcoming 6ths album
due out in a couple of months?
Stephin: I have a few ideas in my head, but I haven't recorded any new Magnetic Fields
songs yet. There was nothing that jumped up screaming: I would be a good follow up to 69 Love
Songs, look at me, I'm not an anti-climax!
The Magnetic Fields will do a "teaser" European tour with just about one show in every
country in November and hope to be back for a full tour in January 2001.
Thanks to Ullrich Maurer.
Copyright © 2000 Carsten Wohlfeld