Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
The Magnectic Fields 1 TLOBF Chris Almeida

A quickie with The Magnetic Fields

12 May 2020, 07:15

As Stephin Merritt drops Quickies - his new record comprising of twenty-eight songs that range from thirteen seconds to two and a half minutes in length - he tells Grace Easton about the joy of rules and restrictions.

Stephin Merritt likes small things.

The five-foot-three Magnetic Fields frontman owns a Mini, two chiweenies and is the author of 101 Two-Letter Words, a poetry book about the shortest words you can play in Scrabble. For a while, he ran a club night called Runt for smaller gentlemen and their admirers. His latest album, Quickies, is his most consistently miniature, comprising of twenty-eight songs that range from thirteen seconds to two-and-a-half minutes in length. The record is released this month in a physical edition of five seven-inch vinyls.

Brevity lends itself to the kind of stories Merritt likes to tell; ambiguous vignettes of former prostitutes, biker gangs and ants approaching violent deaths. “Expression is not the point,” he once told The Independent. “If I need to express something, I express it in ordinary prose. Songwriting is not about expressing something.” Merritt’s wit lives in the space around his characters.

In interviews, Merritt is often painted as a curmudgeonly misanthrope. My experience of him is quite different: He pauses before he talks, as though he is actually thinking about what’s being asked of him (“My mother had to teach me to use little placeholder syllables rather than very long awkward pauses” he told Jarvis Cocker).

Merritt doesn’t cast judgements after making a statement. He doesn’t explain or clarify or reassure with the unnecessary affirmatives that litter most conversations. He’s a good listener.

When I call Merritt, we are both in lockdown; he’s barely left his New York apartment in two weeks.“I was going to try and have an exercise session with my trainer today in the park, which would be something I haven't done in two months.” he tells me, “But he seems to have gone completely around the bend, he thinks the whole thing is a hoax to make Trump look bad.” There is a pause: “Five continents of hoax to make Trump look bad.”

“Maybe it’s time to get a new trainer” I say, “I wonder,” he replies.

STEPHIN MERITT: I'm just making my first cup of tea so if you hear a sustained tone that will be the tea.

BEST FIT: What kind of tea do you drink?

Uh well this is going to be Genmaicha

What's New York like under lockdown?

I wouldn't know, I've barely left the house in two weeks. How is it in London?

It's kind of beautiful, nature is thriving without us.

Oh yeah, the air quality in New York is definitely better. I'm sure the same is true in London

Have you spent much time in London other than touring?

I didn't realise that at fifteen I was actually old enough to go to clubs, but not old enough to drink. So exactly when I was there was the summer of the new romantics, so what I ought to have done is very different from what I actually did.

I know that you like to go to bars to write - so have you been able to write much during lockdown?

I think I have written four lines in the last six weeks

I'm guessing it must have really disrupted your work on your next album

It's completely destroyed my work, yeah.

Why do you think writing in a bar is so different for you from writing at home?

At home I'm continually distracted by everything else I could be doing. I have two chiweenies who want attention at all times. And you know… the various things I'm supposed to do on my to do list. Whereas if I'm sitting in a bar I can't do anything else. So it clears the mind and I have music and television and people and alcohol all essentially giving me song ideas.

Are you still working with the rest of the band under lockdown?

Well I haven't had any contact with the rest of the band, but we are talking about doing a set of quarantine videos, very simple tag team style. I don't know how that's going to work we haven't figured it out yet.

Quickies has such a direct relationship to your book 101 Two Letter Words - what's different for you about writing poems as opposed to writing songs?

Um, they don't really have much in common. I would never mistake one for the other… Writing a song is about melody and words at the same time and they continually inform each other and writing poems is obviously all words and they have their own rules.

There are a lot more rules in poetry because the focus is all in one place.

I know you were reading a lot of short fiction and flash fiction at the time when you were making the album.

Um so I have thousands of books, I guess I have tens of thousands of books, but the books that I read most often are the books that are in the bathroom where I have thirty seconds to read something, and I'll read something and then I leave. So although that's not in any way the main thrust of my reading it is actually the thing I read the most often.

What's the main thrust of your reading?

Um, non-fiction. I read a few novels a month but I read a lot more non-fiction.

What kind?

Um, I'm not going to tell you [laughs]. I'm in quarantine and I'm not going to tell anyone what I'm reading

It seems like the whole world is giving their recommendations for books at the moment

When you're alone and you're going to be alone for I guess months at a time the point of telling people what you're reading very much goes away.

Were there any limitations that you imposed on yourself while you were making Quickies?

Keep it to two minutes and fifteen seconds or less, which in the process of writing songs the way I do meant keep it to one page or less using a small notebook. Because I wasn't literally timing the songs. One of the songs on Quickies, “Come Life Shaker Life”, goes over two minutes fifteen but that's because the guitarist added an intro and outro during the recording session which I happened to like so I allowed it.

Do you find limitations helpful?

I don't call them limitations but.. limits I guess. If I call them anything I call them constraints or rules or guidelines. Uh yeah I find them helpful. If you're in, I always use this example so I'm sorry, if you're in Roxy Music you know what's going to happen at the next recording session and you know what's going to be demanded of you but in The Magnetic Fields we don't have that so we have to make it up as we go along.

You're someone who has very diverse and timeless musical influences, what effect do you think that has-

Mostly 19th and 20th century

-well, French baroque harpsichord!

[laughs] I wouldn't say that's an influence though. On this album it's sort of an influence, but more negatively because I've been, I guess, obsessively listening to that and it’s removed whatever else I've been listening to. Who knows what that would be… maybe Nurse With Wound, maybe Abba I don't know.

It makes it extremely varied, like a variety show. And also over time it makes people with narrower taste in music dismiss whole albums. People who can't stand shoegaze will probably hate Distortion and people who can't stand folk music will probably hate Realism. People who can't stand synthesizers will definitely hate Love At The Bottom Of The Sea. People who can't stand tubas will hate The Wayward Bus.

Do you think each of your records sound like the era they came from?

I think there is one record that we have done - that I have done - that is easily pinpointed to the year it was made, at least within five years of it being made and that is the first album Distant Plastic Trees, but it's not even the instruments, it’s the reverb. The digital reverb - we used only digital reverb in the mix. I didn't realise at the time that if you use only new things then it will date quickly. But I have never done that again, so nothing else has dated particularly.

Are there other things you’ve vowed never to do again?

Oh tonnes sure! As much as possible everything I've done I would prefer not to do again so that I can do something else… I have some albums where all the songs have essentially the same instrumentation but I have other albums, the long ones, where every song has as different an instrumentation as possible and those are two extremes. I'm generally in one of those extremes and not in between.

Do you think that there's anything that resonates in really good music or really good songwriting?

I don't know that I subscribe to the idea that there is good music or bad music. I gravitate towards melodic music in which the lyrics are part of the point.

There are other kinds of music that I also enjoy, especially experimental music. But popular music that isn't based on melody, I enjoy some of it but not a lot of it. But I should say that I'm totally on board with the theory that 90 percent of everything is crap and the fact that I don't like 90 percent of say heavy metal or hip-hop doesn't mean that I don't like those genres, it means that I don't like most of the existing records in those genres, and there are very few genres where I don't like anything. The only one I can think of right now is quiet storm.

What is quiet storm?

It was a kind of racist category, frankly... a late ‘80s early ‘90s radio format where it was supposed to be a sort of soft rock RnB with warbly vocals and very expensive sounding, and all that just rubbed me the wrong way, I would like other songs by the same artists but just what fit into that format was like, it was as though the format where defined by what I don't like.

You're working on a longer album right now, so are you using a larger notebook?

It's probably just longer songs, a lot fewer than 28 of them. I might use a few shorter songs; why have a rule against that?! I usually have a mix of song lengths, but for Fifty Song Memoir I did not have a mix of song lengths, everything was what I call feature length. Everything had an A and a B and probably a C, whereas in quickies many of the songs have no B section let alone a C section.

Will the experience of Quickies change how you're going to write longer songs?

Well I'm using a larger notebook! Using a larger notebook actually changes my life because it means I have to have a bag to carry it around in

Did you have to buy a bag for the notebook?

No actually I have a collection of weird bags that only a twelve-year-old girl would wear.

It's good for not forgetting it. If everyone continually compliments you on your weird bag then you're not going to accidentally forget it.

Now that we're all in lockdown, I guess work on your next project is compromised.

Yeah it's completely abandoned. I don't know at what point I will be able to pick it up again.

It's not the most terrifying thing: we had to postpone the tour until next year. That's pretty terrifying and there's no special reason to believe that next year is going to be any better.

But you don't like touring do you?

I don't like touring but I like eating.

Do you think this time will change the way you approach things?

For exercise I have been dancing. Every night I go to a virtual nightclub, I've actually never been to the physical version of this particular nightclub but i really like the radical eclecticism of this particular nightclub, which I'm actually not going to mention because I don't want to endorse it over something else, because I haven't actually tried anything else so this is not at all an informed opinion.

But somebody recommended it so I've been trying to move around a little tiny bit so that's helpful. And that's something I have not done regularly, certainly not nightly in decades, like actually danced. I do it a few times a year, but I used to do it every night.

So perhaps we can see some dancing when the tour does happen?

Definitely not. But maybe the next record will be more informed by things that have gone on in dance music. I'm not saying I'm going to make a glitch record but I might allow myself sounds that will sound more dated, like we were talking about earlier, sounds that are associated with a particular moment.

Quickies is released on 15 May via Nonesuch
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