The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt on songwriting, the Spice Girls, and hating John Lennon's "Imagine"
How many songs have you written in a day?
Never more than three.
When do you consider the song to be fully written? After you write the words down or after you record it?
Neither really. When it's released. I sang all of Distortion before we decided to have Shirley [Sims] sing half of it. It was all mixed and mastered and ready to go, and we decided to go back and do half of the lead vocals with Shirley singing it. So never think it's done until it's out.
Speaking of Distortion, you've got a lot of interesting sounds happening in the album. Do you create sounds through trial and error or are you fitting an idea in your head?
It's very much trial and error. I like unpredictability in my electronics. I do have fun with the electronic instruments that are just not very predictable. You'd tell it to play C, you can tell it to behave in a particular way, but it may or may not get around to playing C, but will probably play octaves and timbres you weren't expecting. That's what I like. I don't like synthesisers that behave like organs, because I already have organs. I like to characterize organs themselves. I don't need instruments that imitate other ones. I have those instruments.
How do you feel borrowing ideas and melodies from other songs?
Perfectly happy. [It's a] major artistic tool. Shakespeare wrote almost none of his plots.Build a structure and content will take care of itself.
How do you pick your setlist for playing live?
Arguments. We have weeks, sometimes months of arguments on the goddamn set list before we play live. It's a really an imperfect process.
Do you have to re-arrange your music?
Yes. Every song is a re-arrangement from the record to the way it is live.
How long does that process take?
What can Minneapolis expect from this show?
We're playing only Magnetic Fields songs as opposed to the 6ths, Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heros. We're playing a smattering of songs from every album that we've done. We're probably playing half of the new album. We're entirely acoustic except for one little electric keyboard, the pocket piano.
You have a condition known as hyperacusis, where any sound louder than normal sounds like feedback, is that the reason you play acoustically?
That's part of why, sure. It's more controllable, I know what it's going to sound like. Just strumming an acoustic guitar, there's only so many things that can go wrong. If you strum an electric guitar there's an infinity of sounds that might come out. [It's] a lot harder to control live than an acoustic guitar. It's fewer decisions to make...because there's already too many decisions to make. Ditto with ukulele and the cello.
Well thanks for being so pleasant, I was admittedly a little concerned from reading your past interviews. You used to be a journalist for TimeOut New York, have any stories from that?
I have had scary interviews before. The Spice Girls were really horrible to me. I interviewed both of the Mels, Mel B and Mel C, over the phone. I was having problems with the tape deck, which happens like every third interview. People should be used to it, but they were not, they thought I was grossly incompetent because I was having problems with the machine, like everyone does. And they tried to turn around and be all funny and girl power-y, it just didn't work. So I printed everything they said.
Check out The Magnetic Fields tonight in the First Avenue Mainroom. 18+, $30, 7 pm. Purchase tickets here.
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