A few minutes with Stephin Merritt 

Interviews tend to become more about structure than content when they're with Stephin Merritt, the songwriter behind The Magnetic Fields and sundry other projects. Rick Moody, writing in The Believer, sums up the reasons why in a way that I can't improve upon:

"... Talking to Stephin Merritt is one of the hardest things you will ever do in your life. Many assume that it is difficult to talk to him because Stephin is acerbic, laconic, does not suffer fools gladly, etc... But there is another issue. Which has to do with the pauses. [Daniel] Handler, in the 69 Love Songs booklet, refers to this tendency as the trademark Stephin Merritt pause... Merritt takes longer to reply to a remark than anyone you know. He is two or three beats longer in reply than all your hardcore aphasics. You will be tempted to append further wasted verbiage to your initial remark. Do not do this. It will confuse things. Wait patiently. Then, at last, you will get the acerbic, laconic reply."

Because of all the above factors, In my preparation for the interview - and in my attempt to not appear ignorant or whatever - I managed to avoid frequently asked questions about the Magnetic Fields and their new album, Realism. Which may have been less boring for Merritt, but won't help the uninitiated reader any. So before we get to the Q&A, here's a brief intro.

Realism is the third album in the Magnetic Fields' "no-synth" series, marking a departure from the band's early work, which embraced quite synthetic-sounding synths at a time (the early '90s) when they were on the outs with the last vestiges of new wave. It's also something of a sister album to 2008's Distortion, a reverb-laden production Merritt says was inspired by The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy.Realism, by contrast, is a cleaner, folkier production - and that's folk music from Africa to the British Isles to Appalachia. The story goes that Merritt thought of naming the band's last two albums True and False (instead of Distortion and Realism), but he couldn't decide which was true and which was false.

Merritt is not only the songwriter for The Magnetic Fields (best known for 1999's ambitious 69 Love Songs collection), but also for The Gothic Archies (gothic dirges recorded with Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket), Future Bible Heroes (gossip-y disco) and The 6ths. He wrote music and lyrics for the off-Broadway production of Coraline (the soundtrack album for which was released last month) and has collaborated on three pieces of musical theater with Chen Shi-Zheng.

Merritt is currently working on a score to the 1917 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which he'll perform at San Francisco's Castro Theater in May. And he writes much of his work while listening to bad disco in gay bars, which you'll need to know for another question. On to the interview:

NUVO: I wonder if you're drawing on silent film piano music - 40 motives for dramatic photoplay and the like - in composing the score for 20,000 Leagues.

Merritt: Not really, I think I'm drawing more on the history of the musical - musical theater and musical film - because I am making the actors talk and sing, and that is so different from how one usually does a silent film score that I don't think I've actually paid any attention to the literature. The needs of musicalizing it are stronger than the needs of addressing the tradition. But also - not for quotations but for source material - I'm using a lot of ocean music, Debussy's La Mer up to Thomas Dolby's "One of Our Submarines." I've made myself a big playlist of underwater music. There's a wonderful Ferrante & Teicher album, Denizens of the Deep, which has a lot of prepared piano on it, so I was actually listening to it a great deal while making Coraline, and it segueways nicely into making 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

NUVO: You'll be using a "silent film" organ as well as live instruments?

Merritt: Yes, it'll be the Castro Theater organ and tuba, accordion, Dewanotron Keyed Melody Gin [an analog synthesizer designed by Brian Dewan, dewanotron.com] and voices. And maybe something else.

NUVO: Did you have a prior interest in scoring a silent film?

Merritt: I have a private interest in silent film. I hang out at the Silent Movie Theater in L.A. all the time. I have no interest whatsoever in improvisation, so I disapprove of much of the music for silent film. But as my deadline looms I become more and more lenient in my disapproval of improvisation - for filling up an hour and a half worth of dead air.

NUVO: Will there be a sort-of What's Up Tiger Lily effect in that the characters will speak in anachronisms?

Merritt: Oh no, I'm not making fun of it; musicalizing a silent film is an absurd enough idea without my trying to inject more humor into it... I think the humor will probably be in the tension between my intentions and the execution.

NUVO: You've compared Realism to a couple Judy Collins records [In My Life and Wildflowers], and it reminds me, additionally, of a Phil Ochs album... (Merritt: Pleasures of the Harbor? NUVO: That's it!) Why are those kind of records out of fashion?

Merritt: Well, there was a folk boom in the '60s, so major labels put a lot of money into folk records. Now that's completely out of the question, so of course there's not going to be an orchestra at the disposal of any folk artist.

NUVO: And of course, you don't have an orchestra at your disposal, so it's the hybrid "orch-folk."

Merritt: Well, I sort of do. I have, at this point, hundreds of instruments in my house, and I can vaguely play them, and I know a lot of other people that can play instruments. If I needed to actually have the sound of an entire orchestra, I could probably come up with most of it at home. But anyways, I wasn't trying for a traditional orchestra. There are dozens of instruments on many of the songs on this album, so think "orch" is deserved.

NUVO: And there's still an intimacy to the record... it doesn't sound like it was recorded in a concert hall.

Merritt: True. If I wanted it to sound like it was happening in a concert hall, I would have been using artificial reverberation, which was something we used very little of on the album, in the interest of sounding folky.

NUVO: How can you possibly focus on songwriting while listening to bad disco?

Merritt: Well, it's best for it to be boring, so I'm not paying attention to it. "I Will Survive" is actually a really good song with good lyrics; it's well thought out, beautifully arranged, very well performed. So it's not "I Will Survive" that I'm writing songs to. It's more generic house music and such. If I am not listening to music, there's always music turning itself over and over in my head, and I don't want to be writing down the music in my head, which is typically the Bumblebee Tuna jingle or something like that. So it's best for me to have actual music that I'm actually aware of hearing, as much as you can block that out, than it is to block out the imaginary music that I'm not actually aware is endlessly spinning in my head.

NUVO: With the recent release of the Coraline cast album, I wonder what are the pleasures for you in working in musical theater, in comparison to your other projects?

Merritt: Working in theater is the most exciting possible activity. Everyone is gung ho in a way that would be ludicrous in the concert world. There's the feeling of being all in it together, that the show must go on, that we're all gypsies. It's all an elaborate fiction but it's tremendously exciting.

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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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