In Conversation: A Not-So-Quick Talk with Stephin Merritt About The Magnetic Fields’ “Quickies”
Merritt talks Florian Schnieder, dates with Jesus, and writing songs under the 2:15 mark.
Stephin Merritt speaks my language. Our interviews across the near-thirty-year span of his career (be it for The 6ths, Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, his few solo works—or, most prominently, The Magnetic Fields) have been entertaining, engaging, witty and wise. Though some find his music melancholy and cool (it can be—particularly his sophisticated way with melody), I have always found a cosmopolitan black humor to his work, as sniping and dark as his bass-baritone voice is mellifluous and deep. Add in his conversations’ long pregnant pauses and deliberate manner of speech, and the picture is complete.
Our conversation this time—lasting well over an hour—was to celebrate the twelfth Magnetic Fields full-length (or three vinyl EPs), Quickies. With its minimal instrumentation (pretty much two instruments or fewer on each song) and its under-two-minutes-and-fifteen-seconds song list (with one exception), Quickies is pretty much the bluntest work of Merritt’s career, though the heralded 69 Love Songs comes closest in their catalog of short, sharp tunes.
While I can’t fit all of what we discussed into this feature, I can state that we also managed to talk about Carol Channing’s album of spirituals, the UK grime scene, ’70s Pink Floyd vs. ’60s Pink Floyd and our shared dislike of the former (“Until the box set came along and changed everything”), our beloved Residents (“I’m dating a thirty-seven-year-old who doesn’t ‘get’ The Residents; I thought everybody save for my mother got The Residents”), Jonatathan Lethem’s Dylan expertise, and lo-fi house (“A description of everything I like after 2011”). You can, however, read what Merritt had to say about the challenges of writing songs under the 2:15 mark, Florian Schnieder, and dates with Jesus in the Q&A below.
I know you write exclusively in bars. Having recently talked with various artists who are stuck at home, I’m curious as to whether or not you feel stuck during quarantine as, other than nighttime runs to the bars, you’re something of a house cat?
My studio is in Hudson, and I am in New York City, so there’s no recording possible. My writing happens in bars and all bars are closed, so no writing is possible. What I am doing is making little home videos, sitting in front of my shower curtain. Pathetic, really. But everyone is doing it too, so…peer pressure.
Because you’re not writing in your usual space of a bar, is the urge gone, or dissipated?
I don’t know that the urge is there to dissipate. I think it’s a deliberate routine or habit that I have carefully cultivated over decades.
So the muse is gone.
Yes, the muse is gone. Fair to say. It will come back. I’m not worried. I am, however, losing valuable songwriting time.
What are you drinking when you’re at the bar, working the muse?
Cognac. Vodka and I had a spectacular falling out twenty years ago. I’ll refrain from discussing it. Strawberry ice cream and I had the same falling out at the same time, and now the three of us are not talking to each other.
You have utilized shorter song forms in the past, most notably with 69 Love Songs.
“Vodka and I had a spectacular falling out twenty years ago. I’ll refrain from discussing it. Strawberry ice cream and I had the same falling out at the same time, and now the three of us are not talking to each other.”
I figured out that a third of the songs on 69 Love Songs would fit on Quickies, according to the constraint that the song needs to be two minutes and fifteen seconds or less—which all of them are, save for “Come Life, Shaker Life!” where the guitarist added an intro and an outro that I hadn’t written, but allowed, because I like it. But if I published its sheet music, it would still adhere to the constraints because they don’t include intros or outros on sheet music. 69 Love Songs has, if I’m correct, twenty-three songs that are two minutes and fifteen seconds or less. So, in a way, I have already made Quickies.
What attracts you to that confine to begin with, and what inspired this particular round of short songs?
I hate the word “inspired.” I wish we spoke a language that didn’t include it.
What was the “challenge,” then?
Not a challenge. The challenge is writing songs longer than two minutes and fifteen seconds. It’s easy. It’s fun. And it goes with the other part of the idea, one or two instruments. You don’t get bored of three-chord autoharp—even though you know its three chords: C, F, and G—if you’re only hearing it for a minute-and-a-half or less. Or, in the case of “Castles of America,” thirty seconds. Making a simple record of only a few instruments at a time is a reaction against my previous record, 50 Song Memoir, where there were fifty songs, and they averaged out to seven instruments each, doubling allowed. I don’t believe in over-production. There is good arranging and bad arranging, and over-production is a silly concept. The concept of over-production comes from rock critics who thought that Sgt. Pepper’s was too orchestral.
Did you dis rock critics when I wasn’t looking?
No, only that some rock critics at the time thought that Sgt. Pepper’s was overdone because it was less Beatle and more LSO. I was definitely gung-ho about that direction. I realized when I got a Mellotron last year that basically what defines the music I like from the last fifty years [is based on what has] Mellotron or doesn’t have Mellotron. The genres with Mellotron are the ones I care most about.
Does that include progressive rock?
I grew up on Yes, but also on Stevie Wonder. Because categories are even more racist now, “progressive rock” has come to exclude black artists, which doesn’t make any sense. Miles Davis was progressive rock at the time.
If you were a fan of Yes, were you also a fan of Yes iconography—Roger Dean’s space mountains, for example?
Yes, absolutely. I found that terrible science fiction movie Avatar unwatchable because I had those posters on my wall. I know the specific images being ripped off. Those posters are beautiful.
Yes is the complete opposite of Quickies.
Yes, and no. The album Fragile has five quickies and five epics. Yes was also into non-standard lengths, and I happen to really like the shorter songs.
Does your love of progressive rock and its iconography extend to, say, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and their H. R. Giger album covers?
I love Giger and the album art of Brain Salad Surgery. The album itself? No. I was never an ELP fan, but I never saw them live, which they were always very much about being live. And who wouldn’t want to have a gigantic Moog synthesizer stabbed with a knife. All of the solo albums are better than their band albums.
You mentioned this to me previously—you keep separate notebooks for separate ideas. Does that in any way figure into Quickies?
“I don’t believe in over-production. There is good arranging and bad arranging, and over-production is a silly concept.”
I did most of the writing for Quickies in summer 2018, where I wrote one hundred and fifty songs. I dedicated my summer to writing. The only other thing I was doing that summer was starting my collection of modular synthesizers. I now have a wall’s worth of modular synthesizers. It’s terrible, a very expensive habit. Don’t do it. At the time, I only had one or two skiffs, they call it. So I would go from writing these songs to making squiggly sounds on the synth. I thought that I was going to combine the two. I didn’t. In fact, there is no modular synth on Quickies.
Politics and religion figure more into this record than they have other records of yours. Poring through the notebooks, did you choose the songs to fit themes you were looking to develop?
I probably wanted to have continuing lyrical themes, but not too much musical repetition. There’s no spiritually uplifting answer. God told me.
I know you are an atheist. What made you want to reach out to religion as a topic on songs like “I’ve Got a Date with Jesus” and “Shaker Life”?
Like John Waters, I subscribe to a lot of magazines. I read more magazines than I do books. I was looking through Free Inquiry, where I read about the new trend of going on dates with Jesus. Here, Christian Evangelical women are encouraged to go to a bar, order a few drinks, then leave. Instead of relating to anyone in the bar, you spend that time communing with Jesus. To other people, that sounds silly and unimportant. To me, that sounds kind of like my life. I go to a bar, I have a three-drink limit, after which I switch to beer if I need to keep writing. I’m not there to hang out with other people—I’m there to commune with my muse. I have my own similarity to these dates with Jesus. I identify with it. For me, this is a sad, confessional song. That’s a recurring theme on Quickies—the boy in the corner waiting to be struck by lightning while everyone else is having a good time. It’s a lament.
On “The Day the Politicians Died,” you’re writing about a celebration of their passing. Can you tell me your political affiliation?
No, because I wish to keep my passport.
So why are you sharing this sentiment now?
I think it was the time for that sentiment to be voiced publicly. And that enough people would agree with me—or at least agree with the feeling—that it wouldn’t turn people off from the record. The vast majority of people, not just in America, have come around to this attitude toward politics.
Good or bad timing in relation to the passing of Florian Schneider—tell me about writing “Kraftwerk in a Blackout.”
“I now have a wall’s worth of modular synthesizers. It’s terrible, a very expensive habit. Don’t do it.”
I’m very sorry to hear about Florian Schneider. Kraftwerk is the sine qua non of electronic music that happens in a live context that other people have heard of. I could have used Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream—the household name is necessary for that song. I have seen Kraftwerk live, and in fact, they had a power problem where the robot meant to entertain us during “The Robots” didn’t work. So there was nothing to look at during the entire length of the song. Which is kind of like being in a relationship that has gone south. You stare at it, and nothing happens.
The topic of sudden endings runs like a river through Quickies.
Sudden death isn’t interrupting much as there isn’t really time for dramatic arcs under the two-minutes-and-fifteen-seconds constraint. And yet I keep doing it. It’s probably more a coincidence of the songs that I happened to like the most when selecting what would go on the record, rather than me being preoccupied with sudden death in the summer of 2018. There probably is a lot of sudden death on my other albums as well. But on Quickies, it’s every three minutes or so—which means one a minute or so.
If we extend that out, “Kill a Man a Week” fits that bill. But the voice doesn’t sound like yours. Another character?
Growing up, I read whatever my mother read because we didn’t have all that many books in the house, and she read books that we now might find extremely strange. Some of those were by Mary Daly, a radical feminist who promulgated the doctrine that all men are rapists. Because thinking of women in exploitative ways is tantamount to rape. Being a young gay man, I remember this screwy attitude ’til this day. I have a number of songs that satirize the excesses of feminism, because I absolutely understand the impulse while not wanting to take seriously their proposed solution. “Kill a Man a Week” is Valerie Solanas–level feminism that I don’t advocate for, but definitely feel the emotional resonance of. The amount of men that I would have happily killed within the first week is enough for me to enjoy the song on that level.
Nothing to do with killing a man, but is “Bathroom Quickie” autobiographical?
Sure. In fact I have been in that exact situation with someone named Ricky. So it’s very specific. I don’t know that Ricky will ever hear the song. Hopefully his boyfriend won’t hear the song and get upset. When I say that I don’t write autobiographically, it’s that the details that I put into a song are not necessarily my own.
Exploding non-fiction, sure.
I rarely write about emotions that I don’t understand. Not never, but rarely. I mean, I have several songs about being shipwrecked and… Oh wait, I have been shipwrecked. Never mind.
“That’s a recurring theme on Quickies—the boy in the corner waiting to be struck by lightning while everyone else is having a good time.”
Irony is part of why I began asking about listening habits earlier. I wondered if what you were listening to in 2018 was contemporary, and if it has a similar brand of wit as you. You’re a patron saint of the form, and it’s lacking in most contemporary lyrics.
Not exactly kindred, but parallel, is Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon. Although everything he writes seems to be true and autobiographical, you would never mistake anything on 50 Song Memoir to Sun Kil Moon. I understand exactly—more than possibly anyone in the world other than himself—how difficult it is to write a long album that is entirely true, and rhymes. But I don’t listen to music for kindred spirits.
The Quickies album as a whole feels more intentionally funny than anything you’ve done previously. Despite this long conversation and at least twenty like it over the course of decades, I can’t guarantee that I always know when you are being funny and when you’re not.
Thank you, that’s the point. I get that from Bob Dylan. I’ve been doing it ever since I noticed Dylan doing it when I was five. And he had been doing it before I was born. I am all in favor of being in that area where you don’t know if they’re joking or not. FL