Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt reluctantly talks to Conor O’Toole about his hatred for touring, and his orchestra
“I’m looking out at the largest brick wall I’ve ever seen.” Stephin Merritt is in Toronto. The Magnetic Fields mastermind is deep in thought and sounds defeated. “I can go all the way up to the window and still see absolutely nothing but yellow brick wall. Well, pale ochre.”
He is fifteen stops into the Tour at the Bottom of the Sea and is ten stops away from Dublin. However, everywhere seems the same to him, reflecting, “Toronto is more all the same than everywhere else is.” The next day Merritt will be in Montreal, hometown of Leonard Cohen, another North American accused of gloominess, who produces nothing but songs of love and humour.
Merritt doesn’t seem too excited about visiting Dublin. “I don’t look forward to anything on tour. I just do what they tell me.” However, he admits to being a stereotypical ‘Irish American’. When asked where his ancestors hail from he answers, “I have no idea, as with most people; it’s part of the stereotype.” Well, at least it’s nice to be able to claim him as one of our own.
The Magnetic Fields’ new album Love At the Bottom of the Sea is Merritt at his best, writing tragic and bizarre love songs infused with bone-dry wit. This includes ‘The Machine in Your Hand’, which finds Merritt wishing to be the mobile phone of his unrequited lover, and the lead single, ‘Andrew in Drag’, a lament for an unlikely crush; “A pity she does not exist, ‘tis shame he’s not a fag. The only girl I’ll ever love is Andrew in drag.” It’s been a minor hit, which Merritt seems minorly happy with. “The seven-inch single sold out. I seem to be on a record label that seems to think it’s a good idea to have the single be a limited edition. So, eh, whatever.”
Undoubtedly the band’s magnum opus was 1999’s 69 Love Songs which, over almost three hours, contains exactly what the cover promises. Merritt isn’t precious about singing his own songs, and allows a variety of voices to vocalise his work. This, and the mix of synthesisers and acoustic instruments, give the album an idiosyncratic and variable sound. This year’s release marks his first use of synthesisers since then.
Following 69 Love Songs the Magnetic Fields released i, Distortion, and Realism, which were concept albums in their own right. i’s tracks all begin with an ‘I’, Distortion’s featured distorted sound, and Realism was essentially the antithesis of that, an acoustic folk album.
“I guess I’ve been pretty constrained in various ways for the last three records. It hasn’t just been no synths, it’s been particular collections of instruments in order to make the records cohere. This one has a sort of constraint in that everything is electrical. Other bands have constraints because they only have a few instruments and they only know how to play a few things. We have to impose our own because I have hundreds of instruments and we’re basically an orchestra.”
Merritt’s love of obtuse acoustic instruments was the source of the most excited part of our chat. A picture of him wielding what appeared, to our ignorant eye, to be a sort of lute appeared on the band’s blog recently. “It was a baroq-ulele! Sounds like a ukulele but looks like a baroque instrument. To me it looks like a truncated oud.”
In addition to oud shopping, Merritt has another hobby to keep himself occupied on tour. “I compulsively look for what the local interesting real estate is, wherever we go.” The rest of the group have been keeping themselves busy as well. “We travel with ten people. It seems large when we have to get them all into vans. And one of them is a baby. And one of them is a nanny. The baby dances. A few days ago Shirley [the band’s autoharpist and vocalist] wrote a song called ‘Hookers and Blow’ and they made a little video of it yesterday or the day before. I imagine it’s on the blog. So you can see the dancing baby.”
The last twenty years in music mean that Merrit has an extensive back catalogue of music to draw from, so some songs from Love At the Bottom of the Sea may not get a live debut on this tour. His long career seems to have tired him out somewhat and he does not appear to derive much joy from playing any more. “Just because we’re not playing it on this tour doesn’t mean we won’t play it on another tour. Although as always, I’m saying that this must be the last tour or I will kill myself.”
Presented with the thought that this will certainly be the last tour regardless, as a result, Merritt coolly replies, “It keeps me from killing myself immediately, to say that I will just kill myself later.” When Otwo asks him about the prospect of his management intentionally booking dates far into the future to prevent him from committing suicide, he pauses. “Just the thought of it is so depressing I can’t answer the question.”
The Magnetic Fields play the Olympia Theatre on the April 28th. Tickets are priced from €27.90. Love At the Bottom of the Sea is out now