Stephin Merritt is the main songwriter and guiding hand of the long-running pop group, The Magnetic Fields. The band’s newest album, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, marks a return to a synthesizer-lead sound, with Merritt’s familiar bass voice and witty lyrics in place as always. The record is a short burst of clever and concise pop songs in a classic mould.
Tell us a little about the new album. What made you return to using synthesizers again?
My first instrument is really the synthesizer so I was never really planning on not going back to it. I just took a vacation from them for three records. I knew at the beginning of the “No Synth Trilogy” that there would be a triumphant return to synthesizer and here we have the triumphant return to the synthesizer, but not as a keyboard. We didn’t use keyboards at all really. Anything you hear on the record that sounds like a synthesizer playing a melody is not a synthesizer. Except for on ‘God Wants Us To Wait’, which is clearly two Moog synthesizers.
Has moving to Los Angeles had any influence on the kind of songs you’ve been writing?
Not that I know of. Though it seems like I would be less likely to write ‘All She Cares About Is Mariachi’ in New York. The thing is, you never hear mariachi in Los Angeles. It’s a lot closer to Mexico but you never hear it for some reason. I hear it in New York and I never hear it in LA.
Why do you think that is?
I think Mexican people find mariachi embarrassing. That’s my theory.
In the middle of your move, the film Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields appeared. What was it like to see your life on screen like that?
For me it’s a movie about me getting fat, losing weight, getting fat, losing weight, quitting smoking, starting smoking again, getting fat, losing weight… What I looked like on screen kept changing but also you can’t actually tell from the time line of the movie what the actual chronology is. They show us making two different records, one of which was made after I moved to LA so there’s no truth in that. It was a strange thing to watch for me. I knew they were misrepresenting my life in favour of a coherent story line.
Your songs often rely on wordplay and jokes. Do you ever get concerned about people being able understand your sense of humour?
I want people to understand what I’m saying, otherwise why am I speaking at all or singing at all? I listen to a great deal of instrumental music but I listen to very little vocal music in other languages because it annoys me that I can’t tell what they’re saying and I like it when there’s a translation. When Shonen Knife are singing half in Japanese and half in English about liking cucumber sandwiches, I’m happy to be able to find out that they’re not singing about an imminent anarchist takeover.
When it comes to live performance, you play your songs quite differently. Is that because of your hearing issues? What kind of problems do you have with that?
That’s one reason… In my left ear, I hear shrill sounds getting shriller and shriller. I’m not really sure how it works but it feeds back so I have to wear ear plugs in a lot of situations that other people don’t find particularly loud. This particular album though, we could have played the entire album without bothering me at all because all the percussion is electronic. This album could be played very quietly and be totally convincing, but we never sound at all like the record on stage. If we tried to make it sound the same as the recorded version, the differences would be annoying. We’re trying to make it sound different so that the differences are not annoying.
Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is available now.
Words: Ian Maleney