Good morning, I appreciate you giving me this time for the interview.
I appreciate being interviewed.
The A.V. Club interviewed you a few weeks ago—
I haven’t read it.
You were fabulous. But this week they published a manifesto for something called “the new sincerity”: that irony is used by teenagers wanting to believe that they’re smarter than everyone else. What would be your response to a phrase like “new sincerity”?
So this is in the Onion? So we can expect it to be ironic? An ironic presentation of “the new sincerity.” That sounds like fun.
No, it’s actually the A.V. Club. But you could do something with that idea, right?
There’s that song in Bye Bye Birdie, about how you’ve got to be sincere. But it’s being sung by Birdie, who’s completely insincere in every way.
I went around Seattle when Realism first came out a couple of weeks ago, talking to people who loved your work. They seemed a little bit thrown by songs with titles like “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” and the hilariously titled “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree.” I don’t know if they’d listened closely enough to what was going on yet. Do you think people are getting the subversive qualities of the jokes?
Um, yeah. Oh dear. I don’t usually read my press so I really don’t know what people “get.” Also, people don’t tend to repeat the funny parts.
Do you think people are missing your point about authenticity?
Oh, authenticity—I don’t know.
Does that word really bother you? It bugs the hell out of me.
When Steven Spielberg directed a Barack Obama presentation at the Democratic presidential convention, I only heard about it on the radio. I didn’t have to see it on the television, but I could just picture the images that were probably on the screen when suddenly the acoustic guitar started playing when Obama entered. The acoustic guitar meaning “truth.” I was in the middle of working on Realism and rolling my eyes.
I notice that instead of acoustic guitars there’s lots of ukulele on the new record.
Yes, and variations of the ukulele. There’s a cavaquinho, which is a four-stringed metal-stringed instrument. It’s much higher than a ukulele. It sounds like the Autoharp.
There’s been some discussion about the use of Autoharp on this record with my friends. It seemed like that instrument was prominent.
Oh, it’s certainly prominent.
Shirley Simms is playing it?
No, I’m playing it. Shirley’s playing it on tour. She plays violin on the record and Autoharp on the tour.
There are rumors that you’re turning to synthesizers again after this. Please don’t tell me this is going to be your last all-out monster ukulele jam?
Oh, I have no idea.
Most people I talk to hate the Autoharp.
Really? Who would hate the Autoharp? What’s to hate about the Autoharp? It does take a long time to tune it.
I think it usually sounds gauche to many listeners, but you make it not so much on the songs on Realism.
Well, “gauche” and “folk” are more or less synonyms, aren’t they? Like “pop” and “cliché.”
Yeah. I think there are people who love you and adore your work, but every now and then think, “When is Stephin going to drop this charade of working with so many clichés and do something confessional?”
Boy, would that be boring: “Here I am, sitting in a gay bar. Yes, I am still sitting in a gay bar, just like I was on side one. Here I am, still sitting in a gay bar. The End. I’m not having any particular emotions, no I’m not having any particular emotions, I’m just sitting in a gay bar. The End.”
Speaking of sitting in a gay bar, when I interviewed you a few years ago you mentioned that your work ethic is to sit in the bar with the booming music and drink a lot of tea. Do you still do that?
No. I can no longer drink a lot of tea. But I can still drink a lot of cognac!
Hey, I was going to ask what alcohol you might drink while you write! Do you drink cognac mostly while you write?
That’s great. That answers like three of my questions right there. Is that still your work ethic, to write in the gay bar with the loud music?
Well, not too loud. I’ve begun going to the gay bars where the old guys go. They want to have conversations and talk about their time-shares. And in order to hear each other the music can’t be too loud.
Music’s always pumped up when I’m out; I don’t think I’m going to the right gay bars.
No, you’re not. Go to those unfashionable places your young friends refuse to go. And make new friends. Also, it’s always good to be the youngest person in the bar. If you want to be popular.
Is this how you get material for songs? Overhearing conversations that show up in your work?
I don’t usually base my songs on eavesdropping, but “Xavier Says” from Distortion is based on eavesdropping at the Rawhide in New York. It contains actual quotes. It’s not plagiarism; it’s the thought process.
What was your relationship to folk music growing up? Was your mother a fan of it?
Yeah, my mother was a beatnik. She had a small record collection, but it was mostly folk. Or what they called folk in the ’50s, which would not have been called folk 10 years earlier, or maybe ever again.
Did you hate this style while you were growing up?
Oh no, I liked it. I’ve always liked it. What I liked was the music that no one would really call “folk” but was marketed as folk. Like the Phil Ochs album Pleasures of the Harbor. It’s pretty adventurous. It’s even got Joe Byrd from the United States of America on it. It’s nothing to do with traditional music, really.
That’s possibly my favorite record. When I was listening to your new song “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” I was thinking of “The Party” from it, and “The Doll House” from Ochs’s Rehearsals for Retirement. And I was thinking, “It’s interesting that Stephin doesn’t write protest songs like Ochs.”
By the time you’ve finished writing a protest song, the situation has changed.
But I could see you writing something as blackly humorous as “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” from Pleasures of the Harbor.
That song… it’s interesting it’s so entertaining, because that song really… is not timely. What are we supposed to do, go help the woman who is being grabbed? [“Look outside the window there’s a woman being grabbed/They’ve dragged her to the bushes, now she’s being stabbed/Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain/But Monopoly is so much fun and I’d hate to spoil the game.”] There’s nothing we can do about that. We can report someone to the police the next time there’s a crime outside the window. And we can think about whether our politics are adequate to that situation. But the particular thing being protested is generally over by the time you hear the song.
I guess the reason it reminds me of your work is the narrator’s unbelievable lack of hope in being able to do anything about it.
It’s also a lot more sarcastic than I would usually be.
When I was talking to people about this record, I brought up Phil Ochs, as it seemed you were addressing emotional cruelty with this record.
Ochs bypasses the cool kids, like Rodriguez—too satirical, too melancholy.
Oh, I love Rodriguez. [But Ochs] is not cool; he’s hotheaded. He’s never going to be covered by Nico.
Judy Collins has been cited by you as an influence on Realism. I think she covered Ochs…
If we were online we could check that out.
But that sort of thing wasn’t Judy Henske’s style [another cited influence on Realism]…
No, she never presented herself as an intellectual, as Judy Collins did. Judy Collins was constructing a way of being a musician and an intellectual at the same time. My mother was an English teacher, and so I’m sure she lapped that up.
Nick Cave’s father was an English professor as well… I can see where you both get your clarity and precision with words. But I guess you don’t get compared to him a whole lot.
I get compared to Nick Cave, but (usually) only as a singer. I think of Nick Cave as a near-peer, in that we’re both storytellers and that we both tend to kill off our characters. [Laughs.] And we have those low voices that most people can’t sing along with.
Yeah, but they’re beautiful voices. And there’s also the vampire thing—
You have empathy for the vampire!
Sure… while Nick Cave obviously is a vampire.
I could even see Cave crumbling to a song like “Painted Flower” on the album. It’s so crushing. Can you tell me what inspired it?
Well, it’s in Peach Blossom Fan [the Chinese opera that Merritt collaborated on]. The second of my Jade operas. It was funny… the audience actually liked it! At a Broadway show.
Is that Shirley [Simms] singing it?
And there’s something going on at the end of the lines—is that studio decay or a recording technique?
I don’t remember. I’d have to listen.
How was it recording in a Los Angeles studio this time, as opposed to [the home studio circumstances of] Distortion?
Oh, I still recorded some of it in New York, actually. And we did some of the accordion, tuba, and flügelhorn in San Francisco, because that’s where the players live. Three cities. And oh, Shirley recorded her vocals in Boston. Four cities! Two coasts.
How did earlier Magnetic Fields’ member Johny Blood come back to the band?
Well, you can’t get a folk album done without a tuba. And he saved “Walk a Lonely Road” with his flügelhorn stylings.
I love how your voice drops out when Shirley comes in on that song…
No, that’s Claudia.
I was wondering how much Claudia was on this album. It seemed like much less…
Claudia sings that and all of “Dolls’ Tea Party,” and Shirley sings all the other female leads. And then there’s three songs where all three of us sing fully together.
Why is there so much less Claudia on this record?
There’s more Claudia on this record. There’s less Shirley. She sang on all of Distortion.
Why was “The Dada Polka” included on this particular album? It’s an older song, right?
Only the backing track is older. It’s an answer song to the Pearls Before Swine song “The Surrealist Waltz.”
It almost seems like a manifesto for this record, as “Book of Love” has been stated as the one for 69 Love Songs. “Do something strange… do something new… do something true.” Is this getting closer to your point of view, or is it still a character?
I would hesitate to even call it a character. But I don’t think I can call it my point of view, no. I don’t think I even know what it means. It’s a half a point of view. It’s a stance.
Brian Eno once had a terrible time at a new age conference in Colorado, leaving and calling its participants “white light Nazis.” They were so into untempered tunings, pure tunings. He said he drew the line between musical fundamentalists and pragmatists. His position reminds me of you.
On which end?
I think that you’re a musical pragmatist, right?
In puritanical disguise?
You experiment so much, but it has to be useful. And we don’t expect extreme avant-garde statements out of you, even if you have an album that’s lacquered in distortion. Something has to work for you, doesn’t it? You don’t make things work.
I’ve done plenty of experimental music—I just don’t release it with Magnetic Fields. I think of Magnetic Fields as a pop group, so there’s only so fundamentalist that I’m going to go.
Well, I didn’t know. I apologize for trying to typecast you.
Yeah, don’t label me, man! [Laughs.]
I was at the EMP Pop Conference a couple of years ago…
No, don’t worry, I’m not going there. Anyways, there was this tall, lovely ballet dancer whose paper was on “White Rabbit,” the song by Jefferson Airplane—how the chords on the song sounded dirty and exotic and that this was the sound of the death of the protest movement to her. The purity was gone.
I’m sorry—what does “White Rabbit” have to do with protest?
Well, this reminded me of the furor over “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits.” People were a little upset you were so flippant with your imagery in this beautiful album about love…
“Beautiful album about love.” Yeah, right. “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” came from a T-shirt. There were 69 different T-shirts for the album. So I was writing from the T-shirt out. I designed the hypothetical T-shirt on the page and then wrote the song.
Excellent. But back to that lady, she was placing a lot of meaning into those sounds—
People attribute meaning to everything. It’s what we do. Interior decoration—if you have an empty white room, and you place one thing in it, whatever that one thing is, is going to be innately meaningful. To anybody going into the room. Is it an old shoe? Or is it a red sphere? It’s going to carry all of art history with it. And you can’t stop it.
Hey, I think I’m out of questions!
Well, that’s fine. I’ll find somebody else with questions then!
I guess the final thing is, I took the record around and listened to it with people, and they seemed a little startled that this album had so many songs like “Hootenanny,” the “Christmas Tree” song. And I think some people were saying, “Oh, Stephin’s doing one of these novelty records.” But they might be missing that it’s the second part of Distortion in meaning…
I’m still trying to find someone with a two-CD changer, in which I can put the two records on shuffle.
[Laughs.] Really? So you do think that fits?
No. I don’t know. I’ll have to actually do it before I can report back on that.
One was going to be called True and one was going to be called Deception?
No, True and False. That was an idea that had occurred to me for about five seconds before I rejected it. I don’t know how it ever got into the press kit. It’s very embarrassing.
I thought the press kit was meticulous—I thought maybe you’d had a hand in constructing it.
No, they’d just done an interview with me and I shouldn’t have blurted out the True and False business in the interview.
So you haven’t thought any further on that question.
Thanks for giving me your time—can’t wait to see you at Town Hall.
We love the Town Hall. We enjoyed playing there one other time. It’s a really fun place to play. If you have to play live, which I hate playing live, it’s best to play only at Town Hall Seattle.
Why do you hate playing live?
You can’t edit it.
It’s all in the editing, isn’t it?
Do you have other things about Seattle that you like?