Interviewing Stephin Merritt, the brain behind the Magnetic Fields, is a stiff rite of passage for any journalist: painful, embarrassing, and (I speak from experience) as permanent as a tattoo of a snake with dice for eyes and the word "Mother" stenciled on its abdomen choking out a baby. Let me be clear: Merritt is not an asshole. But he's not a fan of banter, either. He's the rare artist who would eschew the spotlight entirely if he could (so if you're the reporter shining a spotlight in his face, you're the asshole). It's his single-minded dedication to music that makes Love at the Bottom of the Sea a return to the catchy, synthesized electro-pop tracks that made 69 Love Songs a towering success. In this interview, he politely ignores all of my questions that he considers stupid but throws me a bone and opens up about his violent murder fantasies, the concerts that have moved him to tears, and why he abhors performing in public.
Is there a story to the album title Love at the Bottom of the Sea?
Not particularly—the title doesn't correspond to the album in any way. I wrote a song called "Love at the Bottom of the Sea"; I liked the title and threw away the song. I realize that since 69 Love Songs, everyone thinks I do theme albums, but this isn't a theme album. I wanted to have a title that didn't have anything directly to do with the album, and a cover that didn't correspond, either.
"God Wants Us to Wait" begins "I think I know what you would like us to do/When we have children, let's have 72/Until then, we must be resigned to our fate/I love you baby, but God wants us to wait." I don't have to tell you that your lyrics are incredibly clever, but I will anyway. Do you crack yourself up while you write?
No. I don't know how to crack myself up. But I'd write even if I weren't getting paid for it, which is something.
So what makes you laugh?
Not a lot.
Not a lot.
Any bands that you consider to be so great, so intimidating, that you can't listen to them while composing because you're afraid of being overly influenced by them?
I wish. No, I don't feel that way. Last night, I went to the Encores! production of Merrily We Roll Along, the [Stephen] Sondheim musical. I've seen it several times because I enjoy the music, but [last night] I saw it as a critic. I only saw the mistakes. I'm a hypercritical audience member.
"God Wants Us to Wait" and "Andrew in Drag" seem pointedly political, like lullabies for wounded-hearted liberals. Was that your intention?
If I were to write a song that was advocating for some particular political opinion of my own, I would probably lose my passport. I have extreme political views that I do not share with other people.
Each song on the album unfolds like a beautiful vignette. I know the song "Reno Dakota" (from 69 Love Songs) was based on a real person—are any of these tunes based on friends or people you eavesdrop on in bars?
The song "Your Girlfriend's Face" was an actual revenge fantasy I had. I really wanted to hire an assassin. I changed the genders around, but it's a true recounting of my feelings at the time.
You've said in past interviews that people should never write songs when they're feeling emotive—I believe you equated it to road rage. Are you backpedaling?
The song is about 12 years old, but in this case, I did write it while it was still fresh in my mind. What's clinical about it, I guess, is that I'm claiming that I've hired the hit man when in fact I simply wanted to. I was making fun of myself and my own emotions at the time, exceeding them with humor. I don't recall it having any therapeutic value, but I came out with a good song.
I rather like to imagine that "The Horrible Party" is autobiographical.
It isn't autobiographical, but I do, in fact, hate parties. Mostly because I have difficulty hearing at parties. All parties are too loud; I can't tell what people are saying, and I have to just smile and nod when people speak to me. The basic problem at parties is the music. The music at parties ought to be a single harpsichord or clavichord. That's it.
Have you ever been to such a party?
No. I don't usually go to parties because they're terrible.
How do you celebrate birthdays?
Yesterday was my birthday—
—and I didn't tell anyone. Instead, I went to Merrily We Roll Along alone. It was a terrible idea. It's all about twentysomethings who grow up to be fortysomethings who lose their idealism and become total jerks. But the story is told in reverse, so by the end of act 2, you see that they're twentysomething idealists, but you know they're going to grow up and screw it up. You don't like them and you know they're going to ruin everything. It's a mess. It's exactly the wrong thing to do on your birthday.
What's the right thing to do on your birthday, then?
I have no idea.
"Infatuation" is a pop song about dancing, and yet it has a clunky, almost-impossible-to-dance-to hook. Are you just trying to fuck with people?
"Infatuation" is a song about dancing, but it's not intended to be danced to.
At this point, you've basically written about more variations of love than the Bible and Hallmark combined. Are there any nontraditional love stories that you've failed to tell? For instance, here in Washington we have a rather famous case of a man being fucked to death by a horse...
I thought about writing a song about [the horse], in fact, but I never got it to work.
I've seen you perform, and you play Eeyore to Claudia [Gonson]'s Winnie-the-Pooh. You're—what's the word—terse. Is it an act, or do you truly hate performing?
I don't like playing live; I don't like live music, I don't see the point. My favorite live shows have been an Einstürzende Neubauten show, which featured a circular saw on a 20-foot corrugated metal sheet, and Tiny Tim, who in front of a pickup band played the same three-chord progressions on a ukulele for an hour and a half. He played each one for 20 minutes at a time while working through every hit song from the 20th century that fit the progression. There were only six people in the audience and five people on stage. Everyone in the audience was in tears, as was everyone in the backup band.
Do you doubt your ability to move people like that?
With those two shows in mind, my shows are hopelessly inadequate—we just get up and sing songs of heartbreak and loss. What I can't do is move myself. I can move myself in recording and writing the songs, but not in performance. Can you hold on? [Merritt puts me on hold, then returns.] Oh, hey! My new reading glasses are ready for me at the eye doctor!
I'm aware that being interviewed is not one of your favorite pastimes. But to stroke my ego a bit, can you please name one thing more painful than this interview?
It was really horrible when people kept saying, "Why 69? HA-HA-HA." So everything since then has been quite a relief. I've been interviewed by teenagers before, and it's pretty difficult. They can't talk and they don't know anything.
So talking to me is less painful than being questioned by a teenager?
I'd say so, yes.