Stephin is the primary vocalist, songwriter, and producer. Known for switching gender roles in his lyrics, he continues this trend with the latest single “Andrew in Drag” leading track off the just released tenth album entitled Love at the Bottom of the Sea.
We talked to the interesting bandleader before the tour began including a stop in Chicago.
Jerry Nunn: Hello, Stephin. So you will soon be returning to Chicago.
Stephin Merritt: Yes, last time I was there it was so incredibly foggy. It was even dangerous to cross the street.
JN: The weather is always changing here. You were at the School of Folk Music correct?
SM: No, we were at a strange Lincoln printer art complex. We played six stories underground in what we called the Death Star. It was a very unusual space. The Old Town School of Folk Music was the previous tour. We played a larger venue for the 2010 tour.
JN: Oh, it was the Harris Theatre you are talking about. I heard you have a hearing problem and when people clap in concert it is disruptive for you.
SM: Yes, loud noise is painful for me in my left ear. A lot of loud sounds are painful for me but applause is a big one.
JN: This is the first time you have played at The Vic?
SM: We have not played there before.
JN: It is a busy part of our city. How many people are in the group?
SM: I am the only original member. Originally we were a duo of me and Susan Anway was the singer. We gradually mutated into our current totally unstable form and we will continue mutating (laughs). The band on this record were nine people, me and Shirley Simms plus Claudia Gonson on piano, Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on guitar, Daniel Handler on accordion, Johnny Blood on tuba and horns, Pinkie Weitzman on violins, and Randy Walker on background vocal.
JN: Wow, that is a lot of people.
SM: I recorded myself in LA, Sam, Claudia, and Shirley in Boston with Daniel, Johnny, and Randy in San Francisco, and the rest in New York. Last time we all recorded in Boston.
JN: “Andrew in Drag” has a very fun video.
SM: I like it too.
JN: Is the song about a friend of yours?
SM: No, it is just a story.
JN: What inspired it?
SM: I don’t remember writing it. Some songs take a really long time to write. Sometimes I write in bars and I am drinking at the time. If they take a really long time then I don’t remember writing them.
I woke up the following morning with no car in the driveway and realized I must have taken a taxi home, which I deduced I must have written a song. I opened my notebook and there it was but I don’t remember writing it. I do that about once a year I think.
JN: What is your drink of choice?
JN: There is another song on the album called “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies.” Where did that song come from?
SM: It is also a story. I liked the title and we wrote the song around it. We are making a t-shirt of it for the tour.
JN: I will have to check that out. How is your sound influenced? Do you think its gothic sounding?
SM: No, I have a goth band already with The Gothic Archies. I don’t think The Magnetic Fields is particularly gothic. I haven’t worn anything black in a good ten years and haven’t worn anything that wasn’t brown in seven years.
JN: There was a documentary about you called Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. How do you feel it turned out?
SM: It is not really about my life in any accurate way but I hope it sells records.
JN: It won the Outfest 2010 Grand Jury Prize for Feature Documentary so that is good.
SM: It did? No one told me anything.
JN: Do you want to do more soundtracks? I noticed you have several on your resume such as Pieces of April and Lemony Snicket.
SM: Oh yeah. I like doing soundtracks.
JN: Are you a big musical theatre fan? I saw you did a musical version of the movie Coraline.
SM: I am or at least in theory.
JN: Do you like old school musicals or new school ones?
SM: In between. I like Sondheim.
JN: So Into the Woods?
SM: Yes. I love Into the Woods. I saw Merrily We Roll Along a week ago. It is a beautiful score of a terrible play.
Coraline was my fourth musical and I am working on two more. One is with Daniel Handler and it is a sex farce. One is with Neil Gaiman and it is somewhere between a horror comedy and a sex farce.
JN: Where can people hear about these new projects?
SM: I have www.houseoftomorrow.com.
JN: You are performing at All Tomorrow’s Parties in England and SXSW in Texas so all over the place.
SM: We are in England for only three days then we come straight back to Texas. I have never been to either festival before.
JN: I heard South by Southwest has people running around everywhere.
SM: Oh dear. I think I will buy an air gun. In Texas you can probably buy guns so I will just make sure there are not too many dirty hippies around me when I am trying to pick up sculptures in gay bars.
JN: I don’t know how many sculptures frequent it but there is a bar called Berlin that is close by The Vic you could check out when you are in Chicago.
SM: I generally like to go to the bars that old men like, where the music is very quiet so people can hear each other. I like to go where retired people like to go after work. The Chicago Eagle closed right?
JN: Yes, it did and has not reopened. Little Jim’s is usually an older crowd so maybe you could try there.
SM: That will work.
JN: Well, go to England, get back safe and we will see you in Chicago!