Moogfest has nestled a rare opportunity for concertgoers in this year’s bookings: a performance by indie icons the Magnetic Fields. Their 26-year narrative parallels the rise of Merge Records (taste purveyors extraordinaire and the Fields’ long-time label) and spans genres with a fluidity generated by the sardonic frontman Stephin Merritt’s universally revered songwriting. Inarguably one of the most prolific American musicians of his generation, Merritt has always shied away from live performance, preferring instead to focus on creation and curation with a schismatic focus — his side projects are numerous and he also does theater. Following The Magnetic Fields’ 1999 opus 69 Love Songs, Merritt took the band on an artistic turn in the 2000s, experimenting with instrumentation and production and spawning records whose titles mirrored his methodological whims. Albums like i, Distortion and Realism explore electric guitars reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain and acoustic folk influences while remaining true to Merritt’s biting, lyric-driven iterations of the ballad, jazz, punk or pop song.
The Fields returned to both Merge and their historically synth-driven sound with 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea. After a U.S. and European tour, they broke for summer; a documentary about the band was released, Merritt played solo shows and presumably (per his modus operandi) wrote songs in bars. After a season-long “resting” period, they’re hitting the road again. Shuffle’s Hannah Levinson caught up with Merritt via e-mail to talk about the Fields’ most recent album, songwriting, Moogfest and (necessarily) synths. The Magnetic Fields play Thomas Wolfe Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, Oct. 27.
Shuffle: Love at the Bottom of the Sea feels like a farcical, murderous and triumphant return to synthesizers: what prompted that after a three-album hiatus?
Stephin Merritt: Growing up in the golden age of electro-pop, I was used to hearing new sound combinations all the time. But in the 90s the technology stagnated, and the closest thing to a new sound was MIDI-controllable filters, which became a compositional element in house music but otherwise was not exactly an exciting new development. So after 69 Love Songs the Magnetic Fields took a break from synthesizers, waiting for new developments in design. It took 12 years, but there have been lots of great new instruments released recently. I love the organically unpredictable Dewanatron instruments; and nonlinear gadgets such as the Infernal Noise Machine, which is somewhere between an instrument and an effect; and Buchla’s module, the Source of Uncertainty. Synthesizers shouldn’t imitate organs (real organs have lots of character).
Shuffle: I’ve read about how you woke up with no car in your driveway and found you’d scribbled “Andrew in Drag” in your notebook the night previous. Do any of the other tracks on the album have similar origins? I’m especially curious about “Your Girlfriend’s Face.” If anything, maybe you could share some of the bars where they’ve been concocted so our readers can go for the disco and green glass when they’re in LA.
SM: I wrote a lot of Love at the Bottom of the Sea at a bar in West Hollywood called the Gold Coast. Eccentrics can’t afford to live in Manhattan anymore, but in LA they’re out in full regalia at the Gold Coast. For example there is a tiny Russian lady of a certain age who walks through displaying her paintings, selling them for $5. Her roses are quite good.
Shuffle: Can you say a little bit about the role of sarcasm on Love at the Bottom of the Sea and in the rest of your canon? Do you find it easier or preferable to write funny songs versus serious?
SM: My life is really not dramatic and nothing ever happens to me, so I like to write from other people’s points of view…Like the mad scientist voodoo sorcerer in Zombie Boy, who raises a dead little Haitian boy for sexual shenanigans. I think rhyme is so close to humor that mostly I just try to rhyme, and the humor takes care of itself.
Shuffle: Would you identify any universal or key components of great songs and lyrics? Are there specific songs or songwriters — or even writers in other mediums — that you’d point to as paragons of the craft?
SM: As a lover of lyrics, I love Stephen Sondheim and Tom Lehrer. It seems they went to summer camp together.
Shuffle: Following that, are there any contemporary songwriters or trends that you think have a bright future?
SM: I think when Rihanna discovers Dylan, she could become a great songwriter.
Shuffle: What types of synths do you favor and why?
SM:I have come to appreciate synthesizers that have no keyboards. Down with Switched-On Bach! Long live Forbidden Planet!
Shuffle: How do you see their role in your music more generally?
SM: The time has come for Cagean ideas to be embraced by pop musicians. They already don’t care about melody. Pop is close enough to atonality now, it just needs a little push.
Shuffle: Are Moogs in particular at all key to Magnetic Fields songs?
SM: Well, I control a lot of my studio from the Voyager. It’s so rugged, and so easily patchable to everything else. And the letters are big and glowing. Beautifully made.
Shuffle: Do you plan on visiting the factory while in Asheville? Rumors are they have Moogfest-related discounts…
SM: Heck yeah, and I’ll get the new Ladder Filter while I’m there.
Shuffle: What do you enjoy most/like least about participating in festivals?
SM: We like the random swag. At CMJ once, Bob Mould and I were on a panel and they gave us lavender suede hush puppies. Why? Haven’t the faintest.