The Magnetic Fields is back with a new album – ‘50 Song Memoir –, which catalogues a life in verse with 50 songs, each dedicated to one year of prolific songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life.
Merritt will be taking the album on a brief but very special UK tour, covering Liverpool, Brighton, London, Bristol and Edinburgh, presenting the 50 songs over two nights.
Merritt began recording on his 50th birthday on February 9th, 2015. The lyrics on 50 Song Memoir are nonfiction, or in his own words, “a mix of autobiography (bedbugs, Buddhism, buggery) and documentary (hippies, Hollywood, hyperacusis).”
The results incorporate Merritt’s usual themes: dark humour, wry frankness, and often deeply emotive, guiding us from birth, via enforced beatnik Buddhist retreats, to stumbling back from the glamorous excess of 80s New York discos.
Before the tour that kicks off this September, Hayley Scott spoke to Stephin about the album, New York City and life with hyperacusis (including some very good advice on ear plugs), and finds out he’s not the curmudgeon he’s purported to be.
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Hi Stephin, how are you? I’m talking to you from a cold flat in Glasgow; it doesn’t feel very much like summer here.
I’m OK – sitting in the garden of a library in Greenwich Village. It was raining all day yesterday so now the plants are very happy.
Previously you’ve said you’re not a very autobiographical person. What was it that made you want to write a whole album documenting your own life?
Well it wasn’t my idea, it was the record company’s idea. I had just come off of doing a radio show musical where I wrote three songs and a score for an episode of This American Life radio show. And the lyrics had to be true, they were based on interviews they had done with a real person. So I had fallen in love with the additional constraints on top of everything else that the lyrics had to be true. So they suggested I did a whole true album and connect that with my fiftieth upcoming birthday. So by the end of lunch we had a pretty fleshed out idea of what the album would be.
Did you find any particular life events difficult to write about? I also read somewhere that you had to learn some new instruments for this record?
What I found most difficult was probably the first two years before I actually remember anything, and the last two years where I haven’t really processed what had happened. Almost all of the people involved had been on previous records so that made things a lot easier, though. I hadn’t learned anything new for ‘50 Song Memoir’ – I was too busy playing all the other 99 instruments!
You’re very candid in your song writing, but is there anything that you couldn’t – or shouldn’t – write a song about?
Well, sex. I don’t feel any artist should write about sex. The mainstream audience do not want to hear a gay man singing about sex.
Don’t you think that it’s important for gay people to have something they can relate to, though? So many songs are about straight relationships.
Well, I don’t think I disagree with gay men writing about sex. Maybe straight men should stop writing about sex.
Well, yeah, I agree with that.
You said that the people who appear on ‘50 Song Memoir’ who could be insulted you cleared with them first. Did you have any objections from anyone?
My mother cried the first time she heard the songs about her. But my questions for her were not “will this make you cry?” but are you going to be angry, or never speak to me again. My mother cries at the drop of a hat, though, so it doesn’t really matter.
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Now that people rightly, or wrongly, see you as a high concept artist, would it be perceived as a concept if you recorded an album with no overarching concept?
Well there was no overarching concept for the previous album, ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’. I think people tend to find one anyway, though. A Swedish journalist once informed me that ‘Distortion’ did in fact have an overarching concept, the concept being solitude – every single song being about solitude, and I didn’t plan that. It just goes to show that every album is a concept album; you just have to look for the concept.
On ‘50 Song Memoir’ you refer to in passing about being lyrically ripped off by Shakespeare’s Sister. Are you able to elaborate?
Shakespeare’s Sister did a cover of Future Bible Heroes song ‘Hopeless’, but Siobhan Fahey re-wrote the lyrics without asking for my permission and then they were going to take half of the royalties because she had written half of the song.
But she hadn’t re-written all of the lyrics, just the verses, so if she had taken half of the royalties that would have been my half of the royalties and I’d not be paid anything for the song which meant that I had absolutely no incentive to give permission, so I didn’t give permission, which of course made them furious with me.
If I’d have liked her to re-write the lyrics, then maybe I’d have been willing to negotiate, but I didn’t. So they shouldn’t have asked for half of the royalties. I wish that they’d have just done the song ‘as is’, because it would be a lot of fun to have my song covered by Shakespeare’s Sister.
‘Distortion’ is based on a guitar sound you’ve never used before and after that album. Do you think it might be coming back in the future?
I have no idea whether it will be coming back in the future but I did use a sort of Jesus and Mary Chain guitar sound before on ‘When My Boy Walked Down The Street’ on ‘69 Love Songs’. I’d be happy to use the sound again, but probably not in the context of a Magnetic Fields album because I like to keep the albums as different from each other as possible.
You’re often referred to as a notorious curmudgeon but the humour in your lyrics suggests to me otherwise, is that a true analysis?
I think one can be a funny curmudgeon – I don’t see the contradiction. The people who know me don’t think I’m a curmudgeon.
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American politics is in a bad place at the moment, does this make you want to write more political music?
It’s not that I don’t want to write political music, but it takes so long to release an album that there’s no point in writing anything political because it’s irrelevant by the time the record comes out.
What’s it like to live in New York City these days?
I have an apartment in New York and a house upstate two hours North of the city. Right now I’d say New York City, from where I’m sitting, consists of flowers and bees, with the tops of buildings visible over gorgeous flowers because I’m sitting in Jefferson Market Garden.
What’s the music scene like there at the moment?
I have no idea. I can’t go to concerts because I have hyperacusis, which prevents me from accurately hearing anything loud. The only concerts I go to are unamplified. The last amplified show I went to was at the Whitney Museum two or three years ago where they had a showcase of all of Conlon Nancarrow’s piano music. That was slightly amplified.
I’ve been having some trouble with my own hearing just from going to a lot of shows…
Do you wear earplugs? If you’re having trouble hearing and you’re a music journalist you should never go to another show without wearing earplugs.
I guess I think because I’m still young I can get away with it, and I mainly worry that it affects the sound too much? I think my hearing is still damaged from standing right at the front and next to a speaker at a My Bloody Valentine gig.
But that’s bullshit! You know in recording school, they tell you to wear earplugs. You need your hearing for what you do for a living. It affects the sound, but actually a lot of musicians wear earplugs too, and if you’re not you’re damaging your hearing and they don’t care because they have their earplugs in. There’s absolutely no reason not to wear earplugs. My hearing has never recovered from seeing Einstürzende Neubauten in 1983, and like you I was dumb enough to be right at the front.
How about every time you go to a loud show without earplugs you also cut off one finger? And that will remind you – at least if you lose all ten of your fingers you can probably still write because of technology, but if you can’t hear you can’t write about music.
I have a longstanding argument with Superchunk that if they’re wearing earplugs and the audience isn’t then that’s immoral.
After this phone call I am going to go and buy earplugs.
Please do. Actually, can I offer some advice? As an expert: don’t buy good earplugs, buy disposable earplugs. If you lose them it doesn’t matter.
Thanks; I will bear all of this in mind. It’s invaluable advice. Moving on…do you have any plans for any more Future Bible Heroes records?
Not at the moment.
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Do you have any idea of what your next record will be like?
Erm, no (laughs). And even if I did I would never give it away. I don’t think I’ve ever known while touring for one record what I’ll be doing on the next record.
Well, yeah, I guess on this tour you’re playing 50 songs across two nights and that’s a lot of preparation!
Yes, once you’ve written your memoir where do you go from there? But I’m sure I’ll think of something. I just don’t have an idea right now.
[Stephin changes subject back to earplugs] By the way, if you don’t want anyone to know you’re wearing earplugs, there are beige earplugs, which look like the inside of your ear.
Noted. I actually don’t mind people noticing, but I did used to think it was a bit of an accessory, or a ‘cool’ thing to do, but I realise now I’m an idiot.
I lived in LA for six years, and when I moved there I thought people wearing sunglasses looked stupid. But after driving in Los Angeles for about a week I realised that you’re just blinding yourself if you’re not wearing sunglasses when you’re driving.
A lot of people in LA have a sort of Donald Trump tan where their eyelids are totally pale but they have a tan on the rest of their face. And that’s why, because it’s a basic health precaution to wear sunglasses in LA.
What are your thoughts on people who wear sunglasses inside, though?
(Long Pause) No comment.
What if you’re in The Jesus and Mary Chain?
If you’re a heroin addict it’s probably a good idea, or a speed freak. I guess the Warhol crowd wore sunglasses inside because they were actually photophobic. But if you want to look like a drug addict – which if you’re in the Jesus and Mary Chain you do – then sunglasses inside is a great idea! (laughs)
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Words: Hayley Scott
Catch The Magnetic Fields performing ’50 Song Memoir’ at London’s Barbican Hall on September 9th, 10th – tickets.
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A Funny Curmudgeon: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt