Episode 650: Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields)

September marks 25 years since the release of 69 Love Songs. The landmark triple-album cemented frontman Stephin Merritt's states as one of the finest songwriters of his generation. A quarter-century later, the songs don't always come as easily to Merritt. At his most prolific, however, the musician wrote more than enough to carry him through the rest of his career. "No one would ever know if I never wrote a song again in my life," he explains, "because I could just use the ones I already have that I haven't found an album for yet."

Stephin Merritt  0:00  
I don't live in Brooklyn. I live in Manhattan. You no longer have a house upstate.

Brian Heater  0:17  
So you were in LA for seemed like a while there. When When did you move back to New York?

Stephin Merritt  0:23  
I was bicoastal. Okay. I never. I never actually left New York.

Brian Heater  0:29  
Yeah. But when When? When did you give up? I guess your houses

Stephin Merritt  0:33  
from LA to Princeton? In 2012? Yeah, I had I had some la from 2006 to 2012. And then I Hudson Hudson, from 2012 to 2022, I guess. So that, you know, I have a one bedroom and two big storage spaces, one for books and one for instruments.

Brian Heater  1:08  
I was listening to some edits, I guess I would say relatively recent interviews. You know, it happens that the last time you did a number of interviews was right at the beginning of the pandemic and it sounded like you wrote at least the early days of it out in in the city, which was surprising to me, because at the time you had like property upstate.

Stephin Merritt  1:31  
Yeah, well, post beetles ate the first floor. So it wasn't it wasn't habitable.

Brian Heater  1:42  
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, again, I'm I'm in Astoria myself in this was kind of a pretty, pretty miserable, I don't think there was a good place to ride out a global pandemic. But you know, being in a apartment in New York City was pretty, pretty miserable. I would say.

Stephin Merritt  2:04  
I have a friend who has a large sprawling estate near Philadelphia. I think he was. He was fine.

Brian Heater  2:11  
Would you consider yourself a social person?

Stephin Merritt  2:18  
I forced myself to be a social person. Yeah. I and my mother and her brother. So my family is composed of three people. Myself, my mother and her brother and all of us are moody loners who just haven't gone on a killing spree yet? Yeah.

Brian Heater  2:43  
Yeah. The Earth clothes

Stephin Merritt  2:48  
during a killing spree? None of us own guns.

Brian Heater  2:55  
So in terms of like efficiency, it would be too difficult to go on a killing spree with like a knife or something

Stephin Merritt  3:06  
I mean, I guess you're gonna go on a killing spree with battery acid. Really? Sure.

Brian Heater  3:12  
Yeah. You know, it strikes me I don't know, I could totally be misreading it, but it seems like you are maybe a happier person or at least in a better place than you were maybe you know, 1015 years ago, frame of mind.

Stephin Merritt  3:30  
In a different frame of mind, since I got COVID I have not finished a song and my IQ seems to have been lowered. And the neurologist says that my temporal lobe is out of sync with the rest of my brain and things like that. So I don't think of it as like being happier or more contempt or anything, I'm just sort of I guess I think it was brain fog. It's

Brian Heater  4:03  
always struck me that highly intelligent people tend to be depressed so maybe there's some positive outcome that can come out of that I've had it four times myself and I have felt very sorry for times yeah. I don't I travel I mean, not that you don't but I travel a bit for work and every time I've gotten it it's been at like a conference or or something else and doesn't get easier. It turns out last time I had it in January, and I was stuck in of all places a Las Vegas hotel room for a week just like feeling like feeling very like fear and loathing, you know, no, no room service. We were at the one hotel in Las Vegas without room service. It's a really a part of that. Miserable a Marriott residence in which are those are the ones that are basically like getting a hotel room and a college dorm. You've got a refrigerator but no room service. Yeah. But how

Stephin Merritt  5:03  
like day to day day is on Amazon or something? I suppose that's right.

Brian Heater  5:07  
It was all it was like Uber eating for a week. But But day to day, I mean, how does that? How does that manifest itself? And how is your life and how have your interactions with people changed in the, since you can track it back in 2020?

Stephin Merritt  5:21  
I suppose I actually probably don't want to focus entirely on my medical condition

I have become more aware of the benefits of hanging out with other people. It became phenomenally difficult to hang out with other people.

Brian Heater  5:54  
You realize the benefits because you weren't. You weren't doing it as much as he used to.

Stephin Merritt  6:00  
Right. And I had to choose who I was hanging out with, in ways that had much more significant effects than usual.

Brian Heater  6:12  
I asked partially because, you know, reading some, some interviews that you've done and talking about your early life with your family, it sounds like you had a lot of alone time and that you to a certain extent got really good at it being alone.

Stephin Merritt  6:31  
When I read Huckleberry Finn, which has long hauls second act about being essentially imprisoned. I was in Hawaii, on a

Buddhist camion Zen commune, where we were forbidden to talk. And I was the only child there, which was often true of my childhood.

So I couldn't, I literally couldn't talk to anyone. For 23 hours a day. During the brief periods when people could talk, they didn't particularly want to talk to me as I was an eight year old. So I read these scenes of being cooped up. It's Jim in the block, who is cooped up and then as I recall, Huck is trying to get him out.

Brian Heater  7:50  
It's been a long time.

Stephin Merritt  7:51  
It's been half a century since I read Huck Finn, I should read it yet. I totally identified with that. That's, this is weird. I'm reading about the exact situation I'm in. Not exactly. But the directly analogous situation that I'm actually in while reading. Yeah.

Brian Heater  8:14  
How did you cope?

Stephin Merritt  8:19  
I didn't think of it as a situation situation in which I didn't think of it as needing to be coped with.

Brian Heater  8:29  
In hindsight, though, when you look at it, I guess maybe how did you survive that? Did you have any survival mechanisms?

Stephin Merritt  8:40  
Well, I wasn't suffering. I was perfectly okay with not talking. That's

Brian Heater  8:51  
changed. Now, obviously, you know, it sounds like you've gotten to a point where you need people and you need some socialization.

Stephin Merritt  9:05  
Probably, I don't experience it that way. But my mother was in the pandemic, a lot more alone than I was, and she is. She's in her 80s. So it was a lot more important. Even more important for her to not get COVID. From me, in particular, but she did eventually get COVID but into sort of a sort of survived pretty well.

Brian Heater  9:39  
Yeah, I mean, it's it strikes me that in those early days that it was a bit of a perfect storm, but because another element I understand if your inability to really write at the time was that you have a very clear process and it involves you actually like going out in the world whether or not you're actually interacting with the You bought directly. And obviously like the rest of us, you, you weren't able to do that.

Stephin Merritt  10:07  
I was so much better off than my mother, though that I guess I'm sure was pretty fortunate.

Brian Heater  10:14  
Yeah, I just mean in terms of the impact that it had on on your songwriting.

Stephin Merritt  10:21  
I don't want to overdo that because I do have hundreds of songs sitting around. And no one would ever know if I never wrote a song again in my life, because I could just use the ones I already have that I haven't found an album for yet. But also, this morning, I had a bit of a realization, I listened to a song. And I realized, it's kind of it's a song I really like, if you've dropped a bomb on me. Oh, yeah, the gap. It's a really delightful song. But as a song, as opposed to a track. It's really hard to say that it's finished in any way. It doesn't. It's essentially formulas. Basically, the, all the instruments are doing exactly the same thing over and over. It's what I call a loop song. Only the vocal really changes. And once in a while there's the delightful sound effect. But how would one decide that the song on paper, pen and paper? How would you decide that it was finished? I think what I when I think of myself as not having finished a song in four years, it's probably really that I haven't finished a song by my standards. The only song that I have arguably finished was for Anthony Roth Costanza and Justin Vivian Bond's album of duets. And I finished it by writing on the sheet music ad lib here. But some people would call that finishing the song. And definitely in the Gap Band would call that finishing a song like this is where the ad lib goes. But for me, traditionally. I only really have one song in my entire career that has any ad libbing at all, which is Love is like jazz, which is entirely ad libbed, and part of the way it goes is that it can never be rehearsed. And that nothing about it can be agreed upon beforehand. So it is essentialist free jazz. Whatever instrument you're holding is the instrument you're playing on on the song and you have no idea what's what the song experience is going to be like before you start. The only difference only form of it is that there is a lyric and the lyric can be sung to any melody in any style for any length of time. It's I grew up loving experimental music. And this is the kgN version of free jazz. It's maximally indeterminate. But how did I decide that it was finished? I don't know. In a

Brian Heater  14:03  
very real sense, it never really is finished right? If it's a new version every time Yeah.

Stephin Merritt  14:10  
Down to the melody cannot be described beforehand.

Brian Heater  14:14  
Does that song exist on paper in any way

Stephin Merritt  14:19  
around love songs. So it exists as a lyric as part of the lyric sheet of six.

Brian Heater  14:27  
Yeah, but not not not kgN in the sense that it's you know like that there are specific instructions with with how to play it.

Stephin Merritt  14:38  
Yeah, when I wrote the lyric in some notebook somewhere there is the lyric for love is like jazz, and the instructions that it can't be rehearsed and is not expected to be repeated. And after recording it I would have added that the record is not considered the definitive version in any way and shouldn't be a guide.

Brian Heater  15:10  
Are there any other songs that you'd point to in your catalogue that you feel like fill a similar role that are experimental in that same way?

Stephin Merritt  15:19  
What, having said that it's unique, it's not unique, because there's also experimental music love, which is also a lyric, whose performance is and determine it. And we, we we did it a particular way on the record, and we do it pretty differently live. But as of the last two weeks, we actually have the technology to do it, essentially the same way we did on the record, which is new and novel and fun for us. So we actually are making it sound. Basically, just like the record, which is funny for us. An in joke, I guess,

Brian Heater  16:11  
is that ever aside from that song, is that ever the goal to make? Especially you know, I mean, it's interesting

Stephin Merritt  16:19  
that we usually prefer not to sound too much like the record so that it doesn't sound like we're trying and failing to exactly reproduce the record. Yeah. So the band, The chameleons, the UK version of chameleons at CBGB. Everyone sounds terrible. sounded terrible at CBGB. I saw Tom Tom club at CBGB. And they sounded terrible. And you know, they played DB DB a hundreds of times. So they were recording a live album. That never came out because of course, they said a terrible. I was very happy to be there. But it you can't sound good at CBGB. Except that chameleons sounded exactly like the record. It was really uncanny. It was just like they were playing to take but they really weren't. They just happened to know exactly what effects they used on the record and

in what proportions? It was, it was crazy how much they sounded like there.

Brian Heater  17:32  
Are there instances you can think of were the songs? Do you feel that the songs have gotten better over time? Do most of them get better over time?

Stephin Merritt  17:41  
Wait, let me let me finish that anecdote with what I realized was sounding exactly like the record is really boring. If you already have the record. Just like playing the record only louder. Yeah. Yeah. What? What's the point?

Brian Heater  18:02  
Yeah, I you know, it's so much like recording specifically is really just kind of capturing a moment in time. And for me? No,

Stephin Merritt  18:13  
no, I have never recorded more than two musicians at the same time. And that only once, I think, I just

Brian Heater  18:23  
mean from the standpoint of, you know, versus continuing to, like, perform a song live and taking on different meetings. It's like a snapshot of a of that period.

Stephin Merritt  18:37  
From my perspective, it's often so long, maybe, sometimes decades between the writing of the song and the recording of the song. And sometimes the recording of the song takes itself takes months, not usually years, but sometimes. That it's not, it doesn't feel like a snapshot of a particular time at all. It's just just share of the last 10 years or something. And once it's on the record, it starts aging as though it were captured in time but the way I record records snapshot would not be wouldn't occur to me who use the word snapshot.

It's more like a palimpsest of different actions at different times.

Brian Heater  19:30  
And I'm curious what you mean when you say it's aging as though it was captured in time?

Stephin Merritt  19:42  
When once there was an official version of something, I at least don't make more official versions of it. Although I guess if I were a jazz artist, I would, in fact, do 100 versions of my favorite things.

that respond to each other. But the way I make records is I only make one.

And then it gets copied and distributed. And that's the end of that. Don't revisit things, with the only exception being plant white roses, which exists in at least two different versions with different centers.

Brian Heater  20:33  
Yeah. I mean, there's a sense in which this tour is is revisiting in that it's going back to a specific album.

Stephin Merritt  20:43  
Yes. We noticed that there's a reference to the Clinton administration. In the song Blue view. The Lyric is the President played, the saxophone sounded so alone, it was on the news. And that is a clear reference if you were there at the time to the Clinton administration, which was the current administration in 1999.

And things sure have changed. And somehow, I'm noticing that made us really more vividly aware of specifically how things have changed. And love has changed, and definitely love songs have changed.

In 1999, a lot of the genres on the record were ongoing, some were not, but some are Scott's ballads and that are not ongoing. But some of the record, some of the genres on the record have just died out. And we are like, at the time, many of them had died out. But in the last 25 years, even more of them have died out. So things that were meant to sound contemporary at the time. Now sound like it's an NT 99.

Which I wouldn't have expected because I thought that I was being very conservative about telling myself I was thought that if you use the latest technology, that it will quickly sound dated, because the next year, everyone knows that that's last year is technology. Whereas if you play a flute no one's going to say that sounds like last year.

Brian Heater  23:09  
You lyrical references are another way of dating songs.

Stephin Merritt  23:18  
Ordinarily not but in the case of blue, yes. Yeah, nothing on 16th Love Songs refers to computer dating. Excuse me. And there are no three ways or three apples. And the the expectation of monogamy is definitely not something that would occur if somebody did an album of six year in love songs now.

So, so love itself has changed. And now the typical typical song on the radio, the archetypal song on the radio is wet as posse. Mm.

Brian Heater  24:15  
As part of this experience of re engaging with the songs and in this way, been this consideration of how you would go about it, were you to start it in 2024.

Stephin Merritt  24:32  
Well, I can't imagine that I would start it in 2020 for sure.

Brian Heater  24:37  
But it's an interesting thought exercise to consider how you know the subject matter of the songs themselves would be different.

Stephin Merritt  24:48  
The category of love song seems itself to be

no longer in public use or if that's not the way we would put it now, I think maybe you probably just say it's the song is romantic or

not sexy enough to be hip fornicating

Brian Heater  25:24  
Do you feel though that that the fact that love songs are aren't, you know, as you said in use in the same way that that in and of itself would dissuade you from taking them on? Not

Stephin Merritt  25:38  
so much that but that might not have occurred to me in the first place? Like it's not one of the categories that one works with anymore

like punk funk, or

what did Linkin Park play? What was that genre?

Brian Heater  26:07  
New metal?

Stephin Merritt  26:08  
New metal? Yeah. There there's no new metal anymore. And it is no longer the New Wave of British Heavy Metal you wouldn't that that category is not a current category. Nor can you make grunge music. Now, it's it wouldn't it he's posted brunch, historical category.

Brian Heater  26:35  
It strikes me that constraints are a really important part of the songwriting process for you in terms of at least giving yourself direction.

Stephin Merritt  26:47  
Yeah, I do work games and wanting to do crosswords and other Wordle and such. And like Stephen Sondheim, I think of songwriting as a whole lot like doing a word puzzle. You have to find a certain number of rungs have to fit what you are trying to say into a certain number of syllables without hopefully making it really obvious that you're filling in syllables as much as you're saying something the great unacknowledged innovation about Dylan is that he called attention to the process by intentionally making it silly the pumps don't work because the Vandals took the handles and yeah actually happened I don't know if you know this. I

Brian Heater  27:58  
don't know the story behind that now. In the middle of Woodstock

Stephin Merritt  28:01  
there used to be a pump for the public well and literally happened when he was in Woodstock in big pink I guess. Or maybe at Albert Grossman says he heard that the you couldn't use the pump because someone had taken the handle. And he turned it into the immortal line the pump don't work to the vandal stick the handles which just sounds like a bit of nonsense. That rhymes, vandals and handles randomly and it's during the fade out of the song so it sounds completely tossed off and it doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the song. In fact, I can't remember which song it's from.

Brian Heater  29:02  
Is it subterranean? Homesick Blues?

Stephin Merritt  29:05  
I'm not sure anything else in Subterranean Homesick Blues has anything about relating to other parts of the song? Yeah, it's

Brian Heater  29:14  
free. It's a pretty free association song.

Stephin Merritt  29:18  
Abstract Expressionism?

Brian Heater  29:19  
Yeah. What's your sense of why that silliness? Or why Dylan's sense of humor? Like he's somebody you know, there are more words written about Dylan that you know just about any other artists sort of The Beatles what why is that so relatively unremarked upon or under appreciated?

Stephin Merritt  29:43  
A lot of people don't have a sense of humor at all. And only a somewhat smaller group. don't appreciate humor and art. Some people hate humor. Do combined with sex, some people hate humor combined with art. Some people hate humor combined with food. They may think these things are too holy to be contaminated with humor or irony or play. I find those worldviews really bleak. And I'm happy to say that I find humor. Almost almost universally appropriate. Probably want to avoid humor while testifying in court. But other than that, think even a funeral humor is welcome. Yeah.

Brian Heater  30:53  
Especially at a funeral.

Stephin Merritt  30:54  
Sure. Yeah. Either humor are not welcome at a funeral. Sure. But, yeah,

Brian Heater  31:03  
yeah, there's the Scott gallows humor for a reason. Yeah. It's like my therapist about this last night. And I was mentioning that I feel like for me, Humor has been a, as an introvert as somebody who has difficulty relating to people one on one in person, that it's, it's like a shortcut that I found for interacting with people and interacting with the world.

Stephin Merritt  31:32  
What's that? It's, like a shortcut. It's like punching them.

Brian Heater  31:37  
Yeah, it catches them off guard. Yeah.

Stephin Merritt  31:39  
And suddenly, you're in a different conversation.

Brian Heater  31:42  
Yeah. But my The reason why I brought it up is because I, you know, from, I was worried that from from a professional standpoint, that in certain situations that people might not take me as seriously, if I was quick to a joke with things or would feel that I was making full of light of things, or that I wasn't taking things seriously, because I had a humorous take on them.

Stephin Merritt  32:09  
It's almost always bad to be sarcastic within 10 seconds of meeting someone

even at someone else's expense. But after that, I think both of you to

Brian Heater  32:26  
do you think that there is an extent to which not that this is something that that bothers you, but it is an extent to which that people, maybe don't take art or music as seriously if it has humor in it.

Stephin Merritt  32:44  
Think it's more that people are puzzled by humor. The whole category of novelty songs used to be maybe that's another historical category. There used to be compilations. Lots of compilations of novelty songs. mento, Dr. Demento was an entire genre for a while. And that has gone away. And we no longer call anything a novelty. So no matter what it is, you could if you wrote a song about cooking naked with Nancy Reagan. It's not a novelty song anymore. It's just not called that. And I think a lot of people would not think of it as an attempt at humor, but just as artistic license or something, or social commentary. Right? I guess it depends on who did it to. There's their racist and misogynist inflections of who is considered to be sophisticated enough to be funny. So, some people, no matter how incredibly silly little NAS x is. Some people just don't realize he's joking. They just don't get it. They don't see it as humor. They don't see it as intelligent. He's just gay and black and they think that that's like the entire description of his brain. Rather than that he's hysterically funny.

Brian Heater  34:57  
I think he also has the The obstacle of there are certain subjects with certain people that if you joke about them that they will never find funny and religion. Satanism is one of those things with large swaths of people, they will automatically think everyone else

Stephin Merritt  35:16  
finds it funny. But yeah, because it's a sacred cow for silly people. The rest of us joke about Satanism all the time. Again, we, we stopped in the 80s for a while, but now it's back. And what is sillier than the idea that there's a satanic cabal in a pizza eating babies as a part of the Democratic Party regime? It would be it wouldn't be so silly if if it were the Republicans. It's just the Democrats are so Ben all that it's really silly.

Brian Heater  36:15  
I think he I think he might have backed into another point there too, which is that? Again, this is it's a hacky thing to say, but probably for a reason that there's a certain threshold that you cross where satire is no longer satirical, you know, where that's one of that's a reality that people are living with. So they don't find much humor in it.

Stephin Merritt  36:39  
It's very difficult to satirize Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Unknown Speaker  36:43  
Yeah. Yeah.

Stephin Merritt  36:49  
How do you exaggerate her?

Brian Heater  36:50  
It strikes me you know, knowing what I do know what little I do know about your your backgrounds and your your early life with your mother. You know, that, that, that Buddhism that that ritual that a lot of her explorations, I guess of what we would call spirituality were really big play played a really big role in your life and where you grew up, but were you even at a young age, were you able to find humor in some of those things in religion?

Stephin Merritt  37:24  
So my mother was raised Catholic, and her approach to Tibetan Buddhism has been very obviously, colored by her background and Catholicism. She loves the pomp and ritual and gold leafing and brightly colored costumes. For me, having not been raised Catholic, I find that all absolutely silly. absurd, preposterous. Dumb, pointless, hugely wasteful. And at this point, I just won't be around it. But I no longer have to be around it. Because now that I have COPD, no one expects me to go into a room with incense burning, because I can't stand up for very long in a room with incense burning. Fine with me, I don't want to be in a room with incense burning. Catholic or Tibetan Buddhists, or other are just intentionally polluting the air to give people less oxygen in order to give them a religious experience. For me, that's totally transparent. They're making you dumb to make you religious, and that's how it works. My mother doesn't understand this and never will. And she doesn't think it's silly at all, which was she's missing that gene that allows her to use humor as the analytical tool as it is to critique her own so called spiritual, splendid butterfly. It is your wings that make you beautiful and make you fly.