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The Magnetic Fields: “I have to have a theme for each record”

The Magnetic Fields frontman – or in some senses, only man, given he is in full control of the outfit’s music – Stephin Merritt is something of an enigma. Having written records that are casually short and records that are extensively long, he has a distinct tone of voice, an unusual style, and a massive, cult fanbase.

In the middle of lockdown, though, Merritt almost gave up the concept of writing music entirely. While he’s back now, including an extensive 2022 tour, he’s still struggling to put metaphorical pen to paper when it comes to what is normally prolific songwriting. 

“I’m not finishing any songs, but I’m able to perform. I have the environment back, and I’m trying to keep to my routine. Nobody knows how it works,” he says. “Traditionally I’d put in the hard work and get rewarded for it. Now I put in the hard work and nothing happens.”

“I have thousands of song fragments. Once I learn how to stitch things together again, there will be songs. I like to have a theme for each record,” he explains. “I like to react against the previous record, so all the songs on ‘50 Song Memoir’, for example, were of a certain range or duration because they had to fit into this 50 song grid where they all had some kind of equality to each other. I think they were all between 3 and 4 minutes long.”

“Reacting to that, in ‘Quickies’, all the songs are really short. I haven’t quite figured out what to do next. But it needs to be as different and new as possible.”

“The whole point of ‘69 Love Songs’”, Merritt says, reflecting on his most iconic album, “was to establish a calling card, and I’m happy that I did that.” Like his most famous record of a quarter of a century ago, much of what The Magnetic Fields do is largely outside of time, place, and obvious influence.

“Everywhere I’ve lived, I listened to a wide selection of music, but I have a hearing disorder in one ear that prevents me from going to rock concerts,” Merritt says.

“That means that the live music I’ve seen tends to be very quiet. I also perform that way. When I was a 14 year old I was what I’d now consider a very good guitarist. I was able to play everything Yes would play, for example, though of course not with as wide a variety of tone and approach.”

“Then I went to Phys Ed and discovered a game that savages play called Dodgeball, a game that I felt was intentionally designed for bullies to break the fingers of guitarists. I broke my left pinky, and it’s never quite worked as well since. I’m also double jointed. So my fingers don’t perform exactly as I’d want them to. That prevented me from being a great guitarist as an adult.”

“My main instrument is the ukelele, which doesn’t really need the pinky, so I’m not as disabled on it as I am on the guitar. I’m comfortable with it.”

Merritt famously has never loved playing live, and that hasn’t changed. “Maybe in an ideal world, I’d be making records that were editions of only 10 or 20 copies, with phenomenally beautiful packaging, in a brocade sleeve with gold leafing on the label. And with candy, artisanal candy to have once and never forget,” he says.

“I guess Stockhausen wanted to have something similar, very expensive and very low volume record sales. He wanted a kind of record that you’d only be able to play once. I would rather have a record you can play an unlimited number of times. Just hardly any of them.”