Interview with Stephin Merritt

This is an interview conducted on the last night of 3 shows in London, July 2008. We sat high up in the Gallery of the Cadogan Hall while the stage was being prepared for soundcheck. As the tour was to promote the latest Magentic Fields album ‘Distortion’ we spoke mainly about that…

Darren Hanlon: We’re talking to Stephin Merritt at the end of the Distortion European Tour. How are you feeling about going home?

Stephin Merritt: I am relieved, I hate touring, I hate playing live, I hate live music. This is all a terrible mistake.

DH: Right. So you’re in a nightmare.

SM: I’m going to wake up from this nightmare tomorrow in London, far from my own bed. The next day I will wake up from this nightmare again in New York. And the following day I will wake up from this nightmare again in Los Angeles.

DH: And then it’ll all be some distant memory. I just thought I’d ask you some questions. The instrumental song ‘Threeway.’ Some night I’ve been jamming along offstage (SM looks alarmed)…so no one can hear me of course. The riff sounds complex but is so easy to play. It’s almost like a finger exercise for a guitar player as well, like ‘Wipeout.’

SM: It’s like a finger exercise specifically for a bass player because you can play the whole thing on the bass.

DH: Of course, you only need 4 strings.

SM: Or a ukulele

DH: So I think you were saying with this song you had 2 separate pieces of music that you didn’t write together that you’d perform at soundchecks.

SM: Right. I had 2 different instrumental pieces of music that used cycles of 3. So I stuck them together and shouted ‘threeway’ once a minute and made it 3 minutes long.

DH: And decided it would all be about group sex. So there’s a lot of thinking behind that song.

SM: Yes (chuckles)

DH: The next question is for the song ‘California Girls.’ I’d actually written in a note book after touring the US once that over there the word ‘squirrel’ would be a good rhyme for ‘girl’ the way you guys say it (squirls). And you used this in that song. Are you worried if Australians, or even Brits, cover that song it’ll sound weird?

SH: Oh, please say both words.

DH: Squirrels, girls

SM: Squeerels?…Squeerels, gurls. Yes, those words sound nothing alike in your accent. They almost rhyme in my accent.(he practises these words for a while)I make it a little like it might almost be two syllables but it’s only one syllable. (he practises some more)
It’s a near-rhyme. It’ll pass.

DH: see that wouldn’t work either; pass, mass

SM: Mass, parse? Right (laughs)

DH: which makes me think there should be rhyming dictionaries for different dialects.

SM: well there are. They’ve just carefully concealed their origins. But if you look at what rhymes in various rhyming dictionaries you can tell where they’re from. I have the best rhyming Dictionary the ‘Clement Wood’ but it’s definitely not my accent

DH: British?

SM: British. I’m always fining things that don’t seem to rhyme.

DH: So if you were in a British pub overhearing conversation you might get some different ideas for lyrics just by listening to accents?

SM: Yes but I’d have to make sure they were sung by people with those accents. In fact when Amelia Fletcher sang ‘Looking for love in the hall of Mirrors’ on the first 6ths album I had been picturing ‘mirrors’ to be sung to rhyme with ‘appears’, a one syllable word as some people pronounce it. And I thought she’d be one of those people. But not at all, she actually has quite a posh accent and great annunciation.

DH: I actually thought that might be intentional. The rhythm of that line is really nice because you expect it to be one syllable.

SM: Right. When I sing it there’s also two syllables and I always feel kind of awkward. Where am I going to end this syllable?

DH: Ok moving on. ‘Zombie Boy.’ Probably the only Pedonecrophiliac anthem.

SM: No, I’m sure there must be a death metal band out there…

DH: …who’ve touched on the subject…

SM: I know Alice Cooper has touched on Necrophilia. But not Pedonecraphilia. But not to be outdone. He’ll probably hear mine and come up with something more shocking.

DH: Add a beastiality component in there as well. I’m guessing you’ve watched a lot of zombie movies in your time.

SM: maybe 20.

DH: That song particularly reminds me of this zombie film I saw years ago. It was actually set in Haiti and the zombies were tribal cannibals. They obviously hadn’t shot enough footage for a full length feature so they’ve edited in stock nature footage. You could tell it was completely different film stock.

SM: Hmm, that sounds Italian

DH: Yeah, I think it was overdubbed. Is there one particular zombie film this song is based on?

SM: No…I feel like Italian movies of the 70s of that genre went out of their way to do something that had not been done in a movie before. So tasteless that it had not been done in a movie before, or couldn’t have been done, and could never be done in an American movie. Like in Cannibal Holocaust you see actual animals being tortured

DH: That could be it! Zombie Holocaust?

SM: It could be so difficult. Italian movies would have their titles changed by distributors. They release them a few times with different titles.

DH: That could be it though. It was so bad.

SM: Cannibal Holocaust is shocking enough but no one thinks to call it bad. You can’t tell where the documentary aspect of it ends and the fiction aspects begins. It’s all about film exploitation.

DH: So then you’re a massive movie fan but the small screen has almost no effect on you. I asked you about the ‘Office’ one of the biggest British comedies ever and…

SM: I’ve never seen it. I don’t have a television. That said I have seen on other peoples television some recent shows. The Dog Whisperer for example.

DH: A pet help show?

SM: A particularly good pet help show. Though being an American television show it doesn’t actually mention the existence of urine or deffication. So that number one canine difficulty is ignored.

DH: A canine difficulty that exists in most European cities we’ve been travelling to.

SM: Uh huh.

DH: Ok ‘The Nuns Litany.’ There’s a line in there where she waits for her mother to die before she experiences any new vices. Is there anything that you would edit or think twice about putting in a song knowing you own mother might hear it?

SM: I suppose if I was going to write an expose about Tibetan Buddhism I would want to do it particularly accurately for fear that my mother would jump down my throat for inaccuracies. But other than that I don’t think I could possibly shock my mother. My mother can shock me and I can’t shock her. My mother was not shocked by ‘Zombie Boy.’

DH: I have a vision of you sitting down playing her your new album. Did she react to ‘Distortion’ at all? Has she heard it?

SM: She heard and early version that had more harshness while it was still being mixed and she considered it completely unlistenable. She was surprised when it came out that it was a lot more listenable than when she heard it.. (thinking)I guess there is a way to shock my mother: unrelenting screeching feedback.

DH: (laughs) In a room where she can’t escape. You seem impervious to praise or criticism. I know you refuse to read any reviews on your live shows or albums. Was there a specific point in your career where something triggered this decision?

SM: I’m sorry I don’t remember.

DH: I remember the one for me was when they said I was a midget circus freak who didn’t stop talking.

SM: With any encounters with the British press I’m painfully reminded that they are completely free to make up quotes. They will quote me as saying anything they want.

DH: It’s sometimes weird when they quote you as saying a slang word you’d never use.

SM: Or never heard of. I’ve actually had that happen to me in America too but only with unprofessional journalists.

DH: So with you ear problems, the discomfort you seem to have with noise. I took a photo of you guys from side of stage and you heard the shutter and looked around even though you had your earplug in. It made me think that the shutter sound might be in a similar register to applause. And it cut through. Is the audience clapping extremely painful?

SM: I probably only had one ear plug in. I’m not totally deaf in the right ear I’m just really imbalanced between the two ears.

DH: But you were in the middle of a song! I thought ‘my god he can hear that’

SM: laughs

DH: Is this degenerative? Could this mean the end of touring for you guys?

SM: They are getting worse. This has meant the end of touring so much because we have to impose these ridiculous constraints.

DH: Have you ever asked the audience not to clap?

SM: Yes, it didn’t work.

DH: Maybe you should distribute mittens before a show.

SM: We’ve discussed that. Or noise makers that are actually very soft. Dried leaves.

DH: When we first met years ago and we went guitar shopping in Sydney you gave me some advice on songwriting. When I mentioned I wasn’t as prolific as I’d like you suggested treat it like a crossword where keep working by filling in the blanks.

SM: Yes, if I know there’s going to be a certain number of lines I place that number of dots going down the left hand margin so I can see where the lines are going to be.

DH: Do you have any other methods you use? I guess when you have such a high output you need to have some kind of framework…

SM: Oh I don’t think I have a high output at all.

DH: Really? That day you wrote a song on the guitar in the shop!

SM: Did I? I don’t remember

DH: That’s why you bought it. I had the exact same guitar I was trying to sell

SM: A Country Gentleman?

DH: Yeah, I had one and you said (in deep Merritt baritone) ‘why would I deprive you of a guitar?.’ But it’s ok I sold it a week later. But yeah, you wrote a song on the guitar in the shop and I said the guitar is overpriced and you said ‘well what is a song worth?’

SM: well I guess that depends if the song gets published or not.

DH: do you still use that guitar?

SM: Yeah I think I used it as the rhythm guitar on Distortion

DH: Well I think I know the answer to this question and a lot of people ask me this question when they hear I’m coming on tour with you guys. Do you think you’ll ever come back to Australia?

SM: I can’t see any reason not to come back to Australia if I can’t be cryogenically frozen.

DH: So when there’s a few more huge leaps in the science world first they’ll fix your ear problem and then freeze you Han Solo style…

SM: Hopefully less painful then Han Solo… and there I’ll be. I’d also like to go to New Zealand. I’ve never been to New Zealand.

DH: Me neither. And I have less of an excuse. (at the time of interview this was still true)

SM: well it’s still an excuse. There’s an ocean between. They want me for soundcheck now.


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