By Mark Guarino
The lead attraction in the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt is a indie pop songwriter and famous curmudgeon whose songs walk the line between highbrow and low, a Cole Porter who used to play punk clubs but now writes operas, showtunes and songs capturing the darker side of love. He arrives at the Old Town School for six shows in three days starting March 14, all to promote his eighth album Distortion (Nonesuch).
Q: Why make an album of songs steeped in studio distortion?
A: This album is about imitating (1985’s) Psychocandy by the Jesus and Mary Chain … I think that album is the last significant, bold step forward in pop production. It’s the last album I heard that I thought was shockingly new sounding.
Q: You write songs for so many different projects, were the ones that appear here meant for the album or were they pulled in from other sessions?
A: I specifically didn’t write any songs for this album. I wrote songs for an album. But then decided on this production style … So it was like the Jesus and Mary Chain playing a Carpenters album.
Q: Your new song “California Girls” is about how much you hate them. Was this meant to be a bookend to the Beach Boys classic?
A: No, it’s not directly a response to the Beach Boys song. I realize it can be seen that way. It happens to not been written that way. I love the Beach Boys song. Although I do not wish they could all be California girls. I bet they don’t either.
Q: You’ve said in the past that gay bars are where you write your best songs — Are there any in Chicago more inspiring than others?
A: I don’t remember names of places. I’ve often thought that I should write a book about various bars called The Eagle. Because it seems like there’s one in almost every town. If you want to know where the gay bars are, you just call information and ask for The Eagle.
Q: Many of your songs have been in commercials but recently you were hired to write one specifically for Volvo. Did you have any hesitations about writing jingles to sell cars?
A: I wasn’t seeking it. They called me. It wasn’t like I decided to start writing music for commercials and got an agent to get me work. I said yes when they propositioned me. So I have no ideological objection to selling records or selling music. I have a very expensive recording studio, which requires a regular influx of cash. And I am happy to make money. As most people are. I like making money.
Q: Who doesn’t?
A: I’d be curious about the motivations for not wanting to have one’s music in commercials. There are of course certain commercials that I would not want to have any of my music associated with. Commercials for things I objected to, for example.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, for example, political candidates.
Q: I’ve interviewed you before where we talked about your hearing loss —
A: — I only have significant hearing loss in my right year. But that’s not the problem. In my left year I have an unfortunate hearing gain. Where shrill sounds sound louder and louder.
Q: How do you balance that playing live?
A: We play very quietly. Very quietly. We get complaints that we’re not playing loud enough.
Q: Are there any thrills left playing live?
A: Playing live has become more and more difficult as my ear trouble has gotten worse. We have to play very quietly, we can’t have a rhythm section, we can’t have monitors onstage. At this point I don’t how we’re going to continue. For the moment we’re going to continue having the loud songs be sung by someone other than me. So I can stick an earplug in my ear for the loud songs.
Q: So playing live is really to promote the new record and nothing else.
A: If I had my druthers there would be no such thing as live music. Live music sucks. Live music belongs in the orchestra pit as part of a theatrical presentation. Even then it kind of sucks.
Q: Because it can’t be a perfect as what you can make in the studio?
A: Not only is it never perfect but because (the audience doesn’t) expect it to be perfect, (the musicians) don’t even try.
Q: You’d like what the Beatles decided upon: A complete studio life and nothing else.
A: Well, they were being drowned out by screaming teenagers. We fail to have that problem.