Stephin Merritt Undistorted
East Coast–bred, recent â€¨L.A. transplant Stephin Merritt, who records as Magnetic Fields, the Sixths, the Gothic Archies and others, performs a two-night, sold-out stint at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Sunday, March 2 and Monday, March 3 in support of the Magnetic Fields’ new full-length disc, Distortion. Over the course of eight albums, the best being 1994’s The Charm of the Highway Strip and 1999’s 69 Love Songs, Merritt’s Magnetic Fields has crafted perfect pop songs characterized by lyrical precision, his languid voice, and wall-of-sound production.
LA Weekly: I always figured you to be an eternal New Yorker. When did you move to Los Angeles?
STEPHIN MERRITT: A year and a half ago, and it seemed like good timing because it seemed like I had finished recording Distortion , so I wasn’t going to be needing to record anything for a while. It was going to be a good time to move my studio. As it turned out, I kept mixing and mastering Distortion for another year. But I wanted to be closer to the film industry in order to realize my goal of writing 50 Hollywood musicals. And I guess a major precipitating event was that I seriously outgrew my studio. I own a tiny apartment in New York but am renting a house in L.A.
LA: Had you spent much time in Los Angeles other than performing? What was your sense of LA before you moved here?
SM: my experience in LA was mostly from writing a play, Beach Blossom Town, a few years ago. I lived here for a few months doing that.
LA: Has any of the so-called West Coast sound seeped into your head, or into your music? Do you think about that?
SM: I’ve always thought about that. My mother moved to San Diego maybe 15 years ago, and I was visiting her in San Diego and listening to the radio and realized that. I guess my theory is that because of the dry climate, because of the low humidity, records like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Sagittarius — that Curt Boettcher record — both have to do with the high end being extremely crystalline and clear. And I think that’s something you actually need the low humidity to do.
LA: Really? I always considered it to be that, well, we’re close to the ocean, close to the mountains, the weather’s great. All that stuff gets into the music — that it’s psychological.
SM: I don’t think so. I think that when people don’t understand something, they assume it’s psychological. I don’t think it’s psychological at all. I think it’s very scientific. Soprano xylophones sound really good out here. And the beach, and surf music — I don’t think of that as having much to do with the California sound. The early Beach Boys versus Pet Sounds — there’s close harmony in both, but that’s different. The Mamas and Papas weren’t from California.
LA: Have you done any recording out here yet? Have you proven your theory?
SM: Well, I went to a music store in Pasadena — I want to say it’s called the Old Town Music Center — and I bought my little soprano xylophone, and I used it two weeks ago in a television commercial. And it sounds amazing, of course, because it was recorded in Southern California.
LA: You're doing commercial music out here as well?
SM: Yeah, actually, I haven't done any film work since I got here, but I've done three different series of commercials.
LA: Incidental music? Music created specifically for commercials?
LA: Wow, that's interesting. I just finished a long feature on Mark Mothersbaugh, spent a lot of time at Mutato Studios watching those guys work. That's a whole different world of expectations. And ultimately creative decisions are sometimes made by very non-creative people. You turn over a lot of decisions to someone else. Is that the case with you?
SM: Yes that is the case – I don't get to make the final mix, and the lyrics change literally 30 times after I've written them. People who have difficulty identifying the instruments are having input in the mix, so I have to learn to interpret, "Turn up the tuba," when there is no tuba. For me ... it's novel. So, it's not a boring thing to do.
LA: What commercials have you been writing for?
SM: I did two Volvo commercials. Those have already aired. I worked on a third commercial. I'm not sure I'm allowed to say anything about it.
LA: Being in California, of course, there will be questions about the song "California Girls." Did you write that out here? Did you write that in New York?
SM: I wrote that in New York, actually.
LA: Was it based on specific experiences?
SM: No, it's based on the idea of a character from maybe the Midwest, who feels oppressed by media representations of what she sees as 'real girls.' Really from California. Blond and seventeen and whatever. She decides that, instead of feeling upset at the media portrayal, she feels upset at the actual girls, and decides to physically come to California with a battle-axe and behead them.
LA: So have you been meeting with film producers?
SM: No, I haven't had time!
LA: Well, you better get to work. Fifty's a lot.
SM: [I've] been working on this musical, Coraline, back in New York, the Neil Gaiman adaptation. And I've been doing these three commercials.
LA: But do you have story ideas? You should probably be thinking about, at this point, your first five if you're going to do fifty. Sorry to put pressure on you, I don't mean to put pressure on you.
SM: I have a whole lot of offers to do stage musicals, and I have a lot of ideas for them. But at the moment I have no offers to do film musicals, so I figure I will do a stage musical, and see if they can be adapted ... It seems like the stage musicals usually actually happen when producers say they will happen, whereas film projects fall through more often than not.
LA: And it seems as though maybe the aesthetic aspirations of a your idea of a film might not necessarily be along the same lines as a present-day Hollywood film.
SM: Well, I really liked Hairspray, although that came from the stage of course, having come originally come from the film of course. Original Hollywood musicals have not been raining down on us recently. They all seem to be Broadway adaptations. But there have been other recent film musicals that I've really enjoyed.
LA: Which ones?
SM: They're a little… left field. The Saddest Music in the World, Dancer in the Dark, The Happiness of the Katakuris by Takeshi Miike.
LA: I don't know that.
SM: It's a zombie musical made by Takeshi Miike, who usually does shocking Japanese horror movies, like Audition. I think he also did the original version of The Ring. But he made a musical. [Editor's note: Ringu was actually directed by Hideo Nakata.]
LA: I actually spoke with you around the time that 69 Love Songs came out, and at that point at the turn of the century, I asked you whether or not, with the turn, you thought there would be an aesthetic shift in music to reflect the culture's excitement about the new millennium. You acknowledged a similar excitement – that the psychological shift might manifest itself in the aesthetics of the time. I'm wondering, eight years in, whether that indeed you feel like has happened, or whether it's been a great disappointment.
SM: Well, there has been a shift. It just seems like nothing has happened, because I think what has happened is subtraction rather than addition. Dance music died … and, so, we don't seem to have much from Britain anymore. They've already [inaudible] the British Invasion but I don't know that they're actually doing anything to invade us with.
LA: Well, they're all those female singer songwriters coming over…
SM: Yeah, yeah... So anyways, nothing interesting is happening but the technology is changing, so, the people have to listen to music, or feel they have to listen to music, on incredibly crappy sound quality mp3's. I guess the kids don't care about the sound quality, as usual, so it's just like the days of cassettes or in the days of 45 rpms, singles. People are listening to unbelievably awful sound quality, only this time it's even worse. So I think in maybe ten or fifteen years we'll get an even worse format. The idea of listening to music on your cell phone didn't actually seem to catch on, only because it's only in one ear. Maybe that'll take place for real in a while. And ringtones, the most wanted ring tone industry, never took off.
LA: Other than as a signifier -- "This is who I am when I'm standing in a line."
SM: But that's like wearing the T-shirt. That's not buying the record.
LA: Were you thinking about any of this when you were trying to decide how Distortion was going to sound? Were you thinking about how it was going to sound on computer speakers?
SM: No, but I was aware that high fidelity was not where music was going. Actually I think people are really confused about high fidelity at this point, probably because of all Top 40 music being synthesized. They actually don't understand the difference between synthetic piano and a real piano. And synthetic piano is what they hear more often. So when they hear a real piano, they think it's sort of lo-fi. I think the audience is confused in a number of ways.
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