Stephin Merritt might be the greatest songwriter of his generation. Still, as has been reported before, interviewing him can be quite difficult.
He takes extraordinarily long pauses, then suddenly decides to interrupt just when you thought it was safe to speak. If you refer to him calling himself “introverted” in the past, he will deny that he's introverted. Black is white. Up is down. Adele fans are racist, a charge Merritt has faced himself.
So let's do this. This symbol * will denote an uncomfortably-long pause.
What's the difference between being an L.A. songwriter and a New York one?
I think that the main difference is that you can't sit in a bar for hours in L.A. drinking and drinking, or else you'd have to take a taxi home.
Everyone on the new album seems at wits' end with their partner. There's so much revenge and jealousy, topics that are usually associated with more extreme music.
The topics of revenge and jealousy seem to pop up on a lot of the new songs?
Um. Yeah, that doesn't seem to be a new theme for me. I think there's a lot of violent death and destruction in my lyrics.
Most people do.
“Your Girlfriend's Face” echoes the–
The most dramatic topics in the world are love and violence.
Oh no, I agree. I guess I just noticed it more on this album? “Your Girlfriend's Face” echoes the revenge sentiment of “California Girls.” Was it intentional to have a girl sing these violent songs to make sure the irony isn't mistaken?
I don't know what you mean.
So that it isn't taken literally the way it might be with say, a rap-metal band?
I could see it being either gender. I gave it to Shirley because she's got more of a “pop” voice than I do.
Is it an artistic decision to choose who sings what, or does it have more to do with the lyrics and character of the narrator?
The decision is arbitrary, frankly. It often has to do with what key it happens to be recorded in.
Do you record a lot of alternate versions with different singers?
Yeah, I record everything first. And then some things are just clearly not suited to me.
I heard there was a title song for the new album and you didn't end up using that.
Oh no, it wasn't a title song for the album. It was a song that had the title that the album now has.
Is “God Wants Us to Wait” your first political song?
Well it concerns abstinence, and it's very pointed in its satire.
I don't know. “World Love” is pretty political. It advocates overthrow of the government and anarchy now.
That song and “The Horrible Party” appear to satirize conservatism more directly than anything you've done before.
I wouldn't know.
Is it strange to be known as this introverted figure but having your sexuality upfront and discussed from early on?
Do you think I'm known to be an introverted figure?
Um, would you say you're an introverted figure?
Not particularly. I mean, I'm perfectly comfortable onstage. I don't have stage fright.
In the grand scheme of music, where you have a lot of people who chase headlines, you wouldn't necessarily be in the upper percentile of extroverted artists.
No, I don't particularly chase headlines.
Synth-based music made a huge comeback over the last decade, which is when you stopped using synths.
I don't really know what you're talking about.
You don't think dance music and synthesizers have made a huge comeback in the last several years, as opposed to guitar-based rock?
Well, I sit in gay bars for hours every day and in no way has the synthesizer ever gone away.
Rock comes and goes but dance music and the synthesizer have been nearly predominant since 1976. Almost all of the music I hear is essentially disco.
Because that's what they play in gay bars.
And you don't really find yourself–
And there's plenty of new things I like. I like Robyn. She actually sings pretty. I liked Amy Winehouse, poor thing. Ummm…I like Adele, though I have some reservations about why people like her.
She really has a lovely voice, but I only get suspicious when people get excited about British people who sound like American black people.
Basically she sounds like Anita Baker. And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker.
And I think about the whole, with the racism, when people love when British people sound like American black people.
What's the funniest song you've ever written?
Definitely “What a Fucking Lovely Day.”
I haven't seen the film about you yet. Are you happy with how it turned out?
Um, well, no. [makes a sound that resembles a laugh] I was relieved to just not be horrified.