The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merrit shows us round his extraordinary studio

Stephin Merritt has had an extraordinarily varied career. Although he’s collaborated with several other bands (The Gothic Archie/The 6ths and Future Bible Heroes), he’s best known as the principle singer/songwriter of The Magnetic Fields. Beyond that, Merritt has released audiobooks, movie soundtracks, collaborated in musical theatre, and recorded a TV commercial for Volvo. Most of his output has been released on the critically acclaimed Nonesuch Records.

Merritt’s 11th studio album is different. The mammoth 50 Song Memoir is an autobiographical concept album chronicling the first 50 years of his life. Even when singing about himself, Merritt’s caustic wit shines through on songs such as Come Back as a Cockroach and A Cat Called Dionysus. Both revealing and unpretentious, Merritt sings on all 50 tracks and plays more than 100 instruments, dovetailing gracefully between acoustic and frazzled electronic pop.

Although fairly self-explanatory, what was the motivation behind the new album?

“I read that Bob Dylan was coming out with an album with 30 tracks on it, and the article tried to make it seem like a trend. The motivation behind it was my record company president Robert Hurwitz, who took me to lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and said that he had a good idea for a new album commemorating my 50th birthday. It quickly turned into this 50-song monstrosity.”

You also released 69 Love Songs in 1999. Is this type of release simply a result of your prolific nature?

“Some themes are easier than others. If I were writing an album of political songs from, say, presidential elections from the beginning of the United States until the present - an idea that keeps coming up every four years - it would be hard… whereas an album of 69 love songs is much easier. Writing an album of 50 songs about me, with no particular rules other than it being about me, was a lot easier.” 

Over what period were the songs written?

“I incorporated earlier songs, so maybe ten songs pre-date the idea for the album. I started writing three months before I began recording, then I kept writing for another year and a half. I’m not the one who put the dates at the beginning of the song titles, by the way! I thought there was going to be a colon there. The songs are meant to be autobiographical.”

Apparently, you were reading Grace Jones’s autobiography but had to put it down because it might influence the album - in what way?

“I read the first chapter and thought it was pretty seductive - I didn’t want to have to live up to Grace Jones’s narrative strategy. I don’t know if she had a ghost writer, but I made a point of not reading any memoirs or autobiographies for this project; I just didn’t want to compare myself to any of them.

Is that the same with music? Some artists don’t like to listen to music while recording…

“It depends what I’m working on. I don’t think I listened to any music as research on this album, but I certainly listened to a lot of music as research on the album Realism. Since I recorded the album, I’ve been listening almost entirely to instrumental music, mostly baroque harpsichord music. Basically, I listen to harpsichord music in the car, which is great, because it’s so easy to separate it from the sound of the engine.”

The track Foxx and I presumably pays homage to John Foxx?

“Yes, he’s one of the artists that I think has actually improved since his so-called heyday. I like his music now at least as well as I did in the ’70s and ’80s. He did something sort of half way between ambient music and an audiobook, called The Quiet Man. It’s made up of piano pieces or solo keyboards with a narrator intoning short stories by John Foxx.”

You did a Gary Numan cover some years ago. Have you ever considered asking him and John to collaborate?

“I don’t know. I’d be very happy to talk to John about it, but we might both want too much control over the final product [laughs]. I have difficulty relinquishing control and I imagine he does too. I did do a pointedly un-electropop version of Gary Numan’s I Die: You Die, with bluegrass instrumentation.”

Is that era where your interest in electronic music comes from?

“I got a synthesiser in 1979, when I was 14 - a Yamaha CS-60, which was a junior version of the CS-80. I hadn’t heard much music which was totally guitar-free at that point. It was just before the British electropop explosion, so when I first got a synth, if I had to emulate anyone it would have probably been Yes rather than someone I hadn’t been exposed to yet. The synth was a present from my mother.”

Did having the CS-60 spark you into choosing music as a career path?

“I’ve never thought of music as a career path. It’s completely befuddling to me that I’m a professional musician, as I would never hire myself to do anything that I do.

‘By the way, the one thing that you can do with The Yamaha CS-60 is that there’s an audio input, which is just a plug, so what you put into it doesn’t have to be audio at all. I used to have fun connecting the other end of the patch chord to my teeth and making zapping sounds and things.

“After the CS-60, I got the Roland TB-303 and the 606 drum machine. There was a DIN cable, which was a precursor to the MIDI cable, connecting the two. The TB-303 was the first sequencer that I had – before that, everything I did was hand-played. I guess the first computer I had was an Apple in 1986 - which had 512KB of memory - and I got the Roland S-50 sampler. I’d read about the software Performer in Computer Music Journal, which said that it allowed fine-grain quantisation in synths, so you could make MIDI events that didn’t sound like clockwork.

“I’m very into mechanical music, but what I don’t like are things that sound exactly the same each time. I grew up with ’70s Kraftwerk albums, where everything is flanged or phased, and the octaves keep changing. As repetitive as the music is on paper, the sounds keep changing, and that’s what you’re listening to.”

What do you think of the path electronic music has taken since then?

“There haven’t been many new ways of making an oscillator sound. I think we’ve had 50 years of a few waveforms, but what is new are aleatory, or alien, instruments like the Swarmatron and the Crackle Box - things that aren’t completely controllable. So I think there’s actually an avant-garde scene again, at least instrumentally, and that part I find exciting.

“I like the introduction of John Cage-based chance operations into instrument design, which hasn’t been done before as far as I know.”

Are we talking modular?

“There are modular devices that can do that. In Buchla-land, there’s the 266e Source of Uncertainty, which is a great modular that allows you to control chaos in a control voltage form. You get to choose which kinds of chaos and the amount for each parameter. Wiard also has a chaos modular. The last Magnetic Fields album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, has a whole lot of chance-based electronics used as percussive elements. Maybe I’ll do an album of just that under another pseudonym.”

When you say chance-based, are we talking about devices that are not designed to make it easy for you to do everything?

“As always, it’s only easy to make certain kinds of music. The autoharp makes it very easy to make a certain kind of music - once you’ve tuned it, which is actually quite hard to do. It can make exactly one kind of music, or maybe two, very easily, and I think that’s true of most modern rhythm units if you want to make one of three or four sub-genres of dance music. But you’re being funnelled into aesthetics choices that are being made by someone else.”

Funnelled in the same way that the explosion of modular is led by their affordability?

“Yes, but a lot of the new modules are things that really didn’t exist before. I have a Kilpatrick Audio Pattern Generator, which is based on a little square of graphics where you have 64 dots that can be cycled through in a predetermined number of ways to represent 128 graphical images and different ways that the cursor can run through those. Each one represents a note value or control voltage, and I don’t know of any sequencer that was like that before. It’s not necessarily even a note sequencer - you could apply that voltage to anything.”

The autoharp makes it very easy to make a certain kind of music - once you’ve tuned it, which is actually quite hard to do. It can make exactly one kind of music, or maybe two.

50 Song Memoir has electronic instrumentation but somehow sounds very acoustic…

“It’s not primarily an acoustic album but one where a lot of the electronic elements are easily thought of as acoustic. When I use rhythm units, I often place a speaker on a snare drum to make sure it actually sounds like an acoustic drum, and I have a lot of strategies for blurring the distinction between electronic and acoustic sounds. So I’m flattered that you think it sounds like a primarily acoustic album, because it isn’t.”

The songs are quite rough around the edges. Is that from a tendency to avoid overproduction?

“About ten or 12 songs were produced by Thomas Bartlett, who has an all-electronic studio except for his piano. Thomas’s production choices are much more crystalline than mine… smoother textures. So once the songs got into my studio, I made them rougher and produced on top of him. I prefer more interesting textures, and what’s more interesting to me is warmth and fuzziness. I always like things that change every second rather than samples.

“For example, I want to get an electric harpsichord, and the easy way to do that would be to get the new Roland C-30, which is sample-based. But after 20 seconds of playing the middle C, I just feel like I’m hearing the same thing again and again, whereas if I get a vintage harpsichord, which is probably fantastically expensive, when you press middle C you’re creating an electro-mechanical action that will be slightly different every time.”

Could you also apply that principle to the distinction between analogue hardware and digital software?

“I used a lot of digital gear on my first album, Distant Plastic Trees. It was entirely made on a Roland S-50 sampler, a Yamaha RX21 rhythm unit and a Korg Poly-800, which is technically a digital synth - although it sounds pretty messy by today’s standards. In order to make the sounds change all the time, even though most of them are samples, I did what you can do with the S-50 that you can’t do with most samplers, which is to send the same note twice at the same time, which makes each note comb filter slightly differently. Because the motherboard can’t actually play them at exactly the same time, it plays them a fraction of a second apart, so that’s one strategy to make digital sounds different from each other.”

You have an amazing studio, but we assume that as a songwriter, the kit doesn’t necessarily lead the writing process as much as the strength of the songs themselves…

“Absolutely, and I don’t think of myself as a good cover artist at all. I haven’t tried in several years, because I think that every time I do a cover I don’t do it justice, whereas when I do my own songs, not doing them justice is the whole point. I write pretty conventional songs in a musical way, and then I subvert them in the studio, which I pretty much have to do anyway because my voice is not a pop instrument at all - it’s the same as my speaking voice.”

But it’s a very unique-sounding vocal - you wouldn’t necessarily want to change that by taking singing lessons…

“I have taken singing lessons [laughs]. It’s always called ‘an untrained voice’, but it’s actually not an untrained voice. Usually, on Magnetic Fields albums, I have more than one lead vocalist. I’ve had Shirley Simms doing co-lead vocals for the last 11 years, but for this album it didn’t seem appropriate.”

Does the writing process usually begin with acoustic instrumentation?

“No, I never write with instruments. I sit around in bars with a notebook. I write down lyrics, but I expect to remember the music, which is why I write catchy songs - if they’re not catchy, I can’t remember them.

“I think if I used really complex chording, I would probably need an instrument to hear it on, but because I usually don’t, I go straight from a click track to a bassline and typically have much of the arrangement in my head. Where would you begin writing the arrangement if you didn’t have it in your head?”

It’s hard to compute being able to do that, unless you’re a songwriter, of course.

“Yes - but most people can do lots of things that I can’t do. Most people can cook and I can’t cook at all. Last night I made myself pasta and it was horrible!”

You have an AdrenaLinn drum machine. That was that made by Roger Linn who made the famous Linn Drum.

“It’s a very small contribution to the Linn Drum line. It has Linn Drum sounds on it, but can do thousands of things. It’s completely counter-intuitive and can make your guitar sound like a sequencer. It’s sort of a guitar-pedal and a rhythm unit.

“I also have a Rhythm Ace drum machine, which I believe is actually what turned into Roland’s famous CompuRhythm series; and the Tempest Drum Machine, which is an odd beast, because I haven’t actually been able to use it in the ways that I would’ve liked. For some reason, they released the software before it was ready and never updated it, so it absolutely cannot play in any meter except 4/4… and it can’t even play in swing time! And yet it’s got all these lovely synths on it; you can compress and distort different notes and make the filters wobble, which is fun, but it’s a profoundly flawed instrument.”

What other drum boxes do you use?

“There’s something called the DRM-1, which has been made under another the name to the one I have, which is Music and More. It’s got eight drum sounds and no sequencer, but there’s a little button for each drum, and each one has eight parameters, including resonance, volume and envelope, so you can see what you’re doing. It has no memory, so what you’re looking at is what you’re hearing. It’s a great way of coming up with combinations of drum sounds. It’s got a MIDI input, so you can sequence it if you like, and by today’s standards it’s kind of huge.”

You have some particularly unusual gear. What can you tell us about the Congost Xylomatic?

“It’s Hungarian - a kind of a music box that you can program. It’s got a little rotating wheel with spokes that make you able to play it like a little xylophone, mechanically. It’s not very controllable, so you can’t make it sound professional - only toy-like, like a badly played glockenspiel. I’m a pretty bad glockenspiel player myself, but I can’t speed up or slow down like the Congost Xylomatic. You can hear it best on the introduction to the track Eye Contact.”

I’m a pretty bad glockenspiel player myself, but I can’t speed up or slow down like the Congost Xylomatic. You can hear it best on the introduction to the track Eye Contact.

The Suzuki Omnichord and Casio VL-Tone look like interesting ‘toys’, too.

“The Suzuki was designed as a sort of electronic autoharp. It has a little section where you can strum it with a guitar pick. It’s probably plastic, and it’s ribbed so it has some resistance to it. It also has a rhythm unit and a sequencer, but, of course, it never really sounds like an autoharp and no listener would be fooled.

“Everyone had The Casio VL-Tone in 1983; it was made famous by the German group Trio with their hit single Da Da Da. That song is entirely VL-Tone in the intro, and the snare drum plays along with it. We were going to use it on tour before we realised it’s about 30 cents sharp - I have no idea how, as digital synthesisers have no business changing their pitch.”

Can you describe the Andes Melodica, a mini keyboard that you blow into?

“Yes - it’s a lot of fun. It’s not what everyone would call a melodica; it’s really a keyboard recorder. It’s actually wooden on the inside rather than metal, so it sounds like a recorder playing, but when you hit a second note it sounds like two… except it suddenly goes flat, so playing it in tune is extremely difficult. Basically, it’s really great at sounding like a group of children playing a recorder.”

And how do you bring it all together on the computer? What’s your DAW of choice?

“I use Pro Tools with some plugins. I have the Waves Diamond Collection and a few others - the same ones as Thomas Bartlett, so I can hear what he’s hearing.

“In the ’80s, I had Performer, so I naturally moved to Digital Performer when that came out; but my engineer made me switch to Pro Tools because he was familiar with it. It was a really dumb thing to do, and I’ve regretted it ever since, because there’s essentially no sequencing ability in Pro Tools.

“My next studio activity is to get Digital Performer back and run both of them, and if I can’t, I might dig out my previous computer, now that it’s been fixed, and use them simultaneously. It’s about control - as far as I know, Ableton and Cubase are oriented to particular kinds of music, but Performer is not. But I haven’t actually tried either of them; I’m only judging by who uses them.”

 50 Song Memoir is out now on Nonesuch Records.

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