For close to two decades, The Magnetic Fields has performed pop numbers that distill the last 110 years of the American songbook with a heartfelt intensity that brooks no irony. Their crowning glory,1999's epic 69 Love Songs, showcased the breadth of their talent and restless genius of lead songwriter Stephin Merritt. They have just released the playful, synth-heavy Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge Records) and open their tour on March 6 at Club Helsinki in Hudson. In early February, Merritt spoke with Chronogram from his "squalid studio apartment" in New York. (His Los Angeles residence is "a manor house.") Despite a cold, multitasker Merritt—who also produces side bands Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies, and The 6ths—was rehearsing for the tour, preparing for a February 13 Tibet House benefit concert with Philip Glass, Lou Reed, and Laurie Anderson, and tending to new projects: a "La Ronde"-like theater piece with Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler and a backstage musical with "Coraline" collaborator Neil Gaiman.
The Magnetic Fields will play Club Helsinki in Hudson on Tuesday, March 6, at 8pm. Bachlorette opens. Unfortunately, the show is sold out. (518) 828-4800
Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a return to synthesizers for you.
Well, no, there are a lot of things that aren't synthesizers. Everything is so heavily treated that you can't really tell what it is. This could be the case for practically every record, but it's definitely the case for this record. There's cello all over it, but you can't really tell.
What new synthesizer technology play a role in this release?
For example, there's the Buchla Source of Uncertainty, which allows you to control the randomness of the random voltage generator. All the forms of the [songs] are really familiar, so I felt I could disrupt them without disturbing the listener too unduly. So, in the first chorus it is the same as in the last chorus, I can out in absolutely anything without disrupting the listener. So, for example, the Buchla Source of Uncertainty can be going [makes rubbery, static sound with mouth] without actually disturbing the listener too much.
You have a ravenous interest in collecting exotic musical instruments. Do recent finds appear on this new album?
Basically, this album is an excuse for me to play with toys—besides the Source of Uncertainty, the Dewanatron Keyed Melody Gin. Most of the gadgets on the new record are just invented within the last few years. Well, also from [Catskill-based instrument inventor Brian] Dewan is the Swarmatron, which makes a note record that can separate into eight other ones. Trent Reznor used it heavily on The Social Network soundtrack; it's kind of a signature sound effect. I'm not the first one to use it, but I'm probably the first one to use it in a pop context. And sort of more traditionally, there's a pocket piano, which is a tiny electric keyboard with a speaker that does a surprisingly large number of things—a perversely large number of things. And I use that heavily on "Infatuation (With Your Gyration)." It's got that modern 80s sound the kids go for. You can wave your hand up and down over the speaker to create a "wah" effect. More like the "wah" effect you get when you hold your hat over the end of your trumpet. Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.
Are you still writing your songs in bars or cafés?
I have abandoned writing songs in cafés because I can only have a tiny amount of caffeine at this point without having heart palpitations. For whatever reason, I've become really sensitive to caffeine—possibly because of the enormous amounts of it I have consumed in my life. I've been drinking tea like a Russian for most of my life. I used to guzzle Jolt Cola. But anyway, now I've become ridiculously sensitive to caffeine. I dunk the green tea bag into the water for about five seconds and that wakes me up for the day. So now I only write songs in bars—so I don't have a heart attack and die.
Your fans are an intensely faithful group. Have you ever had a stalker?
I've had stalkers who were not fans, but I've never had a fan stalker. Unless you count my mother.