Music Interviews
4:04 pm
Fri April 13, 2012

The Magnetic Fields: 'Out Late At A Bar, Writing A Song'

For more than 20 years, the indie-pop group The Magnetic Fields has been singing songs about love, though not always in the traditional sense. With a style that ranges from bitter to sincere to ironic, Stephin Merritt — the group's frontman, writer and producer — has created a growing cast of characters surviving love's vicissitudes.

In his characteristic deadpan, Merritt tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he owes the inspiration for many of those characters to a particular ritual of his.

"I sit around in gay bars and write with a cocktail in one hand, and a pen in the other, and a notebook in the other," he says.

In fact, some songs on the band's new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, stemmed specifically from Merritt's nights on the town.

"I woke up one morning and saw that my car was not in the driveway," Merritt says. "And I thought, 'I must have left the car at the bar so I wouldn't kill anyone on Santa Monica Boulevard.' So I looked in my song notebook, and there was [the song] 'Andrew in Drag.' And that's all I know about the writing of 'Andrew in Drag.' "

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Magnetic Fields have been making music for more than 20 years now, in particular, they've been singing about love for that long - songs that run the gamut from sincere to bitter and sometimes all the way to ironic. Their new album "Love at the Bottom of Sea," creates a whole new cast of characters surviving love's vicissitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS BORN FOR LOVE")

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: (Singing) Hey, little cutie I was born for love.

WERTHEIMER: Stephin Merritt sings many of the songs on this album, and he writers and produces most of the music for The Magnetic Fields. He joins us from the studios of WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Thank you for coming in.

STEPHIN MERRITT: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: This is a very long lifespan for a musical group, isn't it - 20 years? How are you still finding new things to say about love?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MERRITT: Well, I suppose if I were actually married for 20 years I might find a little less to say about love but I'm not. I go in and out of relationships, so I don't know, it's like one doesn't run out of words in the dictionary. One keeps learning new words every morning at the crossword puzzle.

WERTHEIMER: Now the lyrics are it seems to me central to your music.

MERRITT: I try.

WERTHEIMER: Is that the center point to creating a song? Do you do words first?

MERRITT: I think of the words and the music at the same time. Generally, I'll write a verse and chorus in one night. I sit around in gay bars and write with a cocktail in one hand, and a pen in the other, and listen to the music going untz, untz, untz, untz, dance, dance, dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MERRITT: And I think, god, this is stupid. I think I'll stop paying attention to it and write a song. And that's generally my inspiration. But sometimes my inspiration is as I walk into the bar and they're playing "The Oprah Winfrey Show," with the sound down with the subtitles on and a woman is saying, yes, when my husband died I discovered that he had a whole secret life with a pied-a-terre. And I just took the phrase my husband's pied-a-terre and ran with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HUSBAND'S PIED-A-TERRE")

FIELDS: (Singing) Where's a minx get minks to wear. Why, my husband's pied-a-terre. In two drinks, you think she'll care. That's my husband's pied-a-terre. Every alley cat in town knows my husband's flat in town. Better get your derriere to my husband's pied-a-terre.

WERTHEIMER: Now on that particular song Claudia Gonson is singing. And it's a...

MERRITT: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: I guess it's a sort of an unhappy love song. So tell us about those words.

MERRITT: They're very sad, aren't they?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: But the music is not sad.

MERRITT: It's perky.

WERTHEIMER: But it also has some of that electronic stuff that you were just making fun of.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MERRITT: Yes. But it has it in a different flavor and about a very particular thing and doesn't repeat except for the title. You know, and we repeat a chorus in the album is "Andrew in Drag."

WERTHEIMER: Which - "Andrew in Drag" is a song that looks at gender identity. Could you talk about why you wrote that, how you wrote that?

MERRITT: I woke up one morning and saw that my car was not in the driveway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MERRITT: And I thought, oh, I guess I must have been out late last night at a bar writing a song and must've left the car so I wouldn't kill anyone on Santa Monica Boulevard. So I looked in my song notebook, and there was "Andrew in Drag." And that's all I know about the writing of "Andrew in Drag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANDREW IN DRAG")

FIELDS: (Singing) There is no hope for me. From here on I'll go stag. The only girl I'll ever love is Andrew in drag. Andrew in drag. Andrew in drag. Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: The only girl I've ever loved is Andrew in drag. That's you singing, right?

MERRITT: Oh yeah. Sped up. I'm always sped up on records.

WERTHEIMER: Your band sort of stayed away from synthesized music and now you've brought it back. Why did you do that?

MERRITT: I wanted to take a vacation from synthesizers that just sound like electric organs and I spent the last 10 years buying other synthesizers that sound more like...

(SOUNDBITE OF GARBLED NOISE)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MERRITT: And that sort of thing. I think the next Magnetic Fields record is likely to have a lot more chaos on it. This record I used chaos as a sort of herb or spice. But I think the next time I'll be as in chaos as the entre.

WERTHEIMER: Give us a suggestion about a moment of chaos that we ought to share.

MERRITT: Well, you could play "God Wants Us to Wait."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD WANTS US TO WAIT")

FIELDS: (Singing) I think I know what you would like us to do. When we have children let's have 72. Until then we must be resigned to our fate, I love you, baby, but God wants us to wait.

WERTHEIMER: Now is this a satirical take on things your parents wish you would do, or what?

MERRITT: Well, I do identify with the impulse to celibacy. I was celibate for five years from 18 to 23 or something like that, not out of any philosophical underpinnings but just sort of as a fashion statement or something, I don't know. So I think maybe people hear it as more satirical than I mean it to be.

WERTHEIMER: Well, it's really been great fun to talk to you. You're funny in an unusual way for a performer. I mean, you're a sort of very low-key studio guy to me.

MERRITT: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm a pretty low-key person on stage as well - calm and rational and a little sad.

WERTHEIMER: So this is 20 years of writing, recording and touring.

MERRITT: You're depressing me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: I'm so sorry. But I would like very much to thank you for talking to us.

MERRITT: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: That is Stephin Merritt. He performs, writes and produces for The Magnetic Fields, and their new album is "Love at the Bottom of the Sea."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T LIKE YOUR TONE")

FIELDS: (Singing) When near I hear how clear you make your so-called feelings known. It's queer, my dear, I fear heartbreak but I don't like your tone.

WERTHEIMER: You can watch a low-key performance by The Magnetic Fields and hear songs from the new album at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.