Just about everything ever written about Stephin Merritt, the brilliant and baritone frontman of the Magnetic Fields, mentions at least in passing that he can be a cantankerous and difficult prick. Unfortunately, this interview will not be an exception. This week the Fields released their tenth long-player, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, a return to form for anyone who loved their synth-heavy ‘90s heyday, when 69 Love Songs ruled the indie universe. The new album is charming and funny and instantly likable; ironically, the complete opposite of Merritt himself. Interviewing Merritt is like trying to get car keys from a guy who’s been drinking since noon. Walk up to a stranger on a city subway, stand uncomfortably close and ask if he’s been circumcised, and you’ll get roughly the same reaction as asking Merritt about his creative process. If you love music and joy, pick up a copy of Love at the Bottom of the Sea as soon as it’s legally available. Also, if you love music and joy and you happen to see Stephin Merritt sitting in the corner of a bar, nursing a cognac, do yourself a favor and walk in the opposite direction.
I could easily see “God Wants Us to Wait,” the first song on the new album, becoming a dance anthem for teen abstinence groups. Would that be cool with you?
[Long pause.] Um, no. There’s nothing wrong with teen abstinence. But I would prefer if teenagers took that song as ironic.
But people interpret songs the way they want to. Do you care what your audience thinks?
Hello? You still there?
Would it upset you if somebody missed the joke of “God Wants Us to Wait?” What if their reaction is, “You know what? He makes a good point. I don’t need to have sex till I’m married.”
[Laughs.] Good luck with that.
You have some experience with abstinence.
[Long pause.] Well, I don’t know about that.
Did I get Wikipedied? You weren’t actually abstinent for a good portion of your 20s?
[Long pause.] One is abstinent almost all of the time.
That’s not what I’m asking. Was there a large period of time during the second decade of your life when you didn’t have sex?
When you were abstaining?
[Long pause.] I didn’t think of it as abstaining.
What did you think of it as?
[Long pause.] Um. [Long pause.] I don’t know.
Was it by design, or did weeks and months go by and one day you realized, “Oh yeah, I haven’t had sex in awhile?”
[Long pause.] I’d rather not talk about this.
I’m sorry. I thought since you wrote a song about abstinence, maybe the subject was fair game. But if you’re not comfortable talking about it.
I don’t think I’d be comfortable talking about it with my therapist.
Do you write for a specific audience?
[Long pause.] What does that mean?
When you’re coming up with a song, who is to for? Who do you imagine will be listening to it? Is it a Brooklyn hipster in skinny jeans? A misunderstood teenager in Iowa looking for an escape?
“That’s the problem of writing in bars. There’s only so much writing you can do before you get drunk.”
I don’t have that. I’ve never had that. I don’t really know what people are talking about when they say that. That seems weird to me. That’s like adding a character who is the reader.
You said in another interview that you don’t want to antagonize straight people.
Well, I’m happy to antagonize some straight people. But not all straight people.
What straight people should be antagonized?
[Long pause.] Hmm. Let me ignore that one.
How about “Andrew in Drag,” the first single from Love at the Bottom of the Sea? I know a few straight people who’d be antagonized by that song.
It’s about an awkward situation. A straight man suddenly realizing that he’s in love with the drag persona of his presumably straight friend Andrew.
That’s a form of antagonism, right? You’re making straight guys think about sexual feelings that might freak them out.
[Long pause.] I don’t think most straight people have been in that situation before, but I don’t know.
You don’t think most straight people have found themselves uncomfortably attracted to somebody of their same sex?
[Long pause.] I don’t know.
I’m almost positive there isn’t a straight person on the planet who hasn’t felt that. Unless they’re some religious deep-in-denial military douche. It’s just human nature.
[Long pause.] Maybe. I don’t know.
Well, this has been a riveting discussion.
I have not been in that situation that I wrote about in “Andrew in Drag,” so I find it entertaining to write about and think about. But I haven’t actually experienced it. I’ve experienced analogous situations of impossible love, but not that particular kind.
You’ve said that you don’t write personal songs. Is it possible an autobiographical reference has slipped in when you weren’t paying attention?
Most of my songs are vague enough that it applies equally well to me or anyone else.
There’s a little bit of truth in every song?
Some more than others. I do in fact hate horrible parties, so “The Horrible Party” is partly an expression of my actual opinion. And I’ve had the revenge fantasy that is the centerpiece of “Your Girlfriend’s Face.”
This is the worst question to ever ask an artist, but where do you get your ideas?
I actually understand your awkward pause this time, but let me explain. Where do you go for creative inspiration? Do you do extensive research to find granules of song ideas? Or do thoughts just pop into your head in the middle of the night, apropos of nothing?
I read somewhere that you got the inspiration for “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre” from watching an episode of Oprah in a bar. Is that fairly typical?
I don’t usually take something from television, no.
So where do your songs come from? Are you just minding your own business and out of nowhere you start humming a lyric like, “I’ve run away to join the fairies, this mortal world has lost its charm?” Or does something specific have to trigger it?
Hmm. [Long pause.] I don’t remember what triggered that.
Okay. [Long pause.] Well this is getting more fun by the minute. Do you … ?
I also don’t remember writing “Andrew in Drag.”
You don’t remember it? What does that mean?
I found it in my notebook the next day. I believe I had taken a taxi home, which means it took hours and hours to write it, and by the time I was finished writing it, I was too drunk to drive and too drunk to remember writing it. [Laughs.] But I remembered the melody.
You wrote it while you were blacked out?
I guess so. That’s the problem of writing in bars. There’s only so much writing you can do before you get drunk. It doesn’t usually happen to me, but it does occasionally happen.
How many drinks does it take to get to that sweet spot where the lyrics are flowing?
Just one? Six beers are too many?
[Sternly.] I do not drink beer.
I apologize. What do you drink?
What’s your brand?
I’m equally happy with Courvoisier or Hennessy.
Has that always been your drink of choice, or is it a recent fondness?
I used to drink vodka, but vodka and I had a falling out.
Are there certain Magnetic Fields albums that were written under the influence of vodka and some that were written with cognac?
Can you be more specific?
The 20th century albums were vodka but the 21st century albums have all been cognac.
I’ve heard you compare songwriting to the African Guinea worm.
The Dracunculus parasite. [Long pause.] I don’t remember making that comparison.
So it’s not an accurate comparison?
[Long pause.] I’ve heard it called the Dracula Worm. It’s something Jimmy Carter is looking to eradicate. I don’t generally approve of the activities of American presidents, but I have to say that I quite like Jimmy Carter for working to destroy this horrendous creature. It’s a worm that grows to be three feet long and grows under the human skin, and gradually emerges from the skin in an incredibly painful and itchy way, that makes people feel hot and like they have to go to the lake to immerse their feet. This is a species I feel that we could do without.
When are the Magnetic Fields going to record a song about Dracunculus? Or have they already?
We haven’t done anything yet. Maybe it could be a benefit single. It could at least publicize the problem.
Would this song literally be about the parasite, or would it be more analogous?
[Long pause.] Analogous how?
Would you write a song about love, and tell people “Oh, that love song is really about guinea worm disease?”
[Laughs.] That might be considered mildly exploitative and in bad taste.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea is out now on Merge Records.