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Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields on alcoholism, adolescence and albums

Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields CBS/Ryan Corsaro

CHICAGO -- For Stephin Merritt and members of his band, The Magnetic Fields, there has been some confusion about the timing of the interview he's about to give.

Their pianist and manager Claudia Gonson has already marched into the backstage dressing room with her hands clasped, apologizing for a misunderstanding in the schedule and explaining that she thought this interview was scheduled a week later in New York City. After explaining their calamity, she smiles and says it shouldn't be a problem, and that Stephin will be in shortly.

The band's tour organizer, Jason, is on his knees, plugging in a reading lamp and adjusting the music stand when Merritt enters the room. He stops to look on, eyes glaring and legs locked at the knees, waiting to be assured everything is ready.

Stephin Merritt performs acoustic version of "Andrew in Drag"


Once in his seat, Merritt calmly suggests silencing the backstage noise in the hallway before he begins to play.

He's carrying an eight-stringed ukulele and takes a moment to look over the lyrics to "Andrew In Drag," the band's single from their latest album "Love at the Bottom of the Sea."

It's been more than twenty years since Merritt wrote the music for The Magnetic Fields' first album, "Distant Plastic Trees." Since that time, Merritt and the musical collaborators who make up his band have released nine more albums, including 1999's influential three-disc release, "69 Love Songs." The band was also the subject of a documentary, "Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields", released in 2010.

The themes of the The Magnetic Fields are easier to describe than their musical style. And while the band uses scores of different instruments to create their sound, from electric guitars to flugelhorn to kazoo, most of the songs are unified in subject matter; focusing primarily on the spectrum of love and fear and its various forms -- abusive or unrequited, romantic or ridiculous -- along with the accompanying sentiments and experiences.

While Merritt and his musicians tend to stick with synthesizers and guitars, their concert show features banjo, piano, and cello arrangements. But now he's preparing to play a stripped down, acoustic version of one of his most recent compositions.

And he so does.

Once he's finished, Merritt says that thinking back, he doesn't recall the experience of singing that song or any other while he was in the recording studio.

"I don't remember recording the vocal track," he admits dryly. "I generally do all the vocals at the end of the recording process, by which time I'm kinda exhausted. So I have no memory of that or any other vocals on the album," says Merritt, laughing. "It used to be that I would record vocals whenever I felt like I had time, which tended to be when I was sick. So I had a cold on the first few Magnetic Fields' records."

"I realized that was not a good strategy. Now I do them in a row over two or three days."

"Love at the Bottom of the Sea" is comprised of fifteen songs and was made with an intentional focus on an instrument that Merritt had moved away from using on the last three Magnetic Fields album, the synthesizer. Asked if he finds the final product to be cohesive, he says he thinks so.

"I wanted it to be a variety of songs with some kind of production unity, provided mostly by the fact that there are noisy synthesizers that make hideous shrieking or weird static or some kind of unfamiliar use of synthesizers or electronic instruments. That was my basic production idea."

On this day, he's preparing to play the first of two nights in Chicago as part of a 38-day tour in the United States and Canada. Merritt observes that he's rarely spent time in Chicago, except for in his youth.

"I actually haven't been here except for being on tour since (guitarist and singer) Shirley (Simms) and I drove here when I was 18. We drove at the spur of the moment from Boston to Chicago -- an 18 hour drive -- and I was the only driver, so I drove straight. Eighteen hours. It got dark, it got to be four in the morning. I got tired and didn't want to drive off the road, so we pulled over for the last hour of the trip and I got an hour of sleep before the police came along and told us to mosey along."

After Chicago, the tour headed to Boston, where Merritt went to school and spent a lot of his adolescence, including nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Claudia and I used to hang out on the wall in Harvard Square, which is still there. I was popular because I was the one with the car, so I was the de facto cab driver for my high school. So I would regularly have ten people in my not-particularly-huge Buick Skylark, just sort of lying in each others' laps and looking like a thousand clowns."

"I went to a hippy, creative, drug addict, bohemian high school and I haven't been back since. I haven't been to any of the reunions or anything like that, but it was a more or less positive experience."

"As for Boston itself, I think of it mostly as a series of being beaten up by baseball fans. In Boston, I lived near Fenway Park, which is why my motto to this day is 'Death to the Red Sox'. I was actually at one point beaten up by people with baseball bats, which is no fun."

In the 2010 documentary about his songwriting, Merritt is shown writing songs for long amounts of time inside of loud gay bars in New York City. By the end of the film, he has moved to Los Angeles, searching for a similar spot to muse over material. Despite having completed several projects since he's been on the West Coast, he hasn't seemed to have found a particular spot like the ones back in Manhattan.

"I don't know that I have found a spot very good for writing in L.A. People are a lot more social in L.A. in certain ways than they are in New York, or certainly Boston of course, so it's really hard to sit in a bar for hours without people talking to you, which is how I make a living.

"I sit in a corner of the bar with a cocktail in one hand and a pen in the other and a notebook in the other -- I have three hands -- and I sit and scowl into my notebook hoping no one will talk to me. But in L.A. people talk to me no matter what facial expression I give them, and that's difficult."

"Also, I can't really drink for hours and hours and hours and drive home. In New York one doesn't drive home, it's not a problem. So L.A. is definitely interfering with my alcoholism ... and since I make a living off my alcoholism, it's a little difficult. But if I need to drink a lot for "Andrew In Drag," I can take a taxi home."

"I think at this point, this story must be famous. I don't remember writing 'Andrew In Drag' because I guess it took me a while. I woke up one morning and there was no car in the driveway and I deduced I must have been out late last night and looked in my notebook, and there was the completed song, "Andrew In Drag," and I remembered the melody, fortunately, but I didn't really remember writing it. So I took a taxi back to the bar and there was my car and drove it home.

"Since I don't remember writing, I don't remember why there's no final chorus. I kind of like it that way ... I respected my original aesthetic judgment that even though it seems like a single, it doesn't have repeated choruses at the end, in fact it has no chorus at the end, it ends in just a verse, cold. That's extremely uncommercial in theory."

Asked if he was being glib or sarcastic in his statement about Los Angeles interfering with his alcoholism, he responds, "I may be being glib but I'm not being sarcastic."

"I'm a gay man. Most gay men are alcoholics, so we congregate in bars. Also I think most men in Western civilization left without responsibility represented largely by women and children would just assume be alcoholic, given the opportunity. I'm perfectly happy to be. I don't go into a downward spiral where I just start drinking more and more. I just drink a few cocktails a day and I'm happy with that."

Merritt says drinking has never come to a point where it didn't work anymore as far as helping him with the creative process.

"I should say I don't usually blackout the previous evening. Once a year or so I don't remember the previous evening. I think that would probably be true if I were a habitual drinker anyway. I have no plans to cut down on my drinking. I was impressed that I quit smoking and that's fine."

Merritt sees ''Love at the Bottom of the Sea'' like his other albums, in one particular sense.

"What (the album) becomes when I've finished it is something that I need to learn in order to play it on tour. And learning it is a completely different thing from making it. Not 'Andrew In Drag', but other songs on the record, I remember how they used to go, I remember verses that I didn't include in the final version. But I don't necessarily remember those verses any less than I remember the existing, released version so I have to have a lyrics sheet or I won't be able to get through the song. So even learning the song I can't remember which lyrics are in and which are out."

"For (the song) 'All She Cares About Is Mariachi', I know a complete verse I didn't use, but it's just as memorable as the ones I did. So I never get to hear the album as an entertainment mechanism. I just hear it as what I'm working on and then what I'm working on in a different way. Ten years later I can appreciate it as entertainment, maybe, but that's about it."