Following in the footsteps of the magnificent 69 Love Songs, an album in which musical maverick Stephin Merritt focussed on love from every possible angle, the leader of The Magnetic Fields released 50 Song Memoir back in March of this year. It’s a musical autobiography of sorts in which Merritt dedicates one song to each year of his life, beginning in 1966. It’s another milestone in a career littered with them, the band’s first release being the 1991 single ‘100,000 Fireflies. Named after the Andre Breton/Philippe Soupault novel Les Champs Magnetiques, Merritt’s highly regarded lyricism remains focussed on love and gender, and is strewn with irony, humour, and the odd bout of bitterness. Here, he talks to Brightonsfinest about the album and forthcoming back-to-back Brighton Dome dates.
How’s it going?
Just waking up, in a Dublin hotel. Had a gig last night, and jet lag… The album came out in March.
This is your first time in Europe performing the new album?
We played Primavera festival, now we’re here doing a British Isles tour. Hopefully in a few months we will back to play Europe.
You’re performing the show as back-to-back nights?
Yes, back-to-back nights, playing all 50 songs in chronological order. It’s an immensely complex show so there are always some technical issues. It takes about five hours to set up each night.
Tell me about the live set up.
There are seven performers including me. We have 50 instruments. Some of them invented in the last year or two, some of them are sticks, so really old. We have a Moog Sub Phatty which is a new one. We had to replace one in North Carolina. Super Chunk (The Magnetic Fields synth man) popped down to Moog and affected a trade which was very nice of them.
Tell me about the origins of 50 Song Memoir.
The president of Nonesuch Records, Robert Hurwitz, took me for lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar (a New York institution), and told me me he had an idea to commemorate my 50th birthday. By the end of lunch the idea had turned into an idea of 50 songs, in chronological order, of entirely true autobiographical/historical songs, and a huge littery of instrumentation. So, all I had to do was write and record it. And yet sometimes the hard part is the idea.
The songs all seem to be within a tight time range…
All the songs are roughly equal in length. One year is as important as the next year. And it didn’t seem appropriate to do a wide range, like on 69 Love Songs, where ‘Roses’ is 15 seconds, but ‘Papa Is A Rodeo’ is five minutes. I didn’t want to give one year drastically more weight than another.
The album begins in 1966 (when Merritt turned one year of age), with ‘Wonder Where I’m From’…
That song is about my first few years rather than specifically about my first year. It’s about how we bounced around a great deal. Similarly, the second song, ‘Come Back As A Cockroach’, is about my first few years, as I don’t remember either of those years at all. I have some early memories but they are probably from a year or two later, and are almost certainly false.
Memories are often false…
It seems it’s always a snapshot to implant false memories in people. I don’t know if it’s especially children but certainly it is to convince them that their day carers and instructors are actually satanic, sadistic ritualistic abusers who force the children to mutilate goats!
‘Judy Garland’ is the title of the song for the year 1969, which is the year she died…
The weekend of her funeral was also the time of the Stonewall Riots which basically kicked off the gay rights movement in the United States, and to a lesser degree in the UK and Germany. Which made Judy Garland a gay rights heroine, although she didn’t actually do anything particular. But, that’s fine. She’s a perfectly good figurehead.
How about ‘London By Jetpack’ in 1980. That was your first visit to these shores?
Yes it was. When I was 15 I spent some of the summer here, firstly in the north. My mother and I went to Samye Ling, the (Tibetan monastery) commune in Scotland, and I left there and took my Brit rail pass to London and stayed in a bedsit for most of August. On my own. It was quite an adventure. I saw a lot of theatre, and had a little theatre education.
You were there at the time of the New Romantic movement, which greatly informed your musical education?
I was in London at exactly the right time but I didn’t know it, so I didn’t go to the right clubs, and didn’t get to dress up as a pirate.
‘Foxx & I’ (1983), is that a reference to John Foxx? And why did you devote a song to him?
Why John Foxx, I don’t know. And why not Gary Numan? I guess I identify more with John Foxx because he’s quite a good lyricist, and connects with the ways I am a good lyricist. It’s largely imagery, he takes a lot from the psychedelic period, while exemplifying the new wave period. It’s not something you would guess with me, in that John Foxx is the only artist I would write about. David Bowie might have been a safer bet, but my interest in John Foxx has gone on longer. My interest in Bowie lasted about 14 years, but I happen to love John Foxx’s recent material.
‘How To Play The Synthesizer’ (1981) seems pretty self-explanatory…
I got my first one when I was 14, and it was an analogue one. It was the Yamaha CS 60, a smaller version of the more famous CS 80 that you can hear on Brian Eno’s ‘Spider & I’. You can actually change the sound of the synthesiser while you are playing, and what you’re playing is really an organ.
What about ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ (2010)?
I did a score for the 1916 silent movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which we performed at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, which has a mighty Wurlitzer organ. We did it as a live ‘through-sung’ musical. We more or less synchronised the voices to the movements of the actors, which is impossible to do it exactly. About half the audience was horrified that I would do something as disrespectful as musicalising a silent movie. And the other half loved it. I’m hoping to be able to tour that. But we’ve only managed to find three venues with organs that we can do it in. The place we are playing in Dublin has a church organ, and it looks like a great place to do 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Now I’m inspired to bring it everywhere.
The Brighton Dome has a fabulus church organ, and the venue has been used for live scores…
I didn’t know that. Thanks for that information! I will investigate.
What about the last song on the album, ‘Somebody’s Fetish’, which represents your 50th year on this planet?
As with the first two songs where I didn’t personally remember anything, I smeared the last year two years because I hadn’t processed what is really happening with me. I was writing the album for my 50th year. For the 49th song I step back and talk about memory in general, and for the 50th song I have a happy ending.
All good films should have a happy ending, shouldn’t they? I’m not sure I actually believe that…
Or a European ending where the protagonist walks away, having realised that engagement is not what it seems, and alienation is a cosmic condition. But since I specify quite specifically throughout the album that alienation is a cosmic condition, it seems appropriate to end with a simple happy ending!
Any more plans to do autobiographical songs?
I’m thinking of doing a 100 song memoir if I live to 100, or I am brought back somehow, on whatever format is available at that time.