Charged with scoring the film Eban & Charley, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields realized early on he wanted to keep the music open-ended. “I liked the ambiguity of the film,” he says. “It presents this relationship between a teenager and a twenty-nine-year-old student who are gay males, and you don’t know where the film is going to come out. It’s a suspense movie in a way. If it was a love story it would be gushy strings, and if it were a horror show it would be horn blasts, so I decided to go a third way.”
Merritt’s third way means a batch of short pop-song homages to musical instruments, such as “This Little Ukelele” and “Tiny Flying Player Pianos,” and more noise-oriented segues featuring toys and oddities lying around Merritt’s New York apartment.
“‘Cricket Problem’ is all these wind-up toys and other wind-up things, whatever I had in the house,” he says. “Toy robots and hula dolls and little dog toys and things. ‘Stage Rain’ is not a field recording; it’s called stage rain because it’s fake. It’s not rain. It’s me playing instruments. There’s a South American instrument called a rain stick, which is a cactus hollowed out with the seeds still inside. You turn over the stick and the seeds fall through the needles of the cactus slowly and make a sound that sounds like rain.”
Merritt’s dreary covers of “O Tannenbaum” and “Greensleeves,” were commissioned by director James Bolton, a suggestion the singer reluctantly went along with.
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“I hate Christmas music,” says Merritt. “I did reviews of Christmas CDs for several years for TimeOut New York, so I had to listen to hundreds of horrible Christmas albums. I made extremely unobtrusive — dare I say ‘ambient’ — Christmas music. I don’t think they’re sappy songs to begin with, but they tend to have ruinous arrangements.”
Merritt is currently at work on a new album for Future Bible Heroes, one of his many bands, as well as the soundtrack to a new movie, Songs From Venus, and a musical called The Orphan of Zhao. Gothic Archies, another one of his bands, are working on songs for Daniel Handler’s books featuring the character Lemony Snicket.
“Each of the audio book versions [of the Lemony Snicket books] comes with a Gothic Archies song,” Merritt says. “There will eventually be thirteen books and thirteen songs, and when that’s finished I’ll add a few more songs and put it out as an album.”
As for the Magnetic Fields, Merritt and the band will give the final performance of their 69 Love Songs album trilogy in its entirety on March 1st and 2nd at New York City’s Lincoln Center.