The Magnetic Fields’ 12th album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, finds the long-running indie group cycling back to its roots in synth-pop after three consecutive records that explored strings, distorted guitars and traditional folk instrumentation rather than using keyboards and synthesizers. Rolling Stone recently talked to songwriter and primary vocalist Stephin Merritt about embracing the element of chance on the new album, his experiences writing music for ad agencies and why he’d prefer to give up singing entirely.
What made you want to return to using keyboards on this new album?
Well, not keyboards. It’s electronics. They hardly ever actually involve keyboards.
What exactly is the distinction between the devices?
With keyboards, you press a key down and hear a particular note, whereas with a lot of the instruments I was using, you just sort of twiddle the knobs and it behaves as it wants to. You set up a particular combination of knobs and it will sound like stampeding elephants rather than playing the note C. I wanted news ways of organizing sounds, sounds I had never worked with before, and I got interested in new instruments that were chance-based. There’s a John Cage-like sense of experimentation and play, where if you don’t like the results, you just don’t use it.
What was attractive to you about embracing chance?
I don’t like the word “perfectionist,” but I’m very, very specific in my instructions. I feel like I know what the overall sound should be and no one else does, and I don’t want to explain it. I just want people to follow my instructions and when they don’t, I can’t use what they recorded. It was good to be able to allow chance, but not have someone’s feelings hurt if nothing they did got used. It was a nice removal of psychology for me, personally. Too much psychology in the recording studio, and a little psychiatry as well.
Were there songs that surprised you by coming out of this chance project that you might not have done otherwise?
None of the songs came out of it. I don’t write in the studio at all. I write in bars, and I completely ignore the instrumentation when I’m writing a song. Basically, I write a record, decide what’s going to be on it, and I go into the studio.
What was the rationale of having this particular batch of songs go through this recording process?
I had no rationale. I don’t think of there being a theme. I actually haven’t had a lyrical concept since 69 Love Songs.
Your previous two Magnetic Fields albums sort of commented on each other, with one being very distorted and the other being strictly acoustic, and in this album, the songs all have a similar musical approach. Do you want the records to have very distinct aesthetics?
I don’t want to be like Roxy Music and make a slowly evolving palette. I like to react violently against the last record. I never get bored. I like to do whatever I didn’t do at all the last time.
Some of the lyrics on the record seem very timely, particularly “The Machine in Your Hand” and “God Wants Us to Wait.”
“God Wants Us to Wait” is 28 years old. Not the lyric, but almost everything else about it, it’s something I recorded 28 years ago. It was originally 13 minutes long, so making it two minutes long was sort of difficult. The lyrical subject matter, I thought, was well within the mainstream of sex songs, except they’re actually lying naked on the floor and only there and then does she say, “Let’s wait until we get married.” It’s sort of the same thing as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
What got cut out to get it down to two minutes?
There were many, many verses. And then there was soloing, sort of. There was a poly-rhythm section, with some things happening in different meters, crashing against each other and coming back into synch. It was made heavily under the influence of Can.
Is your impulse now to keep things very tight and brief?
Yeah. I’m not making it a crusade, as George Bush would say, but I am a fan of short songs. Most of the songs I listen to were recorded before 1970 and most of them originally came out on seven-inch; they’re usually under three minutes long, and often under two minutes long.
When you write, do you find that the songs come out around that length, or are you still paring things down?
I think I’m finding that they just come out at that length. I’ve never really been a fan of the bridge, and I feel like with middle eights, I always write the same middle eight. We have to be careful about that in the setlist.
What inspired the song about smart phones, “The Machine in Your Hand”?
I was sitting around in gay bars, and when I’m writing there, I’m usually writing about what’s happening around me, even though I don’t seem to realize that at the time. What has increasingly been happening is that people in the gay bars are just staring at their glowing gadgets and literally never looking up except to order another drink. So they may as well not be there at all.
Do you feel that you are susceptible to the same thing with your phone?
Oh, absolutely. I have fallen into the terrible trap of playing Scrabble and Words with Friends. I’m sure in a week or two I will get very tired of this and end all these games, but in the interim, I’m playing word games with four different people, which becomes a full-time job. I think it’s like the brief blip in my life, like the two weeks that I played Tetris until I started dreaming Tetris.
You mainly live in Los Angeles now, but you were in New York City for many years. Is there a difference between the gay bars in those cities, and does that influence how you write?
There is a different vibe in the bars in that everyone in California has to drive home, so there aren’t people who sit there for eight hours getting drunk, but everyone does in New York. So alcoholism is sadly curtailed in Los Angeles.
Have you had many freelance songwriting jobs recently?
I just had two ad solicitations yesterday. Often [the clients] are uncertain. So if they are really, really uncertain, I’ll walk away. I find that the clients at ad agencies don’t know what they want, and why should they be able to know what they want? They are very inarticulate about telling you what they want, but they have terrible deadlines. It’s a very difficult thing to do, so unless it seems like I will be able to do it with panache, then I think it’s best for me not to try because it will probably fall through and have all of us tearing our hair out.
Are you ever approached to write for other artists?
Only by ad agencies, actually. I think it would be fun to write for most anyone, really. I am not fond of my voice, particularly. I’d be perfectly happy to never sing again in public. I would sing less than half the time [on Magnetic Fields records] if I could get away with it, but apparently I can’t. I’m told that for commercial purposes, it would be a bad idea for me to stop singing on the records.