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The Magnetic Fields - Distorted Attraction

Author: Carlisle Rogers
Friday, 8 February 2008
Interviewing the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merrit is a cross between what it would be like to talk to the guy from that movie π (pi), and a conversation with Stephen Hawking, had he been a songwriter. These are Carlisle Rogers’ words, not ours.

His penchant for vaguely conceptual albums continues with his latest release, Distortion, so named because every instrument on the album is treated to some form of distortion, usually feedback. It is also an ode, of sorts, to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. Yes, the same record Jack Black picks up in High Fidelity when his customer has run out of Echo and the Bunnymen records to buy.

“I wanted to make a record quickly,” Merrit says in his carefully trod cadence, between long thoughtful pauses. He always thinks about what he is going to say for a long time, often preceded by a noncommittal hmm. “So I thought I would emulate the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, which really sounds like they made it quickly. I don’t know whether they actually did. I certainly will never make the mistake again of thinking that is the quick way to make a record, because it actually took me a year and a half. I wanted to make a record quickly for a lark, really. The president of Nonesuch suggested over lunch that maybe the Magnetic Fields should make a record quickly, because that way we could have an album out sooner. I thought it made sense.”

Merrit’s previous two offerings were 69 Love Songs, a triple album with, you guessed it, and i, where each song title began with the letter or pronoun ‘i’.

“I believe in titling albums after the least desirable feature of the album, or what the listener would otherwise consider the least desirable feature of the album; something that they would complain about if it wasn’t the title of the album,” he says. “You can’t complain about all the distortion on Distortion because it is right there in the title, and if you don’t get it, it’s your problem.”

The songs on the album were also written with some disdain for the accepted methods of composition. “All of the songs were written and even sequenced before I decided on the production style,” Merrit admits. “I sit around in gay bars in the afternoon with a cocktail, a pen and my little notebook in my hand and I listen to the thumping disco music, as boring as possible preferably, so that it drowns out the other music that would always be playing in my head. I write lyrics only. I expect the melodies to stay with me.

“The lyrics don’t just rise in me, they come as a response to the boring disco music I’m hearing. The example I always give is, if in a song I’m hearing the background singers go ‘oo-way’, ‘oo-way’, then I think, I could have done that better, and then I try to. One place the lyrics hardly ever come from is my personal autobiography. If I want people to know more about my life, I’ll just tell them in interviews. I see no reason to struggle to make them rhyme in a song.”

Ultimately, Merrit likens his lyrics to Japanese food. “I can’t say that my Magnetic Fields albums are drastically different from each other in writing style, because in each one I’m trying to have the songs differ as much as possible from each other,” he says. “If you go to a Japanese restaurant every night and every night you order a different Bento box, they are still Bento boxes, but you aren’t eating the same food twice, except probably rice.”

WHO: The Magnetic Fields
WHAT: Distortion through Nonesuch/Warner
WHEN: Out now