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Stephin Merritt.

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Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt on His New Album, Gay Rights, and Catholicism

Many musicians can come up with intriguing song titles, but few deliver on them with the effortless wit of Magnetic Fields front man Stephin Merritt. His indie-pop group’s latest, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, features songs with such colorful titles as “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies,” “All She Cares About Is Mariachi,” and the sweet, ambling first single, “Andrew in Drag.” The band's tenth full-length album is already being hailed as a welcome return to the synth-laden sound of its hallmark 1999 release 69 Love Songs. We phoned the notoriously terse, wry Merritt for details about his new Love, and also got answers about gay marriage, video games, and Catholicism.

How much stress is involved in creating albums, knowing they will be measured against 69 Love Songs?
I’m perfectly aware that everyone is going to think no matter what I do it’s no 69 Love Songs. And of course it won’t be 69 Love Songs — the whole point of 69 Love Songs was to make a calling card that I would be known for, for the rest of my life. And that worked. I’m perfectly happy to be competing against myself.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea is being singled out as a return to form, a more electronic, synthy album.
There are a lot of other electronic instruments besides synthesizers. There’s a little box called the crackle box. A small amount of electricity goes through it, but you can’t control the tone very accurately at all. So what it’s good for is making squeals and shrieks and static tones.

How did you discover this?
I’m definitely an instrument geek. I go to music stores and develop relationships with the people who work there. They call me when something comes in that looks interesting.

How does your hearing issue, hyperacusis — which makes you sensitive to loud sounds — affect your songwriting?
I don’t think it affects my songwriting at all. [2008’s] Distortion is a pretty loud-sounding album, but it didn’t require me being in the room with actual volume. But I played a benefit at Carnegie Hall for Tibet House with Lou Reed, and he likes to play at unbelievably loud volumes. I was stuck in front of a bass amp with my fingers in both ears.

I’ve read that you really like silent films.
[Long pause.] Oh! Silent films. I thought you said “violent films.” I mean, I have no problems with violent films, but I don’t attend them to see the violence particularly. I already scored a silent film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for a San Francisco film festival [that played] at a silent-film theater.

I was actually going to ask what you thought of The Artist.
I have not seen The Artist. I will. I promise. Everyone asks me this.

And your song “My Girlfriend’s Face,” which talks about meth, made me wonder if you watch Breaking Bad.
No. I don’t have a television. “My Girlfriend’s Face” is a rarity for me, in that it’s actually autobiographical. This is a revenge fantasy that I had. [Editor's note: Lyrics include, "I’ve taken a contract out on y’all / For making me feel infinitely small / In the evenings I’ve devised your death: / Being buried alive on crystal meth / Baby, I give you death / Bye-bye by crystal meth ... "]

Why do you usually write so much about love?
Almost all songwriters write mostly about love. Some of my lyrics are relatively uplifting and some are relatively maudlin. I think people who say I’m gloomy don’t see my humor.

Who do you think is the best contemporary-pop artist?
I quite like Robyn. I’m a fool for anything Swedish. I have [been to Sweden]. I’m a dwarf in Sweden. Anywhere in Scandinavia, Claudia [Gonson, his bandmate] and I like to go shopping at Marimekko, the Finish designer. I do most of my writing in Marimekko notebooks.
 
Maybe if we print that, they’ll give you a free shipment.
But then I couldn’t shop for them.

Das Racist tweeted a picture with you a few weeks back. This is interesting, because you were once embroiled in a beef with Sasha Frere-Jones, the music critic, over your perceived disdain of rap.
Yeah, [Frere-Jones] is full of shit.

So you like rap?
I like some of it.

Are you a Das Racist fan?
You know, I have heard of them, but I’ve never seen them at all before. I don’t go to shows, really. I so have yet to figure out whether I’m a fan. But now that I am aware of them, I will investigate them further. The human beat-boxing is fantastic.

The picture was taken at that Tibet House benefit. Weren’t you raised Buddhist?
My mother used to tell me to meditate [chuckles to himself]. I’ve always found religion silly. My mother’s relationship with Buddhism changed every five minutes.

I thought it was considered a religion for people who didn’t like religions.
No, that’s Taoism. If I had to adopt a religion, it’d definitely be Taoism, because it consists of agreeing with the phrase, “It’s probably best to take the middle path.” I don’t agree with that statement, but it doesn’t have any other requirements. Whereas with Catholicism, I would disagree with all of its statements. I don’t know where to begin.

Like maybe, as a gay man, you’d begin with its notions of sexuality?
Oh no, no, no, no. That wouldn’t be in my top 1,000 objections.

I’ve noticed you try not to take a political stance. But with the recent publicity over gay suicides and the coming election, would you reconsider that?
Do you think there is a candidate who is more against teen suicide than another candidate?

I’m talking about gay rights.
Uh, what about them? Do we know that there’s any correlation between gay marriage and teen suicide?

Fair enough. But many wonder if gay marriage were accepted, that could be more of an impetus for people to accept same-sex relationships.
Why speculate? There either is or there isn’t [a correlation]. It shouldn’t be all that hard to find out because teen suicide is, fortunately, actually rare.

Moving on, the video-game collective Babycastles recently created a one-off game called Space Cruiser, inspired by your music. Do you play any video games?
I play Words With Friends compulsively. Fortunately, that habit has recently turned into another project. But I can’t tell you about that yet.

A few months ago, Alec Baldwin had a tiff on an airplane owing to his alleged addiction to Words With Friends. Maybe you can use your Hollywood connections to play him.
So I hear. But what if I won? Alec Baldwin would hate me.

Photo: Patrick McMullan