Stephin Merritt, the singer-songwriter behind the baroque indie-pop band the Magnetic Fields, is a notoriously prickly interview. He doesn’t care to contribute to your blog’s top ten list, and if he has a favorite color, he’s not telling you what it is. Also: He’d rather not speak in person (as he’ll explain later, he doesn’t really like people, and the less contact he’s forced to have with them, the better) or for very long. As a result, we don’t hear much from him, and those who love the enigmatic intimacy of his music have been left to conjure their own image of this underground icon, who is rarely seen without his baseball cap pulled tight over his brow. Until now. Merritt is the very visible subject of a new documentary, Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, in theaters this week. Having already subjected himself to months of intrusive filming, Merritt granted us a few minutes on the phone. But what started as a terse exchange evolved into a sprawling discussion of Merritt’s hyperacusis (the hearing disorder that afflicts his left ear), his pathological hatred of all children, and things that scare his Chihuahua.
The film documents your move from New York to L.A. I can’t believe you abandoned New York!
Well, I’m actually in New York almost half the time. For tax reasons, I’m in California technically one day more than half the time.
Do you count them out?
My accountant does.
In the film, your trek west seemed very cinematic. Was it?
Every documentary is largely a fiction. This one more than others in that it portrays as a big event me moving to L.A., which (a) wasn’t a big event and (b) wasn’t really moving.
So why do it?
In Los Angeles, I have a house where the living room is about the size of my apartment in New York. In Los Angeles, I have a garage I don’t know what to do with.
Start a band!
So, you’ve been living in L.A. for four years now. What have you been doing?
I wanted to make Hollywood musicals, but there’s no official way of breaking into the Hollywood musical. It turns out the way to break into the Hollywood-musical industry is to become a big-time producer. So I will have to become a big-time producer before I can finance my illustrious Hollywood musical career.
How’s that going?
Well, I’ve only just started working on it.
Having started it, how’s it going?
Oh, I’ve only just started this moment.
Oh, in the midst of this conversation?
To accomplish this goal, I’m going to probably need to get off of the phone.
When you first went out to L.A., did you anticipate that that would be a stumbling block?
I don’t think I anticipated any stumbling block. Your questions about why I moved to L.A. constitute the majority of the thinking I had ever done about why I had moved to L.A. Really, I moved to L.A. because that’s what one does. It doesn’t bear explaining!
What is it that draws you to working on scores, aside from loving movies?
You know, I haven’t really been working on scores so it’s an odd question. The score that I did this year was a large performance, musicalization of 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea.
What does musicalization mean?
Well they’re talking all the time without a whole lot of inter-titles. Not that you necessarily need to know what’s happening, but you don’t know what’s happening if you’re depending on the inter-title. So. I decided what was happening and did a lot of lip-reading, actually. I’ve gotten pretty good at lip-reading as my hearing deteriorates.
Is that handy?
What’s the weirdest or most interesting thing you’ve lip-read?
Well, I spend a lot of time in bars writing. Generally in bars the music is a little loud for me, so I wear earplugs, so I really can’t tell what people are saying, except by lip-reading. And usually I don’t care what people are saying, but you need to know what the bartender is saying. Like, “Courvoisier or Hennessy?”
What’s your answer to that question?
In the film, you drive around L.A. looking for bars to write in. I take it you have found some?
Yeah, they’re not ideal, but yeah.
What are the checklist elements at the ideal bar for you?
Well they’re really self-contradictory. A place that I would want to hang out in is not a place where I would get enough work done. There used to be a bar in the East Village called the Library Bar. Now the idea of the library bar is enchanting and romantic. The Library Bar itself is more of a frat house. But I liked the idea. Essentially a gentleman’s club. I should really just go to gentleman’s clubs instead of bars.
That would be a place you might enjoy hanging out and therefore not get any work done in, right?
Right. But the nice thing about a gentleman’s club is that you’re not encouraged to talk to people, really, so that would be good for me.
What is it about a place not being the sort of place you’d want to hang out in that opens up the floodgates?
Ignoring my surroundings is the essence of getting work done.
And you can’t choose to ignore your surroundings? It’s kind of easier if your surroundings are directly offensive.
Well, no … but the more enjoyable my surroundings are, the less I’m inclined to ignore them. For example, if I were surrounded by people I wanted to talk to, then I wouldn’t get any work done. I need to go to bars with boring music that isn’t too loud and isn’t too boring, but it can’t be rap because that’s too boring. And [there needs to be] boring people who don’t find me attractive so they don’t want to come up and talk to me. And there needs to be sufficient lighting, where really if I were going to a bar that I wasn’t going to work in, I would want dim lighting. But to see what I’m doing, I need better lighting.
Basically, I keep picturing a Chili’s in the mall.
A horrible bar. I like to work in horrible bars.
You would think that would be easier to find in the strip-mall culture of Los Angeles …
Certainly it would be that way for straight bars, but gay bars are different. I can’t work in straight bars. I’m uncomfortable around drunken straight people. I’m particularly uncomfortable around drunken straight women. They tend to speak in higher pitches to seem girly in front of straight men and those higher pitches actually hurt my ears. My worst frequency is giggling straight girls trying to impress straight boys. I’m actually fine in lesbian bars. And I’m fine around large groups of straight women until there’s alcohol involved. Then I’m not fine.
So drunk gay girls don’t shriek in the same way?
No, no, they bellow.
That’s interesting, because some of my lesbian friends have the most extreme fights of any couples I know.
I know, but they don’t go “ehehehe!” while doing it. I’m not saying anything about human nature, I’m just saying something about sound. I’m not saying people are different from each other, I’m just saying the sounds they make that are problems for me. In fact, I think basically all people are alike in almost all ways. It’s only because it’s too boring to talk about that no one says so.
Well, you must love that I asked you to explain that, then, because the tedium of having to explain it must be intense. Also: What do you mean all people are alike in all ways?
Physiologically we’re almost identical except the girls can give birth and the boys can’t. If we were very different from each other, we’d bleed to death. We need our uniformity to guarantee our structural integrity.
No, no, physiologically.
You mean literally the way our cells our held together?
Yeah, if we were mutants like the X-men, we would just die, mostly. Most mutations are harmful. Most mutations are fatal.
What about the sort of biochemistry in the brain differences between men and women?
I think what’s going on in the brains of opposite genders is so minimally different that you can easily impersonate someone of the opposite gender online indefinitely and no one would ever know. Which has been proven again and again.
Have you seen this from empirical experience?
No, but you read newspaper stories about people impersonating people of the opposite gender and because they’re in the newspaper they always end badly. Maybe in the real world these things end much better. They probably taper out and have really boring endings like most things.
That’s both a nihilistic and weirdly optimistic perspective. Moving on, you mentioned the X-Men. Are you into comics or sci-fi?
I’m definitely into science fiction in film. I’m not so much into comics, although I’m one of those terrible bourgeois comics readers who will only read it if it’s called a graphic novel. I’m a snob and an idiot.
Not just a snob, but an idiot! Why is that idiotic?
Well, I could be reading the latest Alan Moore if I patronized the comic-book store, but instead I have to wait until it comes out in the expensive hardcover edition.
And pay more for it? Yeah that is pretty idiotic. I see your point. [The sound of a motorcycle engine is heard.] You are sitting outside at a café in L.A. Are you wearing sunglasses?
No, I am not. I would be wearing sunglasses if I were driving. In New York, if you wear sunglasses you’re an asshole. Or a heroin addict. Or both. Generally, all heroin addicts tend to be assholes at some point, as everyone who’s a heroin addict knows. And as all heroin addicts know about each other. But in L.A. if you wear sunglasses it’s because you’re not a moron. Because you’ll have a migraine within an hour if you don’t wear sunglasses if you’re driving. But I’ve just been sitting in the shade at a café, so I don’t need sunglasses.
What part of L.A. do you live in?
Why of course?
Manhattan and Hollywood …
You go straight for the money-shot neighborhood.
I want to be near the movie theaters. Yesterday I went to see The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector at the Egyptian Theater, which is a few blocks from my house, and I actually walked there. I like being able to walk to the movies. I often bicycle to the movies. I have to see the movie before I comment on it. It left me completely bewildered. The intention of the filmmakers confused me. I don’t know what they were trying to say. Ordinarily I’m happy to comment on pretty much anything. But in this case I feel like I would say something stupid because I definitely missed something.
What are some of the things you would like to comment on? If I just said “green apples,” would you have something to say about “green apples”?
Just thinking about them hurts my teeth. My apple days are unfortunately long over.
I was epileptic as a child, so I was put on Dilantin and Dilantin unfortunately interferes with proper gum growth, so my teeth will never be good. And I’m the only member of my family who still has any teeth, so I’m lucky in that way.
That’s a pretty dramatic thing to deal with. And with your hearing problems as well — do these health issues actively trouble you or are you kind of conditioned to deal with them?
Well, my hearing problems certainly trouble me, and they certainly trouble the Magnetic Fields. My hearing trouble has a very large effect on my life. I can’t go to rock concerts. But my childhood epilepsy has minimal effect on my life.
Do you want to go to rock concerts?
Sure, Yoko Ono played recently. I would have definitely gone to that if I could.
What do you like about Yoko Ono?
Lyrics. She’s a major lyricist.
Do you think you’re a major lyricist?
I don’t think I’m Stephen Sondheim, but I would love to be.
Have you felt connected to film as long as you’ve been this connected to music?
What I first wanted to be in life? Walt Disney, the amusement-park pioneer. Basically I wanted to be an architect but a large-scale architect, a designer of amusement parks: Tivoli, or Disney Land. Or Lego Land. I was a child. I wanted to be a maker of what I wanted to be a consumer of.
Is the influence of these other media evident in your music and I’ve just missed it, or is there just not enough room — in the music alone — for all the things that inspire you? In an amusement park, you can do it all — music and film and pretty much everything.
Exactly. I was a megalomaniac. I wanted to be Wagner. Instead I had to whittle down my ambitions. In high school, I wanted to be a planetarium artist. Being a planetarium artist was whittling down from the amusement park. And then I had to settle for going to film school. In film school, I spent more time in the electronic-music lab than in the optical printer, and so my teachers thought I was a musician, not a filmmaker. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why? It was their thinking that turned you into a musician?
Yes, because they gave me very poor grades for not doing any work. The nerve. The nerve! Essentially I was much, much better at making electronic music than I was at making film. I probably should’ve been an installation artist, which I didn’t realize would provide me with all my megalomaniac needs. You create the whole world and it’s in three dimensions and you get the sound as well as the vision.
Given all of this, do you find the limitations of music frustrating?
I tend to put a lot of other dimensions into the music. Spatially, my first five albums, my first concept albums about spatial relations, everything up to 69 Love Songs  is really about the built environment more than the characters within it, especially The Charm of the Highway Strip . As a lyricist, I’m more of an installation artist than a storyteller. I’m more interested in the scenery than the actor. Until 69 Love Songs, where that changes. I think 69 Love Songs changed my habitual writing. There’s also that cliché that as people get older they tend to care more about people than things. But at least I haven’t had children or anything disgusting like that. Lyricists should not have children.
A while ago, New York magazine ran a cover story that essentially said having children makes people less happy.
But we do it anyway. We act on the urge to procreate.
I don’t have it. I have a negative urge to procreate. I have the urge to kill other people’s children. I have a long-established phobia of children. They actually terrify me.
Let me illustrate through my Chihuahua Irving’s eyes [The Chihuahua is named after Irving Berlin.] Children in proportion [to him seem] about 30-feet high, with these wooden-soled shoes clumping towards him with their deformed little hands outstretched, gurgling, as if they’re going to do some sinister activity to him. So he naturally lunges at them and tries to make them go away. Except for the 30-foot-high part, that’s also my experience. They’re like Godzillas.
Do children randomly come up to you and try to put their hands all over you?
I don’t know. I experience it as, “Oh no, it’s going to attack me.” Like when people who have phobias of snakes are in a room with a snake the fact that the snake isn’t very interested in them doesn’t really cross their minds. It doesn’t make the phobia go away.
So children are like snakes?
You talked a little bit about in the film on the impact being an only child had on you. Do you like other only children?
Yes, in fact most of my friends are also only children. I get along well with other megalomaniacs.
One of the things the film addresses about your writing style is that people often perceive good songwriting as a revelation of the artist’s sense of self, like, “Oh, I’m taking this personal experience and translating it to a more universal” thing. But you do the opposite. There are oblique elements of self in your lyrics but nothing strictly biographical. Do you love your characters? Do you feel like you’re an empathetic person?
I don’t think I’m a particularly empathetic person and I can’t say I love my characters. I barely think of them as characters. Often they’re inconsistent, in fact. They’re bleeding to death because they don’t have complete set of skin, they were born on a train. There’s two different myths given for the same character. Which disrupts the narrative dramatically. Fortunately nobody really seems to care about narrative cohesion in song lyrics. When I’m doing music for theater or narrative film, I actually think of the figures in my lyrics as characters requiring cohesion and integrity. Otherwise what’s being described is a situation not a character. In “Born on a Train,” it’s okay: There’s two different ways this character comes about because what’s being described is the sadness of leaving being inevitable, so that one is always already leaving. Which, in my experience, is what love is all about. Unfortunately. So it’s not the character that’s being described, it’s the situation. A Cubist character is fine within that situation because the gesture is there. But that would not be okay on stage unless it was supposed to be a kind of dream sequence.
And yet so many people feel a personal connection to your music. Do you chalk that up to the more abstract essence that you just described rather than a direct he-knows-what-its-like-to-be-me thing?
When I was a teenager, Tusk came out. Rumors was too overexposed for me. There was no reason to listen to it after a while because you couldn’t get away from it in grocery stores. But Tusk was not like that, and one could listen to listen to Tusk alone in one’s room and absorb the lyrics, especially on headphones, and the music, which is quite incredible for the time. And there were three different lyricists, and they were writing about each other in some cases. From that experience of Tusk, I got the importance of identifying with lyrics, whereas outside of that I was more in the camp of listening to Yes and Brian Eno, where the lyrics make absolutely no sense, and they’re not supposed to, but they’re really interesting. And quickly I was on to the Cocteau Twins or Pavement, say, where I really liked the lyrics more than I liked the music. Maybe there’s an underlying situation, but probably not and you don’t care. It doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the nouns. The beautiful nouns.
The literal impact of language.
Yeah. So as a teenager and twentysomething, I was not interested in the underlying situation, the people, except in the extreme situation of Tusk where it was like going to a Bergman movie set to lyrics. Since 69 Love Songs, I’ve been more of the Tusk-type lyricist than the Brian Eno–type lyricist. I abandoned the model of not making sense since 1999 and I have not looked back. I now actually assume and require sense from lyrics.
Does that shift have to do with getting older as well?
I think it’s actually more to do with getting involved in theater. In theater, the lyrics are there for a purpose and if there’s a line used as a throwaway you’re instantly bored. You instantly feel like you’ve been abandoned by the artist and you have, whereas with Brian Eno, there’s whole albums that make no sense whatsoever and they’re basically about drifting and being at sea and the nouns are all about water and chance. Both the music and lyrics are about chance and meaninglessness. To the extent that they’re about anything, they’re about meaninglessness in itself and he keeps it hitting you over the head with that.
You also have a great admiration for the simplest of pop songs, the most accessible, obvious music. How do you reconcile those two things?
I use clichés as Lego. After making the Lego structure, then I paint on top of it. That’s the underlying Lego that you can definitely see as Lego and you’re supposed to see it, otherwise I’d be painting on top of something that didn’t have its own visible identity.
At one point in the film, your Magnetic Fields partner, Claudia Gonson, tells you that you are wrong about something. Are there people who can turn to you and say, “That’s wrong, Stephin”?
And you would take them seriously?
Oh yeah, yeah. Sure. I wouldn’t ignore them. I would say, okay I will take your opinion into consideration. It’s incorrect, good-bye. It’s been very interesting knowing you and your opinion is worth copyrighting.
So it’s not that you wouldn’t take other people’s opinion of you being incorrect under consideration, it’s just that you’re pretty sure you’ll always determine that they’re wrong about that?
Well no, but 69 Love Songs exists because I decided that everyone else in the world was wrong and that I was right. And I was right! Everyone told me it was a nutty idea. Everyone. Most people who had heard about it thought it wasn’t going to exist. People who believed it would exist, gradually, after half of it had been made, thought it was a terrible idea. That’s confidence building, proving that one is the only person in the world who is right. It’s good training for a megalomaniac.
Sam Davol, the Magnetic Fields’ cellist, talked about the band having avoided pitfalls that other bands might face because you aren’t the most intimate of friends. Do you agree with that?
I think democracy is hard, but monarchy is easy.
And there’s no mistake about which category Magnetic Fields fall in?
Our roles are well-defined and that keeps us from pressure. It’s not dramatic and it’s not interesting, but it is calm, which is good.
Finally, in the film you say it’s not safe for you to be in the same room as an acupuncturist because you once had a bad experience and might retaliate. What happened?
The doctor was not interested in speaking to me. He just came immediately at me and started giving me, essentially, a noogie, and I started screaming. It was intensely painful. I managed to get out of there as quickly as possible. I don’t remember how, but essentially I guess I had to hit him.
You may have hit your acupuncturist?
I must have in order to get him to stop hurting me. I don’t remember doing it but he was holding my head as though we were in the World Wrestling Federation. He was assaulting me. He was assaulting me with his bare knuckle on my poor, little head.