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The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields

Monday 9th August, 2010 4:54PM

Fame for the Magnetic Fields came by an unlikely route. Having toiled away for over a decade, releasing well regarded but commercially ignored music (in direct opposition to the prevailing traditions of grunge and post-grunge of the '90s), the band found success through a triple album. 69 love songs to be precise. It made the band's songwriter and driving force Stephin Merritt an unlikely star, but it also made him a bit of a musical target, especially as Merritt's interview persona could be charitably described as prickly. Articles soon appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker accusing Merritt of being racist as he didn't like hip-hop, didn't have enough 'black' artists in his favourite music lists, and he had joked about liking 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' from the racist Disney film Song from the South. Behind the band and Merritt, is long-time collaborator Claudia Gonson, who played Cher to Merritt's Sonny in 69 Love Songs, and who has managed the band from the start. The upcoming International Film Festival features Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, a behind the scenes documentary about this beloved band, and the relationships that drive the band's output. It also highlighted the importance of Gonson to the day-to-day running of the band.

Is it funny being the spokesperson for the Magnetic Fields given it's seen as such a Stephin Merritt thing?

I'm specifically doing the interview in the context of the film. The film is more about my relationship with Stephin. I think if someone were to call me in the context of an album release, and say 'how do you feel about writing all these songs', I'd have to say 'I didn't write these songs so I can't really speak about it.' This film is more about something else, not specifically me talking about the albums or the tours.

What was it like having a camera following you around this whole time [the documentary filmed for close to ten years]?

It was gradual, and unravelled very slowly over many, many years, so it didn't feel like it was always over my head, or always on. We would have the cameras on when we were on tour for the last couple of tours, and that was fairly professional. They would follow us on stage and backstage. They were pretty decent about not going into situations where we didn't want them.

So it wasn't too intrusive?

I'm trying to think of any examples of it being 'too intrusive'. I didn't personally find it overly intrusive, though there's an interesting phenomenon when you're being interviewed on camera, you kind of don't remember exactly what you said. When they turn off the camera you go 'oh my god, I wonder if I said something horrible'. I was ok with it once I saw it come out. There's not too much that I hate.

Given Stephin Merritt is so quick to deny autobiography in his lyrics and it's obvious you guys are creating characters – how does a fly-in-the-wall documentary fit in with this public persona?

I feel that's what has made the film so intriguing to audience members. Stephin has been a bit of an enigma, a hard guy to figure out, maybe people are now feeling 'we understand him better', or a now getting a new insight into him. Did you feel that way?

I did. You hear of this scary public persona that he's got, and then have the documentary subvert how he's supposed to be. Especially in interviews which always mention how scary he is…

Yeah this formidable character. I say this positively – I think it both succeeded and it doesn't succeed in letting you in. I think that that's a good thing. I'm not too sure you really want to know every single thing about a person, especially about a person whose music you really admire. Stephin really does hold his private life dear, and I think some people emerge from this movie thinking they didn't really get to know him a lot. I think that what he gives to the film is unique, and I think he does do a good job in showing people the quiet way he lives his life where he works and hangs around in bars. There's isn't a whole lot more to be honest. It's a pretty honest portrait, but I think some people wanted to know who the songs were about, and what exactly were, as you say, the autobiographical components of the music. I think it's trying to dissect something that can't be dissected.

Was it surprising he even said 'yes' to being the subject of a documentary?

I don't think he would have done if his friend Gail [O'Hara, one of the co-directors] had not been the one who asked him. They're very close and I think that it was someone he knew. It would have been more complicated if it were two random people who approached him from the outside and say 'I wanna spend all this time in your bedroom watching you record with cooking utensils'. Gail and him go way back and they worked together, and they were friends. I think he was able to have this different way of speaking with her.

Obviously you and him go way back – since high school – what do you think the key to your relationship is?

I kinda express this in the film, I think it's a little bit maternal, and somewhat sibling. I think all people benefit from meeting in high school. I think it depends on what kind of person you are, but I think there's an openness to being a teenager that maybe you wouldn't have if you had met in your thirties or twenties. So we met in this wonderful child-like era of playing music and being just kind of silly, and not having to have this big career agenda. We were still children. I think that really does solidify friendship, that playful time. I think that question of what's made it last: I guess in a positive way, that we have the right qualities, and I'm a bit of a caretaker, and I'm not very forceful about being the songwriter or the maestro. As he puts it in the film, the one thing he can do is make music. He can't do anything else. He can't balance his cheque book. I handle the sloggy day-to-day stuff. I think we have the right qualities to complement each other in that way. We're not trying to be the other person's qualities so much.

As the documentary says, Stephin Merritt doesn't suffer fools, and it shows you taking him on a bit…

True, if there was one aspect about the documentary which I found really uncomfortable to watch, is the degree to which I badger him. I say 'that's annoying', or 'why are you doing that', or 'stop that': I yell at him a lot. I feel like I'm a nagging wife or something. It's a quality you don't know until you see yourself on film. I think that's a privilege from working intimately with someone for over two decades.

I guess the band basically being intact, with some of the key members being there from the start…

Yeah, I love that, that's the way I live my life too. Like I said, it's great to be friends with your friends from high school, and I've stuck by my friends since I was a teenager. Stephin also. We don't move around a lot, we don't shift around a lot. Certain people are like that, we're like that.

Did it ever surprise you that success ever hit the band? You toiled for a decade, released some great albums which were ignored, and then finally got success through a triple album [69 Love Songs] of all things...

Yeah isn't that funny? It was a gamble which paid off really well. It was just an odd decision, an expensive triple album and have people respond to it. I absolutely 100% credit Stephin on that one. I didn't believe it would happen. He really believed in it. He kept saying 'it's going to work', 'it's going to work' and then it worked.

So you were a little nervous to the original idea? It was a hundred songs initially wasn't it?

It was always Stephin saying we're making a record of love songs, it's going to be really big, it's going to be a real gimmick. It's going to be all about the gimmick, a big record of love songs. I think the other question, the related question - does the success of the band surprise me, it wasn't a very surprising trajectory because it was so long. It wasn't like we burst on a scene and one year later we were megastars. We slowly trickled on the scene, and we're still not mildly stars. We're just a very long-term slow-burning, well loved, somewhat underground group. For better or worse, that's where we are in our lives. I don't think we feel bad about it, or crowing with delight with the fact we don't have as much success as other groups, or a real career.

Whenever Stephin comes to you with an album idea such as doing the 'Jesus and the Mary Chain' do you ever think this is not going to work?

Yeah, I've got the point now where I think I've got to trust him. He kind of knows what he's doing.

Did you miss the synths from the last three albums?

I kinda liked the fact you can't really tell. I like that about his music. He mixes analog and digital in such a way, you can't really tell what's making the sound. I think that some of the early fans are missing more of that synthy sound of the early records. I personally was happy he made some records with a warm sound, because it's easier to appeal to different age groups. I think it has pulled us a little away from the bedroom rock, kind of teenage world, to have some records with the cello, the banjo, the ukulele, to have these instruments with more organic instruments. But I don't think he should stick to anything, he should try different things. I'm sure he will.

It must be hard having these fans from way back? I imagine they must have this sense of ownership...

Exactly. And what's getting really crazy is that we're becoming grandparents of rocks. Some of these fans of ours are in their forties, and they have these kids in their teens and twenties. This whole issue of fans is very strange. Our fans are no longer teenagers, they were teenagers when we were teenagers. We're all old!


How rewarding as a musician is being part of the Magnetic Fields? I know you have some side projects but how do the Magnetic Fields fit in your own ambitions?

I'm pretty dependent on Stephin to be honest. I don't have that many ideas myself. Very occasionally I burst out with a song that I wrote, but I'm pretty much tied to his work. I personally find it very gratifying which is why I've stuck with it for so long. I personally take my own sense of self from the management work. I have my two lives. I make record deals, and negotiate contracts and deal with royalties: a lot of the crap work which is management. I get a lot of pleasure out of the very occasional times I get to perform or record and it's interestingly secondary to my day-to-day life.

You guys have been involved in music journalism early on – you guys have had some pretty nasty stuff written about you, particularly Stephin has. Has your background affected the way you've viewed how other people have approached the band?

I think that the negative journalism that has come at Stephin over the years has probably only had the effect of making us read less reviews. We basically tried to let our publicity team tell us: here are the five reviews that might be worth reading. When you get a lot of bile thrown at you, it makes you less likely to read every single review that comes out. It doesn't mean I don't do it. You have to take it as it comes, especially with the blog world. People think that Stephin doesn't exist on some level – that he's a character and they can be so violent, about me as well. Talking about things that are just so personal – whether or not we look fat, you just feel like you're being attacked. I think that’s more of a blog thing. There's more of that, now that there's so much blogging.

The film features an apology of sorts for a writer [from the New Yorker] who accused Stephin Merritt of being racist, what was your initial reaction to the piece?

I think we were a little confused. The film's depiction of that whole situation – by the way it wasn't very long, it happened in under a month, it came up and went away in a couple of weeks – it was just initially confusing. What's happening, why is this happening? He was pretty outraged and pretty sad, like they way you'd feel if you were struck by lightning. 'Why did this come out of the blue for literally no reason', it was like being mugged. Over time, there's been a bit more coming to terms with the discussion. The discussion is interesting: why do 'white' people listen to certain types of music, why do 'black' people listen to certain types of music? Why do 'straight' people listen to certain types of music, why do 'gay' people listen to certain types of music. It's an interesting discussion, I don't think it has anything to do with racism, or Stephin – it does with racism, but not Stephin. Why do people listen to what they listen to. I think there's an interesting book or movie out that discussion, the way that we've acculturated people around race categories in music, like R&B, gospel, hip-hop or blues. These are all "race music": they're all music categorisations by race. Indie rock, it's a 'white' category. It's not Stephin Merritt's fault. It just happens to be true, it's just that music has been categorised by race. He listens to plenty and plenty of music by people who are of colour, or not American – like Dionne Warwick, girl groups from the '60s, Nina Simone. But he doesn't particularly like music from the last ten years, whether it be 'white' or 'black'. It was just an out of the blue strange response, that some guilty 'white' people were having about having 'white' artists listen to more contemporary pop music, and it was just a strange attack. I didn't say it explicitly in the film, but Stephin did, I think it was fuelled more by homophobia than it was about anything to do with racism. People don't like Stephin because he's a 'gay' person, and because he's considered difficult.

As his manager and friend, it must have been hard not to get protective?

I wanted to get protective, but I was counselled by everyone just to shut up. When things like this happen, there's no motivation for them, really as I said before, it's just like being mugged. If you try to defend it, it's like you're making it real. It wasn't real. It was just a random attack. Which is really why the journalist backed off, he was like 'I'm not really having a conversation about anything'.

The film ends with Stephin Merritt moving to LA. Has that affected the way the band has operated?

Yes and no. Initially I worried that it would. But then I feel like it hasn't. So my initial thing was always afraid that the band would break up, we wouldn't be able to operate but actually it kinda hasn't happened. We've made as many records as before. Stephin has done some theatre work, it's been a continuous thing. It was my fear more than anything real.

Brannavan Gnanalingam