'I'm hypernostalgic in terms of my musical taste, and not remotely nostalgic person in terms of my own life'
“What do you call a Scouse girl in a white tracksuit?”
Soho is generally home to a few homeless people who have cultivated talents in order to get money from tourists. There are buskers, artists, speed-poets writing verse on the subject of your choice in seconds flat. My first encounter with Stephin Merritt, principal member of The Magnetic Fields, comes outside of the plush confines of the Dean Street Townhouse hotel, where we’re interrupted by a ragged comedian with an impenetrably thick Liverpudlian accent.
Merritt and I look at each other awkwardly, shrugging before the punchline is revealed: “The bride.”
This inauspicious start is the first thing we talk about on sitting down, long before we get to discussing any of the twenty five albums Merritt has released in as many years, under a variety of guises. Unfazed, he simply shrugs the incident off with trademark aplomb.
“I wasn’t sure if he really was from Liverpool, to be honest. I mean, The Beatles were largely comprehensible in movies.”
It turns out jetlag has done little to dull Merritt’s caustic edges; he may not always enjoy interviews, but it seems like he’s at least trying to have a little bit of fun with this one, even dissecting his own choice of reading material for his week-long press trip to Europe.
“I’m reading my way through the David Pringle list of the 100 best science fiction novels from 1948 to 1984. I’m not reading them in chronological order, because that would be unbearable. The fifties are unbearably misogynist, and the seventies are often unreadably… a backlash against that misogyny.”
At that moment, an unordered bottle is brought to the table. “What is that?” Merritt asks. On finding out that it’s simply still water, he looks up at me quizzically. “Oh. Well, I suppose we could pour it on the table and lick it up if we absolutely need to.”
It’s as good a start as could be expected.
Stephin Merritt is a curious case in the grand scheme of what you could call indie music. Despite releasing albums on a variety of independent labels, including four LPs with standard-bearers Merge, his sights have always been set a little higher, and he’s not without contempt for the genre ghetto. When asked to supply a unique line of merchandise to celebrate Merge’s fifth anniversary as a label in 1994, he and his manager (and drummer) Claudia Gonson daubed a series of twenty small boulders, creating a literal “indie rock” for fans to take home.
Merge stretched their resources to breaking point for their tenth anniversary by releasing what has been Merritt’s milestone and millstone ever since: a three-disc collection entitled ‘69 Love Songs’. Specifically designed to be discussed (and whittled down from a planned ‘100 Love Songs’), it broke away from the synthesisers and ukuleles which littered earlier Magnetic Fields releases like ‘Holiday’ and the criminally underrated ‘Get Lost’, to reveal an intelligent arranger, master melody-writer and insightful lyricist at the peak of his powers.
Since 2004, Merritt has been firmly ensconced on Nonesuch, making him labelmates of kindred spirits and heroes like Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim. His songs have become modern standards, covered by artists as diverse as former label bosses Superchunk, Tracey Thorn and Peter Gabriel. Merritt once praised the latter’s string-laden version of ‘The Book of Love’ for allowing him to make the down-payment on a house. How fucking romantic.
The wit, scope and intelligence of The Magnetic Fields’ output is what surely makes them the only band who could be equally beloved by fans of Cole Porter, Camera Obscura and Cabaret Voltaire. There have been clubnights named after, and devoted purely to, their music, and even a night promising Magnetic Fields karaoke later this month. When I mention this to Merritt, he responds with a characteristically terse “No comment,” and when pushed to suggest a song of his own to become a karaoke standard, he suggests ‘Roses’, a 28-second acapella track from ‘69 Love Songs’. “It’s short,” he deadpans. “And requires no backing track.”