The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt | Grandlife
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The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

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Lawrence Ferber sat down for lunch with the singer-songwriter to discuss the 25th anniversary tour of 69 Love Songs, memorable interactions with cultural icons like John Lennon, and the one New York institution he’d bring back if he could.  

It’s been 25 years since the release of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, a critically lauded, three-disc opus spotlighting the witty, hook-laden, genre-hopping songwriting of Stephin Merritt—and his endless array of instruments, both common, eclectic, and vintage—in its titular 69 ditties.

To commemorate this anniversary, Merritt and a handful of The Magnetic Fields’ original members will perform the entire album in two parts over two nights, a la Angels In America, on a US and European tour which includes April 3rd-10th at NYC’s The Town Hall.

A quintessential, dryly humorous native New Yorker—he’s routinely namechecked NYC locations and institutions in song—with an almost Fran Lebowitz albeit deeply deadpan salty attitude that doesn’t disappoint, the openly gay Merritt is also behind the bands/music projects The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and The 6ths. In 2021 he co-founded, and DJs, a monthly party for gay bears and their friends, Fuzzy, which takes place on fourth Fridays at Nowhere Bar on 14th Street. 

A vegan, Merritt joined GrandLife for lunch at West Village French vegan restaurant Delice & Sarrasin to discuss his songwriting (or recent lack of due to long COVID-related brain fog), performing 69 Love Songs again, his NYC inspirations and go-tos, fave shopping and restaurants, Fuzzy, and memorable interactions with cultural icons like John Lennon.

What is the most exciting thing about this anniversary and performing 69 Love Songs live again?

There are no exciting elements. I don’t have excitement about concerts. I don’t have excitement in general. I’m not built that way, and definitely not for concerts. I don’t like playing live, and I definitely don’t like traveling to play live. I certainly don’t like rehearsing 69 goddamned songs and I’ve never made any bones about these things. I think it’s part of our charm that we’re unusually honest with audiences.

Is it hard to look back on or listen to any of your songs in general, and why?

I’m not going to name the song. I find it a bad policy to ruin my own songs for other people, but there is a song that has a mispronunciation in it that drives me crazy. It’s a quite obscure word, so it only drives me crazy and perhaps two or three other people in the world.

You caught COVID right when it first hit and suffered brain fog and songwriter’s block as a result. Has that lifted?

I have yet to finish writing a new song. Well, I finished one song and it was for someone else’s project, and I was only able to finish it by writing “ad lib” for the last third, knowing the performers involved were perfectly capable of doing so. Otherwise I haven’t finished a song since I got COVID on March 11th, 2020. Fortunately, I have hundreds of songs just sitting in notebooks, so nobody will ever know but me if I never write a song again.

Where are your favorite places to write music usually?

My local hangout, a gay bar, which I won’t name, is my go-to songwriting place. I also like to write in hotels.

Since NYC has fed you creatively, are there any other places you’ll maybe visit to kickstart the songwriting engine again? 

No. I go to the same place every night to stick to routine. A new place would not help with that. There’s an element of deliberately boring myself into working that is an important part of my routine. If people are talking to me or if the surroundings are too interesting or the music is something I haven’t heard a thousand times before it won’t be inspiring. It will be too distracting.

 

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What’s the strangest or most unlikely place you wrote a song?

Los Angeles. I lived in L.A. for six years and wrote a number of songs there, but all that time I went back and forth between NY and I wrote a large majority of songs in NY because I’m wired that way.

Was your soul screaming to move back to NY, as you did eventually?

No. My soul was very happy going to L.A.’s The Silent Movie Theater, bicycling to Susan Feniger’s restaurant Street for the Asian street food, and living two blocks from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. L.A. is great fun. I miss the food.

The Magnetic Fields’ 2020 album, Quickies, was all songs that ran two minutes and fifteen seconds or less. Do you have other concept or themed albums in mind?

I have a number of ideas for albums, but the term ‘concept album’ means you have taken the title very seriously, and whether an album is a concept album or not is to be judged only after the album is completed. You may start out calling the album ‘The Alphabet,’ but if you don’t actually write all of the songs in alphabetical order and place them that way, it’s not actually a concept album.

How has Fuzzy evolved since it began in September 2021?

Now it has a radio show, which you can see on YouTube or listen to on Soundcloud. Fellow DJ David Stringer Hughes and I for three years or so have done a radio show, originally called Manono Radio with Luke Jenner and his friend Tara, so it’s the same people as Fuzzy which makes it Fuzzy radio. So Fuzzy has become two things with two audiences, and it’s hard to say which is bigger. Although the radio is an archive, so potentially the entire population of India can listen later, you can never tell.

Do you take requests while DJing?

I not only don’t take requests, I make fun of the people making requests. I do request shaming for free, and like we always say, if we already just played something and you request it, you can give us $20 for playing it retroactively. It often happens that people request songs we just played and that’s why it’s in their head.

What are some of NYC’s best yet possibly overlooked locations or attractions? It seems like some of the gems namechecked in your music aren’t still around.

Almost none of them are! (laughs) I never went to Elaine’s before they closed. As a visitor, go to Off-Broadway shows. You can see ten for the price of one Broadway production and they will mostly be better. A few Broadway shows are amazing, but most are dumb. If you like big, dumb spectacle see one Broadway show and nine Off-Bway. You can find big, dumb spectacle Off-Bway, too, but it’s a great value and I don’t think visitors realize this. I just saw Dead Outlaw and tickets are like $70, whereas a Broadway musical like The Music Man was six or seven times that, with the immortal hook, ‘but he doesn’t know the territory.’ You’d have to pay me $600 to see The Music Man.

You have an amazing T-shirt collection. Where should one go for really cool T-shirts?

My favorite T-shirt is from Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, and on the front it says in Courier font, ‘Destroy The Audience.’ That was from its merch booth. I also have a nifty T-shirt of Nathan Lane in the Tony-winning show The Nance. If you go to the theater, buy the T-shirt, you won’t regret it. You can also buy T-shirts for plays you have not in fact seen, which is often better than seeing the play! I was just in Vienna, which is part of New York but you just have to cross the Atlantic ocean to get there, and once you do you can go to the theater where they are playing the Falco musical Rock Me Amadeus. I have two different T-shirts, which I managed to buy during intermission at the theater without having to actually see the play.

I believe our Museum of Broadway sells a lot of shirts from shows so you don’t even have to try and buy one at the actual theaters.

There’s also a little shop on 44th street, Theatre Circle, that has all the T-shirts for current shows. And museum gift shops are a treasure, and absolutely everything can be mailed to your home so if you find yourself at the Whitney you could spend $10,000s on art books and have it all mailed home so you don’t have to carry anything out. 

Any more broad travel tips or hacks for visitors? 

I have more warnings than encouragements. Stay away from Times Square. Being a pedestrian in Times Square is an experience everyone should have once, and only once, except people with anxiety disorders who should have it zero times. So a big important part of being in NY is setting yourself up so you never have to cross Times Square by foot. 

 

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A wealthy investor offers to revive any long gone NYC institution you loved. Which would it be?

The nightclub Danceteria [where I went six nights a week while at NYU from 1983-84]. There were four different floors. On the first Madonna would be hanging out with Fab Five Freddy and on the second Tito Puente would be leading a band. On the third it was a video lounge. And on the fourth John Cooper Clarke could be reading some wonderful pop punk poem and for a while there was a roof as well, without performances as far as I know. There was also a basement and that was just a coat check but very necessary. I had two coats stolen from Danceteria that I didn’t check, so use the coat check. It’s cheaper.

Tell me about a few specific memorable moments from your Danceteria days.

I saw The Immaculate Consumptive which was an evening with Nick Cave, Marc Almond, Lydia Lunch and Clint Ruin aka Foetus. Foetus stage dived on to my head, giving me neck problems for six months. Einstürzende Neubauten gave me spark scars on my neck and even then I didn’t learn to stand farther back from the stage. Now I know. And now that I’ve been on stage a lot, I understand why it’s a really bad idea to be anywhere near the stage. 

Have you ever gotten star struck?

I was star struck in the 1980s. I was walking down Seventh Avenue in the snow and I passed Susan Sontag, the most recognizable person in the world because of her hair. She had a cold, I had a cold, we both had big red noses and looked miserable and we glanced at each other and psychically commiserated about our colds. That was a bonding moment. I’m pretty celebrity immune, though, because one of my earliest memories was meeting John Lennon at a Yoko Ono sculpture show in Syracuse. I saw John carving the letter “T” out of ice and I asked him, ‘what are you doing?’ He replied, ‘making ice tea.’ He was a desperate punster. It’s the 60s, everyone was on speed. I have not met anyone more famous than John Lennon.

What’s the best advice you ever received from another musician?

Peter Gabriel, seriously I think, told me not to mix the experimental stuff with the pop stuff. I was scratching my head all the way from dinner because Peter Gabriel is famous precisely for mixing the experimental stuff with the pop stuff. So I’ve decided he was joking.

Alternately, tell me about a memorable encounter with one of your fans.

I was at Jackie 60 many years ago and talking to a cute boy about music and he said he was into a band I wouldn’t have heard of called The Magnetic Fields. I thought he was kidding, but it turned out he was not. He had no idea who I was. I thought that was great.

Here we are enjoying vegan French onion soup and escargot, which I’m loving. What are a few of your favorite vegan restaurants and cafes?

Well, the pandemic has not been kind to the vegan scene but where we are now, Delice & Sarrasin, is very good and located one block from the Film Forum which is NYC’s best movie theater now that there’s no Ziegfeld. Planta Queen on 27th Street in Chelsea is expensive but really good. Do not miss the Bang Bang Broccoli and they have some really neat desserts. Blossom Cafe is now only on the Upper West Side, there used to be three locations. The East Village’s Superiority Burger has excellent vegan options and the ones I would most strongly recommend is the unbelievable peanut butter pie. Just thinking about it makes me want to rush over and go eat some. Their date shake is also unbelievable. There are two sister restaurants for Korean vegan, Hangawi and Franchia, closeby to each other in Koreatown and Murray Hill, respectively. When I go to Franchia I have to make a choice between tteokbokki and jjajangmyeon. I heartily recommend both. And Hangawi is a visually lovely experience where you have to take off your shoes and sit down at very traditional sunken tables.

Finally, if you could change one thing about NY as it exists today what would it be?

Air quality. That’s the wrong answer, isn’t it? (laughs) It’s worse in L.A.

The Magnetic Fields celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 69 Love Songs album with shows at The Town Hall in New York. Tickets are available to purchase—here

WORDS Lawrence Ferber 

PHOTOGRAPHY Marcelo Krasilcic

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