Aren’t They A Gem?
Songwriter Stephin Merritt Songwriter Stephin Merritt describes how he finishes by subtracting. Neil explores why he over-praises phlebotomists.
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Stephin Merritt is a singer-songwriter who has released more than a dozen albums with his band the Magnetic Fields, along with albums from the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies. He’s also composed music for movies (Pieces of April, Eban and Charley) and stage (Coraline, The Orphan of Zhao, Peach Blossom Fan) and was the subject of the documentary Strange Powers.
STEPHIN: Should we do a slate?
NEIL: Yeah, sure. I’ll just clap. Neil, talking to Stephin Merritt whose work he has adored since whenever the Faraway Bus came out.
NEIL: Wayward Bus. There’s a faraway. Where does faraway fit in that? I know there’s something.
STEPHIN: I don’t know. I have a large catalog.
NEIL: Yeah, I’ve heard. Word on the street. But it is true, I have just so profoundly loved your work since way back then.
STEPHIN: Thank you. I’m thirsty. It’s hot in here because I’ve turned the air conditioner off for audio.
NEIL: I appreciate that.
STEPHIN: I will be doing product placement for Mineragua Sparkling Water again and again.
NEIL: Mineragua sounds like it could be a symptom. I’m sorry, I can’t have a podcast today. I have Mineragua. I feel a little bit refreshed just looking at the label. Do you mind my asking, before we got on online, you were mentioning that you had COVID and you are experiencing brain fog. Can you describe what that feels like?
STEPHIN: Well, it feels like writer’s block and an inability to organize anything. I mean, everybody, pretty much… A lot of people have writer’s block, but I have really weird writer’s block. I agreed to write an article about ELO for a book someone is doing about the albums that changed my life. And I tried to write about ELO Out of the Blue. I just had to write 1000 words. I happened to have already written 1000 words on ELO Out of the Blue in junior high school, so it should not be a problem. But it took me six weeks and I eventually gave up. I just couldn’t do it.
STEPHIN: At the risk of interviewing you, in your background you have what seems to be a painting studio with a television on it, on the desk. Do you paint the television?
STEPHIN: When I was in film school I filmed the television all the time. It’s a really good source of images.
NEIL: I don’t paint, my studio mate does, so those are her paintings. Then the TV, I’ve got asked to do a project where I’m reviewing some work I did back in the mid 90s and reflect on it, so I broke out the old CRT and I’ve been pulling a Stephin Merritt in film school, I’ve been filming the TV set. Which is a very familiar, old feeling because I used to do that a bit too.
STEPHIN: Everything looks better if you record it onto more than one medium.
NEIL: You mean if there’s like a generation loss?
STEPHIN: Yes. Well, two generation losses of different kinds so that they have a sort of moire pattern in between them, so that you got the grain of the film and the scan lines of the video distorting each other. It makes everything prettier.
NEIL: I love that. It’s almost like wearing a plaid tie and a striped shirt, but the plaid tie is translucent or something like that.
NEIL: I didn’t know you went to film school, though.
STEPHIN: Yes. I never finished, but I went.
NEIL: I remember when you wrote in TimeOut, was that about film? No. Or was it about books? No, it was about music. What the fuck am I talking about?
STEPHIN: I reviewed a lot of different things in TimeOut, music, theater, food. I don’t think I reviewed any books for TimeOut. Every year, I reviewed the calendars for the following year and the Christmas records, which is the worst job I have ever had. Entailed listening to at least 10, well, I chose 10, so a lot more than 10, Christmas albums. I hate Christmas albums.
NEIL: Where are you speaking to me from?
STEPHIN: New York City. I have a view of the Empire State Building from my chair.
NEIL: Is it a north view, are you looking downtown onto the Empire State Building or uptown?
STEPHIN: You think I’m uptown? Jesus Christ.
NEIL: Yeah, sorry.
STEPHIN: No, I’m downtown baby. I am looking at the southern angle of the Empire State Building.
NEIL: That’s beautiful.
STEPHIN: Where are you?
NEIL: I’m on the Lower East Side, where I used to be able to actually to see The World Trade Center right out my window, speaking of landmarks.
STEPHIN: I hope you were not able to see it burning.
NEIL: Yeah, I did see it burning. Did you?
STEPHIN: I saw it burning, but not from my room.
NEIL: It is a different thing.
STEPHIN: I would have been very upset. I mean, I was very upset. No, I saw it from my roof with binoculars, an experience I’m glad to never repeat. I now have a phobia of binoculars.
NEIL: Because of that?
NEIL: Some entomologist is really loving that they have, on the tip of their tongue, the scientific name for the phobia of binoculars. I’ve never heard that before, though.
STEPHIN: Diocularaphobia, or something.
NEIL: Also, there’s something about a phobia is sort of in a meta relationship to something, which binoculars are in relationship to the thing being seen, so it’s like… I don’t know. There’s something very complex going on. I’m detecting a kind of like lens theme happening. You spotted the TV set, film school, the filming of one thing with another thing, binoculars. What’s going on?
STEPHIN: Sometimes when suddenly a theme occurs to one it’s always been there in everything and you just grabbed onto it as a filter.
NEIL: Can I ask, when people don’t know you, do you have a succinct way that you describe what it is you do?
STEPHIN: I’m a songwriter not aligned to any particular genre. My preferred genre is variety. And I recently realized that my favorite genre is variety because I grew up on AM radio, and that was what AM radio was like. It would be Frank Sinatra followed by Black Sabbath.
NEIL: That’s so beautiful. I love it as a genre. I often say my favorite TV show is the menu, and I have spent vast amounts of time pretty contentedly looking through the selection of things to watch on the Netflix menu, whatever, and then kind of called it a night.
STEPHIN: Reading the TV Guide listings was almost always more entertaining than watching television.
NEIL: It was a precursor to the genre variety.
STEPHIN: Yes. Also, I’m not a good cook, but I do collect bento boxes and I make bento for lunch for myself.
NEIL: Bentos are like a structure for variety.
NEIL: Shall we try some cards? But if anything doesn’t speak to you just say pass or whatever.
STEPHIN: No, I’ll say brain fog.
NEIL: Brain fog. Yeah. But so the first card says certain art ideas, when you come back to them or like a cup of coffee you left out on the counter.
STEPHIN: I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t know what it’s like when you leave coffee out on the counter. But I suppose if you have milk in it, the milk is probably curdled.
NEIL: It’s gotten cold.
STEPHIN: What about iced coffee? Can you make iced coffee out of coffee that is simply gone cold or does it now taste bad?
NEIL: I have very specific requirements around the iced coffee. I need for it to be designated from the start as iced coffee.
STEPHIN: I’m a tea drinker and tea doesn’t work that way at all. You can just heat it up again and it’s fine.
NEIL: Well, what’s it like for you? How do you return to something that’s in process, the cup of coffee that’s been put down, and follow through on it maybe even after the initial heat, I’m really pushing the metaphor, has gone?
STEPHIN: If I don’t find what I worked on yesterday to be inspiring, I don’t work on it again. I guess I don’t work on things where the initial heat has dissipated. Rhett says I dump out the coffee. Or if I don’t dump out the coffee, what I’m more likely to do is find something fun in it, cross out everything else, copy that to another page, and just go with the fact that Wallaby turned out to rhyme with.
NEIL: Implicit in that is the idea that your working style involves pushing through to a type of finish.
STEPHIN: Well, the most recent Magnetic Fields album was called Quickies. And by the standards of, say, The Cure, none of the songs on Quickies are finished because they’re all under two minutes 20 seconds long. And I think that the two minutes 20 seconds is actually made that long by the guitarist tacking on an intro and outro that isn’t a part of the song.
STEPHIN: Everything is under two minutes long and all of the songs are a maximum of two parts, they don’t have middle eights or anything, and they end as soon as they can. They don’t have vamps at the end and that sort of thing. So there’s that kind of finished/unfinished, but also I usually have a pretty wide variety of lengths of song on a given record. 69 Love Songs goes from 15 seconds to five minutes. So a song is really finished when I say it’s finished.
STEPHIN: I guess the recording is what’s going to sound under cooked or not under cooked, not so much the song itself. I don’t think I’ve ever left in a really stupid line in a song just because I can’t think of something else. I don’t know. Maybe on… I was going to say maybe on my first album, but then I was a perfectionist on my first album, so no, probably not.
NEIL: Have you become less of a perfectionist with time?
STEPHIN: I think every artist becomes less of a perfectionist with time. Especially Mondrian, who got bored. He got bored quite rightly.
NEIL: Is there any correlation between a duration of time that it takes to, let’s say, “finish” a song and the duration of the song itself, or can it take a really long time to do a short song?
STEPHIN: There’s a number of songs on Quickies that have been sitting in notebooks for decades unfinished, and they were finished by, sometimes, my simply looking at them and saying, “Oh, they’re finished,” and other times by my saying, “Well, if I just subtract this part, then it’ll be finished.” So I take songs that were really awful because the verse was so terrible, but the chorus was great, just play the chorus, and the song is done.
NEIL: That is wisdom.
STEPHIN: Finish by subtracting.
NEIL: Yeah. Hello. One of the cards I hadn’t thought of, but that I remember now, is I hate bridges in music generally. How do you feel about bridges?
STEPHIN: I’m trying to think of one that I love. Here’s a bridge that I love. In the ABBA song, “Hole In Your Soul,” it’s a hard rock song, the closest ABBA could conceivably come to being hardcore. And then there’s a bridge and the bridge is completely different. No drums, everything drops out, and you hear a beautiful synthesizer and an almost operatic tone of voice. You really hear Agnetha doing her Connie Francis imitation, because Connie Francis was her favorite singer, and then it goes out of that into a shrill, very high note, and you can’t believe she can sustain this note, as the hardcore comes rushing back. And the bridge has actually done what bridges are supposed to do, which is give you something completely different to listen to for 10 seconds as an excuse to play the chorus a fourth and fifth time. That’s the only bridge I can think of that really justifies the existence of bridges.
NEIL: I feel like we’re comrades on that. Because it always seems to me the bridge is serving a purpose outside itself. You know what I mean?
STEPHIN: Generally the purpose of the bridge is to make the song longer than two minutes and 50 seconds, which is the length that singles used to have as a maximum in the heyday of the seven inch single. Before Bohemian Rhapsody you were never going to get a song on the radio if it was more than two minutes and 50 seconds long, unless it was going to be on FM radio and who cares about FM radio? So yeah, bridges are a purely commercial thing. Art songs never have bridges and folk songs never have bridges.
NEIL: I feel so vindicated. What about key changes? I feel like often there can be a type of hubris in a key change.
STEPHIN: The Barry Manilow problem is that once you’re tired of the chorus, he goes up one half step and plays the same exact chorus all over again in identical arrangement, except that it’s one half step up. And sometimes that pesky Barry Manilow does it again, more than one.
NEIL: “Can’t Smile Without You.”
STEPHIN: “Can’t Smile Without You,” yes. I actually love Barry Manilow’s voice, but the key change habit drives me nuts.
NEIL: You’re someone who, if there’s a key change in your music, I am 100% all in. Nothing is coming to mind. I know there is one. There’s got to be.
STEPHIN: I always make sure that if I really hate something, I make sure that I put it into my music. So I agree that there must be an unnecessary modulation somewhere, I just can’t think of where it is.
NEIL: Perhaps we’ll call this episode, unnecessary modulation. Next card.
STEPHIN: Maybe gratuitous. Gratuitous modulation.
NEIL: Gratuitous modulation. See now gratuitous bridge is almost redundant, right?
STEPHIN: Yes, it’s redundant.
NEIL: We’ve determined.
STEPHIN: Except in Hole In Your Soul, where the bridge is at least half the point of the song.
NEIL: I can’t wait to hear it. And I should apologize, every now and then I’m speaking over you just because there’s a little delay in my earphones.
STEPHIN: That’s fine.
NEIL: Apologies if that’s confusing to you.
STEPHIN: A friend of mine hates being interrupted. That’s her problem. She’s miserable. She thinks everyone disrespects her. Not at all, it’s the way everyone speaks. She just has a pet peeve that she should get over.
NEIL: It’s interesting, so I teach and I had this student who was amazing, but was completely… She was wild, and she was also a just insane interrupter of other people in the class, but…
STEPHIN: Classrooms are not conversations, and if the other person is trying to learn something from you, then her interrupting them, interrupting a question in particular, is much ruder than it would be in an ordinary conversation.
NEIL: Great point. And so I said, “How would you like to be interrupted?” And she said, “I love being interrupted.” And I really believed her. It wasn’t just like she was okay with it, she loved it.
STEPHIN: I also love being interrupted. I’m all in favor of that. However, it’s not really her decision to make if this is a hierarchical class. I don’t know. Was it a lecture or a seminar? It makes a difference.
NEIL: Studio art class. I mean, that’s very contested hierarchy there.
STEPHIN: If she did it all the time, it’s just annoying.
NEIL: And she did indeed. She was a great student, though. Sondheim-related card. The song “Ladies Who Lunch,” I really get stopped on the line, aren’t they a gem? And I know you’re a stickler for grammar, and I don’t know if this is a grammatical error or what it is, or it’s just a choice. But how do you feel about that? Here’s to the ladies who lunch, aren’t they a gem?
STEPHIN: I’m failing to see what you’re pointing out as a grammatical error.
NEIL: Aren’t they gems? Unless ladies who lunch is singular.
STEPHIN: They collectively. Aren’t they a circus? Aren’t they a gem? Aren’t they a peach?
NEIL: Aren’t they a peach. Aren’t they peaches. You don’t have a problem with it. See, aren’t they a circus I would be okay with because that a circus is a collection of… I guess a gem is a collection of what?
STEPHIN: Carbon atoms.
NEIL: So you’re okay. That was in Sondheim’s notebook, aren’t they a collection of-
STEPHIN: Carbon atom. More than on carbon atom. A gem, in fact.
NEIL: All right, you’ve solved it. We’re done in terms of my issues with that song. Next card.
STEPHIN: All of my Sondheim quibbles are from West Side Story, but I don’t really want to air them.
NEIL: I have a lot of quibbles with Sondheim. Can I just go there? Sorry Stephen Sondheim, if you’re a listener of She’s A Talker. I don’t emotionally trust his work. So much of it is about relationships, but the way he talks about it, it feels very outsider speaking as an insider. It doesn’t ring true, maybe, is all I’m saying.
STEPHIN: Do Rodgers and Hammerstein ring true? Do you find Flower Drum Song to be a photorealist masterpiece? Not a hint?
NEIL: I guess I am talking to the wrong person. But is it claiming to be? Or maybe it’s in the uncanny valley of sentiment. Meaning it’s trying to represent-
STEPHIN: And then it’s not realistic enough for you.
NEIL: Exactly. I don’t go into Rodgers and Hammerstein song, at least in this historical period, expecting that. Sondheim represents himself as offering this kind of acute nuanced insight into the dynamics of relationship. Or am I wrong?
STEPHIN: I don’t want to speak for him. I certainly don’t present myself as offering a particularly subtle or nuanced insight into relationships.
NEIL: But, I’m going to interrupt, that’s the paradox.
STEPHIN: My work is more about other work than it is about portraying reality. And you could say, I’m not sure that Sondheim would be comfortable with it, but you could say that Sondheim’s work is more about theater and music than it is about whether Bobby is going to get married.
STEPHIN: I always say that the kind of plot that I hate boils down to, will the boring straight people fuck each other? And it is. Two thirds of the plots in the world are, will the boring straight people fuck each other? Which is why gay cinema should not emulate straight cinema.
NEIL: Not to mention gay life.
STEPHIN: Gay life.
NEIL: The thing I was going to say about your work is there’s a paradox, for me at least, which is I’ve heard you say that you don’t, and you’ve just said it, that you’re not aiming for a certain type of realism, for lack of a better word, but paradoxically it inadvertently achieves it one way or the other, for me at least. Emotional-
NEIL: Emotional realism, absolutely.
STEPHIN: Psychological realism, in fact.
NEIL: Indeed. Verily.
STEPHIN: I’m not a fan of psychological realism as a genre, so I don’t delve.
NEIL: You may be getting in through the back door, as it were, speaking of queer.
STEPHIN: Hubba hubba. What’s the next card?
NEIL: This one’s about animals, and I know you’re a dog person. What are your pups’ names?
STEPHIN: Edgar and Agatha. They are not named after the mystery novel prizes, they’re named after the people the mystery novel prizes are named after, Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, because they were from mysterious origins.
NEIL: Where are they from? Or it’s mysterious.
STEPHIN: They were found rooting through garbage in Atlanta, Georgia.
NEIL: Beautiful origin story.
STEPHIN: They should probably have been named after some realist authors like Zola and Tolstoy, or something.
NEIL: We could talk more about that, but I’ll say that my cat’s origin story, and Beverly is the mascot of the podcast, was found hiding in the wheel-well of a car in Brooklyn as a little kitten. She’s a survivor. But this card says, the way an animal’s affection and vulnerability are connected.
STEPHIN: Is what?
NEIL: It’s just an observation, I guess. That, at least for cats, they’ll do things like they’ll slow blink, which is a way of making themselves vulnerable, which apparently is a way of, according to the interpreters of cat behavior, it’s a way of expressing affection for you.
STEPHIN: Like putting your head down is a way of being lower and therefore more vulnerable.
STEPHIN: Like kneeling before the queen to be knighted. She could decapitate you, but she doesn’t. She symbolically decapitates you in order to show that you are loyal enough to present your neck for decapitation by the queen.
NEIL: Is that what that’s about?
NEIL: How does that live with Edgar and Agatha?
STEPHIN: They put their heads down, I don’t decapitate them, we live happily.
NEIL: All right, one more card. The sound of turning off an NPR story mid-sentence always makes me feel like I’m in a movie. Like, let’s say I have to get out of the apartment, but I’m listening to NPR and there’s a news story and I turn it off, suddenly I’m like, I’m in a movie. No? Yes?
STEPHIN: This is Nina Totenberg reporting on the zombie massacres happening in Lebanon today. We have the BBC correspondent. Are you there? Are you there? I can’t quite hear you. Well, we’ll have to get back to Lebanon. Now, we go… Yes, sounds like you’re in a movie.
NEIL: To me, it does. Just when I turn it off in the middle of a sentence, do you have that experience?
STEPHIN: I am so unlikely to turn anything off in the middle of a sentence that I would have to say non-applicable.
NEIL: Is that because you’re a completist or is it because… What’s that about?
STEPHIN: I’m sure it’s a mental illness of some kind, but although I’m willing to interrupt people who are having a conversation with me, I’m less willing to interrupt people who are mechanical reproductions, I guess.
NEIL: Kind of reminds me of someone I know, came as a child from Romania for the fall of communism, and she saw Tony the Tiger on TV saying, “Buy Frosted Flakes, they’re great.” And then she went to the store with her mom and she became desperate, telling her mom, “We have to get the Frosted Flakes.” She didn’t realize that someone on TV telling her to get something, it’s actually optional. Could it be that?
STEPHIN: What a sad story.
NEIL: She’s doing okay now.
STEPHIN: It’s probably more that I want to hear the end of the sentence.
NEIL: So the unit is the sentence.
STEPHIN: It’s not like I wait until the end of the show to turn it off or anything.
NEIL: Got it. All right, well, last question. When current circumstances, however you understand them, COVID, quarantine, social distancing, are over, what is it that you’re looking forward to, if anything?
STEPHIN: BEAR WEEK!