In anticipation of this spring’s Mission Creek Festival, Little Village invited Iowa City novelist and alt-country raconteur Jason T. Lewis to record a conversation about music and writing with Stephin Merritt of festival headliners The Magnetic Fields.
Jason T. Lewis: What are you reading and listening to right now?
Stephin Merritt: I’m reading a book on classical English rhetoric. I just bought the new Doris Day album. I also just bought Bollywood Blood Bath, music of the Indian horror film industry.
JTL: Are you a big Bollywood fan?
SM: I have this weird inability to tell good Indian music from bad. It’s all wonderful to me.
JTL: Does what you’re listening to or reading at any given time influence your writing? Do you seek stuff out to fuel your process?
JTL: Usually not, but I certainly did when I was doing Realism. I bought every folk record I could lay my hands on.
JTL: What specifically did you find stuck in your head?
SM: The surprising thing is that there was a duo of singing guitarists who were really quite good, but unfortunately their name was Fresh Maggots. It was a terrible name and they never got around to changing it and there was only one album so they were always Fresh Maggots. Maybe they changed it retroactively. And they got sex changes and now they’re the Indigo Girls or Everything But The Girl.
JTL: What was the Fresh Maggots sound like? I’m just curious because I might want to check them out.
SM: Quiet, contemplative. Not maudlin, not like Nick Drake, but gentle, pretty, simple lyrics.
JTL: I just recently downloaded 37 British folk records from the ’60 and ’70s. Some are really great and some are really insane.
SM: Are you a Comus fan?
JTL: I haven’t heard of them?
SM: They’re both really good and really insane. They specialize in the insane part. The phrase acid folk is totally overused, but it’s definitely applicable to Comus.
JTL: What is your day-to-day writing life like? I’m curious about how you approach what you do.
SM: I sit around in bars and write songs.
JTL: Particular time of day? Particular type of bar?
SM: I try not to start drinking until the sun goes down.
JTL: That’s always a good policy.
SM: In the summertime it’s not necessarily a good policy. That means I stay up very late.
JTL: And sometimes it’s nice to have drinks in the afternoon in the summer time.
JTL: So is that primarily where you do your work? Is that where you’re generating ideas or do you feel like you’re completing ideas there? I’m curious how do you get from the bar to the studio with a song?
SM: I don’t do any songwriting outside of bars. Yeah, when I was doing 69 Loves Songs I would spend mornings in a cafe that was also a pub and get over-caffeinated and then have to calm down my heart rate with a cocktail.
JTL: So you write the songs there and then do you bring them home and work on them to bring them to the band or whatever project you’re working on?
SM: I really start and finish the songs in bars. Not until I decided to record them do I take them out of notebooks.
JTL: How much material do you generate for a project? Is it a lot and then culled down, does it vary?
SM: It varies. When I’m writing for plays it’s the nature of the collaborative process that a lot of what I write’s going to get thrown out, so I overwrite a lot for plays.
JTL: So for something like a Magnetic Fields record, maybe more of it gets kept?
SM: Well, for 69 Loves Songs I wrote a hundred songs but used 69 of them, obviously.
JTL: Was the goal to use a hundred and you went with 69?
SM: No, the goal was to weed out the worst 31, I guess.
JTL: You’ve done a lot of different projects over the years and come back to The Magnetic Fields. How do you feel your creative relationship has evolved with the band? Not with the people but with the entity?
SM: What relationship?
JTL: How do you as a writer make the distinction between “I’m writing for The Magnetic Fields” or “I’m writing for something else?”
SM: Having a cold I’m too stupid to come up with an answer for that and I despise talking about creativity. I don’t understand how David Lynch can think that way. I can’t think that way. He wrote a whole book about it and I just scratch my head.
JTL: I had a similar experience with Jimmy Webb’s book about songwriting. I couldn’t understand how he got so much mileage out of that material.
SM: His essential message seemed to be “a good song will contain either ascending or descending chromatic line implied by the chord progression,” where I think that’s a cliché that I’m really happy David Bowie got tired of very early in his career. I would caution everyone to not follow his advice.
JTL: Do you still record most everything at home?
SM: I record myself at home studio and then I record the rest of the band at my engineer’s home studio.
JTL: Do you record in Pro Tools and take things back and forth.
SM: Yeah, I record in Pro Tools. I wish that there was an analog equivalent, but there isn’t. So I have a very analog signal path until it gets to the converters. And I have the most expensive digital converters that I could find.
JTL: Do you find that there’s a significant amount of degradation even given the high level of conversion?
SM: Yes. Well, I think it’s important not to think about it as a degradation. All recording is inherently a translation of something that you’re not hearing in the first place because you don’t put your ear at the soundhole of the cello. In fact, if you put the microphone at the soundhole of the cello there’s already an atrocious artificiality that would be bizarre to someone who didn’t grow up with recorded music. And anyway, since I’m going to ring modulate the cello into unrecognizability I try not to worry about it. But it’s important to have the best possible converters because everything is going to sound like them.
JTL: You mention ring modulation and changing the sounds of things. Is that a part of your songwriting process?
SM: No, production has nothing to do with the songwriting. I actually like to pit my production against the songwriting. I do all the songwriting and then I start recording.
JTL: So, you think the recording process is at odds with the writing? I’m interested in that distinction. Could you expand on that?
SM: On “Going Back to the Country” from the new album there’s a cello at the end that sounds like an aircraft taking off and it’s something that you’d definitely never hear in a country production and it’s a cello solo, which is already something you’d never hear in a country production, but the song is about going on an airplane back to Laramie, Wyoming, so the production does serve the lyric, but it undermines the genre.
JTL: What leads you to your instrument palette from one record to the next?
SM: I like to react against the previous record. I try to make something that’s an enormous departure from whatever the previous record happened to be. That way I don’t get bored and the audience doesn’t think, “Oh, another one of those.”
JTL: Do you see yourself continuing to make records and touring? Is there something else on the horizon you see yourself doing?
SM: Oh, I’d love to not have to tour, but I don’t know how I’d set that up. Until I retire to write the Great American Novel, sure.