In Eavesdropping, Art

Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt finds his muse in conversations overheard while drinking

November 14, 2012

The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt hates touring, but plays for you.

Stephin Merritt hates touring. The frontman for indie legends the Magnetic Fields is bored by the constant travel, the grueling routines and the anonymous accommodations. “If you’ve seen a few hotel rooms, you’ve seen them all,” he says. “Touring is just death to creativity.”

It doesn’t help that Merritt and his bandmates perform the same songs night after night. The group’s sprawling catalog — by his own estimation, 25 albums’ worth of material, including this spring’s “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” — at least allows them some flexibility.

“It’s not nearly as much of a problem for us as it is for the Rolling Stones,” he says. “I have no idea how they manage to convey enthusiasm after decades of playing the same rather stupid songs. I’m glad I don’t have to do energetic performances of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ every night. That would turn me into a heroin addict.”

So, what inspires the notoriously droll singer-songwriter, famous as much for his grouchy demeanor as for his smart, catchy tunes and inventive production work? Gay bars.

“Whenever I have a night off, I try to spend it at a quiet gay bar writing songs,” he says. “I have a cocktail in one hand, a notebook in the other and a pen in the other.”

Merritt, who is gay, doesn’t have three hands, but he does have two ears, which allow him to eavesdrop on entertaining conversations at the bars. The intel will often give Merritt inspiration for a line or a character or — on an especially good night — an entire song. “I write about people I overhear in bars. Not about them but incorporating their words, which they’re often parroting from something else.”

For example, the song “Xavier Says,” from the Fields’ 2008 album “Distortion,” stems from a conversation overheard at Rawhide in New York City.

“Somebody said, ‘Don’t make me cut you,’ which was a cliche about five years ago,” he says. That became “Zsa Zsa’s scene, tacky queen …/ Get your crass little ass/ Out and don’t make me cut you.”

The upside of this approach to songwriting, besides an inexhaustible source of catty comments, is that Merritt can write about people other than himself. He’s not a confessional songwriter; he’s much more interested in imagining other points of view than in expressing his own feelings.

“I don’t have enough of a life to write about my own life, so it doesn’t occur to me to try,” he says. “If I did, it would all be drinking songs.”

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Sat. & Sun., 8 p.m., $35; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)
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Shauna Miller · November 14, 2012