Stephin Merritt intimidates people.
The sardonic tunesmith behind the Magnetic Fields, which play the 9:30 Club on Monday, is often called glum — his baritone is a morose moan. Fans circulate videos in which vapidly jovial interviewers grow uncomfortable against his unrelenting somberness. He once said that “as an only child, I of course resent the existence of all other people.”
But over lunch at a Greenwich Village tavern a block from his apartment in New York, Merritt displays if not good cheer, then good manners. He unfailingly says “please” and “thank you” to the waitress, he makes jokes (albeit bone-dry ones) and he’s quick to commiserate with his companion over a misbehaving audio recorder.
After all, Merritt used to be on the other side of the table — working as a journalist for Time Out New York and interviewing intimidating figures such as avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galas. When Merritt’s own recorder captured only 15 seconds of their discussion in 1998, Galas happily redid it over e-mail. Though she is known for making terrifying music about Satan and AIDS, he recalls, she was “a very generous, sweet person.”
Merritt liked music journalism, mostly because he got free records. “I really have fallen backward into being a musician,” he says. “It went from being an expensive hobby, to interfering with my life as a journalist, to obliterating my life as a journalist.”
Though he released the first Magnetic Fields record in 1991, Merritt didn’t get widespread attention until 1999’s audacious “69 Love Songs,” a three-CD set of original tunes whose gems ranged from bleak comedy (“Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin”) to the heartbreaking “Busby Berkeley Dreams.” (Also included: an unambiguously sweet number titled “Washington, D.C.”) Since then, Merritt’s songs have consistently earned comparisons to classics by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.
But while those men could ply their trade with just a piano and writing supplies, Merritt is a hands-on experimentalist. His musical hobby became dangerously expensive thanks to his habit of collecting obscure instruments: exotic percussion devices, stringed instruments from around the world and such oddities as the Hohner Claviola, a mouth-blown accordion so rare he thinks only about 100 were made. Unlike some musical tinkerers, Merritt says, “I don’t invent my own instruments, except in the sense that I’m perfectly capable of taping a Slinky to the chandelier in order to get the right sound.
“I did invent the Slinky Guitar, now that I think of it. I should do an album of Slinky Guitar.”
The new Magnetic Fields album, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” is dominated by Merritt’s oddball synthesizers. He wanted wild, unpredictable electronic sounds, he says, so he used devices such as the Cracklebox, a handheld toy with exposed electrical contacts. “You press your thumbs on it and complete the circuit. It’s not really controllable; it’s good for making shrieks and static and squiggly noises.
“Since I was going for chaotic sounds,” he continues, “I didn’t want keyboards, which are the apogee of control in music.”
Like any serious New Waver, he distrusts perfection: “I used to not allow Sam [Davol, the group’s cellist] to do multiple takes, because I wanted the mistakes. Without the mistakes, you wouldn’t know it was really a cello.” These days, with the recording software Auto-Tune, “if he’s too in-tune, I just detune him.”
“I don’t care about instrumental skill,” he says. “Who cares how quickly you can play guitar? That’s not music.” Better to produce a unique sound than to have virtuoso control over a commonplace instrument.
Turning to singers for an example, he says “Antony [Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons] has the most unbelievable vocal tone. I’m in love with his vocal tone — who cares how well he can sing, in terms of breathing so as not to get a sore throat?”
Asked to name three vocalists he’d most like to hear sing his songs, he narrows the field to names starting with “a”: Antony springs to mind immediately, followed by Aretha Franklin. After a pause, he delivers a whopper: “Anne Murray. I love Anne Murray’s voice. It’s actually kind of similar to Antony’s voice — they both sound like cake. They sound edible.”
Merritt writes in bars, where loud music and conversation crowd out the unwelcome songs in his head. “I generally have something stuck in my head. Today it’s ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’ ”
“I used to try, when I had something I particularly hated in my head, the Bumblebee Tuna jingle,” he recalls, breaking into a dirgelike rendition of that peppy ad — “Yum, yum Bumblebee, Bumblebee Tuna / I love Bumblebee, Bumblebee Tuna” — before declaring how much he loathes the stuff.
“I don’t eat seafood in the first place, but canned tuna seems like cat food,” he says.
Writing music is Merritt’s favorite job. Recording is more challenging, and performing is the worst. “If it were not an economic necessity, it wouldn’t occur to me to perform,” he says, explaining that he avoids others’ concerts, as well: An old ear injury makes amplified music painful.
Given that perspective, Merritt tries to make the live show worthwhile through novelty, “making sure we sound nothing like the record. At least half the songs are sung by someone other than who sang them on the record, often of the opposite gender.”
He reinvents the instrumentation, too: Despite this album’s synth-heavy production, there won’t be any synthesizers onstage Monday.
But there will be banter, to Merritt’s chagrin. Fans are accustomed to onstage chatter from the group’s pianist, Claudia Gonson, and many may assume that the antagonism between the two — her trying to entertain the crowd, him trying to get back to the music — is done for deadpan comic effect. Not true. It’s “difficult for me to get certain other people to shut up on stage,” Merritt says. When he snipes at his bandmate in front of a crowd of strangers, he admits, “I’m probably much more annoyed than I let on.”
If that’s his attitude toward Gonson, his best friend for decades, maybe all those nervous interviewers are right to be uncomfortable. Why should he suffer fools with microphones when he can barely keep from strangling his right-hand woman?
DeFore is a freelance writer.
performs with Devotchka (acoustic) at 7 p.m. Monday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $35.