Best known as the frontman of The Magnetic Fields and author of their opus 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt has been involved in myriad musical projects for two decades. His most popular song is arguably “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”, but just as that Lower East Side is no longer around, neither is Merritt: he’s been a resident of Los Angeles for years. The Magnetic Fields performed in Berlin on March 27.
Your multi-voiced, theatrical approach to songwriting seems to have influenced Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors.
I’m not familiar with the Dirty Projectors.
You don’t keep up with the New York scene?
Uh, I can’t go to rock concerts because of the volume. And why would I listen at home to music I can’t see live? As soon as you can’t go to concerts, there’s no such thing as a local scene.
But your music seems consciously written for performance.
Well, I don’t see that there’s much connection between live music and recorded music. For me, they’re two different experiences. And I don’t like one of them [laughs]. No, no, I don’t approve of live music. You can’t edit it. It’s not the best form. I’m actually so little interested in live music, that I’m running out of things to say about it. I’ve seen two shows in my life that I thought were extraordinary and worth remembering: Tiny Tim at the Ratskeller in 1986 in Boston. And Einstürzende Neubauten’s first show in New York at Danceteria in 1983. And both of them didn’t have very much to do with the standard idea of a concert.
Tiny Tim was, like yourself, a song historian.
Well, he had a pick-up band who had not rehearsed at all, I think. And what he did was play three chord cycles over and over again, and sing on top of that. The songs from the entire 20th century and part of the 19th century – songs that happened to go over those chord progressions. And every 20 minutes or so, he would switch the chord progressions he was playing. So, sort of “CFGG”, then he would switch to “CGFF”. And the amalgamation of the songs in a pretty random order was eventually deeply, deeply moving. And everyone in the bar, the nightclub, was crying at some point. There were six people in the audience. And very few people working. So maybe the total number of people in the room, including onstage, was 12 or something. And all of them were crying at some point. Including Tiny Tim. I think he was just very sad that night.
And what did you take away from that as a songwriter?
I took away the irrelevancy of musical fashion and I permanently had a sense of the continuity of popular song.