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Artist on Artist: Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields talks to Kelly Hogan 

"What defines pop if not that it's concise?"

Magnetic Fields chief songwriter Stephin Merritt

Magnetic Fields chief songwriter Stephin Merritt

Marcelo Krasilcic

Stephin Merritt has been the chief songwriter for plenty of bands over the years—the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, the Gothic Archies—but he's done his most enduring work, and earned his reputation as a modern-day Cole Porter, with the Magnetic Fields. The band has existed for more than two decades, and on the new Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge), Merritt returns to its electronic foundations—a shift away from the more conventional instrumentation on the band's three previous albums (all for Nonesuch), though the songs do include elaborate acoustic overdubs. He was interviewed by knockout singer and Chicago favorite Kelly Hogan, who's worked of late with Neko Case and Mavis Staples. In June she'll drop I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti-), her first new full-length in 11 years; she covers a tune that Merritt wrote more than two decades ago, when the Magnetic Fields were still called Buffalo Rome. The Magnetic Fields perform at the Vic on Mon 3/26 and Tue 3/27, and Hogan opens the Tuesday show. She headlines at SPACE on Fri 6/8 and at FitzGerald's on Sat 6/9. —Peter Margasak

I love how your songs are short on the new record. Like, the song template in my DNA is probably "Sugar, Sugar," by the Archies. So that's what I like—when songs get in, get out. Yeah, otherwise it's not really pop. What defines pop if not that it's concise?

Your songs are cliched—as a good thing—but then you have incredible detail. So that's why I take my time peeling away the onion of your records. Thank you.

You're getting ready to tour. You guys are flying, right? You're not going to take a bus or a van? It's a culmination of known transportation methods, except for boats. We don't do boats.

Even a tour bus? Are you going to have a tour bus? No, we did that once. Everyone got sick. It was ridiculous. I refuse to be on it, and I don't think anyone wants to get sick.

It's a big germ submarine. That's what I think. A submarine filled with farts and guitars. It's not glamorous unless you like camping with a color TV. I understand if you're Willie Nelson and you don't want to be out of sight of the nearest joint, but I'm not addicted to anything like camping all the time.

click to enlarge Kelly Hogan - NEKO CASE
  • Kelly Hogan
  • Neko Case

I was going to ask about the "Andrew in Drag" song that I love so much. Have you ever full-on walked around, just for fun or research, in full drag? In drag? Well, I can't do convincing drag at all, because of my big nose, you know. But I have gone to a drag party at a museum with my mother. We went to an opening-night gala for a drag exhibit at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, and we both went, basically, in each other's clothes. I gave my mother a joke-shop mustache and my boyfriend at the time, Chris, taught her to walk like John Wayne, like in La Cage aux Folles.

Like, "I've been riding horses all my life," right. Walk like you have something between your legs.

I tried to go as John Waters for Halloween one year and I ACE-bandaged my boobs and I almost passed out. But I find it very interesting to flip it over and wear somebody else's clothes. I know you probably have to do this all day, so—are you on the phone all day doing this? On and off, actually. But I'm kind of trying to figure out how to leave my house reasonably dog-sitter proof. I don't want to leave my dough lying around and stuff.

I can imagine. I try to remove my embarrassing medicine from the cabinet. I leave my cuckoo pills out—I don't care. Keeps me from killing someone with a spear gun. Anyway. Love at the Bottom of the Sea, I like that title too, because—I mean, I figure nowadays there's a chat room and a niche for everybody. I just saw people in shark cages trying to get it on. But it doesn't have anything to do with the record, right? No, nothing. And the cover [a photo of a stuffed owl] doesn't have anything to do with the record or the title.

Right, I love that. I think it's good for morale. Hootie the Owl—very nice. I had Hootie a long time.

I was wondering if Hootie was yours. You still have Hootie around? He's in LA at the moment. I always have to keep him away from [my dog] Irving.

I can't wait to see y'all. Where do we start?

I just have two dates with y'all. The second date at the Vic in Chicago, and then Iowa City, at the Englert [Theatre]. Last time we were there, we had a problem with Iowa City. As I recall, the problem was called White Castle.

White Castle? White Castle—apparently this fast-food chain has things that are not actually hamburgers, but are small and involve some sort of animal product that isn't particularly ground beef, so they're not called hamburgers, they're called sliders. And there are different kinds of sliders, but they are essentially poisonous.

Did you consume the White Castle? Yes. That was the problem.

I see. Or rather, that was the beginning of the problem. The problem lasted about 16 hours.

Ah, I'm so sorry, darling. This time we're at the Englert. We'll see. A cooler and a smooth load-in. I don't have any amps. We don't either.

That's right, because you're synthesizers. No, we're acoustic. We're completely acoustic.

Really? On this tour? Oh, interesting. But the record is the synthesizer action. Right.

It's cool. It's like these sound paintings—I really like it. All the synthesizers were not keyboards. That's why it sounds more like Cy Twombly than Gary Numan.

So a synthesizer, how does it work? Sorry to be such an igmo, but if it's not the keyboard? I've got a lot of synthesizers that look like totally different things. One thing that I used a few times was a Cracklebox, which is maybe the size of two cigarette packs. And it's got two electrical contacts in the front panel that you put your thumbs on. Pitch responds to the area of your thumb it's in contact with, the electrical contact. So it's not really controllable, not in any specific pitch way. But you can make wild and crazy sounds with it.

So when you're playing live, it's acoustic? Sort of how I've seen you guys before, with your amazing band. Except that instead of Autoharp, Shirley [Simms] will be playing the ukulele, and I will be playing harmonium and melodica.

Is harmonium the thing that's kind of wheezy? It's pretty wheezy, yeah.

And then Claudia [Gonson]'s playing piano, because I think we're going to be borrowing your piano for our set. And Claudia's got a baby now. Is the baby coming on tour? Yeah—you can't borrow that, though. The baby's coming on little bits of the tour.

I bet I could borrow that baby if I played my cards right. We'll see. Yeah, I guess you could come out triumphantly at the end of the set with the baby on your shoulders.

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Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
The Qualms Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theater
July 13
Other Stuff
Noir City Music Box
August 29

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