Among the more curious guys found in Manhattan bars and cafés is Stephin Merritt. He’s there, you see, busily working on his next opus. Sound pompous? Well, it ought to be noted that the New York (by way of Boston) musician has kicked up more than his share of indie-cred dust. Hell, one of his project bands, the Magnetic Fields, released a concept box set called 69 Love Songs that topped the 2000 Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll and sold more than 80,000 units, bizarrely strong for any indie release, let alone a three-record set.
Merritt, who wrote “up to and very much including three songs a day,” while working on 69 Love Songs, prefers to write in a noisy bar with a jukebox, where you’ll likely find him “sitting in a corner under the green neon light, looking like a corpse, very much staring in a book that I’m obviously writing in. Eventually I have to switch bars or cafés because people talk to me too much.”
Though 69 Love Songs’ success was a bit of a stunner to music-biz gadflys, Merritt explains during a recent phone conversation that he was always confident.
“The moment I thought of the title, I thought, ‘Oh, OK, I know what I’m doing with my life for the next year,’” he admits. “It actually took awhile, after the first hump, in which we sold out of the first pressing on the first day. It was a small number because I guess they didn’t have as much faith in it as I did. They thought, ‘Who would ever buy a three-record set?’”
See, Merritt is, without getting all gushy, a prolific and prodigious writer. He’s busy with film scores, a new musical with Daniel Handler, and recently an audio book backing track for Neil Gaiman’s book, Coraline. Said work hovers around his several musical projects, including the aforementioned Magnetic Fields, the 6ths (for which Merritt recruited a stellar cast of indie stalwarts including Barbara Manning, Lou Barlow, Georgia Hubley, and Mary Timony), the Gothic Archies, and current club faves, Future Bible Heroes.
Future Bible Heroes features Magnetic Fields drummer Claudia Gonson and keyboardist Chris Ewen, formerly of Detroit’s Figures on a Beach. The band is touring in support of its second full-length, Eternal Youth, a stunning album of ethereal, romantic synth pop. The record has, you’ll note, a real collection of talent: from Gonson’s airy, understated-to-the-point-of-drollery vocals, Merritt’s quirky, love-lorn, -worn and -torn lyrics, and Ewen’s alternately gothic, bouncy, electroclash keyboard arrangements, which hark back to the ’80s golden age of synth pop.
Eternal Youth covers a lot of territory musically, from the sad, almost glacial, pop charm of “Losing Your Affection,” and the spacey and shimmery “DorisDayTheEarthStoodStill,” to the Human League-y “I’m a Vampire,” with its hilarious tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top lyrics: “I am the bitch goddess from beyond your grave … I have ever so much money, I’m gorgeous and I can fly … I am impossibly glam and I am as happy as a clam, ’cause I’m a vampire.”
The drier-than-sandpaper Merritt harbors limited enthusiasm for live performance, so it’s no surprise that he often chooses others to sing his songs. Yet, at a recent Brooklyn Academy of Music performance Merritt embraced a more expressive stage persona, if only through costume.
“Two weeks ago I played at BAM and I wore a clown suit, with big blue clown shoes. Now that I’ve discovered my clown suit it makes it a lot more fun,” Merritt confides. “I don’t use my feet very much playing the ukulele, but if I integrated the clown shoes into my act — it’s like a clown on stage that never went off, so maybe I should play the ukulele with my feet.”
Queried as to the line between the desire to make music that communicates to as many people as possible, and the steadfast pursuit of one’s muse, Merritt points to the fallacy inherent in making intensely personal music without considering how the audience might receive it, in what appears to be metaphor. Then again …
“I know a singer-songwriter that writes songs with lyrics that no one could possibly understand except herself, which is a series of hermetic in-jokes, and no one likes her music, probably including her, and certainly not I,” Merritt avers. “In my case, I tend to string clichés together … to show their inherent power.”
Given Merritt’s ample skills, the one-time art school student (“I was kicked out because I spent all my time in the electronic music lab”) could fashion a great song from software documentation. Ever flitting from project to project, Merritt says, “I like to explore,” though he does know one thing for sure about his future projects: “No more three-record sets for a while.”
Future Bible Heroes will perform Thursday, Nov. 7 at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward, Ferndale). Parker and Lily will open. For information, call 248-544-3030.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. E-mail him at [email protected]