Stephin Merritt, 40-something baritone-voiced frontman and lyricist of the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and more recently, the Gothic Archies, is in the UK to promote his latest release 'Showtunes' - a ukelele-laden compilation of compositions he's penned for a trio of Chinese operas directed by Chen Shi Zheng. In a set up like a Hollywood media junket, journalists wait their turn for a half hour slot with Merritt, somewhat of a gay icon in New York's bohemia and the man behind the Magnetic Fields' classic 3-cd release, '69 Love Songs'. The luxurious grandeur of London's Langham Hotel suits Merritt, today dressed in army green and an Alan Alda M*A*S*H cap, Marlboros wafting overhead and his ukelele on display in case a tune pops into his head.
As intriguing, emotive and amusing as Merritt's lyrics prove him to be, his reputation for pondering every question asked with deep contemplation is concerning for an interviewer - so it's no wonder that when Gigwise meets him, interview slots have run over their allotted times and Merritt's suffering from "allergies" (quite possibly what we'd describe as "a hangover"). Psychedelic pop pickers The evening before he'd played a guest DJ session at Hoxton's George and Dragon pub, where he regaled the punters with a selection of 60s psychedelia and early 70s "bubblegum pop." But what recent bands have fallen under his critical radar? He eventually reveals "I like a band from Toronto called The Organ, and I'm fond of Annie. I also like Seu Jorge," - the Portuguese crooner who released an album of David Bowie covers to accompany the soundtrack to Wes Andersen's tremendous 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'.
He isn't always so complementary. Not often far away from a controversial opinion (albeit persuasively argued), Merritt's previously claimed that guitar-based rock music is "a dead language, like Latin" - which explains his fondness for the synth pop of much of Future Bible Heroes' output and the lashings of mandolin and ukelele in most of his musical output. Similarly, today he "can't understand how hip-hop has retained its popularity, it's so boring!" while the blues, which shares a similar narrative style, languishes in relative modern obsolescence. Possessing a cheeky lyrical dexterity akin to Morrissey's glib wordsmithery, projecting humour with fragility is one of Merritt's fortes, as 'Reno Dakota' from '69 Love Songs' shows: "Reno Dakota there's not an iota of kindness in you. You know you enthrall me and yet you don't call me, it's making me blue."
'It's hard to be the emperor' from the Showtunes album also lays on the comedic melodrama: "It's hard to be the emperor...an early death seems probable. Perhaps it's just as well, my life's a living hell!" When asked what makes him laugh, Merritt deadpans exquisitely "Dying children, war and human suffering." As explanation, in terms of his recent work for the theatre he admits he finds humour in 'inappropriate' areas: "Your natural response to suffering is pity...and then humour! And in the theatre, we aim to portray both." Merritt's involvement in the opera projects came about as outlandish theatre director Chen Shi Zheng was looking for a suitable composer to write the musical accompaniment for his reworking of three medieval Chinese plays. He discovered Merritt via the recommendation of John Rockwell from the New York Times - who referred to Merritt's reputation for producing the epic 3-cd 69 Love Songs with his band The Magnetic Fields in 2000. Shi Zheng had also staged a mammoth 18-hour Chinese play, which Merritt describes admiringly as "another preposterous epic, which required the audience to commit to two nine-hour sittings!" Merritt acknowledges their eccentric similarities with a giggle, "we made sense as a pair!"
Previously a graphic designer and journalist before his musical career with the Magnetic Fields took off, Merritt still writes the occasional article for Time Out New York, where he's lived for many years. He recalls a difficult time interviewing the Spice Girls about their first LP release in the US, when he received a 'slap on the wrist' for a technical mishap during their chat: "My cassette recorder stopped working and they were incredibly rude and complained that they had to sit there watching me try to fix it," he sighs. Another of Merritt's technical hiccups meant that his meeting with Quentin Crisp (one of the last interviews before his death) is now unintelligible because of the background noise of their chosen interview venue.
Merritt obviously keeps his options open for musical/literary crossovers. He's just finished writing the musical accompaniment to the audio versions of the Lemony Snicket children's book series, under his Gothic Archies solo-project moniker (an album's due in October this year) and is also responsible for the music and lyrics for Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline,' which Merritt says confirms himself as "Mr Gothic Children's Books." In true Merritt wit he quips "Maybe my next project could be to write Gothic adult books for children? I can see it now: 'The Story of 'O' for kids!'" But, having mastered the ability to write effective songs for other people's creations, has Merritt ever considered writing an autobiographical opera? "There's a long list of people who would have to die first before that could be out in the open!" Despite the interesting and often hilarious songs his dabbling with high-art has produced, thankfully Merritt will soon resume his interest in his more poppy bands. Potential guest singers (he wouldn't reveal who) for the next 6ths album are being buttered up for a future project (previous collaborators have included Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell, Marc Almond, Gary Numan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo) and another Magnetic Fields album with its original members is next on Merritt's ever-expanding to-do list.