While autobiographies are fairly inevitable with musicians who have long and storied careers, putting the entire affair in sonic form is an idiosyncratic, hugely ambitious variation on the idea. When the band happens to be New York chamber pop outfit THE MAGNETIC FIELDS and the subject is their polymath leader Stephin Merritt, however, the project makes perfect sense. The band’s recent album 50 Song Memoir is exactly that, a song per year of Merritt’s life that he began writing on his fiftieth birthday in February 2015. The disc’s colossal scope makes it a successor of sorts to the Fields’ 1999 breakthrough set 69 Love Songs, one of the most acclaimed albums of the decade.
If the album’s five-disc, two-hour running time is far-reaching, bringing it to the stage is something redolent of a 1950s Hollywood epic. Playing the entire LP live, split across two shows on consecutive nights, covering 1966 – 1990 then 1991 – 2015, the songs are performed on a stage set decorated with artefacts from Merritt’s life and projections themed around each song. Following its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last December, the group visit the Philharmonic Hall for a two-night run this month.
A native New Yorker, a city which hugely informs his work, Merritt explains the inspirations behind the LP and transferring the material to the stage via a Transatlantic phone call. “The two-night structure was not the bugbear,” Merritt says of finding places that would stage the gigs. “We needed a particular size of venue and stage to fit us and the set, the projections go on screen which is actually quite high up. It’s more like a three-night availability because it takes a while to setup. The stuff is already in London actually, although why it’s in London instead of Glasgow where we’re going to be rehearsing I dunno!” he laughs. “I try to stay out of that level of nit-picking. I have my own logistics. I don’t bother with who’s bringing what when, where.” Given that the singer had to single handedly arrange the songs for live performance, this is somewhat understandable.
With Merritt alone playing over a hundred instruments on the LP, which only represents a third of those featured, the parts needed to be organised for The Magnetic Fields seven-strong live band. “I prefer to work with sheet music, but I underestimated the amount of time it was going to take for me to write out all of the parts,” Merritt explains. “There isn’t a computer program that would save time. It’s seven players and 350 parts and, so, by the time rehearsals started, I had only gotten about a third of the way through and they had to take their own notes for two thirds of the songs.” Devising a system to ensure everything was in order, the singer decided on a program, in keeping with his fondness for numbers easy to work with. “Seven instruments for seven players is easy to make a grid for and see that everything is going smoothly,” he explains.
Working with award-winning theatre director José Zayas, the detailed stage set transforms the shows into something far beyond a standard issue gig. What did Zayas bring to the project? “All the visuals,” Merritt replies. “There’s projections for almost every song which are basically little music videos, there’s the set and there’s the props, which are all from my house, he chose them. I have a collection of tin doll houses and he decided that tin was sturdy enough so we could [use] them and the dollhouses wouldn’t get too damaged. So far he seems to be right.”
The incorporation of theatrical elements into Merritt’s music is far from a new development for the singer, who worked on an Off-Broadway musical version of Neil Gaiman’s hugely successful Coraline. The inspiration from Broadway runs even deeper, meanwhile. “When we lived in Hawaii, our music collection consisted entirely of one cassette, which was the soundtrack to Godspell,” Merritt recalls. Possibly the biggest influences on the current songwriter are two other Stephens: Foster and Sondheim, the virtual inventor of popular song in the States via his parlour music compositions and the venerated Broadway composer respectively.
Describing himself as a “storyteller”, the first disc of 50 Song Memoir covers the Vietnam War in ’70: They’re Killing Children Over There, along with the catastrophic winter storm that hit the North Eastern US in ’78: The Blizzard of ’78. Given that the LP is understandably a personal rather than social history, how much do the two elements feature in each song? “That’s really hard to quantify,” Merritt says. “It’s a lot of both, it’s always what happens to me, within the social context. I don’t talk about the AIDS epidemic [covered in ‘90: Dreaming In Tetris] directly, I talk about it in relation to me.”
Arguably the album’s summit, the New Wave-influenced second LP covering 76-85, chronicles Merritt getting involved in the New Romantic movement (‘80: London By Jetpack) and the melting pot of New York’s cutting-edge music/art scene (‘84: Danceteria!). “What I think of as New Wave is David Bowie 1977-79, John Foxx, Gary Numan and ABBA’s last two albums,” Merritt notes. “Staccato approach to playing notes, synthesisers and pointedly unnatural singing style.” ‘81: How To Play The Synthesizer showcases Merritt’s dry wit to excellent effect, detailing how cumbersome early electronic hardware was. “I often find that synthesiser manuals are very unclear, so I tried to put [them] into normal language and when I couldn’t I made it a joke like [lyrics] ‘ADSR, attack, delay, sustain, release, the envelope’.”
‘84: Danceteria! details Merritt’s time at the legendary NYC nightclub rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, LL Cool J and soon to be famous fellow regular, Madonna (“I wasn’t chums with her but she was there at the bar hanging out with [Suicide vocalist] Alan Vega”). “I went every week, six days a week,” Merritt says of the legendary NYC mecca. It’s come back into the news just this week, there was a construction site just nextdoor to where Danceteria used to be and they found a bombshell so they called the bomb squad who determined it was full of rotted paper. It turned out they had made a time capsule that they put in the bomb shell they bought at the Army And Navy store. They had failed to ensure that the contents wouldn’t rot so we don’t know what the time capsule said or was.”
Famed for its eclectic booking policy which saw scores of UK acts made their US debut (The Smiths and New Order to name but two), the venue left an indelible mark on Merritt’s listening tastes. “It was there I saw Einstürzende Neubauten [German industrial mentalists who were banned from the Haçienda after attacking a metal supporting pillar with a road drill]. They were quite spectacular,” he recalls. “It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not for the hearing though, I wish I’d been wearing earplugs. They had lots of construction equipment and giant things to bash, a dumpster and a huge sheet of corrugated metal they were applying a circular saw to. They wanted to make a lot of sparks as well as a lot of noise. At one point Danceteria turned off the sound but not the electricity, but you couldn’t really tell because the construction sound was drowning out the amplified sound. I was protecting my face from the flying sparks but I should have been protecting my ears, for a few weeks afterwards I had spark burns on my neck, I was definitely standing too close without safety equipment, they had safety equipment, I didn’t. I was led to the attitude ‘try anything’ from an early age, which is why I was so gung-ho about them.”
A fellow chronicler of New York, Edith Wharton appears in ‘88: Ethan Frome which takes its title from the 1911 novella. “My recording studio is in Hudson, New York, two hours north of the city, and Edith Wharton came there 110 years ago and she brought her friend Henry James and her two poodles and they tried to go out to eat,” Merritt explains. “They had difficulty finding anywhere that would allow the two full-sized poodles. I like to think if they all came to Hudson now I would know where to take them.”
The Magnetic Fields play their two-night 50 Song Memoir at the Philharmonic Hall on 3rd and 4th September. 50 Song Memoir is out now via Nonesuch Records