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Q&A: A Dose of Realism with The Magnetic Fields, Part 1

By Valerie Servin and Lynn Lieu on January 28, 2010


Q&A: A Dose of Realism with The Magnetic Fields, Part 1

When we think of trilogies, we often picture grandiose, epic stories of inter-galactic wars with lasers and starships, fighting to defeat the “dark side.” Here on Earth, though, we have a little something called The Magnetic Fields to protect us—and not the actual phenomenon that attracts metal. This foursome (or, often, one-some, six-some or more-some), comprised of founder Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Sam Dovol and John Woo aren’t your traditional rock band either. Over the past 10 years they’ve taken the route often traveled by the likes of George Lucas and those other sci-fi enthusiasts to finally create records comprising noise, folk and whatever else they feel like experimenting with: First it was 69 Love Songs released as a three volume set in 1999, then it took six years to make the “no synth” trilogy comprising of i released in 2004, Distortion in 2008 and most recently concluded with Realism on Jan. 26.

FILTER caught up with frontman Stephin Merritt who charmed us with the sarcasm we’ve come to love him for. Here, he describes the conclusion of The Magnetic Fields' "no synth" trilogy and the release of his upcoming documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.


FILTER: You've called Realism your folk album whereas Distortion was more noise pop; you've also been said to have thought of the two as a pair. What makes Realism your folk album, why is it not what you consider "really, really folk" and why do you consider the two albums a pair?

Stephin Merritt: You seem to have read other interviews that I don't remember doing. I call Distortion an orch-noise-pop record, and Realism an orch-folk record. Orch because we always use cellos and whatever, however inappropriate to whichever moribund genre we are reviving at the time. They were conceived as a pair in reaction to each other, like bookends supporting that thing we normally do, if we ever figure out what that is.

Other than the absence of synths, how does the album i fit in with its partners?

i is a soft rock record, modeled on Roberta Flack and the Carpenters, as Distortion is modeled on The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Realism is modeled on mid-60s Judy Collins. Graphically it presents a headless, limbless person (the baby in Eraserhead?) who will become the figures on the covers of the following pair of records.

After completing your “No-synths trilogy,” what sound are you looking to play with next, or will synths be making a comeback?


You've written songs that ended up on films and last year wrote music for an Off-Broadway production of a film (Coraline)...not to mention your musical numbers. How is writing for film/theatre different from writing for an album?

For a pop album I can take my time, but in the theater it needs to be done by rehearsal tomorrow or the world will come to an end.

What can you tell us about the documentary, Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields? Is this real? Is it in the works?

I believe there's a little more color-correction or something, but it's nearly ready to start playing at festivals and whatnot. Film, as you know, is just as real as anything else, until someone looks at it, and then it gets much more complicated. But as yet no one has seen it, so it's still just real. Or ontologically innocent, if you prefer.

What is the "golden age of documentary"?

The last few years were. Everyone could rent a camera, and did, and now all possible documentaries have been made, obviously. There's one out now about sheep herding, and soon even one about the Magnetic Fields, so clearly there's nothing else left to shoot.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more on The Magnetic Fields' latest release, Realism, out now in stores.

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