The Chronicle loves The Magnetic Fields. Though frontman Stephin Merritt remains a tough nut to crack, our phoner was a li’l bit cunty, a li’l bit rock & roll, but a whole lot of fun... for me anyway. He performs tonight at the Central Presbyterian Church.
AC: What made you decide to tour alone?
Stephin Merritt: Well, I’m not alone. I have Sam [Davol] accompanying me on cello, but I wanted to be able to do a tour quickly and not have months of rehearsal – also to tour quietly and not have too many instruments playing at the same time, to save my hearing. I have a hearing disorder in my left ear that makes everything louder than it really is. I don’t like touring... so much. I don’t do it for fun.
AC: Was there a time when it was for fun?
SM: I don’t do this for fun. When I was a little, I would make tapes for fun, but I would never play live for fun. It’s not fun for me. Still less is touring. It’s a huge amount of work.
AC: How’s the tour going so far?
SM: Well, we didn’t bring our own sound person, so I can’t threaten to fire them if they don’t turn me down. So it’s too loud, and we haven’t figured what to do about that yet. There’s only so quietly you can play.
AC: While we’re on the subject of volume, does the loudness war going on in modern music bother you?
SM: Not so much, because it’s just like Fifties rock & roll when everything had to sound good on a 7-inch, and then AM radio, which meant that there couldn’t be any dynamics at all. So, we’re back to that because people are listening on really crappy mp3s over computer speakers, which is worse fidelity than 45 records over AM radio.
AC: On what do you listen to music, primarily?
SM: My stereo system, and my car with a CD player in it. At home, I listen to vinyl, CDs, and cassettes. No headphones, only speakers, unless I’m recording. If I’m recording a loud instrument like an acoustic guitar, I use these isolation headphones that make me look like I’m working on an airfield.
AC: Do you miss having music directly in your ears?
SM: I spent so much of my life wearing headphones for recordings that I was pretty careful not to blast my ears off. The kids are always warned not to listen too loud, but it never works. My grandmother used to tell my mother that she would go deaf if she kept playing the transistor radio next to her ear. This was in the Fifties, and now, in fact, my mother is quite hard of hearing. My grandmother was right.
AC: You’ve written a book, albums, staged musicals, written for opera. Is there any medium you want to explore?
SM: [Laughs] Well, I just came from Washington, D.C., so I guess politics. They should put me in charge of the National Endowment for the Arts.
AC: What would you do with that position?
SM: I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’d let it be a surprise.
AC: Do you have any new projects or music on the horizon?
SM: I can’t talk about them yet. [Scolding] I can’t talk about them yet.
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