chickfactor: obviously, the first question is: why is rock dead?
stephin: well, the obvious response to that is, why wouldn’t rock be dead?
cf: it’s a thriving multimillion-dollar business.
stephin: it’s been around for 40 years. in what way is it going to be a legitimate counterculture statement, 40 years later? 41 years later.
cf: does that mean you’re not interested in any music copying the rock genre?
cf: obviously you are cause you’re making another rock record.
stephin: am I?
cf: I don’t know. I thought you were.
stephin: no. I’m not making any rock records again.
cf: laetitia sadier thinks your records are rock.
stephin: she thinks one of my records is rock. but anyway. but I’ve been deliberately making records in a genre I know to be defunct. it’s easier to manipulate clichés when they’re known to be clichés. but now I’m just so bored with rock, it makes me a little nauseous. one doesn’t want to make people nauseous in music without doing something with that, like throbbing gristle did or lothar and the handpeople. if you’re going to make people nauseous, make them nauseous deliberately, as my mother always said.
cf: does that mean your new record will sound like showtunes?
stephin: my mother wasn’t a very good cook.
stephin: I won’t know what my new record will sound like till it’s finished. it won’t sound like opera.
cf: so you’ve agreed to teach a class at 92nd street Y. are we allowed to talk about that?
stephin: I haven’t taught it yet. I’ve agreed to teach a class at the 92nd street Y.
cf: it’s called “the death of rock”?
stephin: the history of rock.
cf: tell us about an unpleasant experience from your childhood?
stephin: which one?
cf: which childhood?
stephin: which unpleasant experience from my childhood?
cf: the most unpleasant one that pops to mind.
stephin: one of the million unpleasant experiences of my childhood was when my mother’s boyfriend took my puppy away. and let her loose in a playground in another city in a drunken haze and came back and told us that the puppy was happier now.
cf: how old were you?
cf: was the puppy sick?
cf: what did your mother say?
cf: did you get another puppy?
cf: oh. were you popular in school?
stephin: I’ve always wondered if I had tried to be popular in school if I would have been. but I didn’t want to be popular in school.
cf: can I have a cigarette?
stephin: I don’t have a cigarette. I’ve stopped smoking.
cf: as of when?
stephin: hours ago.
cf: I saw a pack in your pocket earlier today.
stephin: yes, it’s gone now. this is all that’s in my pocket. this is the tuning peg of a chinese lute. I’ve been wondering where it was, and it turned up in my car today. so now it’s in my pocket.
cf: let’s bum a cigarette from one of the tourists from the midwest.
stephin: what about one of those timeout writers that seem to be sitting in the corner? you may as well bum one for me as well.
cf: tell us about the hippie buddhist lemon therapy torture method.
stephin: it’s not buddhist. on an ashram in my youth, dr. mishra subjected me to the lemon cure. I was ill in some way I don’t remember and dr. mishra prescribed peppered lemons, obviously just as a way to get me to be so displeased with medicine that I would decide to be cured. but I was, hello, genuinely sick, as I was throughout most of my childhood. so it didn’t work. how did you hear about that?
cf: you read poetry at a chickfactor show. do you like being an indie rocker?
stephin: I am not an indie rocker, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be.
cf: what do you mean? of course you are.
stephin: this interview has gone on for far enough. I will not be insulted to my face.
cf: why don’t you want to be an indie rocker? why do you claim never to have been one when it’s so clearly not the case?
stephin: what evidence do you use for me being an indie rocker?
cf: five, six records on independent labels.
stephin: five records on independent labels, two on major labels. and one of those records on an indie label wasn’t rock by any stretch of the imagination anyway. only one of my records is unqualified rock. one of my records is country, another one of my records is mostly disco, well, electropop. only one of my records is rock.
cf: but you’re the king of indie.
stephin: according to whom?
stephin: oh. it’s nice to be the king of something. is that like being king of garbage?
cf: do you feel that you have anything in common with other queercore artists?
stephin: um, other queercore artists just don’t know how to do it correctly. they don’t really understand what queercore is all about. I am what queercore is all about.
cf: you feel you shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence as pansy division and tribe 8?
stephin: sure, I should. I urinate all over pansy division and tribe 8 every day. I have their pictures pasted to the bottom of my toilet.
cf: good thing claudia’s not here to edit you. what’s the best thing on the radio today?
stephin: static. always the best thing on the radio. and wktu, clubblegum central.
cf: what kind of crowd do you run with?
stephin: the in crowd.
cf: are you associated with a particular subculture in new york?
stephin: yes. but it’s too cool for chickfactor readers to hear about just yet.
cf: what’s the worst thing about being a rock star?
stephin: I wouldn’t know.
cf: I’ve heard you say that you’re a rock star before. you put that on your credit card applications and stuff. don’t lie to me.
stephin: I’ve never applied for a credit card in my life.
cf: oh boy. we’ll be done with this interview in like 30 seconds. I can just tell. how did you and claudia meet?
stephin: I went to school with her sister.
stephin: in massachusetts.
cf: at the weston school of glamour?
cf: describe your relationship with claudia.
stephin: claudia’s my drummer, my manager, my everything. she is my anna kavan.
cf: your ethel merman?
stephin: she is not my ethel merman. my james beard. she is my ivan the ancabalo.
cf: who would be some dream vocalists for the 6ths even if they’re dead? doris day?
stephin: doris day!
cf: yma sumac?
stephin: most of my dream vocalists are imaginary. I like to think up new vocalists who have never lived before and imagine their characteristics. this is of course how I make friends as well. I think up new people.
cf: your imaginary clique?
stephin: yes. anyone who doesn’t do this is suffering from a lack of imagination. existing people are tiresome and droll at best…
cf: check please!
stephin: …as I’m sure chickfactor has noticed. just as existing rock groups are.
cf: when will the gothic archies play live? are there any records coming out?
stephin: there’s a gothic archies record on the way.
cf: on matador?
stephin: yes, on matador. gerard was the only person who would give us the amount of money we really needed. sire was unable to comply with our demands. but gerard cosloy has so much money now.
cf: and he’s a goth too at heart.
stephin: at heart? have you seen his newest outfits? ever since he’s moved into his loft apartment, he has been the gothest of goth. the G’est of G, as they say at spin magazine.
cf: did you know him when you were living in boston?
stephin: oh yes.
cf: were you pals?
stephin: you have a question later on, “what is it like working with your ex?” and I find that, although gerard no longer, how do you say, satisfies me, still it’s quite nice for him to give me money.
cf: isn’t it true you were a goth? describe for us your attire for an evening of dancing in the goth age.
stephin: I have never been more goth than I am now.
cf: you’re awfully tan.
stephin: I’m sorry. I have been doing too much miniature golfing for my night job.
cf: your pallor is really disappointing.
stephin: am I groveling enough? is this goth enough?
cf: are you a participant in the goth scene of new york?
stephin: so much so that I wrote the book on it.
cf: the ever-growing goth scene.
stephin: I write about it all the time.
cf: when will the future bible heroes debut?
stephin: I don’t know. you’ll have to ask claudia. I never know that kind of thing.
cf: is it fun being in a band with your ex?
stephin: actually gerard isn’t in the band anymore.
cf: what about your ex, chris ewen?
stephin: we do it though the mail. chris ewen comes up with backing tracks and I sing over them. so it’s really not very interpersonal. thank god. that’s the only way I could collaborate I think.
cf: are there any other bands you’re in that you’re not telling us about?
stephin: I have nothing to do with fox inc. if that’s what you mean. I don’t know where you heard about that.
cf: I just got top dollar for my fox inc. bootlegs off the internet. what is the best thing to eat in new york?
cf: what is the most repulsive thing about touring?
stephin: I wouldn’t know, I’ve never toured.
cf: yes you have. don’t lie. I was in the car.
stephin: oh, touretting you mean. food south of baltimore.
cf: there’s nothing good to eat in baltimore either my friend.
stephin: food south of new jersey. south of pennsylvania. once in virginia, we found that the apple pie at the roadside stand we stopped at consisted mostly of cut-up pig. it was like eating lard with a little apple in it.
cf: you didn’t eat it.
stephin: I had an entire bite of it and it was so much lard I couldn’t have anymore of it. neither could claudia and claudia is not a vegetarian.
cf: it was gelatinous?
stephin: it looked like lubricant with a little apple pie sprinkled on it.
cf: so it’s hard to find vegan fare south of the border?
stephin: south of houston street actually.
cf: can you confirm or deny the rumor that you’re moving off to swinging london?
cf: what’s so great about london that you can’t have in new york?
stephin: sexy butlers.
cf: if there were a drink called “stephin merritt,” what would the ingredients be? jolt cola and pimm’s?
stephin: I’ll have to get back to you in a few days, assuming we live that long. assuming we’re not declassé by then. tomorrow I’m going to have lunch with marc almond.
cf: good god, what is this, like lunch-with-rock-stars week?
stephin: and I’m going to ask him how to present oneself as a rock star. I’ll get back to you. marc almond looks like a rock star. I do not. soon, however, I too will look like a rock star. marc almond has all the disqualifying features that I have: he’s short with a large nose and homosexual. so soon I too will be a glamorous rock star.
cf: if marc almond and lloyd cole were both dying in a burning building and you could only save one, which one would it be?
stephin: let’s see. whose career would most benefit by dying in a burning building. I think that, if marc almond died in a burning building it would be redundant to his career. so I would have to grant lloyd cole the privilege of dying in a burning building. and I would have to save marc almond.
cf: is there anyone making music that you are jealous of?
cf: is there anyone in hollywood that you’re jealous of? what is sam davol’s best quality?
stephin: his hair!
cf: especially after a long day of driving with the windows open.
stephin: sam davol has the best hair I can recall ever seeing on anyone who wasn’t john weir. sam davol has the best features of european and asian hair. his hair has the texture of asian hair, that everyone in the world wishes they had, and the spiky yet floppy quality of european that everyone else in the world wishes they had. he can do anything he wants to with his hair. he changes it with his mind.
cf: so that’s how he got in your band, huh? the cello playing had nothing to do with it?
stephin: I have no idea how he got in my band. I didn’t hire him.
cf: is there anything you miss about boston?
stephin: there are two things that I miss about boston: a restaurant called cafe pompei that’s open quite late in the italian district called the north end, where they have wonderful italian pastries and extraordinarily tacky pompei murals all over the walls. and the shoe store in allston, massachusetts, avenue shoe. and come to think of it, there is a lot more mini golf within ten miles of boston than there is within ten miles of new york.
cf: would you say that’s your favorite sport?
stephin: mini golf? are there other sports?
stephin: croquet is a game.
cf: it’s similar to mini golf in some ways.
stephin: not at all. you don’t have to pay for it.
cf: you like the fact that you have to pay for mini golf?
stephin: that’s what makes it a sport. otherwise it’s just a game.
cf: do you spend a lot of time at the gym?
stephin: at the what?
cf: the jungle gym?
stephin: oh, jungle gyms are those places where rock groups with a large ’60s influence are photographed from below?
cf: who is more important, the raspberries or herman’s hermits?
stephin: herman’s hermits! duh! because herman’s hermits had a however unlikely sex symbol doing their carole king/gerry goffin covers. whereas the raspberries had nothing. they were bleak, they were true to life, they were realistic, they were tragic. they were beige. they were the turtles. they were kittywinder.
cf: if the magnetic fields were to reach stadium-rock-size proportions of success, would you be happy to play the same songs every summer for the next 30 years at jones beach like black oak arkansas?
stephin: [very long pause] it doesn’t really matter whether I’d be happy with that, does it? and I think people who suddenly find themselves ridiculously popular realize that they’re getting paid a huge amount of money to simply go onstage and play something and sing and why shouldn’t they keep doing that for decades? sure.
cf: so you would do it.
stephin: I have no idea. I’ve never been faced with that amount of money. nor can I imagine being faced with that amount of money based on the magnetic fields.
cf: where is susan anway and what is she doing?
stephin: ask claudia.
cf: have you ever read a review of your records and agreed with or liked it?
stephin: I loved robert christgau’s review of holiday that said “more songs about songs and songs.” you can say all you want about robert christgau, but when he’s concise, he’s right. it’s only when he blabs on and on like a complete never mind…
cf: what review boggled your mind the most?
stephin: the spin alternative record guide that compared me to donald fagen. and warren zevon. that would have to be it.
cf: ouch. tell us about your lyric-writing procedure.
stephin: I listen to other people’s records.
cf: do you write lyrics in the kitchen?
stephin: I don’t have a kitchen.
cf: do you write lyrics at the grocery store?
stephin: I don’t go to the grocery store. because I don’t have a kitchen.
cf: are there any lyricists working today whose lyrics you find snappy or charming?
stephin: stephen sondheim and kate bush.
cf: have you bought any records lately that didn’t contain lyric sheets and you wish they did?
stephin: the first records by new york dolls and the modern lovers. and, this drives me crazy, I got the complete gilbert and sullivan, and they don’t come with librettos. hello! those chickfactor readers who may be considering releasing operas should give more serious thought to including librettos.
cf: what would you do with $20 million?
cf: what song do you wish you’d written?
stephin: “happy birthday to you.”
cf: why? because you know that it’s my least favorite song in the entire world?
stephin: I didn’t know that.
cf: will you please rewrite it? because I think we’re ready for a new one.
stephin: it’s the song in the entire world that is sung the most, everyone knows it.
cf: you wouldn’t make any money off it, nobody would know you wrote it.
stephin: whenever it appears in a public place, royalties are paid for it.
cf: who wrote it?
stephin: and although it is certainly the most famous song in the world, I don’t happen to know who wrote it, by the time you arrive at work tomorrow the author will be on your answering machine.
cf: okay. I’ll look forward to that, and I’ll fact-check it immediately. what label would you like to be on and why?
stephin: deutsche grammaphone because they have the best graphics.
cf: who is the most stylishly garbed person in pop?
stephin: max headroom.
cf: if you could assemble three people with whom to work on music, who would they be? they can be dead.
stephin: any three dead people. I don’t like collaborating.
cf: bring in the corpses! what is the ideal way to spend a rainy day?
stephin: lying in the bathtub watching the life ooze out of your wrists.
cf: do happy people make dumb art?
stephin: all art is dumb.
cf: do happy people make silly retarded art?
stephin: I don’t know. I don’t know any happy people making art. I don’t think any happy people make art.
cf: maybe that’s why you don’t know the answer.
stephin: why would you make art if you were already happy without making art?
cf: do you make a bad first impression?
stephin: I’ll say!
cf: what do you remember about your tourette with containe last summer?
stephin: the sedatives I was on to prevent myself from remembering anything else about the tourette.
cf: did you enjoy touring with tindersticks?
cf: does the british press like you?
stephin: elements of the british press like me and elements do not. I don’t think the british press has anything to do with whether its members like one or not. I think they work out in the parliament whether melody maker or nme is going to be allowed to write about a particular band in a particular six-month period. glenda jackson is probably the one who masterminds all of this.
cf: if you move to england, who would you like to have tea with on a regular basis?
cf: what is the oddest piece of fan mail you have received?
stephin: I don’t receive any fan mail. claudia receives the fan mail and I hardly ever get to look at it. I’ve seen a little bit, but I don’t remember.
cf: [stolen from ¡escandalo!]: has any band person stayed with you? if so, who and what kind of guest were they?
stephin: no. well, game theory did in hoboken ten years ago. they were quite nice but they kept sleeping with my manager. she wasn’t my manager at the time so it was okay.
cf: what was the grossest place you stayed?
stephin: out of town.
cf: what was it like making a video with barbara manning?
stephin: I had hardly anything to do with it. I felt like I was making a video with ilsa. and so was barbara manning. ilsa was definitely the star of the show. ilsa is very famous now of course.
cf: does ilsa star in all of your videos?
cf: who is ilsa?
stephin: indeed. I’ve been wondering that myself. the more she stars in my videos, the more I want to know who she is. what is she about? and who told her she could star in my videos?
cf: what was the boston music scene like when you were young?
stephin: when I was what?
stephin: as opposed to what?
cf: as opposed to now.
stephin: when I’m…
cf: when you were young and insane.
stephin: okay, let me tell you. throwing muses seemed sort of original. and then there were the pixies, who were a really blatant rip-off of throwing muses. and then there were the blake babies, who were a really blatant ripoff of the pixies. I stopped paying attention about then.
cf: were you a fan of V?
stephin: I never heard V until susan anway joined my band.
cf: did you go to hardcore shows and stuff when you were little?
stephin: I’m still little.
cf: shut up. I knew you were going to say that. when you were a teen.
stephin: I didn’t go to hardcore shows.
cf: did you go to folk-rock shows?
stephin: one of my earliest memories is of seeing odetta. odetta is a fantastic show.
cf: what music did mom play in the house?
stephin: the jefferson airplane surrealistic pillow, simon and garfunkel’s greatest hits, shakespearean songs, santana, the moody blues and john denver.
cf: what don’t you like about being a gay man in 1996?
stephin: suffering. impermanence. futility. frustration. ennui. and alcoholism. there’s not enough alcoholism.
cf: we do have that in the het world too. just the alcoholism. what is your worst soundperson experience?
stephin: there are several, all at CBGB.
cf: so you don’t want to go there tonight?
stephin: I’d be delighted to go there if you have some sort of large blunt object with which to strike the soundperson in the back of the head. at under acme, as soon as we got onto stage, the soundguy told us to go fuck ourselves. we said something like “mr. soundman, would you please turn up the rhythm unit?” and we’re greeted with “go fuck yourself,” whereupon we realized it was going to be a rocky night.
cf: that was a chickfactor show. I take full responsibility.
stephin: that was a chickfactor show. but then there was the last CBGB show we ever played and will ever play, the soundman fell asleep during our show. well, just before we began. remained asleep.
cf: what cultural experiences/rituals do you look forward to the most?
stephin: there used to be a holiday in new york city, nobody got it off from work or anything, but a special day in new york city: the first day of spring, where people would wear straw hats and others would rip the straw hats off people’s heads and throw them up in their air and stamp on them, shouting some sort of witticism about it being the first day of spring. if that would happen again, I would enjoy that the most. as it is I have to say chinese new year.
stephin: beautiful dragon heads.
cf: didn’t you attend film school?
cf: describe a film that you made.
stephin: they’re hard to describe. the narrative impulse is not strongly felt.
cf: whose films would you rather see: martin scorsese, david lynch or andy warhol?
stephin: oh andy warhol. I’m delighted by andy warhol’s willingness to look at just anything and color it with his own eye. whereas martin scorsese, etc., feel like they have to color it with their hands before it gets to you. but andy warhol doesn’t feel the need to intervene between the camera and the viewer.
cf: did you ever meet andy?
cf: if you could meet him, what kind of setting would you like to meet him in and what would you want to talk about?
stephin: well, I suppose it would have to be a setting where his rotting corpse wouldn’t smell so bad. and I’m not sure we could talk about anything. I guess I would want him to be behind glass. CF