bubblegum purist stephin merritt has released four albums by his band the magnetic fields, and his new group the 6ths will have an album out this fall. the magnetic fields have two CDs out in 1994, holiday and the charm of the highway strip. the previous CD, the wayward bus, includes the first release, distant plastic trees, all of them feature extremely catchy songs. the 6ths is stephin and a number of famous singers including amelia heavenly, dean luna, lou sebadoh, robert the bats, chris tall dwarfs, etc. again, all of the songs are extremely catchy.
stephin and I are driving aimlessly around manhattan in the rain, scrolling through the radio. “for some reason, the radio is all ballads today,” says stephin. “maybe it’s the weather,” I say. we finally uncover a station that plays heavy metal and ’70s anthemic rock music. stephin chortles with pleasure at the chorus lyric to an unidentified metal hit: “we are the sun demons.” aztec rock. the radio is on a roll, following with ELO and then “magic man” by heart. stephin is in heaven: “a background vocal solo! this guitar solo! that synthesizer solo! pitch ribbon!”
the pitch ribbon holds a person resonance for stephin since his first synthesizer had one. it was a yamaha cs-60 that his mother bought for him in 1979 when he was in junior high school. now he records in a home studio using an assortment of keyboards and samplers. given that we have been scrutinizing the radio for a half hour, I decide to ask stephin about his favorite sounds.
claudia: what were your favorite things to do with the cs-60?
stephin: well, the pitch ribbon, of course. also, I have no idea how I discovered it, but if you plug a patchcord into the input, and bite on the other end, it emits a strange organic hum. I can also trail the end of the cord against the thunder sheet [large piece of metal which thunders when shaken], and produce very interesting sounds that vary according to what keys are pressed.
claudia: what’s your favorite effects box?
stephin: my DOD stereo phase shifter is definitely my favorite effects box, because if I turn it on the slowest rate and the least amount of regeneration, it just pans the sound left to right, dreamily.
claudia: is that a malfunction in the make?
stephin: well, it’s not what you’re supposed to do with it.
claudia: what are your favorite soundmaking toys lately?
stephin: there’s the slinky. now that I have recently acquired a second electric guitar, I can hook the two ends of the slinky to each guitar pickup, pluck lightly, and DOI OI OI OI–OI OI OI OI–OI OI OI OI–OI OI OI OI–OI OI OI OI–OI OI OING! sounds great on my headphones. my newest toy is the brand-new radio shack 75-in-1 electronic project kit. with it, you can make simple oscillators and control them with photoelectric cells. changes in light affect pitch and volume, like a theremin. only it costs a lot less.
claudia: recently a critic said that frank black was not like, I’m paraphrasing, “those hip young bands like the magnetic fields” who appreciate pop clichés like duchamp signing a urinal. is that reductivist?
stephin: it perfectly describes the first four songs on the wayward bus, except for the “hip” part, and the “young” part [and the “band” part] but [and I can’t think of anyone “like” the magnetic fields] this person clearly hasn’t heard anything else. sure, I use a lot of readymades, in fact I use cheap prefabricated drumbeats, band-in-a-box arranging software, and I used to write songs by going through alan lomax’s folk songs of north america and lifting the best parts of these folk songs [which are in the public domain], and I use samples. welcome to 1994, darlings, originality is passé. frank black sounds a lot like they might be giants.
claudia: you always listen to music on headphones…
stephin: …and I encourage everyone to do the same. listening to music is an important part of my life, and if it’s worth hearing, it’s worth hearing on CD, on great headphones, in dim light, with a lyric sheet where necessary. listening to abba that way is an ecstatic experience. abba is so well-recorded that you can listen over and over to hear all the details, which often means hearing dozens of instruments and still not feeling you’ve gotten to the background. for me, music is all about the combination of great songs and great sounds. I don’t like anything else, and neither should you. why settle for less? it’s so easy to sell a record if you don’t like it.
claudia: what kinds of interesting sounds have you gotten from your sampler?
stephin: I like to send the roland s-50 sampler two of the same note, at the same time. it doesn’t know how to deal with it; it tries to play them simultaneously, but since it can’t do it perfectly, it plays it badly, each note badly in a different way. you get cone filtering, different on every note.
claudia: so that’s how you create randomness in a controlled electronic setting?
stephin: yes, with this and with that phase shifter effect, along with other ways. sampled sounds tend to sound boring, the same every time.
claudia: more generally, what’s your opinion about the way recordings sound nowadays?
stephin: when I scroll through the radio [on a rainy day, driving around manhattan], it seems that everything is recorded in the same way, what I call “false realism,” where all the instruments, real or synthesized, are trying to sound like real instruments. then, in rebellion, there are bands like kraftwerk who make the music that is self-consciously synthetic.
claudia: but modern-day disco isn’t trying to be real. it all sounds canned.
stephin: that’s not the point. those instruments are still designed to imitate the usual instruments. the point is not whether it’s real, but that it shouldn’t be an issue if it’s real. an acoustic guitar shouldn’t have to sound like an acoustic guitar; it can, but it shouldn’t have to.
claudia: like the snare line on the fine young cannibals’ “she drives me crazy.” it sounds like a ping pong ball bouncing off a table.
stephin: exactly. that’s so great.
claudia: free the instruments.
stephin: yeah, okay. instrumentation wants to be free. CF
stephin’s essential pop CDs
abba the visitors
beach boys pet sounds
bee gees bee gees 1st
blondie parallel lines
the chills kaleidoscope world
fleetwood mac tusk
john foxx metamatic
kraftwerk radioactivity, etc.
monsoon third eye
nico chelsea girl
roxy music avalon
shaggs philosophy of the world
phil spector back to mono (box)
troggs archaeology (box)
dionne warwick rhino comp
weekend la variete
young marble giants colossal youth