agony uncle stephin merritt is here to dole out romantic advice for your plague year holiday

AS AN ERSTWHILE ASTROLOGER I AM EMINENTLY QUALIFIED TO GIVE ADVICE. THE BAD NEWS IS, MERCURY IS IN RETROGRADE FOR VALENTINE’S DAY. THE GOOD NEWS? THERE ISN’T ANY. 

Selfie courtesy of Stephin Merritt

We met during COVID, talked/texted for a few months and finally decided to just meet in person last September. She’s great, my age (mid-40s), goth (like me, although I might be more of a mod), smart, funny, likes good music, all the things. But she’s cripplingly insecure, in a way that I don’t know how to deal with? I’m divorced, was married 10 years. She’s the first person I’ve dated since getting divorced in 2018. I’m not a “rebound” kinda guy, I like real relationships. But due to her own bad experiences with past relationships, she has so many trust issues, even though it should be obvious that I don’t have a wandering eye and am totally into her. What can I do? How do I make her see that I’m not like her exes? — TVPs Fan
SM: WOMEN CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT TRUST MEN. GET USED TO IT. ALSO, IF YOU DON’T KNOW IF YOU’RE A GOTH OR A MOD, YOU SHOULD BE SEEING A COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPIST. 

I met someone online during COVID and we’ve never met in person. Should I propose? — Lockdown Princess
SM: NO! PEOPLE ONLINE AREN’T REAL. GO TO A BAR, LIKE AN ADULT. MOST HAVE OUTDOOR SEATING. WEAR A UNION SUIT. 

I have a Valentine’s Day date but the forecast is going to be 28º and cloudy so a bit chilly to eat outdoors. Should I invite them back to mine? Should I risk being exposed to someone else’s droplets and bodily fluids so we can have sex indoors? — Sweetheart of the Rodeo 
SM: WEAR A UNION SUIT. 
DO NOT MAKE A PLAN FOR AFTER DINNER, IT’S PRESUMPTUOUS AND GAUCHE.

My BF is addicted to Facebook. Even when we’re in bed he’s gazing into some left-wing FBK group and making snarky comments. Is there any hope for us? — Device addict’s BF 
SM: ONLY HAVE SEX OUT OF BED, ALWAYS, AND THEN YOU WON’T CARE WHAT HE DOES IN BED. 

Is perfume passé? —Unscented 
SM: YES, IT’S HORRIBLE. ANYONE WEARING PERFUME IN AN ELEVATOR SHOULD BE ASKED TO LEAVE AT THE NEXT FLOOR. 

We are stuck in our house with three children this Valentine’s Day. Do you have any advice on how we can find romance in spite of them? How can we keep them away from us so we can be intimate? — Spouse House
SM: HAVE SEX OUTSIDE, LIKE ADULTS. PARKS ARE GOOD, CARS ARE GREAT. PUBLIC BATHROOMS ARE GOOD FOR A QUICKIE. GARAGES ARE AWESOME. 

I want to make my beloved a meal full of aphrodisiacs. What should I make? (We’re vegan) —Hungry for Love 
SM: CHOCOLATE, CHOCOLATE, AND MORE CHOCOLATE. 

I’m a lifelong commitment-phobe who seems to attract other commitment-phobes. How can I stop the madness? —Pattern Breaker 
SM: YOU MAY NEED TO DECLINE TO DISCUSS YOUR RELATIONSHIP HISTORY, SAYING YOU’RE NOT PROUD OF IT BUT YOU HAVE CHANGED YOUR PRIORITIES. 

I have a crush on someone whose musical taste could be improved. How can I “help” them improve it? Should I make a mixtape? What should I put on it? —Ear Candy 
SM: MIXTAPES ARE GREAT, BUT MAKE SURE YOUR CRUSH KNOWS THAT THE LYRICS ARE NOT MEANT TO BE LITERAL MESSAGES. (OTHERWISE IT WOULD TAKE FIVE YEARS TO MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES.) ALSO, BE OPEN TO LEARNING WHY THEY LIKE WHAT THEY LIKE…WITHIN REASON!
I ONCE DECLINED TO DATE AN OTHERWISE WONDERFUL GUY BECAUSE HE WAS INTO JAMIROQUAI, AND I DO NOT REGRET THAT DECISION. 

I’ve basically been living in slankets and shackets for a year. What should I wear on V-day? —Athleisure Annie 

SM: NOTHING! 

The Magnetic Fields’ latest release, Quickies, is out now. 

Selfie courtesy of Stephin Merritt

rewind 2020: top whatever lists from artists, writers and musicians (round one)

Erin Moran (a.k.a. A Girl Called Eddy)

Best things about 2020: 

The Dodo on Instagram. Heartwarming stories about our animal buddies. Kept me sane(ish). 

* Flaming Lips, American Head

* New sink/faucet/counter action in my apartment. Cheap and cheerful but what a difference in my “quality of life”

* Wine

* Finally getting my new record out. Yay. 

* Being alive. All the rest is gravy. 

John Jervis (WIAIWYA)

Ten obsessions during lockdown

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides – lovely, just lovely, but you all know this, right?… you no doubt all have it already, and have been similarly enjoying it (both physically, and as an audiobook) throughout lockdown, listening to the accompanying playlist, thinking about your own childhood, remembering your own teen music obsessions… also, not bragging, but the last gig I went to was the book launch (Chrissie Hynde! David Arnold! Mike Batt! – basically, a better lineup than Live Aid) and the last non-partner hug I had was from Pete!

Jackie Mittoo – working from home has meant listening to more music during the day, and after a few weeks of trying different playlists to see what was easiest to work with (I went through a lot of Dungeon Synth, ’60s soundtracks, and ambient tracks), I settled on instrumental reggae, ska, rocksteady and dub, which in turn has led to a minor obsession with Jackie Mittoo records… solid gold…

Spun Out of Control – a cassette label that went vinyl during 2020 – broadly they release creepy electronic not-soundtracks to nonexistent horror films that have become the actual soundtrack to a LOT of walks through empty West London streets this year… treat yourself to the Sleepers by Hattie Cooke:

Double Deckers – “The chocolate bar is structured in two layers; a lightly whipped nougat layer, with a lower layer of cereal “crispies,” these are then coated in milk chocolate”… need I say more?

Disaster films – this year I’ve been watching a LOT of worlds ending, buildings collapsing, planes crashing, volcanoes erupting, diseases spreading, boats sinking and SHARKS… the Poseidon Adventure is the best one

Singing Streets app – I tend to walk the same streets for my daily exercise, it’s just easier not having to think… the Singing Streets app was launched at the start of September, and I found out, among other things, that Bryan Ferry’s Studio (where Prince recorded!), the house where Freddie wrote BoRap and the caff off the front of Common People were all on my daily route… I branched out to walks from where Dan Treacy went to school to where Syd Barrett lived (via the Troubadour, David Gilmour’s old flat, the Nashville Rooms and the Beggars Banquet shop) and from the studio where Buzzcocks recorded “What Do I Get?” and “Orgasm Addict” on 9 Sept 1977 to the place Bolan died one week later.

Discogs – Finally catching up with adding all my records to Discogs, realising how much utter rubbish I have, having a clear out, and using the money from any sales to treat myself to deluxe versions of Saint Etienne albums, and…

Paul Collins  I Don’t Fit In, the Paul Collins autobiography was announced over the summer, copies came with a 7-inch but postage from the states was crippling… a discogs sale for exactly the value of the book, record and postage, came in and I bought the book, all in a couple of minutes… I listened to a LOT of the Nerves this year too…

Joy Division – I’ve always dismissed them as a not-as-good OMD, with a good song I’m a bit bored of (you know the one) and a great song that keeps getting better (Atmosphere), but a combination of the Stephen Morris book (excellent, really funny, tragic) and the Transmissions podcast narrated by Maxine Peake has led to a reappraisal, and finally listening to a pair of 40-year-old albums… turns out they’re pretty good (not as good as OMD though)… 

Very early pre-orders – ordering records, forgetting about them, and getting them in the post months later is great… in 2020 new ones from Taylor Swift and Kelly Lee Owens arrived as a surprise, as well as the reissue of Sisters by the Bluebells, and Forever by the Spice Girls… I’ve just checked, and there is still a Pye Corner Audio box set, the new Insides LP and another from Taylor Swift in the pipeline… roll on 2021

Photograph of Nikki by Gail O’Hara

Nikki McClure (artist)

10 people I want to hug as tight as I can and I’m not much of a hugger

1. Lois Maffeo and I will eat tamales with her

2. My sisters who are quite far away

3. Oscar Soule, my college botany teacher who just dropped off raspberry jam

4. Amber Bell because she would then pass it on for me to everyone in Portland

5. My Mailman Craig who I repeated his name all day to remember it.

6. Marena at the Farmers Market who sells me bread every week and I put it in my basket that her Father made

7. Tina Herschelman and hopefully she is wearing cashmere

8. Aaron Tuller at Buyolympia because he’s not a hugger either

9. My Mother because she’s my Mother

10. Doctors and Nurses and Teachers and Grocers and Delivery Drivers. I think I heard another van pull up at my neighbor’s. I will hug my neighbor too and we will dance in the street.

Selfie by SM; Shirt: Boredwalk. Hat: Bailey of Hollywood. Specs: Schnuchel

Stephin Merritt

Ten records I’ve been listening to obsessively this year, in descending order of repeats: 

Huerco S.: For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) (2016) [hundreds] 

Gas: Rausch (2018) 
[dozens] 

Roisín Murphy: “Murphy’s Law” (2020) 
[dozens] 

Radio Dept: Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002–2010 (2011) 
[dozens] 

Toumani Diabaté: The Mandé Variations (2008) 
[dozens]

Chris and Cosey: Trance (1982) 
[many] 

Slowdive: Souvlaki (1993) 
[at least twenty] 

The Durutti Column: Another Setting (1983) 
[at least ten] 

Sun Ra: Strange Strings (1967) 
[several]

Various Artists: Congotronics 2: Buzz ‘n’ Rumble from the Urb’n Jungle (2006) 
[several] 

Photo of Lois by Gail O’Hara

Lois Maffeo

6 Women I’d Like to Personally Thank (I Was Trying for 10, but I Am Nearing Deadline)

Marcy Mays
I’d like to thank you for your cowboy boots and for always being full-on ready to rock. Scrawl Forever!

Heather Lewis
Thank you for coming up with my favorite drumbeat. Interested listeners may refer to “Midnight A Go Go” by Beat Happening to hear it.

Sara Lund
The best drummers in the world have an idiosyncratic system of timing. Is it in their head, their hands or their feet? Wherever it stems from, Sara Lund’s drumming in Unwound not only withstood the art-damaged time signatures of Justin Trosper and Vern Rumsey—she elevated it. 100% fucking genius musician.

Stella Marrs
Since we’re on the subject of drummers, has any performance more radically changed my views on and understanding of performance than Stella playing a snare drum with hands holding stiletto pumps? Her voluminous influence on visual and graphic art is well known, but she also resides in my life as a continual handmaiden to my blown mind.

Kathleen
In 1984, I lived in Portland, Oregon, and walked across downtown to Satyricon once a week for a poetry night organized by Walt Curtis (who was inspiration for the older protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche.) It was more or less an open mic in which self-serious poets from Reed College would recite their verse and aging gay men would yell at them. (“You are an abortion!” was a favorite taunt I heard there.) One consistent feature of this weekly event was the pre-intermission arrival to the stage of a late-middle-aged woman named Kathleen, who would sing (a capella) the 1961 hit “Norman” and then return to her seat next to her ever-changing (yet gentlemanly) elderly date. Each of the 7 or 8 times I heard her sing it, it was so pure. And never once was it not entirely cheered on and welcomed by the otherwise vicious crowd. She is unforgettable to me and I wish I’d had the good fortune to get to know her.

Gilmore Tamny
A friend had a copy of Wiglet in his apartment and I picked it up to scan the contents, thinking it was a music zine. In it, there was a cartoon about having a job where you had to drive around all over the place and knock on people’s doors. But the panels ended before the actual job was named. So I wrote a letter to the zine address in Columbus, Ohio, and asked if the job had been delivering flowers or pizzas. I received a note in return that said, “I was a process server.” That brief letter of reply (in 1985?) brought Gilmore Tamny into my life and from then on she has been a total heroine to me. Who else can make a shitty job into a thrilling zine cliff-hanger? Who else can convince me to go on a 1-show tour, in order to drive to Columbus, OH and play at an All Girl All Star Hoedown? (With Scrawl! See above!) And who has combined metal chops and chutzpah in bands the Yips, Weather Weapon and in her side gig as a spokesmodel for the Mystery? And who follows their idle thoughts of, “Hmmm…maybe it would be interesting to become an expert in art theft and forgery?” into REALITY??? Musician, artist, novelist, poet, promoter and Bostonian Gilmore Tamny, that’s who. All hail.

Thank you, brilliant women. 

Photograph by Meredith Heuer

Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket)

Books of Poetry I found especially useful this year:

Gwendolyn Brooks – Blacks

Anslem Hollo – Sojourner Microcosms

Robert Fernandez – Scarecrow

Samuel Amadon – Listener

Louis MacNeice – Autumn Journal

Caroline Bird – The Hat Stand Union

Ada Limon – The Carrying

Atsuro Riley – Romey’s Order

Elizabeth Bishop – Questions of Travel

whoever wrote Gilgamesh – Gilgamesh

Rachel Blumberg and Jeffrey Underhill (artists, musicians)

Top ten favorite foods we made in 2020 that gave us some slivers of happiness.

1. enchilada lasagna

2. cullen skink

3. bacalao gommes

4. vegetable shepherds pie

5. kedgeree

6. grilled scallops

7. pan con tomate with garden tomatoes

8. sourdough discard biscuits with fig jam

9. eggplant parmesan

10. gingerbread pancakes

Gilmore (left); Weather Weapon photo by Sasha Pedro

Gilmore Tamny (Weather Weapon)

10 Things That Happened, I Noticed, Were Important to Me, or Were Merely Novel

This list does not include my shock, horror, and despair of the wider world. Take that as writ. 

1. passed a dear friend on the street without recognizing her due to masks and fogged-up glasses 

2. drew chinchilla plotting to destroy a Chihuly 

3. thought New England spring 2020 tulip game absolutely outstanding

4. discovered the way I express love to my petfriend is to continually fret about their wellbeing and contentment, and the way I experience work anxiety is a tiny tasered sensation everytime I hear that arriving email bingbong 

6. started a taut psychological thriller

7. took a class on Sea Monsters

8. thought about hypocrisy all the time—mine, yours, the world

9. FOOD: a) tried to bring iceberg lettuce back into my life b) bought a croissant crust frozen pizza, made a big deal about it, thought about doing a Zoom roundtable where we try/discuss en masse, but it still lays in my freezer withering c) discovered there is no room at the adjective inn for Snickerdoodle-flavored popcorn 

10. had a fling with nonfiction: The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: The Amazing Story of How America Lost Its Mind Over a Plush Toy—and the Eccentric Genius Behind ItMy Friend Anna, and Children of Ash and Elm. All highly recommend (not necessarily pub this year BTW).

Oed Ronne (The Ocean Blue)

Top Ten Episodes of The Rockford Files

1.      The Farnsworth Stratagem

2.      Quickie Nirvana

3.      In Pursuit of Carol Thorne

4.      The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club

5.      The Mayor’s Committee from Deer Lick Falls

6.      The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit

7.      The Becker Connection

8.      Requiem for a Funny Box

9.      Dwarf in a Helium Hat

10.    If the French Heel is Back, Can the Nehru Jacket Be Far Behind?

Portland photo by Gail O

Chickfactor editor in chief Gail O’Hara

Top Ten Things I Miss About Portland

1. Eating! Especially at Back to Eden Café (RIP), Harlow, Kati Thai, Luc Lac, Maruti, the Sudra, Supernova, Cedo’s, Eb & Bean, Tarai Thai, Modern Times, including delicious big bowls at Bye & Bye and Sweet Hereafter, the best falafel and hummus and pickled veggies in the entire world at Cedo’s, the vegan pizza at Red Sauce, Pizza Jerk and Virtuous Pie, the hummus at Aviv, the breakfast, reubens and burgers from Off the Griddle, oh so many things! I’ve probably already lost a stone by being gone (not really). I wish I could order takeout of everything and have it delivered. Vegan heaven. Comfort food capital of the world.

2. Playing indoor futbol with my team The Crusty Punks. They are the best! After 9 months of not playing, I feel sad and less powerful.

3. Chanting my head off at Portland Thorns games (also so sad that I won’t be seeing Crystal Dunn play a bunch of home games; also sad that Tobin Heath is technically no longer a Thorn; I will miss seeing Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan play a ton) I am starting a covert Rose City Riveters supporters group in my current home town if anyone wants to join. #BAONPDX

4. Screaming like a banshee and jumping up and down and swinging my scarf at Portland Timbers games; I never truly understood the meaning of sports until I became a fan of this team in 2011. My love for them; their love for the fans; the love affair between the Timbers Army and the players, so pure, so magical. The Magic Is Real. #RCTID

5. Karaoke!! Especially at Voicebox with like 8 of my friends. My standards: “99 Red Balloons,” “Buffalo Stance,”  and I miss the group scream-along to any B-52s tune.

6. Beulahland: my footie-watching local, where I wasn’t crazy about the food but I dug the atmosphere, the people, the vending machine and the left-wing history. (sings) “Where everybody knows your name…” 

7. Toffee Club! It was such a fun place to watch women’s futbol, like the Thorns and the USWNT, plus the cider selection and the people were so great. We all used to DJ there a few years ago. I guess I miss living in SCUSA (Soccer City USA): ya think?

8. Walking in parks with friends! Especially in Laurelhurst and Mt Tabor, the general overwhelming blossoming fertile bucolic pastoral beauty of the Pacific NW, the elephants and seals at the zoo, and the Japanese Garden and International Rose Test Garden. So much beauty.

9. Venues! There were three venues that I treasured the most: Doug Fir, which is ideal in terms of size, sightlines, coziness, sound, and everything. It’s underground and looks like a softly furnished log cabin. Mississippi Studios, which is just a wonderful space in every way, though I never was able to set up shows at either sadly. And of course Bunk Bar, which is the greatest in terms of working with them on events, they feed the bands fancy tater tots and big sandwiches, they pay artists properly and are easy to work with. The shows we did set up there were epic. 

10. Record stores! Bookshops! Powell’s. Old movie theaters! Dive bars. Bridges and rivers.

11. My friends! Their dogs! Their yards. Their support and company and conversation. Still can’t quite accept that I’m not going back. (I know I’ll fall in love with my new home but I feel like life is in limbo so…)

Photograph of Jen by Gail O’Hara

Jen Sbragia (The Softies, All Girl Summer Fun Band, chickfactor designer)

1. Feeding and viewing hummingbirds on my porch
2. Walking through deep puddles in old rainboots that I have mended with goo I bought from the internet
3. Listening to podcasts about crimes and/or terrifying stories and then podcasts about self-help and mindfulness whilst cooking.
4. Coffee
5. Avoiding sugar long enough that a consuming a small chunk of dark chocolate feels like snorting a line of something
6. Fashion Plates and colored pencils
7. Potatoes in all forms
8. Snuggling with calm children
9. Not putting on jeans for almost a year and also witnessing the death of the skinny jeans trend and being like, “cool… bye”
10. Porch dates

Photograph of Sukhdev by Gail O’Hara

Sukhdev Sandhu

What I did in 2020

Switched off the news.

Followed Peter Terzian on Instagram as he shared and contemplated photographs of himself. One a year up until the present. (He’s a very handsome 52.)

Wiggled around in the kitchen while listening to Jarvis Cocker’s Saturday-night Domestic Disco DJ sets in the spring.

Caught up with The World At War. All 26 episodes and 47 years after it was made.

Cheered on Sander Bos and Esther Perbandt in the first series of Making The Cut. Mittel-European fashion designers really do trump American ones.

Went to Germany, embraced lido culture, and took up cycling.

Missed drinking through the night with strangers at Milano’s on New York’s East Houston Street.

Bought lots of records from Monorail in Glasgow and Discreet (a.k.a. ‘New Sounds of Swedish Underground’) in Gothenburg.

Listened to Mikey Kirkpatrick’s daily live flute improvisations on Wild Lakes Radio.

Wandered through forests looking for deer and pondering the past and the future.

Watched lots of ski jumping and took up sledding.

Sent Christmas cards for the first time in three decades.

Dawn Sutter Madell (Agoraphone)

I found it hard to concentrate on much besides music, but here is a top 10 list of things that distracted me from 2020

1. ancestry deep dives
2. schitt’s creek (which I had never watched)
3. true crime (podcasts, doc-series)
4. gardening for myself
5. gardening for others
6. freaks and geeks re-watch
7. running
8. Cassi Namoda art 
9. His Dark Materials (the show)
10. cbd

Photograph of Jeffrey by Gail O’Hara

Jeffrey HoneyBunch

13 Highlights in a Low-Life Year 

1 Gonsalves Portuguese Seasoning (an indispensable part of our pantry)
2 Open E Tuning (courtesy of Johnny Marr’s “Headmaster Ritual” guitar tutorial on YouTube. Now I use it on everything, just like the Portuguese seasoning)
3 Arch Cape, Oregon
4 Kamala Harris
John was Trying to Contact Aliens doc. on Netflix
6 Anarchist Jurisdictions (There were no delays getting our Holiday packages either to or from Portland—go figure.)
7 Michael Galinsky’s photo archives
8 KMUN Coast Community Radio, Astoria, Oregon (especially the rockin’ Backbeat program, and the ship report)
Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983–1987 compilation (Captured Tracks)
10 City of Dreams: a tasty unfiltered/citrusy pale ale from Ft. George Brewery in Astoria, OR.
11 Takeout Cocktails: an idea whose time has come, and hopefully outlasts the pandemic.
12 O & H Bakery’s Almond Kringle: Maybe the sweetest thing to ever come out of Racine, WI
13 Cawston Press’s Rhubarb soda (hard to pick a favorite flavor—their Elderflower Lemonade is also right up there.)

Evelyn (left). Photograph courtesy of Cotton Candy

Evelyn Hurley (Cotton Candy)

Top 10 walks & bike rides I made in 2020

#10- The walk from my house to Central Square, Cambridge. A utilitarian walk usually made to complete chores.

#9- The walk from my house to Whole Foods on Beacon St., Somerville. The sidewalks are usually really crowded, and there seems to be a lot of pedestrians who don’t know how to socially distance and also share the sidewalk, and the intersection at Inman Square is kind of annoying. But other than that, it gets me where I need to go pretty quickly. 

#8- The bike ride from my house to my office. Thankfully there wasn’t as much traffic as usual, and it’s not a relaxing or easy bike ride, but it was nice to be back in the office even if it was only for one day a week.

#7- The walk from my office to the library stacks. I used to think it was ordinary, now I find it exhilarating! 

#6- The walk from my office to Trader Joe’s and the Trillium beer garden. I always come back to work with delicious goodies in my bags!

#5- The walk along the beach in South Boston with my friend Viktoria and her adorable dog.

#4- The walk up Buffalo or Seneca Street in Ithaca, NY. It’s a brutal hike up this street, but you get your entire workout ring closed and it’s a thrill to successfully achieve the hike!

#3- The walk from my house to the Cambridge Brewing Company, two blocks away.

#2- The bike ride from the Provincetown Ferry to Race Point Beach, Cape Cod. I only did it once this summer, but it was hard and totally rewarding.

#1- The daily walk I took from my house over the Longfellow Bridge and back. I’d head out after WFH was done, or I’d finished making dinner, this jaunt was my daily dose of sanity. I’d listen to books on tape, podcasts like “Rock and Roll Film Club,” new music, Folklore” from TS was in heavy rotation, or I’d talk to friends on the phone.  I have far too many pictures of the sunsets, which were often technicolor and always gave me hope.

Hope 2021 is good for everyone and we are all healthy and safe.

a new future bible heroes interview!

future-bible-heroes-partygoing-video-640x358

future bible heroes is a songwriting collaboration between stephin merritt and christopher ewen (figures on a beach, the hiddle variable, famous boston DJ) with vocals from claudia gonson and merritt. in addition to reissuing their earlier recordings, they’re about to release their first album in 11 years, titled partygoing, and it’s effing ace (as good as their debut, memories of love). they will play chickfactor 21 on june 12 along with the aluminum group, honeybunch and true love always, mc gaylord fields and special guests. stephin will not perform due to ear issues; the live lineup will feature gonson, ewen, magnetic fields singer shirley simms and anthony kaczynski (figures on a beach). see you at bell house!

I did this interview to write their bio for merge records, but I wanted to print it here. I interviewed them back in chickfactor 11 also! interview by gail

chickfactor: the previous FBH album came out in 2002. now it’s 2013. have you been working on it for 11 years or did you begin more recently? what took so long?

stephin: since 2002 I’ve made four stage musicals and four magnetic fields albums, a gothic archies album and a through-sung live score to a silent film. but in fact chris and I have been working on FBH too, and parts of the songs “when evening falls on tinseltown” and “a drink is just the thing” are quite old. the first describes my experience of living in los angeles—and leaving it, which I did while recording partygoing; the second describes solving all your problems with alcohol, which I don’t do much anymore either. writing true and heartfelt lyrics is pointless because once you get around to singing them, they’re lies.

cf: do you feel freer and more playful making FBH music because it’s not your “day job”? your singing—especially on “how very strange” and “drink nothing but champagne”—is very funny.

stephin: thank you. I had other funny voices that didn’t make it onto the record, but they should be available as either bonus tracks or blackmail fodder. after singing exactly like angela lansbury on “mr. punch,” claudia has retired her stage-cockney voice, but I hope she changes her mind for the concerts. I want to see that.

cf: do you know when you write a song whether it will be for FBH, TMF or something else?

stephin: I only write FBH songs to chris’s instrumental songs (which are often perfectly listenable and finished before I get them), so I always know whose song I’m writing. I don’t always know what album I’m writing for, though: this album has less science fiction than before, but I had dozens of half-finished songs in that j.g. ballard universe mapped so much better by gary numan and john foxx.

cf: was there a theme for this record? I know it’s called partygoing but it seems like aging, rejection, death and austerity are recurring themes.

stephin: write what you know (as they tell you in school, when you don’t know anything yet). those happen to be the themes of most of my work, I’m happy to report. aging is a great theme for any writer, because one never runs out of material, and everyone over 12 is obsessed with it.

cf: do you have a different lyrical approach for FBH than for TMF?

stephin: other than a tendency toward science fiction, which sort of matches the “futuristic” synthesizers, I’m not aware of any difference. I’m still just sitting around in bars with a song in my head, rhyming “arcade” and “rodomontade.”

cf: how has FBH’s recording process changed since the previous releases?

stephin: for partygoing I encouraged chris to let me do more of the work, and just give me skeletal fragments, and then we could toss them back and forth as though we were playing a “sport” of some kind. and I did some remixing, not like junior vasquez, but like me, and the results sound a bit more like me than chris sometimes. which some will hate of course.

cf: are there any ’80s-sounding new bands that you’re fond of? contemporary acts?

stephin: the “electroclash” moment came and went without anyone ever contacting us about it, but I always quite liked ladytron, miss kittin, robyn, peaches, goldfrapp and their imitators. they’re all women. what can I say, I’m a gay man, I cried in public when donna summer died. my favorite country song of the last ten years is “you and I” by lady gaga (closely followed by trailer choir’s “rockin’ the beer gut,” a major feminist accomplishment which could never have been in the country charts I grew up on). our roots are in new wave.

cf: you seem to be able to get away with writing about anything as a lyricist. has anyone ever been offended by something you wrote? whose lyrics inspire you?

stephin: when the new york times trashed my first chinese opera adaptation, the reviewer was shocked that I used the word “fucking” in a song, and implied that it indicated a lack of seriousness on my part. now, on my planet, any medium that can’t use the word “fucking” is aimed at pre-school american children, a demographic not known for its patronage of opera, chinese or no. I’ve been listening to nothing but felt recently.

cf: any plans for the 6ths, the gothic archies, TMF? theater and film?

stephin: I’m writing a lot these days for all of the above, but nothing I can talk about yet.

cf: how does recording for FBH differ from working on TMF records?

claudia: chris first composes lots of sonic ideas, like dozens of them, and sends them to stephin. then, stephin makes melody lines over some of them, and decides which are the ones he wants to use for the album. the process goes back and forth. sometimes chris adjusts the pitch or tempo or adds a new section to accommodate the melody stephin has written. once the songs are written, we record lead vocals and harmonies, and a few more instruments.

cf: you sing on partygoing—do you contribute any other sounds / ideas?

claudia: on one song, there is a musique concrète solo. each member was instructed to go out and do field recordings of various ambient sounds, and stephin and his engineer charles knitted together all these sounds to make the solo. on other songs too, stephin added a few other instrumental lines. but the instrumental backing tracks, for the most part, are chris’s work.

cf: why do FBH play live so rarely?

claudia: we put out albums so rarely, that we didn’t have much occasion to tour. we did tour a bit after the first two albums, but back then it was incredibly difficult to get a stage set up with all those enormous bulky synths. we may do some shows for this album release, but the issue will revolve around the opposite problem, how to perform live in an interesting way without just hitting a button on a computer.

cf: do you feel freer and more playful making FBH music because it’s not your “day job”?

claudia: as the band’s manager, I can certainly say yes. but I also feel this way about playing with the magnetic fields. I enjoy my creative role with the band, since most of my time is spent wrangling over deals and contracts.

cf: who is pretending to be david bowie?

claudia: stephin.

cf: is the FBH fan different from the TMF fan?

claudia: I think we have a lot of crossover but I have discovered that people, like my daughter and my parents, really enjoy FBH, because it’s got a synth-based sound and catchy beats. It’s very accessible to the disco set.

cf: how do you feel this album compares with the previous releases?

claudia: I really like the album. stephin and chris wrote some exceptional songs. it’s a bit depressing, lots of songs about suicide, and a nostalgic yearning for youth and happiness. but I think most of the FBH albums are like that.

cf: can we expect another FBH album in 2024?

claudia: hope so!

cf: the previous FBH album came out in 2002. now it’s 2013. what took so long? have you been working on it for 11 years or did you begin more recently?

chris: we began more recently. part of the reason it took so long is that stephin is obviously involved with a lot of other musical projects. another is that—since we all live in different cities, especially when stephin was living in los angeles—it was a bit more of a challenge for us to coordinate everything. back when we were recording eternal youth, we were both experimenting with different recording technologies, and successfully integrating them was somewhat of a hurdle. technology has finally caught up with what we want to do, so it seemed like the right time to collaborate again. I started coming up with some new ideas for FBH towards the end of 2009. a couple of TMF albums happened between then and now, so 2013 has turned out to be the year we’re releasing a new album.

cf: there are a lot of modern-day new bands that try to sound 1980s. are there any that match up to those from the original decade?

chris: when we released memories of love back in 1997, I was very surprised that the american press were quick to dub us an ’80s “new wave” band. it wasn’t our intention to be classified that way, and it certainly wasn’t what was in my head as we were writing and recording the album. I think that happened because we used a lot of synthesizers, which wasn’t very much in fashion back then. the times seem to have changed, and synthesizers are back in vogue, but this time around we didn’t make a conscious decision to make a blatantly new wave revival record either. however, we did use a lot of synths. ¶ one of the things that continues to attract me to a lot of music that came out in the ’80s is that it sounded like itself. it was new, fresh and surprising at the time…some of it still sounds that way. musical approaches and points of reference were blurred or sometimes completely obliterated. these days, it’s pretty easy for me to pick out what ’80s band influenced the sound of any particular new band, so the element of wonder is I experience listening to them isn’t as apparent. that said, I’m currently really enjoying the most recent albums by the soft moon, the knife / fever ray, freezepop, yan wagner and the horrors, to name a few.

cf: what kind of changes in technology have had an effect on the way FBH works?

chris: when we recorded our first two albums, we used our phones and the mail a lot, and sent things to each other on cassette or DAT. or we had to be in the same city. these days, it’s a lot easier for us to send music & ideas back and forth and develop them more fully. my studio set-up now is a lot more conducive to multi-track recording, and I’m not a slave to MIDI anymore. overall, the ways we work together have become much more flexible.

cf: there are scant details on the two first FBH albums about the “sounds” you make. can you share more info here and do SM / CG contribute to the music also?

chris: on those first two albums, I would basically come up with some song idea, and record all or most of the instruments at my studio in boston, usually MIDI sequences driven by a hardware sequencer live to two track. stephin would then get these fully formed instrumental tracks and have to write the lyrics and vocal melodies either around what I had come up with, or complementing it in some way. It became a process unto itself, as the instrumental tracks were already fully mixed, and any changes would mean lots of editing and completely re-recording the track on my end, or completely rewriting the lyrics on his. as far as the sounds go, I enjoy experimenting in my studio, and am quite content to just play around with sound manipulation. some songs came about because of a certain sound I was happy with…a full track could be inspired by something very simple. I also like to write at a piano, and then arrange those pieces for a fuller instrumentation. on the first couple of albums, since the music was already pretty much finished by the time stephin got the tracks, he & claudia would come up with elaborate backing vocal tracks, and in a few instances, stephin would add a lead instrument. these days, we have a lot more options.

cf: the house of tomorrow site says: “future bible heroes are a songwriting collaboration between stephin merritt (words and melodies) and chris ewen (instruments).” can you clarify your roles?

chris: nowadays we are much more of an integrated collaboration, and there isn’t one particular way a song will develop. “living, loving, partygoing” began as an idea stephin sang into my voicemail one night. “love is a luxury” began with the lyrics. as far as the tracks I instigated go, I made a point of sending stephin a lot of demos or song sketches, which I’d then develop more fully as necessary. this time around, we were able to write songs together using different approaches, and were able to arrange them along the way.

cf: whose music gives you inspiration?

chris: I love producers who love experimenting in the studio…conny plank, martin hannett, joe meek, lindsey buckingham. I continue to admire the magnetic fields of course, all of yellow magic orchestra, abba, brian eno, the gentlemen in cluster (or now, qluster), vince clarke, the throbbing gristle family, the human league and a lot of french and german synth-pop. recent inspirations include laurie spiegel’s the expanding universe re-issue, and everything john foxx has been doing lately.

cf: how long have you known stephin and claudia? how have they changed?

chris: we go back a while… we met around 1987 or 1988 I think, during the buffalo rome days. it’s hard to pinpoint exact changes—we’ve remained good friends over the years and through many scenarios, which means that they continue to possess the qualities that drew us together in the first place. claudia has become more self-assured. stephin’s become a more social creature. I think we’ve all grown up, which is probably something I’ve needed to do.

cf: are you involved in other musical projects these days?

chris: I’ve decided to completely revamp a project I started a few years ago called the hidden variable. It was a collaboration I instigated with several dark fiction authors, whose lyrics I set to music. besides a song I wrote with neil gaiman that claudia sings on, and one with gahan wilson that cosey fanni tutti sings, I’m planning on re-recording the entire album. there may also be the possibility of some instrumental solo material, and I’ll continue to come up with new ideas for FBH, in case we feel the urge to record a new album at some point.