Down with genre: An interview with Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields

Photo of The Magnetic Fields by Mark Ynys-Mon.

The Magnetic Fields w/ Lomelda | 3.27.23 and 3.28.23, 8:00 PM | City Winery, 3730 Foundry Way, Ste. 158 (located inside City Foundry) | All ages | $50-55

The Magnetic Fields, vaunted vendors of Bohemian pop balladry, will be performing at the City Winery in St. Louis for two nights in March: Monday the 27th (already sold out) and Tuesday the 28th (low ticket warning). The performances are part of a two-week run of shows across the U.S., which kicked off in Denver this past Friday and will end in the group’s hometown of New York City in early April.

In my own research, I could only find two previous Magnetic Fields performances in St. Louis: one at the Pageant in 2010, and one at The Sheldon in 2012. This will tentatively be the first time in over a decade they have played St. Louis.

The performances will be at the City Winery, a dinner and music club located in the City Foundry, the Midtown entertainment complex that opened to the public in summer 2021. The St. Louis City Winery location officially opened in March, and the upcoming Magnetic Fields shows will be some of the first performances held there. Note that there are multiple City Winery locations throughout the U.S. (in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Denver, etc.), and the Magnetic Fields have performed at all of them.

In advance of their upcoming St. Louis shows, we spoke with Stephin Merritt, the primary songwriter for the Magnetic Fields and someone who NPR would definitely call a “pop craftsman.”

Photo of The Magnetic Fields by Mark Ynys-Mon.

The Arts STL: You toured Latin America in December 2022, and Europe the summer before that. Can you comment on the experience of touring nationally and internationally? How do audiences differ in Latin America versus Europe versus North America?

Stephin Merritt: You know, in my experience, audiences in different countries are not particularly different from each other—audiences in different cities are very, very different from each other. When we play in Philadelphia, the audiences are famously aloof, whereas if we play Pittsburgh, the audiences are wildly happy to see us.

What is the lineup of Magnetic Fields for the current tour?

Shirley Simms, Anthony Kaczynski, Chris Ewen, and Sam Davol, along with me. Sam will be playing the cello, often electrified; Shirley will be playing an electrified ukulele; Tony Kaczynski will be playing an acoustic guitar, often electrified. I’m the only one who’s not electrified—I’m playing a classical guitar with a microphone. And Chris Ewen is playing synthesizers and drum machines. The complication is, I have recently broken my finger, so I may not be playing the guitar by the time we get to St. Louis. We’ll see!

How did you do that?

I was walking down the street in Puerto Vallarta [Mexico], where they have very complicated and picturesque sidewalks. I dodged one obstacle and tripped over another, and went flying and jammed my finger into a telephone pole. And the next day, it was the color of an eggplant.

Well I’m sorry, I would certainly not want to play guitar under those circumstances either.

My hand surgeon was very surprised that I was able to wait a week before seeing a doctor. I had two surgeries, we’ll see how it goes. I’ve been playing guitar at rehearsal. It didn’t go all that well, but I did invent a leather strap to tie my finger down. The technology’s improving.

Is it your right or left hand?

My right, fortunately it’s my strumming hand. But it’s my fourth finger, so I don’t need it, I just need it to get out of the way. My finger is in a splint—there’s two pins in my finger, it’s not supposed to bend or the pins will go wandering off on their own. No way of knowing where they would end up.

If you have to, how will you adjust the performances?

There are a lot of instruments I could be playing besides guitar. The one that comes to mind most easily would be theremin. Or I could play the keyboard left-handed. Tony Kaczynski is also playing guitar, and Shirley is strumming the ukulele, so I really am quite redundant! Probably no one would notice if I stopped playing, which is good, because I might have to.

Was everyone in your current live lineup also on your most recent album, Quickies?

I think Tony joined us after Quickies. Everyone on the current tour was also on 50 Song Memoir [the previous album].

In looking at your recent setlists, it looked to me like you had been playing at least one song from every album on the last tour, with the exception of i, Realism, and 50 Song Memoir.

We have a song from i, which we do as an encore, but sometimes I am not up to singing it, so we leave it off. We might be missing a song from Realism, though, which is weird because we actually have the right instrumentation for it. We have two songs from 50 Song Memoir on the current setlist. It’s just hard to keep track of that, because there’s so many of them.

The Magnetic Fields

I think it’s safe to say that there are distinct phases in your career, in regards to your approach to songwriting: your earliest albums up through Get Lost were mostly synthesizer driven, whereas albums like i and Realism were more focused on acoustic instruments, and Distortion was focused on electric guitar. How do you represent all of those different phases when playing the songs live?

Well, what we do is, we completely ignore the original instrumentation most of the time! And we’ve always done that, from the very beginning. For the first two albums, we didn’t have a live band, so they don’t even count. For the next two, Charm of the Highway Strip and Holiday, we had a four-piece rock group, which is quite different from what is on the records.

The only constant really, has been cello—I think we’ve had cello on every album. Well, we have cello on Holiday, but only for one song [“Sad Little Moon”], and we didn’t have cello on The Wayward Bus. So the only throughline is that I think I’ve sung on every album—wait, nope, I didn’t sing on the first two. So there’s no throughline at all!

And for the upcoming tour, there is a focus on electro-acoustic instrumentation, is that right? Besides the synthesizers and theremin?

Sam is playing an electric cello, and both Shirley and Tony have plugs on their instruments, so they are both technically electric, whereas I’m playing a classical guitar through a mic. Anyways, for people whose music depends on the instrumentation—they will hate us anyways, they’ve always hated us, and we don’t like them either. They should stay home. Down with genre!

The main feature of your most recent album, Quickies, was, as the title suggests, that the songs were fairly short, usually under 2.5 minutes. How do they fit in with the other songs in your catalog when playing them live? I’ll also note that your songs on other albums are typically not longer than about 3.5 minutes, so it didn’t seem like that much of a disparity to me.

A third of 69 Love Songs would qualify for inclusion on Quickies, so yes, it’s true that songs on Quickies are not necessarily shorter than songs on our other albums. The only difference is that all of them are on the shorter end. But there’s also stripped-down instrumentation, because Quickies refers to not only the song length but also the recording time. Most of the songs are one instrument. Most people have not noticed that, because there’s never time for the song to get boring.

You’re touring with an artist called Lomelda, which is a project from singer-songwriter Hannah Read. Do you have any comments about her music?

I had not heard them before we had the selection process [for the supporting act]—now I have, and I think she’s going to be good live, so I look forward to hearing her. I think when she plays in her hometown, she plays with other people, and then when she’s on tour, she plays alone, but I don’t know if she’s going to stick to that.

A lot of people probably first discovered Magnetic Fields in the early 2000s, after 69 Love Songs was released, but you had been recording music for at least a decade before you really achieved mainstream success with that album. What was that dynamic like for you, having your older material re-discovered by a lot of listeners who may think of you as a 2000s band?

I actually strongly disagree [with the characterization that we are an early 2000s band], because 69 Love Songs, while it is far and away our most popular record, didn’t actually take off during the 20th century. It came out at the end of 1999, and we were largely unknown in the ‘90s. We were selling 5,000 copies of our records prior to that, on a lucky day. For most people, we are probably a mid-2000s discovery or later. But for me, we’re an ‘80s band. The first Magnetic Fields single came out in 1989, “Crowd of Drifters,” which would later be included on Charm of the Highway Strip. So to me, we are more an ‘80s band than a ‘90s band even.

I would compare that to Rodriguez [the 1970s American singer-songwriter]. Rodriguez was hugely popular in South Africa, and quite popular in America after the documentary came out about him [Searching for Sugar Man]. But I’ve had both of the Rodriguez records for decades, and technically he’s an early ‘70s artist, but he sounds like a ‘60s artist, so one would generally plug him into 1969. But in terms of people’s memories of him, in America, that would be in the last 5 years. His cultural impact is entirely recent.

That’s an interesting point, and it’s is often the case, throughout history, that an artist isn’t appreciated in their own time.

Yes, he’s an extreme example of that.

Photo of Stephin Merritt by Marcelo Krasilcic

What do you see as the current state of indie pop music in 2023? Is there anyone in particular you’ve been listening to?

The way I primarily listen to music is hours a day, in gay bars. So the vast majority of music that I hear is the pop music that gay people like in public. Of that, I love Robyn, I love Goldfrapp. When I think of the music I like, it’s generally female vocalists with throbbing synthesizers under them.

When I DJ, which is twice a month in two different formats, almost nothing that I play would be what you’re calling “indie pop.” And I don’t know that you’d want to define indie pop anyways, because both New Order and Belle and Sebastian, who are in my algorithm [on streaming services], are on major labels, and so are we.

But also it’s so different between the US and the UK. Like in the UK, there was an NME article about Magnetic Fields that had a big picture of [the band] Saint Etienne, saying “Saint Etienne: The UK’s Magnetic Fields?” And then a big picture of me, with the caption: “The Magnetic Fields: America’s Saint Etienne?” But, no algorithm in the world puts us together, including any radio marketer.

Photo of The Magnetic Fields by Mark Ynys-Mon

Can you comment more on that? I can see how there might be a disconnect between the artists that music journalists might identify as your peers, versus your personal experience with them.

All four of those bands that I mentioned fall neatly within different genres that are very rigidly patrolled. So I see the comparison between Magnetic Fields, and New Order, and Belle and Sebastian, structurally, in that we listen to disco and we also listen to rock, and we straddle the divide. But the three of us straddle it in completely different ways, for almost completely different, barely overlapping audiences.

We played once in a Medieval courtyard in Spain with Belle and Sebastian. We shared a dressing room and got along nicely, so we approve of each other. I met Bernard Sumner [of New Order] once at Peter Gabriel’s recording studio, and he seemed nice. He was working, and so I didn’t try to pry a smile out of him, and I hate that I didn’t. So we’ve met, but not in the slightest way are we a scene. Just because we’re in the same algorithm, doesn’t mean we’re in the same social group.

Can you describe your DJing a bit more? Is there any particular club or bar that you DJ at?

I live in New York City, and I DJ every fourth Monday with Luke Jenner and Dave Hughes  for The Lot Radio. I DJ a “bear night” at Nowhere Bar in Manhattan with Dave Hughes called Fuzzy, which is on the fourth Friday of every month.

Does DJing give you an opportunity to get outside your head for a bit, and focus on other people’s music, rather than your own?

For me, a lot of it is trotting out what I have been listening to recently, even though it’s not necessarily from the last 50 years. I don’t know what the oldest thing I’ve played is, but it’s probably from the 1920s. The Lot Radio show is hyper-eclectic, and Fuzzy is for a gay bar, so it’s more dance music focused, with chirpy female vocalists. | David Von Nordheim

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *