Stephin Merritt’s brand-new book 101 Two-Letter Words (W.W. Norton) is also one hundred-and-one 4-line-poems, each for a familiar word (at, go, up) or somewhat obscure one (aa, oe, xu) known to Scrabble players, Words With Friends addicts, or English weirdoes (hi!). This was a good reason for Abraham Levitan to sit down and chat with Merritt, but so is the fact that Levitan really admires Merritt’s work, and they are both songwriters who lead secretly boring lives, and they work on lots of different kinds of projects while still being very much their own artistic selves. Below they discuss collaboration, admiration, coincidence, and whether or not it’s possible to be terrifying and cute at the same time.
Abraham Levitan (AL): First of all, I feel really lucky to be interviewing you because I’m not a journalist of any kind, I just lucked into this as a referral from a friend who is a real journalist. So, you’ve had a big impact on my own life & my own music-making and so this is a big honor and I’m just gonna go for it, and please excuse all the amateurishness that results.
Stephin Merritt (SM): Well, thank you for the flattery.
AL: Yeah. It’s sincere. Okay, so maybe this is a question you’ve gotten a million times but here we go. So the title of the book, 101 Two-Letter Words and the title of 69 Love Songs: perhaps there’s a formal connection there in the structures of those two? Is there anything to read into the value of doing a project that has a finite endpoint?
SM: If I titled it An Infinite Number of Two-Letter Words, I would never have been able to finish it. There is not an infinite number, and one hundred-one is the number of Scrabble words that is accepted by online Scrabble. There is a slightly larger, different number for Words With Friends; I think it’s one hundred-four or something like that? And what I like to call “Acoustic Scrabble,” or Scrabble that doesn’t have an electronic component, is one hundred-one, plus the four new words that came out last month in the new Scrabble dictionary. So unless you have a new Scrabble dictionary, as I do, you’re stuck with the same old one hundred-one.
AL: So there’s not going to be a second edition in three months?
SM: Not if I can help it… one hundred-five is not a particularly interesting number. But one hundred-one, you’ll note, is a palindrome. At least in some fonts it’s a visual palindrome, as is sixty-nine. But it turns out that one hundred-one is also the most or one of the most popular initial words for a title. Unlike sixty-nine, which is really only found in a small subgenre of the literary field, which will go unnamed for the delicate sensibilities of our younger readers.
AL: Thank you for being considerate. I picture you as somebody who’s able to write infinitely. Is there some kind of comfort to the numerical endpoint? Whether it’s passed down by the rules of Scrabble or by your own decision to call 69 Love Songs what it was.
SM: Yeah, the number has a comfort of being like a pictorial frame ahead of time, where the painting begins and ends. That part is not in consideration. Now, this is not always true in, say, installation art, or conceptual art, or the music of John Cage—some of his forties music has open-ended delineation and you don’t quite know, at least in implication, whether you are still listening to the piece.
AL: But it seems like there’s comfort for you in that and also—is there comfort in doing things in miniature? Obviously in this book, everything was a four-line poem in the same rhyme scheme. In 69 Love Songs a lot of the songs were concise, you might say, so is that a structural device that helps you?
SM: Compared to, say, any average krautrock band, all of the songs on 69 Love Songs were concise. I admire concision and I go by the slogan “brevity is the soul of wit.” And I have a Chihuahua and a Mini Cooper and I play the ukulele a lot and I’m 5’3” and I used to have a nightclub night called ‘Runts’ for diminutive gentlemen and their admirers and I would say if I ever got sucked into writing orchestral music, the form that I like in orchestral music is orchestral miniatures. And I keep putting it off but I was once invited by the New York Miniatures Society to write a 100-note composition for them. And I keep feeling that I really ought to get around to doing this… I could probably actually write it in a few seconds if I wasn’t too careful about the depth of meaning.
AL: Do you have any bonsai trees?
SM: I do not have any bonsai trees. They are infamously hard to take care of and I, being a traveling-musician-type, am not in a position to take care of anything difficult. A Chihuahua isn’t hard to take care of.
AL: Does your Chihuahua travel with you?
SM: No, this Chihuahua does not travel with me. My former Chihuahua, Irving, traveled once on tour with us
AL: This was Irving Berlin, is that correct?
SM: Yes. He came on tour with us when he was very young but everyone agreed that shouldn’t happen a second time.
AL: I want to ask how the Roz Chast collaboration happened. Who reached out to whom? was it mutual admiration?
SM: Well, just when I had been told that it was time to look for an illustrator, I remembered that Roz Chast had written me basically a fan mail.
SM: Uh, less than a week before.
AL: That’s unbelievable.
SM: So then I said, “I suppose we could look for an illustrator, but why don’t we just ask Roz Chast to do it?”
AL: And she has just finished a relatively tragic book about the decline of her parents’ health, is that right?
SM: It’s also a comic book. A tragicomic autobiographical graphic novel.
AL: So aside from the pleasures of working with somebody that she admires, was the project’s tone a nice release for her after what she had just worked on?
SM: That is a question I can’t answer. You’d have to ask her—I can only speculate. In my opinion, the tone is so different that it might well have been a relief for her to have a change in tone.
AL: When you collaborate—with Claudia [Gonson], let’s say—is it a similar working method, where you bring something that is relatively complete to the table, or is there more back and forth with her because you’ve been working together for so long?
SM: I gather that you have seen the movie Strange Powers?
AL: I haven’t seen it, but I did listen last night to an interview with the director.
SM: I see. Because only the director of Strange Powers uses the word “collaboration” in reference to my relationship with Claudia. Claudia, as a member of Future Bible Heroes and of The Magnetic Fields, primarily does what I write for her. She’s not co-writing the music with me at all. No one is. But when I do collaborate, that’s in the theatre. I collaborate with playwrights and directors, and it’s very much a situation where they can tell me what to do and I can tell them what to do. But in my pop-group, I’m not in that situation. In making records, it costs a lot of money to make records, so you have to make them quickly. The sensible thing is for me to tell people what to do and they pretty much do it. I write out the parts on sheet music and they put it in and we only play it all together once we’re rehearsing for the live show. But my collaboration with Roz was even less touchy-feely than that, because I simply sent Roz the book and she illustrated it. She didn’t ask for my input particularly and she didn’t need my input because her results were perfect without my asking her to do anything at all. My only comment was that she had misspelled the word “artisanal” on the box of Fe. She fixed that and that was the extent of my editorial input in the illustration. So our collaboration method was that I was her copyeditor.
AL: That’s a key role.
SM: But not one considered collaborative.
AL: How many total emails or phone calls would you say were exchanged between the two of you on this project?
SM: Pretty close to zero? I went to her house in Connecticut and I met her parrots and her husband and daughter. I think I saw her son out the window. I didn’t really meet him. I have a phobia of parrots so that made it much more interesting. She is a—I don’t know the Latin—but she is a parrotophile and I am a parrotophobe, and so we got on very well discussing whether parrots were terrifying or cute.
AL: That seems like a debate for the ages. Unless one of you definitively won.
SM: It may be that the truth is that parrots are both terrifying and cute.
AL: Much like my 3-month-old daughter.
SM: I also have a phobia of babies.
AL: When I was thinking about interviewing you, there was this quote from Flaubert that I used to pretentiously have as my email signature for a few years. You’ve probably heard it before, one of his famous quotes, which is: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
SM: I’ve heard that a lot but I have not heard the part about like a bourgeois. I think that part gets edited out or it might be apocryphal.
AL: I would say it gets edited out because it would turn people off.
SM: It certainly might turn some people off.
AL: Do you relate to that with your own working method?
SM: Absolutely. I deliberately have as boring a life as I can so that I will have time to work.
AL: So you’re from the Philip Roth school?
SM: Even more so I’m from the Philip Larkin school. I recommend being a librarian as a dayjob. If I had time to have a dayjob, I would want to be a librarian.
AL: Do you see live performance as something that takes you away from writing?
SM: Yes I do. I am not someone who is a greatly artistic live performer, and I feel that I am an untalented live performer in that what I have to say is said vastly better in my recordings than in my concerts. But I also feel this about most other live performers.
AL: Is part of what frustrates you about live performance giving up a tight control of genre? Your recordings seem to have a very definite point-of-view when it comes to genre.
SM: That point-of-view being “search and destroy?
AL: Let me rephrase this question. To look at 69 Love Songs, for example, those songs are beautifully composed. Enough that most of them, if you wanted them to be, could just be piano and vocal. Most of them could stand alone in just about any genre.
SM: When I write songs, I’m not writing for any particular instrument. I’m writing a song and the results of that is the song doesn’t need a particular instrumental affiliation to work. Whereas if someone writes songs at the guitar, it’s most likely that they will continue arranging it for guitar and guitar-family and the song will be dependent on that in some way. I prefer to work differently than that, because I do like songs to stand on their own, irrespective of arrangement. I think that helps the listener get the song stuck in his or her head, which is, for me, one of the main pleasures of music.
AL: If you’re not writing for any particular instrument, what would the earliest demo-version of a song be comprised of? A sheet of chord changes? What does it look like?
SM: I don’t usually use demos at all. I go straight to the final product. I don’t need demos because I’m not proposing the song to someone who’s going to pay for it or not. By the time I’m making recordings, somebody’s given me the money for the recording.
AL: I had an experience a few years back seeing The Magnetic Fields at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I was sitting right next to our mutual friend Kelly Hogan, who was sobbing for much of the show—
SM: Oh no!
AL: —with emotion, not out of frustration. You were playing a song probably from 69 Love Songs. I had always considered it emotionally wrenching first and humorous and witty second. Obviously both of those qualities were there but to me it hit emotionally at a deeper level than the wit. So the audience that night was definitely perceiving it in the reverse order, in the sense that they were laughing out loud in a way that seemed almost competitive to me. Like, “Oh, I get these jokes more than the person sitting next to me.”
SM: That’s why comedy works better with an audience: the competition for being the one who gets the joke helps everyone know where to laugh.
AL: That’s true. I obviously was being snobby in my own mind thinking this is a heartbreaking song that happens to be funny—just everybody chill out. But humor and melancholy obviously coexist in your writing. At some point, in the process of performing live, you have to be okay with any audience reaction, especially if they’re clearly engaged with what’s going on. But do you ever feel like when it’s tipping too far in the comedy direction and not enough in the emotional-resonance direction?
SM: When I am the singer I can manipulate that element to my own liking in real-time, but when someone else is singing they may go too far in one direction or the other for my taste. Every show is different and every show is annoying in its own way, so I may think that Claudia or Shirley is being too flippant on a particular line or too maudlin on a particular line. I wonder if they get the joke or I wonder if they get the serious input. But that’s part of each show being unique. Which, for some people, is one of the advantages of live performance.
AL: I get the feeling it’s not for you, but for some.
SM: If I wanted, every time I heard a song, a different experience of it, I could listen to it on a different stereo system or with different equalization settings on my stereo. Or I could never change my needle, so that every time I listen to music it was just destroying the record a bit more.
AL: That’s a great idea. As the leader of the band, do you ever give Claudia or Shirley a talking-to about their interpretation on a given night? Or is that something you kind of leave in their hands to evolve over time?
SM: Generally I think we deal with those questions in rehearsals. But if I have to tell Shirley, “Boy, you really made everybody laugh when you were singing ‘The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be,’” I’m unlikely to say, “and now I’m going to kill you.”
AL: That would definitely change the relationship from that point on, if there was one. I want to address this hornet’s nest of your relationship to the institution called “indie rock.” Because I know that it’s a zone that you’ve not entirely felt at home in over the years….
SM: Well I would quibble with your use of the word “institution,” except that I have just recently played a show commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Merge Records.
AL: Right? Now that is an institution.
SM: Merge is officially an institution, having gone on for twenty-five years, and I guess they’re unapologetically “indie rock,” at least in terms of Mac [McCaughan] and Laura [Ballance] comfortably using the term when I’m not present. But they are actually delicate enough with me to avoid using the term when I am present. So they know it’s not an uncontroversial term.
AL: I was in my early twenties when I first encountered the 69 Love Songs record. It was important to me that 69 Love Songs came out on Merge because I was trying to feel at home in an indie-rock band. I was interested in jazz standards and that kind of classic sense of songwriting and wasn’t sure if I would be able to make a go of it in what I considered a strict set of rules. I can remember hearing “Busby Berkley Dreams” for the first time and thinking to myself how incredible it was that a song like that could be on a label like this. And even if you weren’t entirely at home in that situation, I think it opened the doors for what that kind of music could be. Do you have a sense that it opened doors for what Merge Records could be, for what indie rock could be?
SM: Only if you consider it “indie rock.” If you don’t consider it indie rock, then it didn’t open any doors for what indie rock could be. Since I did not consider it indie rock, it didn’t open any doors for what indie rock could be to me.
AL: But to be more literal about it, it opened doors for the kind of music that was put out on Merge Records.
SM: I don’t agree.
AL: Well, in the sense that it clearly did not sound like Superchunk.
SM: Right. But recent Merge compilations sound much more like Superchunk than they sound like “Busby Berkley Dreams.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that recent Merge compilations don’t spell out the capability of—not capability, how do I put this delicately… ? Superchunk is still the center of the Merge aesthetic. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because they are still running the label.
AL: You don’t feel like you broke down the doors and let in a much wider range of music in your wake?
SM: No, not at all. Nor was it my intention to do so—no intent in changing Merge Records. I don’t see that Merge Records needs to change to accommodate me or my taste in music, and I’m happy to have Merge be Merge.
AL: Did you feel, when Magnetic Fields was starting, that you had any contemporaries that were touring—for lack of a better term—rock bands?
SM: When The Magnetic Fields started, there was no way anyone would ever have called us a rock band. The first record was Distant Plastic Trees and it contained no live instruments. It was entirely preprogrammed and it was not reviewed in any rock magazines and no one called it rock.
AL: What did they call it?
SM: I remember one magazine called it “art-pop.” But it won Record of the Year in Folk Roots Magazine, which is interesting for something that was entirely preprogrammed. But it was sort of folky in a way. It caught the ear of Ian Anderson, the editor of Folk Roots Magazine, and he loved it and made it Record of the Year.
AL: This is not the lead singer of Jethro Tull?
SM: No. There are a lot of Ian Andersons.
AL: I guess you’re right. When you were making that record, did you have your eye on anybody else that was currently making music, or were all of your touchstones twenty, thirty, fifty years in the past?
SM: Anything I would’ve compared myself to would probably have been German. I liked Der Plan and Andreas Dorau. Maybe DAF [Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft] would’ve been something I would’ve compared myself to. It was duo where one person sang and the other one played the instruments. Sometimes I suppose if we were poppy enough I would’ve compared us to early Eurythmics when they were produced by Conny Plank.
AL: Is that the era of the song “Love is a Stranger,” or would that have been earlier than that?
SM: It was the album before that, it’s called In the Garden.
AL: Are you surprised at where you’ve ended up, as far as fame is concerned?
SM: No, after twenty years of slogging away I’m not surprised at my level of famousness.
AL: I want to get your thoughts on ABBA. How they’ve influenced you, your favorite records, et cetera.
SM: I think I was initially attracted to ABBA in the mid-seventies because they were so different from the macho rock’n’roll with an authenticity fetish that was the staple of American radio. I was in suburban Boston and people were not like ABBA there. People were like Average White Band, and I wished that people had been more like Parliament-Funkadelic. But they weren’t. They were like Average White Band.
AL: “Authenticity fetish” is a great phrase.
SM: In my ideal seventies, everyone would’ve been in satin and silver lomas, but unfortunately in the real seventies most people were in denim.
AL: Having Disco Demolition nights in baseball stadiums.
SM: Well, that was only one event. In the real world, disco not only took over the charts, but it never left. So disco was a major influence on all forms of heavy metal, for example.
AL: Can you say a little more about that?
AL: Okay. I did promise that was my last question so I was pushing my luck there. Okay, I have one last question, I’ve been totally beating my head against the wall on what to call my next band, because I feel like there are no good band names left. Do you have any that you’ve been kicking around that you feel are still decent?
SM: I’m looking at my John Barth books. You could call it Sabbatical?
AL: Yeah that’s pretty good. Because that does imply that we’re kind of boring dads who are doing this as a lark.
SM: Are you?
AL: Well, I’m a boring dad. The other guy is somebody that doesn’t go out as much as he used to, but I don’t think he has any children that he knows about. So maybe it’s more, maybe I would relate more to that name than he would.
SM: It’s probably something that you should discuss together.
Abraham Levitan co-hosts Shame That Tune, a monthly live comedy game show at the Hideout. He was the frontman and songwriter for Baby Teeth, a pop/rock outfit specializing in retro sounds. He also played with Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies. By day, he serves as founder and head of Piano Power, which offers at-home piano, guitar, voice, and drum lessons to more than 350 students in Chicago and the northern suburbs.
With the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt has written, produced, and recorded ten albums, including 69 Love Songs, which was named one of the 500 best albums of all time by Rolling Stone. Merritt has performed as part of Lincoln Center’s “American Songwriters” series and at BAM’s “Next Wave of Song,” and he has composed the score for the Academy Award–nominated film Pieces of April and for Eban and Charley.