THE MAGNETIC FIELDS' Stephin Merritt is notoriously difficult to interview, a fact the 44-year-old songwriter is well aware of. "I'm widely reported to be difficult to talk to and interview," he tells me. "I'm in fact not difficult to talk to and interview, but you know, once things are widely reported, they are then much more widely reported. I'm not the dragon I'm portrayed to be."
So in the interest of straightening out the record: No, Stephin Merrit is not a dragon. At least during our interview, he's polite, well spoken, and relatively forthcoming. It's easy to see, though, how he got a reputation for difficulty. He answers questions precisely, using the fewest words possible; he doesn't seem to mind awkward pauses, of which there are several during our conversation; and he's quick to tell me what questions he's tired of answering. ("I no longer answer the question, 'So, you have the bands the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and the 6ths, what makes them all different?'")
For the first time since 2004, Merritt and his revered Magnetic Fields are about to play Portland. The Magnetic Fields are touring on their 10th album, Realism—it's the third record in what Merritt refers to as the "no-synth trilogy," comprising Realism, 2008's Distortion, and 2004's i.
Realism is recognizably a Magnetic Fields record, though compared to the fuzzed-out giddiness of Distortion, the songs here are self-contained, almost prim. Despite the album's title, the songs on Realism evoke a world behind glass, of music boxes and model trains set in motion. (Merrit points out that the album's title refers only to its acoustic, folk-derived production: "As in Distortion, where the production style is succinctly described by the title, [Realism]'s title is not about the lyrics.")
As is to be expected from a songwriter as leery of sincerity as Merritt, the songs on Realism take their cues more from external influences than from Merritt's emotional life. The festive, gently rousing "The Dada Polka" ("do something/anything strange") is an answer to Pearls Before Swine's "The Surrealist Waltz," while the album as a whole features more references to mythological creatures than you might expect from a Magnetic Fields album. Merritt has described Realism as being heavily influenced by the orchestral folk of the late '60s and early '70s (think Judy Collins), and, as he puts it, "There's a lot of songs about mermaids."
Now that the no-synth trilogy has concluded, Merritt says that the next Magnetic Fields album will "presumably use synthesizers. I was waiting for there to be new technology in the synthesizer area. And now there is, happily. My roots are in electro pop, so for me it's been kind of painful to have no synthesizers of any novelty come out for years at a time."
He balks on specifics, though, refusing to say which specific technology finally rekindled his enthusiasm for the synth: "It's a professional secret. If I tell you, you'll tell Björk." But if anything can be gleaned from the Magnetic Fields' ranging, concept-driven discography, it's that it's hard to predict what they'll do next. As Merrit himself explains, "There is not a single approach that I take to songwriting. If there were, I would be trying to find my way out of it. I'm always trying for variety."