Stephin Merritt: Urbane hymns

The new Future Bible Heroes album is yet another showcase for the muse of Stephin Merritt. Andy Gill meets the New York songsmith with his band to talk about love and linguistics
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The Independent Culture

"Oh, look!" says Stephin Merritt, his voice loaded with ironic appreciation as he peruses the sticker adorning the UK version of Future Bible Heroes' 1997 album, Memories of Love. "The band name is misspelt. My name is misspelt. And the sticker, which is supposed to be on the outside of the shrink-wrap, is right there on the case itself." He sighs resignedly. It's five years too late to fix, but still an irritating reminder of the uphill struggle that this most prolific and gifted songwriter has faced in bringing wit and erudition to mainstream pop.

While it can't be the first time Merritt has found himself re-christened "Stephen", it requires a special kind of dyslexic energy to come up with "Hereos". Such things matter more than usual with Memories of Love, whose puzzle-book packaging featured a front cover on which the band name was rendered as anagrams; to deduce the title, you had to unscramble the anagrams and fit specific letters into blank spaces.

"I was really miserable and wanted to kill them for it," recalls Claudia Gonson, Merritt's voluble manager, who became Future Bible Heroes' singer by default after demoing some songs when the band were searching for a female vocalist. "It's the most idiotic marketing gambit. But now we've had years of distance from it, I think it's the most brilliant packaging I've ever seen. But at the time, I was two inches away from throttling them when they told me they wanted to do a record on which the band name would be illegible."

"Except that on a first record," interjects Merritt with quiet logic, "the band name isn't going to help sell it."

Merritt operates under multiple guises. Normally, a band establishes their identity and reinforces it constantly, hammering it deeper into the public consciousness with each release. But Merritt has at least four outlets for his songs: the electro-pop trio Future Bible Heroes, the art-rock ensemble The Magnetic Fields, the collaborative pop group The 6ths - for which vocals are furnished by guests such as Neil Hannon, Marc Almond, Melanie and Odetta - and The Gothic Archies, who play a blend of bubblegum and Goth-metal which has never been released in the UK. For such an industrious chap, Merritt seems to go to extreme lengths to remain anonymous.

"Industrious" hardly does justice to Merritt's prodigious endeavours, the most famous of which is The Magnetic Fields' 2000 masterwork, 69 Love Songs, a triple album that does what it says on the box with a panache rare in popular music since the days of Noël Coward. Originally planned as a cabaret revue of 100 songs, the project was trimmed to the more manageable (and suggestive) 69. It's one of the singular achievements of modern pop, using a vast diversity of styles - from cabaret to country, electro-pop to punk, Bacharach to The Beach Boys - to present a series of thoughtful, entertaining meditations on the mysteries of human attraction, with droll titles such as "For We Are the King of the Boudoir", "(Crazy for You But) Not That Crazy" and "How Fucking Romantic". The songs are liberally sprinkled with puns, jokes and smart-arse references to figures such as the composer Nino Rota and the linguistics pioneer Ferdinand De Saussure, but also moving, elegant locutions such as, "The moon to whom the poets croon has given up and died/Astronomy will have to be revised".

Surely, you think, he must have laboured long and hard in some lonely garrett to come up with so many songs bristling with such well-crafted lines? But you'd be wrong. Merritt's preferred compositional method is to sit alone in the corner of some lower-Manhattan bar or café, drawing inspiration from whatever's playing on the jukebox. It's a noisy, very public process. "I demand loud, thumping disco music," he asserts, adding quickly, "that I don't like."

"I sit and listen to really bad disco that I'll never hear again," he explains, "because if it's very melodic, I enjoy it too much to be able to write. The only thing I ever hear is 'Hey, yeah! Hey, yeah! Shake your body, shake your body, all night long!' - which is so incredibly boring that I find it almost necessary to go off into the songwriting place so I don't sit there and scream.

"If I write at home, I feel like I should be doing something else - it's difficult to get myself to write a song when I should be paying my taxes, or whatever. At home there's always something else to be doing, whereas in a bar there's only two things to be doing: smoking and drinking."

Merritt, it seems, is a disciplined craftsman: he writes for specific projects, and when he has enough material, he stops writing and turns his attention to the next work-in-progress. The Magnetic Fields are always asked for unreleased songs for compilations, but as Claudia Gonson affirms, "there are none - there's literally no fat, it's all used". And after 69 love songs, how many out-takes could be left over? "I know," agrees Merritt with mild exasperation. "You really want to hit these people!"

"It's like when The Magnetic Fields performed 69 Love Songs at the Lincoln Center over two nights," adds Christopher Ewen, Merritt's partner and the third Future Bible Hero, "and at the end of the second night, the audience wanted an encore!" With no more songs in their armoury, the group opted for a performance of "4'33"", John Cage's celebrated silent piece.

"The applause after the 69th song was hyperactive and crazy," recalls Gonson, "but then you sit for four minutes and 33 seconds, and afterwards the applause is really mellow and relaxed - John Cage would have loved watching what happens to an audience after it: they're a little disappointed." That was not an isolated outbreak of intellectualism. The group converse knowledgeably about avant-garde musicians such as Alvin Lucier and Meredith Monk and have often collaborated with authors and performance artists.

"If an audience is going along expecting something difficult and avant-garde, that's one thing," explains Gonson. "But if they go along to see The Magnetic Fields, they might normally just be listening to the latest pop music, and if suddenly we're showing them a Sixties structuralist film, or making them listen to a novelist reading from a book for 20 minutes, we've put them in the position where it's like they're back in school, and they have to learn. It's been really fulfilling for me."

Merritt admits he's never liked performing, and, asked when he first realised he was a songwriter, he replies, "After I'd put out several records, and preferred the songwriting to performing them. At first, I was more interested in recording than writing, and now I'm more interested in writing than recording. I just wish someone else would go and make the records."

He's coming closer to that ideal with Future Bible Heroes, for whom Ewen writes and plays nearly all the music. Having ceded vocal duties to Gonson, Merritt's input has been reduced to providing just the lyrics and vocal melodies for the band's latest album Eternal Youth, where retro-futurist synth sounds provide the settings for a series of droll sci-fi love songs such as "Doris Daytheearthstoodstill", a tale of pining, blind, deaf aliens.

The album's sardonic detachment treats big issues such as love and religion slightly - as in "Kiss Me Only with Your Eyes", whose shy protagonist feels herself too good to be kissed even by God - but smaller concerns assume more grandiose form, appropriate to a songwriter who claims, only half-jokingly, that "The world is a disco ball/ And we are little mirrors, one and all".

Future Bible Heroes' album 'Eternal Youth' is out now on Circus Records. The single 'Losing Your Affection' is out on 28 July