Music: The plastic dinosaurs of pop

The Future Bible Heroes are the house-band of a 1980s that never was, turning the decade's synthesised smoothness into a wonderland of possibility. Oriental strings strike, animals cry, synth-orchestras crash, computer machinery bleeps. And over it all soar two voices : a detached woman and a mordant man. They're singing about aquatic female monsters, a death boutique and a woman who's stopped believing in the Beach Boys. It's like Leonard Cohen and Nico fronting Sparks. It's like nothing else on the planet.

Stephin Merritt is the deep-voiced leader. The Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies and The 6ths are his bands, too, but the Heroes' album Memories of Love is the most collaborative realisation of the sounds in his head. Friend Chris Ewen adds synthesiser explorations and Magnetics drummer Claudia Gonson adds a voice "divorced from emotion, like I have no clue what I'm singing about".

Merritt and Ewen both came to music convinced its possibilities were limitless. Both had gig-going epiphanies. For Ewen, seeing Kraftwerk in Detroit in 1979 made him see beyond rock. Merritt's world changed in 1986 when he saw Tiny Tim. The one-hit wonder played the same two chords for 20 minutes at a time and sang pop from a hundred-year spectrum. Six people were watching. By the finish, each one had wept. Merritt knew it was the life he wanted.

Why did he cry? "Because all he really cared about was music that had depth to it, and he was able to find depth in what you'd think of as banal forms. He could respond to a Cole Porter song, to a television commercial, to a heavy metal song. He had a generosity of spirit that I can't imagine. He educated me in why music matters. I'm trying to become a great songwriter as opposed to just a songwriter. I'm trying to live up to a tradition of excellence."

Is that why he's written so many songs with so many bands - to hone his skills? "I Just like to have a lot of records out. I like listening to 10 records at once. Quantity is an end in itself.

"One of the things I added with this record was to help Stephin realise songs can be longer than two minutes," puts in Ewen. "He'd been very strict, in the Brill Building tradition."

"What I'm trying to do is curate the museum of pop," says Merritt. "I'm trying to organise people's ears. I think when you listen to the Top 40, you should be able to compare it to the Top 40 of 1988, 1958, 1948. You should be able to hear the Spice Girls in the context of the Chirelles."

Merritt and Ewen have bothexpressed a love for the roadside Americana of plastic windmills and animals. "More buildings should be shaped like ducks," says Merritt. "We want to translate that sense to music. You'd get more interesting sounds from someone trying to interpret a large plastic dinosaur than someome trying to reproduce a Beatles record." He's serious.

Memories of Love is out now on Setanta.

Nick Hasted

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