Tell Me About That Album: Love at the Bottom of the Sea by The Magnetic Fields

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After taking a three-album break from using synths, Stephin Merritt and his Magnetic Fields return to their 1990's sound -- and label -- with Love at the Bottom of the Sea, which logs 15 tracks in under 35 minutes. Intact, as always, is Merritt's acerbic wit as well as some of his favorite themes: love, loss and loneliness. We caught up with the deep-voiced singer-songwriter to ask him about the record, his unique album concepts and his favorite Seattle sweets. The Magnetic Fields play the Neptune Theater on March 19th and 20th.

Your latest album features synthesizers prominently, though you've said it mostly features synths that didn't exist when you were last using them. What are the differences? When I got tired of using synthesizers it was because I felt like they might as well be electric organs. I waited for the technology to change before reintroducing the synthesizers. A lot of the instruments on this album are not keyboards at all. I was thinking of putting a picture of myself on the record cover wearing a T-shirt saying "Down with Bach." I just feel like enough with the keyboard stuff already. It's only one instrument and its tyrannized music for 500 years. I used a lot of instruments that have nothing to do with a keyboard and also that have nothing to do with creating a particular pitch, like the Cracklebox. It's a handheld device with electrical contacts on the front that you put your thumbs on, thereby completing the circuit. And the area of your thumb against the contact effects what the pitch is. It's not really controllable so the sound you end up with is a shriek or static. It's very unmusical in the classical sense of a pretty tone. It doesn't do pretty. But there's a lot of very, very unpretty sounds on the record.

Are you a gearhead? Do you find the process of learning new technologies to be as interesting as writing songs? No, I'm actually a dilettante. I don't bother learning new instruments, I just play them anyway. I feel like if I have to learn a whole lot in order to play it, it's probably not the right instrument for me. I did actually take lessons a few years ago on the harp, but I'm not home often enough to practice so my harp teacher gave up on me.

Don't you have to keep up with technology to stay current on making music, either in terms of recording or with learning new gear? Pro Tools is the only computer anything on the record. I did actually read the entire Pro Tools manual, which is about 800 pages long. And I wasn't able to memorize it or anything, but I did get much better at Pro Tools.

You seem to enjoy having a concept in place with most of your albums, whether it's writing 69 love songs or making records where all the song titles start with the letter "I." Where does this come from? I've actually done three records with concepts or themes. The first one is The Charm of the Highway Strip, which was a theme album about travel, the second was 69 Love Songs and the third was i, in which all the titles begin with the letter "I," but the songs have nothing to do with each other, and they're alphabetically arranged on the album. The actual theme of that album was that it was basically soft rock, that it had a genre to it, unlike our other records.

But it does seem like there are these self-imposed rules you crave each time out. The Rolling Stones have sounded pretty much like The Rolling Stones since they began, even with Brian Jones playing the oboe. But we have a more fluctuating membership and definitely more fluctuating instrumentation than The Rolling Stones, so whenever we put out a record we have to decide what's going to happen beforehand because it's not going to just fall into place. I have a house full of instruments. We're not going to put them all on every record. We have to do some editing.

So it's a matter of focus? We might have a focus but that focus isn't necessarily available to the listener. I was told by a Swedish journalist that Distortion was actually a theme album about solitude, which is something I absolutely never noticed until I read that. And he was totally right. It's about being alone. I don't know why.

Do you have a favorite song on Love at the Bottom of the Sea? No.

How about a favorite lyric? No. I don't really do favorites. My brain doesn't really think that way.

But if you're putting together a set list doesn't there have to be some kind of preferential treatment for certain songs? Or doesn't somebody have to figure out which songs make the cut on an album? It's not me. I don't usually pick the singles, for example. In the case of this album, "Andrew in Drag" just sounds like a single and I agreed with everyone else that it was the optimal first single. But on previous records where we have put out a single, I'm sometimes surprised by what people choose.

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Can you tell me about the album cover and whether it ties in with the title? The title was chosen for it having nothing to do with any of the songs. The cover was designed to have nothing to do with the title or songs. This is the first record I've done in a while with an arbitrary title and arbitrary graphic. It kind of harkens back to the cover of 69 Love Songs, which kind of looks like a big pair of eyes.

Does anything stand out to you about playing in Seattle versus playing other cities? Cupcakes. We've played at Town Hall a few times now, and up the hill from there there's this wonderful cupcake place.

Is it Cupcake Royale? That's it.

Hopefully the promoter will make sure you are fully stocked for your shows at the Neptune then. I hope not actually, because I'm a diet now.

Well if they're there anyway, will you have the self-control to not eat one? Yes!

 
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