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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Stephin Merritt, 2000


We've been listening to the Magnetic Fields for quite a while now. Years before the blast-off of their 69 Love Songs album, you could have found us dancing around the house to “You're So Technical,” or choking up over every gorgeous synth whoosh of “Save a Secret for the Moon.” Even with that much awe on our sleeves, though, the idea of actually interviewing the Fields' mastermind, Stephin Merritt, has always left us a little daunted.
Hailed as an authentic pop renaissance man, not a press week goes by since 69 Love Songs 1999 release without note being taken of Stephin's dazzling way with a lyric. He’s always compared to the greats, people like Irving Berlin or George Gershwin. He's prolific too, enough to supply work for the Magnetic Fields and his 3 other projects: The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, and The Future Bible Heroes. A recent 6ths album, Hyacinths and Thistles matched 14 new Stephin Merritt songs to a panoply of hand-picked “executants.” Gary Numan, Sarah Cracknell, Bob Mould, Melanie, Momus, and Odetta are among them.
One day, we finally hit on the ideal person to interview Stephin for us. WFMU's Monica Lynch hosts a weekly radio show that’s as eclectic as Stephin himself. It also couldn’t hurt that she's a friend of his. So we asked, and they kindly obliged us by getting together at the Gramercy Park Hotel bar to free-associate on some of their favorite subjects.

MONICA: There’ve been a million articles where people refer to you as the Cole Porter of your generation.
STEPHIN: Actually, I’m not big on Cole Porter. And I don’t think comparison is a good idea—it’s misleading. But Cole Porter is shorthand for a good lyricist, so I take it as a compliment.

MONICA: What description would you prefer?
STEPHIN: I wish they’d put Cole Porter in lower-case letters, to make it clear that they’re not making a direct comparison. Cole Porter was cheating on his songs that people think of as having great lyrics. “You’re the Top,” etc. They’re list songs. Anybody can write a list song.

MONICA: “You’re the top/You’re the ...”
STEPHIN: “You’re the A/You’re the B/You’re the A/You’re the B ... You’re the C/You’re the D ...”

MONICA: Is there a songwriter that you think is a better comparison?
STEPHIN: Annie Lennox, actually, but I don’t expect anyone to know what I’m talking about. The Eurythmics had an album, Savage, on which possibly every song was a simple subversion of an existing cliché. She sings “I Need a Man” in the voice of Mick Jagger as he would sing “I Need a Woman.” It’s unmistakably a male lust song with the genders reversed. It’s sexist and demeaning to men. And there’s another one, “Do You Want to Break Up?” instead of “Do You Want to Go Out with Me?” Also a dance song, “I love to/Listen to/I love to/Listen to/I love to/Listen to Beethoven.” And her song “I Need You” goes, “I need you to break my spine.”

MONICA: Irving Berlin said that if he had to pick one person to get his songs across, it would be Alice Faye.
STEPHIN: That was before Ethel Merman.

MONICA: Who’s your Alice Faye, Stephin?
STEPHIN: For me it would be Odetta. No one has ever taken a song of mine and catapulted it into the stratosphere like Odetta. Who is, I guess, the folk version of Ethel Merman. Not that she’s loud and brassy, but she’s superhuman. She’s more serious about music than Ethel Merman, and she gets taken more seriously about being superhuman than Ethel Merman.

MONICA: So Odetta is your Ethel Merman.
STEPHIN: But Ethel Merman is wrongly reviled. No one has ever sung like Ethel Merman except in pale imitations, such as Bette Midler. Other versions of “Gypsy” are pathetic in comparison to hers.
MONICA: By the way, I met Odetta recently at an awards ceremony. She received one, and the bass player, Carol Kaye, who ... oh, boy, would you love her!
STEPHIN: So I hear. I saw her described somewhere as the most popular person in Hollywood. The only popular person in Hollywood.

MONICA: She is a complete sweetheart, and she’s seen it all and done it all and has both feet on the ground. She wrote the book.
STEPHIN: Did she?

MONICA: Oh, yes. Her books on how to play bass are the gold standard. She used to wear a spandex leopard-print outfit when she was playing bass, and now she just looks like somebody’s grandma. She’s so cool. She had a bunch of kids to support, so to make a living she worked as a session musician. She didn’t have these dreams of rock stardom or glory. That would have been damn near impossible, given the fact that she was a white woman playing bass in a black man’s world.
STEPHIN: And in the Phil Spector world.

MONICA: By the way, you and Irving Berlin actually may have had a career in common. He was a singing waiter, right?
STEPHIN: But I was a waiter for only two hours, and I didn’t sing. There was a lot of disco music going on, though.

MONICA: Did that contribute to your downfall as a waiter?
STEPHIN: No, the strobe lights contributed to my downfall. I was epileptic until I was three, and I have a special relationship to strobe lights. So it might have contributed to the accident.

MONICA: The accident?
STEPHIN: I poured a tray of drinks and beers directly onto the front of the Mafia-connected owner of the nightclub I had just been hired to work for in Boston. On opening night.

MONICA: Did you have to wear designer outfits?
STEPHIN: I’m sure I just had to wear black. It was the ’80s. One had to wear black anyway.

MONICA: You know, I’ve never heard you talk about disco.
STEPHIN: Well, as with any genre of music, I don’t like the genre, I like songs within it. Do I like rockabilly? I like “The Green Fuzz” as done by The Cramps. In fact I like practically all of Psychedelic Jungle. But do I want to listen to The Complete Gloria Gaynor? No.

MONICA: Okay, let’s talk a little bit about songwriting. (Pulls a group of books from her bag, including The Clement Woods Unabridged Rhyming Dictionary.)
STEPHIN: Jimmy Webb recommends that one. And so do I.

MONICA: What are the particular virtues of this dictionary?
STEPHIN: It’s phonetically organized, rather than some cutesy system that you have to memorize. If you know phonetics, you can use it immediately. And if you don’t know phonetics, it won’t do you any harm to learn.

MONICA: That includes schwas and umlauts?
STEPHIN: Yes. On the top of each page is a list of the vowel sounds used in the book.

MONICA: I just read this review of the Future Bible Heroes EP. It said that on one song you rhyme “hula hula” with “dancing fool-a.” And that you may have topped yourself with “luau” and ...
STEPHIN: “Like, wow.”

MONICA: [laughs] I take it you didn’t get that from the rhyming dictionary.
STEPHIN: No. It’s not technically a perfect rhyme. When I interviewed Tom Lehrer, the satirist and musician, I asked him what he thought of my record. He said that my standards of rhyme are lower than his. But I actually think it’s funnier if they’re not true rhymes. It also provides more variety. Tom Lehrer said that he and Sondheim are the last bastions of true rhyme. But I was just singing a Sondheim song to myself a few days ago and I noticed that there were two instances of false rhymes in it.

MONICA: Do you remember what song it was?
STEPHIN: “America,” from West Side Story. “I like the island Manhattan/Smoke on your pipe and put that in.” It’s not a true rhyme, but it really wouldn’t be funny if it were. Like in the song “Manhattan” — “I’ll take Manhattan/The Bronx and Staten/Island too.”

MONICA: Lorenz Hart wrote that?
STEPHIN: Yes. Larry Hart tried to work with only real rhymes, whereas Ira Gershwin didn’t feel that he had to. So he has, “Just another rhumba/Why did I have to succumba/Could you imagine anything dumba.” You can be funny by fudging the rhymes. I believe in that.

MONICA: Did Irving Berlin have a sense of humor about rhyming?
STEPHIN: “Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or ‘umbarellas’ in their mitts — Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The last thing you expect to rhyme with Ritz is mitts. But Rockefellers and umbrellas is only rhymed in Irving Berlin’s accent, which is the accent of the place he’s writing about. I think that’s permissible as a true rhyme, actually. Except that he then says “umbarellas.”

MONICA: I’ve never seen anyone standing on 23rd and Lex in the rain selling “umbarellas” for five dollars.
STEPHIN: But it’s plausible.

MONICA: It’s plausible. [laughing] What rhymes with that?
STEPHIN: Plausible? Causable. Gauzable. In-lawsable would be an apartment over the garage.

MONICA: Are there any names of groups that you thought were just ... oh my god, that’s amazing?
STEPHIN: In the Boston Phoenix guide to local bands in 1978 or so, there was a listing for the Raspberry Dinette Sets of Love and Joy. I’ve never loved a band name more than that.
MONICA: I notice that people don’t seem to use nature as a muse so much anymore.
STEPHIN: [long pause] Don’t they?

MONICA: When I turn on the radio, I don’t hear it.
STEPHIN: If you mean Urban radio — Puff Daddy is not going to record “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. Not until he reads this interview, anyway. But the hit parade isn’t filled with songs about suburbia either. People don’t want to think of themselves as living in suburbia, even though that’s where slightly more than 50 percent of the American population is. They want to think that they are about to move to the city, or they want to think of themselves as living in winding-English-country-lane rural areas — there just happen to be other houses uncomfortably close. Whereas urban music does celebrate urban life, and that’s probably why suburban teenagers buy it. It’s also why Urban is not really an inaccurate term.

MONICA: Whereas, the term R&B ...
STEPHIN: It’s too close to “Race and Black.” What does R&B mean to you?

MONICA: It’s an attempt at a polite euphemism for Black. Urban radio, technically, should include anyone that lives in an urban area.
STEPHIN: Urban would be the opposite of Country, then. I gather that until the Billboard charts were first divided in the early ’30s, everything had just been Pop. Then they started having the Race chart and the Folk chart, Folk meaning what we would now call Country. In between there was Country & Western, but then the Western fad disappeared. No more yodelers or cowboy music.

MONICA: You’re a fan of cowboy music.
STEPHIN: I never built up a collection, though. I liked it all indiscriminately, so one or two records was fine for me. But I’m a sucker for yodeling.

MONICA: You’re also a big fan of science fiction films. I’m curious whether the soundtracks have had an impression on you.
STEPHIN: Only Forbidden Planet. I’m always disappointed in the script, though.

MONICA: Do you dance, Stephin?
STEPHIN: I love to dance. I will dance again when I can find the shoes in which to do it. I am very disappointed with my feet. But I took dance in high school.

MONICA: Really? Did you have to wear leotards?
STEPHIN: I don’t remember what I wore. But I was liable to be wearing leotards in high school anyway. Or jumpsuits. There was one point when my entire wardrobe was jumpsuits.

MONICA: It was interpretive dance that you took in high school, I suppose.
STEPHIN: Yes, we would invent dance routines to various Bowie songs.

MONICA: Like what? “Ashes to Ashes?”
STEPHIN: Oh, no, no, no. “Moss Garden” from Heroes. We were into Heroes, and side two of Low.

MONICA: What were some of your big moves?
STEPHIN: Actually, I was a minimalist. I didn’t make any big moves. I was known for my fingers and toes. I could move my toes well.

MONICA: Did you dance at the new wave clubs?
STEPHIN: I used to dance at Danceteria. I used to do Gothic Whirls, and ...

MONICA: [laughing]
STEPHIN: ... just before Madonna had 12-layer clothing, I had 12-layer clothing. Ripped, torn, interlocking. I would have a shirt full of big, big holes, and another shirt underneath it that would be connected to itself with safety pins. Madonna didn’t get to that part.

MONICA: She used to hang out at the Fun House.
STEPHIN: What’s the Fun House?
MONICA: A very popular Electro palace in the early ’80s. The DJ was Jellybean Benitez, who was one of Madonna’s first major boyfriends. But the Fun House was primarily Latin with a lot of black and white kids, too. It was during the period where people would wear tight, razor-ripped t-shirts. At the Fun House they got into very masculine choreography that was done as a group — extremely intricate foot movements, almost like a b-boy version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ... and these were some of the most macho guys.
STEPHIN: Did they practice?

MONICA: They must have practiced. They used to dance to groups like Planet Patrol. You would have had a ball. I used to go there every weekend.
STEPHIN: Was this Brooklyn?
MONICA: No, it was in the West 20s. The DJ booth was built into an enormous clown face.
STEPHIN: What happened to popular culture? How dare people even attempt popular culture without imagination? In the 1950s they had DJs, but they didn’t generally have DJ booths in the shape of a clown face. You want to have a nightclub and say that your image is absolutely underground
— “We don’t have any money and therefore it’s underground.” — fine. But if you have a line going down the block, and you have money, you owe it to the customer to: a) stop pretending you’re underground and b) start providing them with some imagination, some fantasy that says you have gone out to an exciting night in a fancy land.

MONICA: What would the nightclub of your dreams be like?
STEPHIN: Infinite number of floors.

MONICA: Infinite?
STEPHIN: You could wander from floor to floor and it would be all the genres of music that people seem to like for some reason, a bit on each floor. But there would be no way of finding out what the genre was going to be before you actually got to the floor, so you’d have to wander around.

MONICA: What might be some of the genres available on the various floors?
STEPHIN: It wouldn’t be genres in the way we know them. There would be a 120 beats-per-minute floor, a 100 beats-per-minute floor; “I’m tired. I’m going downstairs to the 90 bpm floor.” Or to 20. The ground floor would be zero.

MONICA: Would there be a spoken word floor?
STEPHIN: See, I’m a Danceteria guy. The third floor and the roof were the spoken word floors.

MONICA: Everything is so fragmented and formatted now.
STEPHIN: Whatever happened to the mixed crowd?

MONICA: I used to work at the Empire Diner. I was a waitress, graveyard shift. And in ’81 or ’82, you had the Roxy Roller Rink, the Mudd Club, Plato’s Retreat, and the denouement of Studio 54 and Xenon, which was the poor man’s Studio 54. Plus all the leather bars were going strong — The Eagle’s Nest, the Spike. So we used to get Eurotrash, the leather boys, new wave-y punk kids ...
STEPHIN: How do you expect to meet anyone in the world now?

MONICA: Personally, I’ve had it up to here with the Hamptons mix — you know, the ghetto fabulosity, the fashionistas, the media mafia, and that old guard Hamptons crowd. It’s nothing but a glorified photo op. Sure, you have all creeds, races, and different occupations now. But if you’re not monied, you’re out of there. You cannot go.

STEPHIN: There are only two races, rich and poor.

MONICA: What music are you listening to these days?
STEPHIN: I’ve been listening to the EMI Classics Centenary box set.

MONICA: It covers 100 years?
STEPHIN: Yes. It’s a ten-record set, by decade. Last night, I listened to a piece from it which is a Russian singer and choir doing a liturgy from 1931. The liturgy is monotonous, sung almost all in one note. And it was so moving. These people had escaped from the Soviet Union, and I’m not going to say you can hear that in the recording, but you can certainly imagine that you hear that. I also really like the ’40s for the sense that you can hear World War II. When Vera Lynn’s voice breaks in “I’ll Be Seeing You,” it’s obvious why.

MONICA: Can we talk about Doris Day for a moment?
STEPHIN: I’ll talk about Doris Day for as long as you like. I would say she’s probably my favorite singer.

MONICA: Why Doris Day? Why “Dodo?”
STEPHIN: Well, her voice fascinated me. I would sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle way she sang the words. In turn, Doris Day’s favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald. I tend to like a more conversational tone. Ella Fitzgerald is, of course, one of the major singers of the twentieth century. I love Ella Fitzgerald. I love the Songbooks.

MONICA: Are there particular decades that you find to be less interesting than others?
STEPHIN: I think the ’90s were particularly awful, because what was going on politically in the artistic world was AIDS, which was simply killing people off without giving them anything to sing about. Or at least not anything that they could get away with commercially. The only major response to AIDS in the music world that I know of is Diamanda Galas, who was certainly not trying for pop stardom. But in 40 years, if you want to go back and hear what the ’90s were about, I think you’re going to go back and listen to Diamanda Galas. Certainly not to me. Certainly not to Beck. Also, everything popular in the ’90s was established in the early ’80s.

MONICA: What about the indie/alt rock movement?
STEPHIN: Frankly, Beat Happening peaked in the ’80s. And anyone who thinks Nirvana is important in any way doesn’t know anything about the history of music.

MONICA: I’d certainly credit the ’90s as being the great era of the reissue, though.
STEPHIN: The ’90s were a fantastic time to collect old music, and a terrible time to collect new music. These things swing back and forth.

MONICA: What about the rest of the decades?
STEPHIN: I only like the even-numbered ones. Also, I automatically like everything recorded before 1920.

MONICA: Even the aughts?
STEPHIN: Even the aughts, yes. Even the zero-zeroes, the noddies. I also like major hits from the teens, ’30s, ’70s, and some of the ’90s. But I tried to look at the upper half of my record collection a few days ago. I was struck by how little I had kept from the ’90s.

MONICA: I understand that you’re writing a musical.
STEPHIN: The Song from Venus.

MONICA: What’s that about?
STEPHIN: It’s about a record that’s sent from Venus to invade the Earth. It’s a song that makes everyone fall in love.

MONICA: Is there a song that made you fall in love?
STEPHIN: Actually, yes. ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came.” And then again, Doris Day’s “Secret Love.” But I’m not sure I wasn’t in love beforehand.

MONICA: Can we talk for a moment about the nature of crushes?
STEPHIN: We can try.

MONICA: You’ve had crushes in your life.
STEPHIN: I’ve had a lot of crushes in my life, yes. I wish I’d never had a crush in my entire life.

MONICA: Painful?
STEPHIN: Very painful. I wouldn’t be interested in love as a subject if it weren’t so scary. I think of love as something dark and horrifying, and love and death as nearly the same thing. I think of Poe and Colette as very similar writers.

MONICA: Do these crushes inspire you?
STEPHIN: I’m sure they have some influence on my lyrics. I don’t think they have any influence, necessarily, on my music. But it’s very hard to tell in music. Stravinsky said that emotion isn’t possible in music. And then there is the singer/songwriter tradition in which emotion is everything in music. And either position is untenable.


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Stephin Merritt by Leeta Harding, 2000

© index magazine
Monica Lynch by Leeta Harding, 2000

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