Stephin Merritt is a 42-year-old gay man of modest stature, with a wardrobe consisting mostly of clothes in various shades of brown. And, to some, he is the most terrifying man in pop music, a notorious curmudgeon—sarcastic, grouchy, endlessly difficult—who wears his disdain for modern pop music like most folks wear T-shirts. Indeed, citing Merritt's admitted lack of interest in hip-hop, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones once called Merritt, who's led The Magnetic Fields since 1990, a "rockist cracker."
"My increasing hatred of contemporary pop music has driven me back through the decades," Merritt says starkly from a friend's house in Los Angeles. "Now that all contemporary music is worthless, I'm happily at play in the 1920s and '30s."
Merritt often compares his own work to that of Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim, revered composers of American Broadway and film music. It shows: Like Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun or Mr. President, each Magnetic Fields album is absorbed in its own identity and in Merritt's isolated, intense approach. The Charm of the Highway Strip, released by Merge Records in 1994, gathers 10 tracks with geographic or peripatetic themes; 1999's epic set 69 Love Songs delivers just that with five singers and an army of instruments; 2004's i collects 14 tracks all beginning with that vowel, ordered alphabetically; and this year's aptly titled Distortion is a grinding, noisy affair that never looks back. Throughout it all, Merritt channels his deep wit and divine articulation through a hushed baritone. They're the sorts of songs with which you just fall in love.
But, wait, isn't he supposed to be a standoffish asshole? Just a brief glimpse through his past interviews, for instance, reveals Merritt mercilessly cutting down a stupid question in few words. But The Magnetic Fields frontman isn't necessarily out for the blood of ill-prepared interviewers and Beyoncé fans ... it just sort of happens, and he doesn't have time to worry about it.
"Most of my adult life has been constant work," Merritt admits, "which I enjoy, except the touring part."
He doesn't meet our expectations of civility because he's interested in his own ideas more than living outside of himself, and part of his brilliance lies in his ability to commit to his work without worry for such demands. Who would have said, for instance, 69 Love Songs was a good idea? Merritt resides within a self-made universe of songs and sentiments, in a place where music goes far beyond Top 40 hits and digital downloads. His work ethic is insatiable, and he deals with the results of each project publicly only because he has to in order to promote and sell records.
His crowded agenda is divided among film, theater and his bands—The Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies, The 6ths and Future Bible Heroes—while he splits time between coasts. He owns a house in Los Angeles and an apartment in New York, each complete with a recording studio and identical toys for his Chihuahua, Irving.
Merritt is currently preparing for the May 2009 off-Broadway debut of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, of which he wrote the music and lyrics. He's working on the next Magnetic Fields album and continuously pursuing his life goal of composing 50 successful Hollywood musicals. He and Daniel Handler—a Magnetic Fields and Gothic Archies contributor and, under the name Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events—are currently shopping for a producer for their musical, The Song From Venus. And there's the third leg of this Distortion tour.
Best not to tease him about that too much, though: "Touring is traumatic for me and I try and suppress it," says Merritt. "It's a prostitution of art, a cynical money-grabbing gesture gussied up as art. Live music is a mistake, and I regret my involvement with it."
The Magnetic Fields plays Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh Saturday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$30, and Portastatic opens.