Stephin Merritt (second from left) and the rest of the Magnetic Fields: Sam Da’vol, John Woo, and Claudia Gonson
March’s most sought-after ticket could be for the Magnetic Fields, the creation of the indie pop curmudgeon Stephin Merritt, a Cole Porter type who used to play punk clubs but also writes operas and show tunes. His band arrives at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square on March 14th for three days of shows to promote an eighth album, Distortion.
Q: Chicago is the only city on your tour where you play six shows in a row. That’s more than any other city, including your home base, Los Angeles. Why here?
A: Because we’re playing the Old Town School, which is 400-capacity. But it’s such a great room, we love playing there.
Q: Your new song “California Girls” is about how much you hate them. Was this meant to be a bookend to the Beach Boys classic?
A: No, it’s not directly a response to the Beach Boys song. I love the Beach Boys song. Although I do not wish they could all be California girls. I bet they don’t either.
Q: You’ve said in the past that gay bars are where you write your best songs. Are there any in Chicago more inspiring than others?
A: I don’t remember names of places. I’ve often thought that I should write a book about various bars called The Eagle. Because it seems like there’s one in almost every town. If you want to know where the gay bars are, you just call information and ask for The Eagle.
Q: Recently you were hired to score a commercial for Volvo. Did you have any hesitations about writing jingles to sell cars?
A: I wasn’t seeking it. They called me. It wasn’t like I decided to start writing music for commercials and got an agent to get me work. I said yes when they propositioned me. So I have no ideological objection to selling records or selling music. I have a very expensive recording studio, which requires a regular influx of cash. And I am happy to make money. As most people are.
Q: I’ve interviewed you before where we talked about your hearing loss—
A: —I only have significant hearing loss in my right ear. But that’s not the problem. In my left ear I have an unfortunate hearing gain. Where shrill sounds sound louder and louder.
Q: How do you balance that playing live?
A: We play very quietly. Very quietly. We get complaints that we’re not playing loud enough.
Q: Are there any thrills left playing live?
A: Playing live has become more and more difficult as my ear trouble has gotten worse. We have to play very quietly: We can’t have a rhythm section; we can’t have monitors onstage. At this point I don’t know how we’re going to continue. For the moment we’re going to continue having the loud songs be sung by someone other than me. So I can stick an earplug in my ear for the loud songs.
Q: So playing live is really to promote the new record and nothing else.
A: If I had my druthers there would be no such thing as live music. Live music sucks. Live music belongs in the orchestra pit as part of a theatrical presentation. Even then it kind of sucks.
Q: You’d like what the Beatles decided upon: a complete studio life and nothing else.
A: Well, they were being drowned out by screaming teenagers. We fail to have that problem.
Photograph: Chris Buck