THE 6THS, Wasps' Nests
Melody Maker, summer 1995
by Simon Reynolds
The 6ths is the brainchild of Stephin Merritt, the
Hoboken based songwriter whose four LP's under the name The
Magnetic Fields have won him a formidable cult rep in
America. Merritt is something like US lo-fi's one-man
counterpart to Saint Etienne. Like Wiggs & Stanley, he's
constructed his own bubblegum pantheon out of artists like
Kraftwerk and Abba, whose work he described as "the pinnacle
of Western civilisation"!. Merritt aspires to their sad-but-
bouncy air and sublime simplicity. A low-rent, 4-track Phil
Spector, he constructs pocket symphonies using outmoded drum
machines and cheapo Casio synths, cellos and tubas and toy
piano, plus a host of self-invented weirdo guitar effects and
other sonic Fripperies.
Like the Etienne boys, Merritt aligns himself with
shiny pop (Tin Pan Alley's hit factory system of hack
tunesmiths and puppet girl-singers) as opposed to worthy rock
(with its scruffy authenticity and earnest over-emoting).
This is very much a gay aesthetic, and unlike Saint Etienne,
Merritt actually is gay. A one-off project designed to propel
Merritt to the big time, The 6ths revives Tin Pan Alley's
separation of songwriter and singer. For "Wasps' Nests"*,
Merritt wrote the tunes and spun the arrangements, but all
but one of the 15 songs are performed by a 'stellar' cast of
indie semi-luminaries, such as Lou Barlow, Amelia Fletcher of
Heavenly, Chris Knox and Barbara Manning. Ironically, the
gorgeously understated melodies demand to be sung in a low-
key, undemonstrative murmur identical to Merritt's own
Ian Curtis-like voice. Furthermore, Merritt actually
instructed each guest to sing "with as little emotion as
There are too many gems here, but three or four gleam
extra-brite. "Aging Spinsters" is enchanting toy-music, a
lattice of overlapping music-box chimes and plinky-plonk
synths that recalls early Depeche Mode or Orchestral
Manoeuvres; Merritt's glum, slightly stiff baritone also
exudes an early '80s vibe as he intones the strange chorus-
"marry young, Diane/I don't want to see you rot in the home
for aging spinsters". "All Dressed Up In Dreams" cascades
Smithsy acoustic gtrs around Mary "Helium' Timony's rendition
of a gently heartbreaking tale of being stood up in love.
Dean Wareham then presents the cad's side of the story in
"Falling Out of Love (With You)", flitting from idyllic
memories ("I was hoarse, you were mean/We designed drum
machines") to present-tense disenchantment ("every kiss/means
less and less"). Even that relic Mitch Easter shines on the
(warning: obscure early '80s reference) New Muzik-like
"Pillow Fight", contributing not just caramel-glutinous
vocals but a sunburst of a psych-guitar solo too.
If "Wasps' Nest" sounds just a little bit cute, then
think on: this is basically 1986's cutie aesthetic with more
expanded musical premises, Talulah Gosh meets Joe Meek meets
the Pet Shop Boys. For sure, it's not a record to smash the
barriers of sound, but it'll charm the pants off you.
STEPHIN MERRITT, interview
Melody Maker, summer, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
"For some reason, I'm completely incapable of doing anything new with the
pop song. Oh, how depressing!" So sighs curmudgeonly cult songwriter Stephin
Merritt, as we sit in in a small park** a few blocks from his downtown Manhattan
This has not deterred Merritt from churning out pop songs with a heedless incontinence. Since 1991, he has recorded five albums and numerous 7 inch singles under the name The Magnetic Fields, all to mounting acclaim from US critics. This year he made his major label debut in the form of The 6ths' "Wasps' Nest", where his lo-fi synthipop ditties were sung by 13 indie semi-luminaries, ranging from Luna's Dean Wareham to Lou Barlow to Amelia Fletcher of Heavenly. In addition,
Merritt has other side-line groups: The Future Bible Heroes, an electropop
collaboration with boyfriend Chris Ewen, and The Gothic Archies (a 'Goth
bubblegum' band who perform Merritt melodramas like 'The Abandoned Castle of My
Soul'). Despite all these outlets, Merritt still has a backlog of some 100
songs. Cruel Fate has made him a prolific virtuosos at something he seems to
regard as futile and redundant. Yet Merritt's affliction is our boon, for his are
some of the most exquisite pop confections on the planet.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Stephin Merritt is America's
one-man equivalent to Saint Etienne. When you consider how mired the Amerindie scene is in the values of spill-my-guts singer- songwriting and garageland scruffiness, you'll realise how out-of-place his irony-clad and sugar-candied aesthetic is. From his synths and drum machines to his Abba fetish, Merritt isn't just an anomaly, he's a heretic against US alternative orthodoxy. So un-American he's almost English, in fact.
'Gay and Loud', the name of Merritt's song publishing company, suggests
queercore protest, ACT UP with guitars. But Merritt is really underlining the
fact that his is a gay aesthetic of 'passionate irony', in opposition to straight rock's earnest authenticity.
"In 1995, every gesture has quotation marks around it whether we like it or
not", deadpans Merritt in his permanent tone of suppressed exasperation, like
he's explaining the bleedin' obvious to a slow pupil. "It's strange that a few
heterosexuals continue to delude themselves that this is not the case. But the
rest of us know that we have quotation marks hovering over our heads as we walk
down the street."
Whipping Boy fans take heed: Merritt has no truck with the raw, blurting
expressionism of rock. Instead, like Pete Wiggs & Bob Stanley, he has a curiously
dispassionate, almost 'objective' appreciation of pop: not so much 'that song
moves me', more 'what a fab single'. He talks of his songwriting not in terms of
pouring out his soul, but as the crafting of "pretty objects I can treasure for ever".
"If you stick to the cliches in lyrics and in melody, then the emotional affect is guaranteed," he says. When I point out that his lyrics are full of quirks and idiosyncracies, he concedes that "occasionally I get clumsy, I allow myself to intrude in the song." In fact, his real gift lies somewhere in between: coming up with new phrases that sound so right they're almost like readymade cliches, e.g. "All Dressed Up In Dreams" from "Wasps' Nests", the perfect title for a song about being stood up in love.
Merritt mourns "the lost era of standards-writing", the separation of singer
and songwriter that underpinned the glory days of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill
Building and Nashville. He's enamoured with the anti-romantic mythology of the hack songwriting team (e.g. Goffin & King, Chinn & Chapman etc), artisans so skilled they could wack out a couple of sure-fire smashes before lunch, with minimal emotional involvement. This golden age ended when 1/ singers realised they could earn loadsa publishing dosh if they wrote their own songs 2/ late '60s rock culture decreed that you were only authentic if you sang your own words, no matter how poorly penned. And so began the singer-songwriter era, with Rolling Stone heralding the likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as poets, and sneering at genres still based around the hit factory model (disco, bubblegum etc). Even C & W eventually succumbed to singer-songwriter-itis.
"I don't like country after 1979", scowls Merritt. "The last country song I
enjoy is 'You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly', sung by Loretta Lynn. With
classic country, as with classic pop, you instantly forget who did the song, it
assumes its own life. Which is as it should be, and as it will be again, when I
have my way."
A Canute of pop, Merritt has tried to turn back the tide of history. The
first two Magnetic Fields albums, "The Wayward Bus" and "Distant Plastic Trees"
were sung by Susan Anway, Merritt's very own Sarah Cracknell. And this year's
"Wasps' Nest" involved the nice irony of taking a bunch of lo-fi vocalists,
hitherto reknowned for their folkie authenticity, and forcing them into a Tin Pan
Alley bubblegum context. That said, and rather contradicting Merritt's creed,
it's also true that he sang on the last three Magnetic Fields records,
including "The Charm Of the Highway Strip", which has just been issued in the UK,
and the brand-new US release "Get Lost". Sheepish, Merritt stresses that "Get Lost"
will be the last album on which he sings his own songs.
Hardcore Merritt fans will be saddened if he does quit the mic'; the songs
seem inseperable from Merritt's glum, slightly stiff baritone, often compared to Ian Curtis. "I think if I were in Joy Division, it would be fine," says Merritt of his vocal limitations. "But I'm in the Ronettes, so it's not so fine."
Production-wise, Merritt has one foot in the Phil Spector/Brian Wilson
tradition of pop as 'pocket symphonies for teens', and the other in the
studio-as-instrument tradition of experimental pop (Eno as a sort of egghead
Spector, Kraftwerk as the Beach Boys with synths instead of string sections).
Like Eno, Merritt is vehemently opposed to what he calls "false realism" in
production, the notion that the most 'authentic' recording of rock is that which
mostly closely simulates the band live onstage.
Merritt puts as much effort into finding captivating and improbable sounds as he does into crafting his multi-tiered melodies. Not only does he fiddle with quaint synths, cheap samplers and unlikely instruments (toy pianos, tubas), he also messes with the electric guitar. One example is the Slinky Guitar, which, Stephin explains, involves taking one of those novelty coiled springs that can 'walk' up and downstairs by themselves, and attaching it tween the pick-ups and strings of two guitars. Pull the guitars 20 feet apart and the taut Slinky can then be plucked, bowed, etc to generate all kinds of strange sonorities. Shades of Sonic Youth-style 'reinvention of the guitar' here, surely?
Merritt snorts derisively. "It's just part of the ongoing invention of the guitar. The electric guitar has always been a prepared instrument. There's no official electric guitar, no Stradivarius."
Guitars notwithstanding, Merritt is really the ultimate anti-rockist. "Rock should have consisted of only the Paul McCartney branch, rather than the John Lennon/Mick Jagger/Keith Richards wing," he bemoans. He finds the whole ethos of white blues "offensive...buying records by white people who are imitating black peoplem so that you won't have to buy records by black people, is fundamentally racist." Yet his own musical universe, from Nordic synth-pop (Abba, John Foxx, Kraftwerk, Numan) to country (Dolly Parton, kd lang) to AOR (Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk"), is, he concedes, "so darn white! My concerns are completely not to do with rhythm, syncopation, or even energy. Which are the main concerns of 20th Century black popular music. I think my records could be listened to by the Klu Klux Klan!"
Not content with rewriting the pop canon so that Abba figure as "the
pinnacle of Western Civilisation, better than Bach", Merritt's disdain for rock
and his disappointed "disgust" with contemporary pop keep pushing him into
ever more perversely unhip regions of the past. His current listening includes
Cole Porter, musicals like "Hair", and Doris Day . "I don't think I really have any taste in music as such," he adds as a disclaimer. "My taste is organised around making my own records, as a form of research, rather than in being objectively good or reflecting any lasting values." God knows what effect his current inputs will have on his future output, but chances are the mysterious Merritt alchemy will work its magic, even on old Doris.
STEPHIN MERRITT, profile
Mojo, September 1995
by Simon Reynolds
"Interviews are hard – normally I don’t speak much. I spent most of my time in silence, listening to music or reading." So sayeth reclusive songwriter Stephin Merritt as we exit the public garden near his downtown Manhattan apartment in order to procure throat-soothing "libations". Although he named his publishing company Gay And Loud, he’s actually gay and near-catatonic.
Like his nearest UK equivalent Saint Etienne, Merritt’s work as the Magnetic Fields and The 6ths is infused with a camp affection for bubblegum and Tin Pan Alley. Like Saint Etienne, he’s drawn up his own capricious canon of pop, in which he encompasses Abba, Dolly Parton, Cole Porter, Kraftwerk and John Foxx’s Metamatic (the last two being as far as electropop progressed, Stephin suggests). And like Saint Et’s Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, he has a peculiarly dispassionate appreciation of pop. Merritt talks about his music not as the outpouring of his soul but as the making of "pretty objects I can treasure forever". So is this a gay pop aesthetic of "passionate irony" as opposed to a straight rock ethos of bogus, blustery "authenticity"?
"In 1995, every gesture has quotation marks around it whether we like it or not," says Merritt in his fastidious way. "It’s strange that a few heterosexuals continue to delude themselves that this is not the case."
Merritt began with a dual interest in bubblegum and experimental music, the connection being that both genres deploy the studio to spin webs of sounds that could never be reproduced alive. In this sense, Brians Wilson and Eno are both Sons Of Spector. Like Eno, Merritt is an eloquent critic of "false realism" in recording – the myth that it’s possible to reproduce the live sound of a band rockin’ out. Instead, he goes at great lengths to get "unrealistic", impossible sounds. Most famous is his ‘Slinky Guitar’, where that kid’s novelty – a coiled spring that can "walk" downstairs – is attached between the pick-ups of two guitars. Pull the instruments 20 feet apart and the Slinky can be plucked to generate bizarre harmonics. "It’s just part of the ongoing invention of the electric guitar, which has always been a prepared instrument," says Merritt. "There is no official electric guitar, no Stradivarius."
Other strange and lovely timbres are generated using a host of cheapo synths and drum machines, and unusual instrumentation like tubas and toy pianos. The myriad minutiae of Merritt’s "pocket symphonies" are just one of the joys of his work; gorgeous melodicism and delightfully quirky lyrics being the others. Ironically, Merritt wants to purge such idiosyncrasy from his work because he admires the direct emotional impact of cliché. He mourns "the lost era of standards writing", the separation of singer and songwriter that was the backbone of Brill Building pop and Nashville alike.
A veritable Canute of pop, Merritt has tried to turn back the tide of history. For the Magnetic Fields’ first two albums (the fourth, The Charm Of The Highway Strip, is reissued this month by Setanta), he hid behind vocalist Susan Anyway, only emerging to sing the next two albums in his Ian Curtis-like murmur because she’d gone away to college. Now he’s returned to the old methodology with his latest, tongue-twistingly titled project, the 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests album, wherein 14 guest vocalists from the indie world sing Merritt-penned ditties such as 'All Dressed Up In Dreams' and 'Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket'. While he’d rather have hired the likes of Christine McVie and k.d. lang, his manager Claudia enticed a legion of lo-fi luminaries into the studio instead. There’s a delicious irony in the subordination of a figure like Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow – lo-fi’s very own James Taylor – to the puppet-like status of a Ronette.
These days, Merritt is more of an anti-rockist than ever. "Rock should have consisted of only the Paul McCartney branch, not the Lennon/Jagger/Richards one," he mourns archly. Detesting the very idea of white blues ("it’s fundamentally racist"), he admits that his own aesthetic universe – from Nordic synthipop to redneck C&W – is "so darn white!"
"I’m not so concerned with rhythm or syncopation, which are the main concerns of black music after Duke Ellington," he says. "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!"
* I've probably listened to Wasps Nest more times than any other album of the Nineties, on account of it being Joy's probably favourite album of that decade and certainly the one she finds most conducive for vacations and trips involving rented cars and her doing all the driving (cos i can't). Even after 643 listens I still love Wasps Nest, but strangely have not been nearly so swayed by
anything else SM's done, before or since. Odd, that.
* * I now live within sight of the little area of wooden benches and greenery at the foot of a cluster of vaguely brutalist apartment blocks where this interview took place, in fact if I crane and peer out of my window I can almost see where me and the grouch sat that muggy summer day.