Stephin Merritt doesn’t just walk to the beat of his own drum. He built it himself and then trashed it for a notebook filled with Cambridge-side quirks. This month, he’s getting back to his roots by showing every letter of the alphabet some love.
The Magnetic Fields‘ frontman only wears brown clothing, wears the same flat cap at every show, and has the most dry stage personality out of any rock musician out there. While the local five-piece is an international act, Merritt is setting out on a rare solo tour restricted to the US where, accompanied by long-time bandmate Sam Davol on cello, he will present acoustic versions of selected songs from his extensive catalog. The setlist is exactly 26 songs long, and each titles starts with a different letter of the alphabet. Naturally, it runs in alphabetical order.
“The choice was a lot easier for the ‘X’ and the ‘Z’ parts of the show because I only have two songs for each,” Merritt explains. “‘I’, on the other hand, was difficult because I have, of course, an entire album of songs that begin with the letter ‘I’. It was clear when we got to that point that the audience will know that they’re going to hear one of those songs. Which one it was, though, felt like it should be a moment.”
He’s careful not to mention the “I” song he chose. In fact, he refuses to list any songs off the setlist. “If there’s no surprise, then the fact that it’s just 26 songs becomes a countdown,” he says. “There’s no rhythm.”
We’re talking over the phone while he packs his suitcase. So far he has a few books, several outfits, and a 10-year-old wooden metronome stuffed in there. “That’s all I need,” he says, explaining the metronome is pertinent for one of the songs. “We’re doing the same set everyday, that way we have some chance of doing them well.”
His eight-string ukulele will bring the obscurities to life, many of which fans have been dying to hear live ever since the Magnetic Fields released their debut LP in 1991. “Since it’s a Stephin Merritt tour and not a Magnetic Fields tour, I don’t feel like I have to play any hits,” he says. “Granted, we haven’t had any hits. I’ve been told that ‘The Book of Love’ went gold in the Netherlands and Belgium. So, in two tiny European countries, I have at least had a hit, so we’re playing it on the tour. It was on Dancing With the Stars in April, so…” He laughs uncomfortably. Fame has never been a dream of his.
After listening off favorites–Dali in Somerville, Weirdo Records in Cambridge, Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square– and talking fondly of past shows, it becomes clear he isn’t too verbose, even if his songs are poignant and colorful. “If the show is done well, I don’t need to talk between songs,” he admits. “If it isn’t, then I’ll turn to the crowd and say, ‘I improvised this song when I was 15 with a tapedeck. Now you will hear it with no editing at all.'” Even over the phone, Merritt takes long pauses, only using whatever words are necessary.
Considering he has a hearing disorder, the unbearable buzzing of hyperacusis, where any sound louder than normal causes pain, makes most of these solo shows painful to play. Even though they practice during soundcheck, the acoustics change dramatically when 500 talking heads fill the room. “Sound people who don’t know us think we’re a rock group, but we’re a folk duo,” he says. “The only way to work around it is to hire a sound person. We didn’t do that and now I feel like an idiot.”
Thankfully the setlist was such a joy to make, working his way through all 26 tracks makes the pain a bit more bearable. “Every time I go on tour, I listen to all of the records I’ve produced and anything I can play on tour,” he says. “I’m really familiar with my entire outfit. Also, it’s fun. It’s a great excuse to take stock.” This is, however, rather rare. Most artists don’t like listening to their own work, especially before each tour. “I would find it horribly depressing if that weren’t the case,” he says. “I always produce my own records and I can imagine that other people who don’t produce their own records have a more ambivalent experience. I gather when Jefferson Airplane heard Surrealistic Pillow, they were horrified by all the reverb that had been slathered onto it, which, for me, makes that album so amazing. It sounds like it was recorded in a nightclub that happens to be at the bottom of the sea. What a magical place for an album to be. When Nico first heard Chelsea Girl, she was horrified that they stuck flutes on it. She said that every stereo should have a “no flutes’ button. I get to produce my own records and that doesn’t happen to me.”
Just because he’s familiar with every single track doesn’t mean he’s more likely to take requests. Merritt needs his lyrics in front of him. Now, if you print out a few copies and place them onstage, you may have more luck. “The single restriction is when we did 69 Love Songs live at the Somerville Theatre,” he says. “The audience applauded for so long that we had to do something, so we did our famous cover of John Cage’s ‘4’ 33″‘.” Of course; this is Stephin Merritt. Any other response to nonstop praise would have been out of the ordinary for an already unordinary man.