World Cafe

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The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields is just one of a few outlets for frontman Stephen Merritt’s inspired songwriting. The indie-pop outfit recorded six eclectic albums starting in 1993, only breaking into mainstream recognition with 1999’s three-disc 69 Love Songs. 

Merrit focused on various side projects until 2004’s i, which did not include any synths. This trend was to continue with 2008’s guitar-heavy collection Distortion and then again with Realism, released in 2010. NPR’s Stephen Thompson called The Magnetic Fields “an uncommon chronicler of the most common and universal events life has to offer” in his review of the band’s recent set at this year’s SXSW. Merrit has developed a large fan base with lyrics that are both clever and full of emotion and a deep and resonant voice that fits perfectly with his playful explorations of the dramatic in everyday occurrences.

The Magnetic Fields have returned to their classic synth-pop style with the March 6th release of Love at the Bottom of the Sea, on the Merge record label. The band recently wrapped up a month-long tour of the U.S. that they called Tour at the Bottom of the Sea in April. On this session of World Café, Merrit discusses his relationship with the band. He describes The Magnetic Fields less as his accompanists or collaborators, and more as his musicians. Merritt also talks about the recent U.S. tour and the band’s upcoming tour schedule of Europe and his personal distaste for touring in general. Shedding light on his songwriting process, Merrit illustrates his choice of gay bars for the “dimly lit atmosphere surrounded by disco music and drunks”.


Set List:
I DIE                             


Recent Release: Love At the Bottom of the Sea   
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Label:  Merge Records
Band Origin:

by Stephen Thompson

Those seeking pin-drop silence at SXSW usually have to reserve time in a sensory-deprivation chamber or a hotel bathroom, but The Magnetic Fields' hold on a live crowd is powerful enough to yield that rarest of sounds. Headlining NPR Music's SXSW day party — held Thursday at The Parish in Austin, Texas — the long-running band gave its first SXSW performance (that's first-ever, not just this year) with a set as subdued as it was warmly beautiful.

The Magnetic Fields' new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, is a charming set of witty trifles: synth-driven two-minute odes to doomed romances and small moments. But for this show, the band unplugged to a remarkable degree, complete with stand-up bass and acoustic guitars. Naturally, the new songs still shimmered and shone without the electronics, but The Magnetic Fields didn't skimp on the classics, either: "There'll Be Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old," "The Book of Love" and "It's Only Time" stood out among many highlights — as deadpan as they were poignant and fundamentally kind in spirit.

Of course, no one does kind, deadpan poignancy better than Stephin Merritt — even the banter between Merritt and Claudia Gonson teetered on the line between sweetness and hilarity. "I think all the songs in our set today are about unrequited love, or death, or both," Merritt said late in the show, and damned if he didn't have himself pegged. Which, in turn, makes The Magnetic Fields an uncommon chronicler of the most common and universal events life has to offer.

Magnetic Fields is the music of Stephin Merritt, a songwriter, producer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist based in New York City. Merritt began recording music on a four-track machine at a young age but didn't release any records until he was in his twenties. Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus, issued in 1991 and 1992 respectively, were his first two albums and featured vocals by singer Susan Anway.  Following those two records, however, Merritt assumed lead vocal duties for the band.  Between 1993 and 1999, Merritt released six full-length albums as Magnetic Fields that varied greatly in style from electro-country to euro-pop and even cabaret.  The 3-disc set of 69 Love Songs, which came out in 1999, enjoyed commercial success worldwide and brought him into the mainstream.  In addition to the Magnetic Fields, Merritt also contributed to several side projects and soundtracks throughout the 90s and early 00s and finally returned to the Magnetic Fields in 2004 with i, a collection of titles all beginning with the letter.  The guitar-centric Distortion arrived in 2008, followed by Realism in 2010.  Merritt's most recent album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, was released on March 6, 2012 on the label Merge and featured a return to his classic synth-pop style.