There's a case for saying that The Magnetic Fields is probably the best band most people have never heard of. Led by acclaimed singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, the band that have crossed genres like a drunken jaywalker are coming to the Southbank Centre next monthand we managed to get a transatlantic word in edgeways with Merritt, renowned for being one of the greatest songwriters not pushing up daisies, as well as one of the music world's most difficult people to interview.
Let's back up a step. The quirkier-than-thou indie popsters have kept a stubbornly low profile since they released their magnum opus 69 Love Songs in 1999. Selling over 130,000 copies, it spanned three CDs and the musicians included a magna cum laude from Harvard on rock cello and bestselling author Lemony Snicket on keyboards. The unusual front pairing of Merritt - a gay, introverted and staggeringly intelligent recluse - and his co-vocalist and muse Claudia Gonson, a lesbian pianist who has been the band's manager for the last the decades, is a beguiling one.
LA-based Merritt himself rarely hits the headlines and, when he lived in New York, preferred to record albums in his own apartment yet has the respect of many artists: at a past London show, The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, St Etienne's Sarah Cracknell and Marc Almond came on stage for one duet with Merritt each. He has an appreciation for almost all genres of music except, notably, modern hip-hop - something that led some excitable American music writers to label him a racist, a charge which he himself apparently levelled last week at fans of Adele.
Oh, and if you're wondering just how difficult he is to interview, here's how MTV described the process: "Interviewing Merritt is like trying to get car keys from a guy who’s been drinking since noon. Walk up to a stranger on a city subway, stand uncomfortably close and ask if he’s been circumcised, and you’ll get roughly the same reaction as asking Merritt about his creative process."
Take it away, Stephin...
Well, the inspiration for "All the Umbrellas in London" was...it was raining. REALLY raining.
"Swinging London" was suggested by the line in Blow-Up when David Hemmings tells his manager, "I'm going off London," or words to that effect. It seemed such a strange idiom, and I've never heard it elsewhere.
You came to London as a child with your mother — what are your abiding memories of the city?
I was a teenager. It was the summer of the New Romantics, exactly the moment in history when I would most love to have gone clubbing, and I was there but I didn't know I was old enough to get into the clubs (but not to drink). I was propositioned in the subway, though. A strange man asked if I'd like to go home with him. Wish I'd gone, I could've learned something (see above). Oh well.
You have lived in NY and LA. Would you ever relocate to London?
Show me the money.
Would you ever date a Londoner?
Not only would I date a Londoner, I would happily date a good quarter of the population. But I'm too short, and too Irish-looking.
The Magnetic Fields have played in a variety of venues across London from the rock-orientated Shepherd's Bush to the classical music haven that is Cadogan Hall. Which London location would they love to play in?
We're trying to play every venue in town without repeating any. Back to Blow-Up, I want to play at the tiny hidden club where the Yardbirds are playing.
When you come to London, where do you hang out? Is there anything you look forward to doing in London?
I never have any time till night, so all I do is go to gay bars in Soho. I am often found at 79 CXR, because it's open late, or at the King's Arms, which is the closest thing to my New York local bar, Ty's.
The Magnetic Fields will be playing at the Royal Festival Hall on 25 April. Tickets are £20-£25. Merritt-worshippers should book tickets on the starboard side of the auditorium as we suspect he will be seated, due to his medical condition, on that side of the stage.
Here's Merritt in action playing with Moby, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer on the Rocky Horror Picture Show opener, Science Fiction/Double Feature: