Q&A: Stephin Merritt On His Favorite Gear, His Reasons For The No-Synth Trilogy, And Being Scooped By Trent Reznor

The Magnetic Fields' new album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea (Merge) is the first in more than a decade to feature the shimmering synthesizer lines for which the endlessly malleable indiepop icons first became known. As I learned when writing this week's Voice profile of Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephin Merritt, he loves talking about the gear that helps him command those sounds—he gets downright giddy, which is both unexpected (given his cantankerous reputation) and endearing.

Below is a gear-centric excerpt from our conversation, which took place at an old-timey Greenwich Village restaurant that uses real anchovies in its Caesar salad, and where the waitress brought him his pasta before he even cracked open a menu.

How did the no-synth trilogy come about?

I was bored with the use of synthesizers. I grew up with synthesizers denoting futurism and an either dystopian or utopian worldview, and it seemed like by the end of the 20th century synthesizers sounded retro and actually denoted the early '80s. Because nothing happened in synthesizers in the intervening time, so they were being used, essentially, as electric organs. (Pause) And often, actually, instead of using actual synthesizers people were using samples of synthesizers, which just made it sound the same, only more boring. I think samples are useful, but terribly, terribly overused right now. And, certainly in 1999 they were. So I wanted to wait until something new happened in the technology. And as it turns out, a lot new has happened, fortunately for me. Buchla, the manufacturer, has come out with a module called The Source of Uncertainty which allows you to control the randomness of voltages in several different, entertaining ways. And there's the Dewantron instruments made by Brian Dewan and his cousin, Leon. They make a beautiful machine that allows you to dial knobs and flick switches and such with no interface that you would play in real time, figuratively. And the Melody Gin. You tell it how to behave and it sort behaves for you, but you can't tell it to play a particular note.

It's not too precise.

Mmmm, yeah, the idea of precision doesn't even come into play. It's...it's very organic in the sense that it tends to sound like crowds of animals or plants doing something. Or, or a Cy Twombly painting rendered into sound.

Are you the type of person who really gets into the gear and figures out what it does, or is it something you use but don't really obsess over?

I try not to be an obsessive collector. I have three Dewanatron instruments, but there's a fourth one that I don't have, and it is replicated by one that I do have. So I go out of my way to remember not to buy the one that doesn't do anything I can't already do with the other three. But it's very pretty and would look really great in my living room. So I'm in between. I have hundreds of instruments at this point.


Many of them are very small. Percussion instruments and such. But of instruments that play notes, I don't know, I probably have under a hundred, but a lot. So I don't know how I could possibly move my studio back to Manhattan. I don't really spend any money except on instruments, so. (Extended pause) I do use them all.

How many ukuleles do you own?

About ten or so.

So, in about ten years you say—

—but they all sound different and they all do different things.

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