Time Out Chicago: The new Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, draws heavily from the Jesus and Mary Chain. You share a lot of influences with that band, particularly Phil Spector.
Stephin Merritt: Yeah—but they would sooner die than be accused of sounding like anything from before 1955. If you said to them, “You really remind me of George Formby,” they would have flicked their cigarettes at you. Whereas I, of course, immediately remind everybody of George Formby.
TOC: You recently moved your studio from New York to L.A. That seems like a very weird mix.
Stephin Merritt: Me in L.A.? Well, L.A. is filled with weird mixes. Eccentricity is a lot more L.A. than New York at this point. I think interesting people can hardly afford New York, but you still see weirdos in Hollywood. Young people, artists and crazy people can afford to live there. My reason for going was that my studio outgrew my apartment—I go back and forth [between cities].
TOC: You used to write for our sister magazine Time Out New York. Any favorite interviews?
Stephin Merritt: Well, I interviewed the Spice Girls at one point, and my tape deck suddenly had a problem. Melanie B, Scary Spice, was an unbelievably horrible bitch about it. [In loud, obnoxious voice] Have you ever interviewed anybody before? Do I really have to sit and listen to you fiddle with your tape deck? [Away from the phone] No, no—I’m recounting my Melanie B experience. Claudia [Gonson, Merritt’s bandmate and manager] came by wondering why I was speaking in a loud, obnoxious voice.
TOC: When you were a little kid, you met John Lennon. What are your memories of that experience?
Stephin Merritt: Yoko had a sculpture show at a museum in Syracuse [New York]. I didn’t meet her, but I met John Lennon. He was carving an ice sculpture in the shape of a T, hammering away with an ice pick. I walked up to him and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m making an ice T.”
TOC: In the last few years, two unlikely artists have recorded songs that sound like you: the Strokes and, to a lesser extent, Bruce Springsteen. Have you heard them?
Stephin Merritt: Yes. I think they’re lovely. I completely agree in the case of the Strokes. I think it sounds like a parody of me, done beautifully—it’s a great melody. [Springsteen’s] “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is just a Phil Spector pastiche done in a style that resembles my Phil Spector pastiche.
TOC: It seems that the more popular you get, the less enthusiastic you are in concert. How much of that is your stage character?
Stephin Merritt: There’s no way in hell my interview character is going to deconstruct my stage character for you.
The Magnetic Fields play six sold-out shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music Friday 14–Sunday 16.