Stephin Merritt and Gail O'Hara

As the Magnetic Fields documentary hits theaters, its director and star discuss their previous life at TONY.

OUR BACK PAGES Former TONY Music editor Gail O'Hara (pictured picture) codirected Strange Powers, a new film about Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.

OUR BACK PAGES Former TONY Music editor Gail O'Hara (pictured picture) codirected Strange Powers, a new film about Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.

Midway through Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, an unlikely talking head appears: Gail O'Hara who, with Kerthy Fix, codirected the documentary. Onscreen, the director discusses the time she spent working with Merritt at Time Out New York, where in the '90s, O'Hara served as Music editor and the songwriter labored as a highly opinionated music critic and copy editor. ("He was very indignant when he found mistakes," former TONY editor Cyndi Stivers contends in the film.) O'Hara now lives in Portland, Oregon, while Merritt—his journalism days largely behind him—is based in both Manhattan and Los Angeles. When the two were in New York earlier this year, the director and her subject met with TONY to discuss their time working at the magazine, as well as Strange Powers—which opens at Film Forum this week.

When did you meet?
Stephin Merritt: In '93. I was still living in Boston.
Gail O'Hara: When Stephin moved to New York, Claudia [Gonson, Magnetic Fields member and manager] started calling me, 30 times a day, to get people's phone numbers. She was wheeling and dealing. Stephin started working with me at Spin as a copy editor.

What qualified you to do that?
I was a good speller. It was a highly comical job. Particularly reading William Vollmann's articles and being told that under no circumstances could anything be changed. Ignore all typos. If a paragraph cuts off in the middle of a word, that's fine.
O'Hara: Time Out launched the summer of '95. We worked on the first issue. Stephin was actually responsible for creating the uniform subway listings in the magazine. Remember?
Merritt: I actually was thinking about this a few days ago. I lived in the East Village, where there was no subway access, so I really didn't take the subway. When I looked at the subway directions, it would say "A, C, E, 1, 2, 3, 9, Q, R, J, M, Z." I would say, "These are all in the wrong order! I'm gonna make it say, 'A, B, C, D, E, F, 1, 2, 3, 7, 9.'" Fortunately, somebody else realized how the subway worked.

Stephin, you interviewed tons of people for Time Out. Who stands out?
Diamanda Gals, Blondie, Robin Gibb, Nick Cave—he was very nice. I interviewed Rosemary Clooney, who had a Christmas tree in her hotel suite.
O'Hara: I sent Stephin to interview Quentin Crisp, and the recorder didn't work. It would have been a really good interview. If we were able to actually listen to it.
Merritt: Well, Quentin Crisp was inaudible by then—he died two weeks later. I'm sure it was his last interview, but it was ruined.

You're an incredibly prolific songwriter. Did your experience in journalism help with an album like 69 Love Songs?
I haven't had a normal life, in that I've only had journalism as a job. So if I think of a "real job," I think of journalism—which almost no one else in the world thinks of as a real job. For me, working behind a desk is done reviewing vegan restaurants and minigolf courses. I learned about deadlines as a journalist, not as a musician. I was able to take the concept of a deadline and make it into 69 Love Songs—which couldn't have existed without my timetable, which was that I was going to take exactly a year to make it.

Gail, how did you go from magazine editing to codirecting this documentary?
I got a camera. It was around the time that 69 Love Songs came out, and there was all kind of stuff happening that I wanted to document. It took a long time to get to the point where we figured out what to do with the footage. There was a lot I wanted to show in the film, like the working relationship of Stephin and Claudia, which is fascinating.

What do you think of the movie, Stephin?
For me, the movie is terrible, because from the start, it's everything I already know. It's all about me and my friends.
O'Hara: Can we use that on the poster?

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields opens at Film Forum Wed 27. "All Our Friends Are in New York," a Magnetic Fields photography show, opens at Other Music Oct 28.