Assisted Listen: The Magnetic Fields' 'Distortion' Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields have quietly made some of the most groundbreaking pop music in recent history. LD Beghtol, who sang and played on the Fields' epic 69 Love Songs, presents a guide to the band's new record, Distortion.

Assisted Listen: The Magnetic Fields' 'Distortion'

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(Soundbite of song, "Zombie Boy")

Mr. STEPHIN MERRITT (Songwriter and Lead Singer, Magnetic Fields): (Singing) Two roosters I slew, and with all of my heart, I prayed hard for you in Haiti at night.


The singer we're listening to now, Stephin Merritt, is one of those songwriters who has a lot going on in his professional and intellectual life. He's probably best known as the lead singer of Magnetic Fields whose short, esoteric pop songs reference everything from Busby Berkeley to George Gershwin to zombies. And that's before we even get to his other bands: The Gothic Archies, The 6ths and the Future Bible Heroes. But let's stop before we get too carried away.

We're here to talk about the brand-new Magnetic Fields record, "Distortion." And fortunately, we have a guide, LT Beghtol - LD Beghtol, excuse me. He played on Magnetic Fields' best-known recording, the triple album, "69 Love Songs." He also wrote a book about the making of the record. We sat down in the studio last week to talk about what happens when you cross the pristine, old-fashioned radio pop of a band like Magnetic Fields with waves of "Distortion." And like a good insider, Beghtol started us off with some choice descriptions of Merritt the man.

Mr. LD BEGHTOL (Author, "69 Love Songs: A Field Guide"): Cold and distant and judgmental and disapproving and slow talking. But that's his public persona. He's actually really sweet and funny and loves his dog, Irving Berlin, the Chihuahua, and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEGHTOL: …he's sort of absurdly intelligent and really funny and bizarre.

STEWART: Will I hear all of that about Stephin Merritt in his music?

Mr. BEGHTOL: I think so, because he really - because he's so intelligent and so well read and so interested in such a broad spectrum of things, of course that comes out. Because he'll write songs about zombies and vampires or refer to critical theory that you don't normally get in three-minute pop songs. So the deep literate quality of his being certainly comes across in most of his work.

STEWART: If you had to put this in context for me Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt's contribution to modern music, could you put it in context for me? I mean, for people - they know they haven't heard him on commercial radio for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEGHTOL: Very little. Well, some now. After "69 Love Songs," which came out, I guess, almost 10 years ago, he had this huge surge in popularity. But before that, he was considered this amazingly literate verbal lyricist who also wrote these charming little three-minute pop songs using odd instruments like cello and banjo and ukulele instead of here's my cock-rock guitar kind of solo thing.

So since - that automatically set him apart from the indie rock Nirvana, Pixies kind of what used to be college rock, and then became indie rock. He was always this other thing. And slowly, this audience grew for him and sort of began to accept you can write really great pop songs without necessarily having to have loud guitars or write about heterosexual love affairs or I hate my parents or, gosh, I wish I weren't in school anymore or something like that.

STEWART: You can go for bigger, broader themes, or even deeper. You can dig deeper into one single emotion.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Or just silliness, as opposed to just sex or just social enemy or something like that.

STEWART: The new album is called "Distortion."

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Okay, what is "Distortion"? Would you just help me out with that?

Mr. BEGHTOL: (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: What is the musical definition of distortion?

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well, distortion, of course, is an - a less than optimum presentation of a sound. So if you hear a nice mandolin pluck, it should sound like that. But if it's not recorded correctly or if you've chosen to do something to it, it will make a horrible, discordant, often very resonant, really disturbing sound.

So with guitars, of course, you aim your guitar at the amp and feedback happens because of electromagnetic field and stuff like that, which I'm not a physicist, so I can't really talk about. But that's what happens, and you know it famously from the Velvet Underground or any number of Jimi Hendrix songs or '60s psychedelic stuff. So that's distortion in terms of guitars in rock music.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to a track from the album "Distortion." This is called "Three-Way."

Mr. BEGHTOL: It's about the three-way.

(Soundbite of song, "Three-Way")

STEWART: Because the album is named "Distortion," am I led to believe that every track will use distortion in some way?

Mr. BEGHTOL: Heavily. There's - of course, guitar distortion because easy and fun to do in the studio, but there's also heavily distorted cello. He set up amps and mics. So when the signal is pumped into a room, it would go from a speaker to another speaker, along the way get tremoloed and reverbed and distorted and tweaked out with EQ.

So, of course, on a lot of it, you don't know is that a normal electric guitar, or is this a cello being played strangely? Or is this a piano or a (unintelligible) that's been so heavily distorted and treated that the sound source is obscured, but you have this wall of noise.

STEWART: When is distortion best used? Because I can imagine like any sort of -I don't want to say trick, but any sort of device you can employ, it can be used gratuitously.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Absolutely. And I think to a certain extent, it is used gratuitously on this record as a production device. Because he said, okay, I'm going take these songs and I'm going to make a ton of distortion on them. And I think it works really well on some and less well on others, but he's always - Stephin's always been interested in extreme production techniques, and some of which he just arbitrarily applies. This is going to be the heavily delayed vocal, or this is going to be the - I'm going to reproduce it so lo-fi, it sounds like it's coming out of a transistor radio a hundred yards away, and just different sounds, as opposed to here's a cleanly recorded Stratocaster or here's a perfect piano or here's a mandolin, because we all know what that sound like. So he's interested in exploring other types of sound and recording other types of sounds.

STEWART: Stephin Merritt's used this before, obviously, on other records.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Oh, tons, yeah. Some of his very earliest recordings were done at home. So that's going to be inherent in the sort of lo-fi early recordings, because you just don't get the clarity with them you do from a big studio. And now, obviously, the later stuff - his more recent stuff is recorded in a much better equipped, really hi-fi excellent studio. But then it's a choice, okay, I'll distort this, or I'll bounce it into a room and record it on, you know, this little old-fashioned things we call cassettes.

STEWART: I remember those.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well, if you record something onto that, of course, the sound of the tape colors it, and the tape has some surface noise. So that's also a type of distortion, and he certainly used production techniques like that for years. But the difference, I think, is in the old stuff, it was more a background to the songs. So the foreground of the song would be the vocal, an instrument or two and a percussion track.


Mr. BEGHTOL: So you're hearing a guitar and you're hearing a bass drum or something or a snare and the vocals. But behind that will be this constant roar of distorted guitar that you maybe only hear when the vocal stops or in a break or when it's an instrumental passage and all of a sudden this swelling…

(Soundbite of song, "Alien Being")

STEWART: "Alien Being" is from the EP "House of Tomorrow."

Mr. BEGHTOL: "House of Tomorrow," his best record, I think.

(Soundbite of song "Alien Being")

Mr. MERRITT: (singing) You talk a lot about nothing at all, watch TV shows about nothing at all. You think a lot…

Mr. BEGHTOL: It's a good song, and it has really great drums and this pretty melody, and it's Stephin singing on this one. So you don't kind of notice the distortion, except as a sort of background texture, which is all over almost everything he's ever done.

(Soundbite of song, "Alien Being")

Mr. MERRITT: (singing) I think you are an alien being.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Hear that?

(Soundbite of song, "Alien Being")

STEWART: That's from Magnetic Field's "House of Tomorrow" EP, "Alien Being." When I think about distortion, I immediately think of the band Jesus and Mary Chain. I don't know if I'm tipping my hat at my age, but…

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEGHTOL: I think anybody who is alive in 1985 or '86 and heard that found their life changed and their view of pop music and what was acceptable. It certainly wasn't Hall and Oates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEGHTOL: Although I love Hall and Oates, but…

STEWART: Yeah, I do, too. "Sara, Smile."

Mr. BEGHTOL: Take it - right, of course.

STEWART: Gets me every time. Can you describe for me the difference between the way Jesus and Mary Chain used distortion and the way that Stephin Merritt uses it?

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well, they're very related in the new record, obviously, because his idea for the new record, apparently, was to out Mary Chain and the Mary Chain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEGHTOL: When the Mary Chain record "Psychocandy" came out in 1985, it was totally alien. In fact, it was like music from another world, because here you have this sort of lullaby, pretty Beach Boys pop songs, simple chords - two or three-chord songs with nursery rhyme sort of melodies and simple lyrics, sung emphatically but not screamed by these pale Scottish boys with enormous hair and lipstick and eyeliner and leather motorcycle gear, playing enormously loud amounts of feedback, just waves, symphonic waves, avalanches of feedback over these little pop songs.

(Soundbite of music)

JESUS AND MARY CHAIN (Rock Band): (singing) (unintelligible)

Mr. BEGHTOL: But the way they orchestrated the feedback - and I use that very specifically - it could have been a string arrangement, or it could have been a wind arrangement or something just forced into this sort of atonal squall, but it happens to be guitars because there were 17-year-old kids and that's what they had. So instead of the whole Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground, we're going to play annoying, loud feedback and be aggressive and all this. They opted to go, no. We're going to write pretty little songs and just make them really loud.

(Soundbite of music)

JESUS AND MARY CHAIN (Rock Band): (singing) (unintelligible)

Mr. BEGHTOL: So you have this enormously warm, fuzzy, encompassing sound that was immediately different from any other feedback-based music of the time, I think.

STEWART: We're talking with LD Beghtol, who's played with Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields. And you played on probably his best-known album, "69 Love Songs," and you wrote for that "The Thirty Three and a Third" book series of Beghtol records.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Yeah, that was me, wasn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I think that series is great. I think it's really pretty cool.

Merritt samples from all kinds of pop genres. So what did you learn about his taste from writing about that record?

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well, I think the term Catholic applies to this. After - before making the record, long before that and even after - since then, Stephin and my friend Dudley Klute, who's also on the record, have had endless, I mean, ongoing hour-after-hour sitting in bar and discussions about everything from 1920s Tin Pan Alley, 1890s parlor ballads, which is the first pop music, on up to '60s Psychedelia and French cabaret jazz.

And we all have this deep interest in the '60s, '70s - sort of early '70s psychedelickey produced orchestrated stuff from - the Phil Spector stuff and Beach Boys - Beach Boys are a huge influence - on up to the New Wave, early '80s stuff, which is a huge part of all of our backgrounds, so endless discussions about that. And his knowledge of that is encyclopedic.

STEWART: He writes all the songs for the Magnetic Fields, but uses a lot of different vocalists. We heard his vocals earlier, but he uses women vocalists quite often. Do you need to apply distortion differently when you're using a female vocalist?

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well, sure, because a lot of distortion is going to be in a higher range, pitch-wise. So it has to be cued differently so it'll come out acceptably against a female vocal, which is often in a higher register. Now, Shirley, of course, is an alto - in the alto range, which is a low female voice, which is good because it's also equivalent sort of to a male tenor voice. So it's not high-high, and it's not low like his. But it's this good acceptable pop range of vocals. Of course, she has a beautiful so anything she sings is going to be good.

(Soundbite of music)

MAGNETIC FIELDS (Rock Band): (singing) (unintelligible) the killer queen. (unintelligible) you and me, but there's (unintelligible). If we rock and roll, then maybe you should know I will come home to you.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Her songs are very successful on this record because her voice is so strong and it's in the right place pitch-wise, and emotionally, it has an androgynous quality, which is good.

(Soundbite of music)

MAGNETIC FIELDS: (singing) (unintelligible) I will come home to you.

STEWART: When people listen to the album "Distortion," what do you want them to keep in mind? What should they keep in mind after listening to this record?

Mr. BEGHTOL: Well, it's easy if you're me or someone who's really interested in production to just listen to the production, because, wow, that's some beautiful feedback, and I wonder if that's a cello, or, wow, how did they get the piano to sound like it was underwater?

So if you're savvy to that kind of production or the idea of production and recording, then, of course, you're going to be analytical about it. And that's really fun, too. But unfortunately, most people are not going to have that, and they can just listen to it as pop songs and listen for the fun wordplay that he often does and the beauty of Shirley's voice, which is always important.

STEWART: LD Beghtol, thank you for the guide.

Mr. BEGHTOL: Sure.

(Soundbite of music)

MAGNETIC FIELDS: (singing) (unintelligible) If the music plays, and the (unintelligible), I will come home to you.

STEWART: And we'll have a new cut from LD Beghtol and the new criticism on our blog today, it's called What You Will? Check it out at

I'm Alison Stewart.

GALLIANO: I'm Rico Galliano.

STEWART: Thanks for listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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