Songwriter’s best friend: a portrait of the smallest and quietest (well, perhaps not as quiet as Sam and John) member of the Magnetic Fields
Irving Berlin Merritt was a wee six-month-old pup back in 1999 when the Magnetic Fields’ epic triple album 69 Love Songs was released and when we started filming. In those days songwriter Stephin Merritt would carry Irving everywhere with him in a red felt tote bag. Merritt kept him in the bag during a meal in Boston once (around the time he was in this photo), feeding Irving barbecued ribs one by one, while Irv never let out a single peep that would alert restaurant staff and have us all removed. I spent some time backstage with Irving at the Middle East in Boston — not a very charming room. If I let Irving alone back there, he would bark loud enough to disrupt the whole show (why we didn’t leave him back at Chris Ewen’s Cambridge apartment with other chihuahuas I will never know; oh yes, it was because Stephin wanted to bring him to the show). Luckily Claudia’s sister JJ came to my relief so I didn’t have to spend the entire evening *not* watching the show.
Back in New York, Irving accompanied Stephin most everywhere. He could be seen at Dick’s Bar (where, as Stephin points out in Strange Powers, half of 69 Love Songs was written) barking at most everyone who came in (especially gents in hats and those with beards) and listening to the new wave jukebox or watching Xanadu (or porn) with the rest of the gay men. He could be seen at chickfactor parties at Fez — I remember watching Irving lick the plate on which a “Sorbet Sampler” (a typical Merritt dish) had been served and praying that the health department would not close down the venue. Irving came with Stephin, in the bag, to a Tibetan restaurant in the East Village once but was discovered and asked to leave well before mealtime commenced. And he spent many hours at St. Dymphna’s, the Irish bar where Merritt used to meet with Daniel Handler to brainstorm over pots of green tea and full Irish breakfast (mostly consumed by, yes, you guessed it, the wee Irving).
Irving was one of those chihuahuas who probably needed to get out and race around like a madman, to get those ya-yas out, which is hard to do in Manhattan (though in recent years he had a yard, where Irving got to spend much time chewing on his chicken). He also loved riding around in the Mini Cooper. How Stephin has managed to do so much recording in his apartments and houses without having Irving disrupt the proceedings is a mystery. One has to wonder if Irving could hear at all, after all the gay bar crowd noise and soundcheck shenanigans he has been exposed to. He was Stephin’s primary companion for the past 14 years and will be missed, especially by those who knew him over time.
Irving Berlin Merritt passed away August 2013. RIP little buddy.
Beautiful collection of writing about Paul Kelly’s films and poster available for you collector nerds!
Edited by S.S. Sandhu, Nothing’s Too Good For The Common People: The Films of Paul Kelly is a very limited-edition Risograph book – published by Texte und Töne in collaboration with the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture – to mark the first ever retrospective of Kelly’s work, held in association with chickfactor magazine, in New York, June 2013. The book was designed by Rob Carmichael, SEEN and was printed by Keegan Cooke at Circadian Press.
Contributors include: Jon Dale, Travis Elborough, Alistair Fitchett, Dan Fox, Joe Kerr, Stephin Merritt, Jude Rogers, Sukhdev Sandhu, Peter Terzian.
The book comes with a free poster and a postcard-pack of all five of Paul Kelly’s films. Ten random copies of the book will also come with signed (by Kelly and Debsey Wykes) copies of Birdie’s out-of-print Folk Singer 7-inch single.
Initial copies of the book and poster have been signed by Kelly. Price: $30 (inc. postage).
Additionally, for $35 (inc. postage): all of the above, plus – sent separately sent in a cardboard tube – a signed print of the event poster.
The print is also available for sale separately for $10 (inc. postage).
PURCHASE VIA PAYPAL
Buy Book ($30) incl. poster and postcards
Buy Book and Event Print ($35) incl. poster and postcards
Buy Event Print Only ($10)
Comments OffPosted 05 Jul 2013 — by gail
it is no secret over here at CFHQ that we dig the jim ruiz set (and the legendary jim ruiz group before it). they’ve been playing at CF events since back in the 1990s, and pam berry had the good sense to interview them back in chickfactor #9. ruiz & co. recently released a fan-fricking-tastic (third album finally) album called mount curve avenue (the compact disc and “digital files” came out on allen clapp’s mystery lawn music label and korda records), and we are excited to tell the world the latest news about that record: jim ruiz set has teamed up with portland, oregon’s ace shelflife record company to put mount curve avenue out on light-blue vinyl! we cannot wait to get our chocolate-smudged fingers on a copy. read more over on the jim ruiz blog and preorder your light-blue vinyl copy right here. the interview that follows was conducted by allen clapp to run in advance of chickfactor 21 last month, but the lazy editor didn’t get it posted in time. enjoy!
chickfactor: jim, you’ve always had a unique blend of melancholy and humor in your songwriting (you even referred to your uncle as being something of a mexican woody allen in one of your songs). who are some other songwriters past or present who can do that thing you do?
jim ruiz: thanks, that’s very kind. I think you could probably trace it back to 1989 and listening to the jazz butcher sing “girlfriend,” “only a rumor” or max eider sing “D.R.I.N.K.” you don’t know whether to laugh or cry and maybe you just do both. they were able to be able to be incredibly funny but never cross into the realm of novelty. I suppose loudon wainright III does kind of the same thing. there’s no reason depressing confessional lyrics need to be so serious.
over the course of your three recorded albums, you cover a lot of musical ground, but there seem to be a few kinds of songs to which you gravitate: transportation songs, songs that mention or reference your musical heroes, and self-referential songs that look back on an earlier time in your life. is this coincidental, or are those the things that most occupy the mind of the legendary jim ruiz?
I don’t know what you’re talking about. okay, you’re on to me. I honestly didn’t think anyone would notice that! true, perhaps more than most people, I go back to the well. in my defense, I do tend to stop at three. for instance, “groningen,” “minneapolis,” and “mij amsterdam.” there were no city songs on this record (mount curve avenue), but if you got a good thing going, why not! who would have wanted to hear tony bennett follow up “I left my heart in san francisco” with “I’ll see you in oakland – next time!” and “down and out in redwood city?” I would have!
you’ve always been more of a mod than a rocker. is it easier to be a mod in 2013 than it was in the mid 1990s?
no, it’s easier to be a mod when you’re in you’re late teens or early 20’s, no matter what year it is. even bradley wiggins (winner of last year’s tour de france) seems just too old to pull off the mod look. at some point you reach the “aging mod dude” status. of course when I look in the mirror I think “hey mod!” but luckily people around here just look at me and think “preppy.”
last time I saw you, I noticed your volkswagen vanagon had a decidedly non-stock color scheme. would you care to describe this? how many paint jobs has your famous van had during its lifetime?
the vanagon has only had two paint schemes but many brush coats. as you probably know, car rust is an inevitable fact of life in minnesota. luckily as a child I painted many model airplanes, mostly from WWII. I didn’t suspect I would later use that skill on my car, the transition was a natural and easy one.
what’s the best thing about playing a chickfactor show?
just being asked kind of blows my mind. in london gail bestowed on us the title of “chickfactor band.” it wasn’t a public ceremony, and it didn’t come with a little statue, but it’s a moment I’ll never forget and will always treasure.
order your copy of the latest jim ruiz set LP (well, yes, on vinyl, silly, right here!)
photograph courtesy of the young mr. ruiz.
Comments OffPosted 22 Jun 2013 — by gail
ultimate jazz butcher fan jim ruiz happened to be in new york city when the jazz butcher played at spike hill, brooklyn, on sunday, june 15, 2013! here is his review of the show.
it was a beautiful, still night in brooklyn when this fledgling music critic and his wife made their way to spike hill in williamsburg. after a car journey of about 1200 miles, from minnesota, the last 5 were covered on bicycles thanks to the new bike share citi bikes, which were located near our departure and destination points.
spike hill is a smallish venue with brick walls and a full bar and restaurant next door. while waiting for the show to begin in side bar, I was introduced, for the first time, to JBC sideman max eider, coincidentally my favorite living guitar player. luckily, I didn’t stutter and max graciously excused himself as the duo, dressed in suits which could loosely be described as “english,” was about to take the stage. I made my way to the front of the room and the show began.
it began with an oldie, “holiday,” as in english speaking gentleman on…. although odd to hear without the typewriter rhythm behind it, obviously a good one to warm up with, I remember thinking while watching max, “hey, I could play that!” that thought was a fleeting one as the set began in earnest.
this is as good a point as any to give my impression of pat fish, a.k.a. the butcher or just butchie to his friends. clearly enjoying himself, he was seated on a low chair playing a borrowed ovation acoustic guitar. a better frontman they simply do not make as he put the crowd, and just as importantly max, at ease with his pithy and hilarious banter. for instance, coming to max’s rescue later in the set when max sang the wrong first verse to his own composition “who loves you now?” with a comment to the effect that he (pat) was always the one to mess up. on another occasion telling the crowd if they wanted to sing along with a chorus – “please don’t.”
the set was front-loaded with songs off the new album, the last of the gentleman adventurers, kicking off with the title track. these new songs too benefited from brief intros from pat as when he revealed later in the set that the song “shame about you” was inspired by involuntarily uttering the phrase after seeing himself in the mirror one day, and when the identity of “black raoul” was definitively revealed to be his cat. the crowd, less familiar with these new songs, waited patiently, but with rapt attention, for the fun to really begin, and they weren’t disappointed.
the set then moved into what could be described as the glass era, the peak years of pat and max’s collaboration together. the first one, “southern mark smith” caused me to sing, a little too loudly, along with the line “I’ve found out already what makes my heart sing!” much to the irritation of nearby revelers.
then came max’s own tour de force, the aforementioned “who loves you now?” before the song began, max made reference onstage to an interview I conducted with him where it was revealed to the world, and remembered by himself, that wes montgomery’s version of “polka dots and moonbeams” was his inspiration for the song.
I asked myself, “how can my life get any better than this?”
after a rousing “girlfriend” came the sublime “betty page,” with max’s virtuosity, now in fifth gear, on display for all to hear. after a brief return to the new album for “shame about you,” max lent his hand to “shirley macLaine,” a post collaboration song from the 1991 album condition blue. the favor was soon to be returned.
the set had seemed to last for about 15 minutes when eider walked, a little mysteriously, off the front of the stage, as there was no backstage option. fish, looking perhaps for the first time a little unsure what to do, just stayed on stage as the crowd, almost better described as an unruly mob, demanded more.
the butcher graciously put max back in the spotlight for the closing two numbers, “partytime” with its genre-defining major 7 chords and the best guitar solo of the ’80s and “drink”—max’s own song, effectively giving the sideman the last word.
like love, perhaps musical collaborations are lovelier the second time around. If that is the case, and it appears to be, the future looks bright for jazz butcher fans such as myself. I only wish you could have been there.
postscript – for guitar players (nerds) only after the show I asked max way too many questions the first one being, naturally, what kind of guitar were you playing? “a gretsch” was his answer. when pressed for a little more information he told me it was a “double” anniversary. favored more by country players than jazzbos. the “double” anniversary features hi-lo-tron single coil pickups.
as I was standing near the stage I can attest to the fact that max plugged directly into a fender deville 4 x 10 amp. fiddling with a couple of the knobs during the show. the chorus effect made no appearance, apparently banished to a bygone era.
Comments OffPosted 08 Jun 2013 — by gail
updated lineup for chickfactor 21 at the bell house in brooklyn! if you didn’t hear the bummer news about the pastels, please scroll down on cf.com for details.
tuesday, june 11 at 8pm sharp:
special guest Tae Won Yu (Kicking Giant)
Rose Melberg (Softies, Tiger Trap, etc!)
Versus (three Baluyuts and a Fontaine!)
The Cannanes (from Australia! Only US show)
Lilys (full noisy action)
with MC Dan Searing
wednesday, june 12 at 8pm sharp:
True Love Always (Teenbeat, first show in ages!)
The Aluminum Group (first show in ages!)
special guest Imaginary Pants (featuring Rose Melberg)
Future Bible Heroes (first show in 11 years, since CF10 shows)
HoneyBunch (original lineup!)
with MC Gaylord Fields
thursday, june 13 at 8pm sharp:
special guest Richard Davies (Moles, Cardinal, Fire Records)
Lois (with Stephen Immerwahr & Brendan Canty!)
Joe Pernice (Pernice Brothers, Scud Mountain Boys, New Mendicants)
Jim Ruiz Set (from Minneapolis! ace new LP out)
Dump (featuring James McNew, who is in Yo La Tengo!)
with MC Sukhdev Sandhu
New poster coming soon! + Lots of fun merch + Foxiest audience ever + No cell phones in the performance area! + Music by Gaylord of WFMU
Comments OffPosted 07 Jun 2013 — by gail
we couldn’t be more excited to announce some good news: one of chickfactor’s top songwriters ever, joe pernice (pernice brothers, scud mountain boys, new mendicants), will be added to thursday night’s bill at chickfactor 21 with dump, lois and the jim ruiz set.
we are also thrilled to announce several of our guests: rose melberg’s band imaginary pants + tae won yu (kicking giant) will both be playing sets at cf21. each night starts right at 8pm so get there early!
photograph by chris barany.
Comments OffPosted 27 May 2013 — by gail
future bible heroes is a songwriting collaboration between stephin merritt and christopher ewen (figures on a beach, the hiddle variable, famous boston DJ) with vocals from claudia gonson and merritt. in addition to reissuing their earlier recordings, they’re about to release their first album in 11 years, titled partygoing, and it’s effing ace (as good as their debut, memories of love). they will play chickfactor 21 on june 12 along with the aluminum group, honeybunch and true love always, mc gaylord fields and special guests. stephin will not perform due to ear issues; the live lineup will feature gonson, ewen, magnetic fields singer shirley simms and anthony kaczynski (figures on a beach). see you at bell house!
I did this interview to write their bio for merge records, but I wanted to print it here. I interviewed them back in chickfactor 11 also! interview by gail
chickfactor: the previous FBH album came out in 2002. now it’s 2013. have you been working on it for 11 years or did you begin more recently? what took so long?
stephin: since 2002 I’ve made four stage musicals and four magnetic fields albums, a gothic archies album and a through-sung live score to a silent film. but in fact chris and I have been working on FBH too, and parts of the songs “when evening falls on tinseltown” and “a drink is just the thing” are quite old. the first describes my experience of living in los angeles—and leaving it, which I did while recording partygoing; the second describes solving all your problems with alcohol, which I don’t do much anymore either. writing true and heartfelt lyrics is pointless because once you get around to singing them, they’re lies.
cf: do you feel freer and more playful making FBH music because it’s not your “day job”? your singing—especially on “how very strange” and “drink nothing but champagne”—is very funny.
stephin: thank you. I had other funny voices that didn’t make it onto the record, but they should be available as either bonus tracks or blackmail fodder. after singing exactly like angela lansbury on “mr. punch,” claudia has retired her stage-cockney voice, but I hope she changes her mind for the concerts. I want to see that.
cf: do you know when you write a song whether it will be for FBH, TMF or something else?
stephin: I only write FBH songs to chris’s instrumental songs (which are often perfectly listenable and finished before I get them), so I always know whose song I’m writing. I don’t always know what album I’m writing for, though: this album has less science fiction than before, but I had dozens of half-finished songs in that j.g. ballard universe mapped so much better by gary numan and john foxx.
cf: was there a theme for this record? I know it’s called partygoing but it seems like aging, rejection, death and austerity are recurring themes.
stephin: write what you know (as they tell you in school, when you don’t know anything yet). those happen to be the themes of most of my work, I’m happy to report. aging is a great theme for any writer, because one never runs out of material, and everyone over 12 is obsessed with it.
cf: do you have a different lyrical approach for FBH than for TMF?
stephin: other than a tendency toward science fiction, which sort of matches the “futuristic” synthesizers, I’m not aware of any difference. I’m still just sitting around in bars with a song in my head, rhyming “arcade” and ”rodomontade.”
cf: how has FBH’s recording process changed since the previous releases?
stephin: for partygoing I encouraged chris to let me do more of the work, and just give me skeletal fragments, and then we could toss them back and forth as though we were playing a “sport” of some kind. and I did some remixing, not like junior vasquez, but like me, and the results sound a bit more like me than chris sometimes. which some will hate of course.
cf: are there any ’80s-sounding new bands that you’re fond of? contemporary acts?
stephin: the “electroclash” moment came and went without anyone ever contacting us about it, but I always quite liked ladytron, miss kittin, robyn, peaches, goldfrapp and their imitators. they’re all women. what can I say, I’m a gay man, I cried in public when donna summer died. my favorite country song of the last ten years is “you and I” by lady gaga (closely followed by trailer choir’s “rockin’ the beer gut,” a major feminist accomplishment which could never have been in the country charts I grew up on). our roots are in new wave.
cf: you seem to be able to get away with writing about anything as a lyricist. has anyone ever been offended by something you wrote? whose lyrics inspire you?
stephin: when the new york times trashed my first chinese opera adaptation, the reviewer was shocked that I used the word “fucking” in a song, and implied that it indicated a lack of seriousness on my part. now, on my planet, any medium that can’t use the word “fucking” is aimed at pre-school american children, a demographic not known for its patronage of opera, chinese or no. I’ve been listening to nothing but felt recently.
cf: any plans for the 6ths, the gothic archies, TMF? theater and film?
stephin: I’m writing a lot these days for all of the above, but nothing I can talk about yet.
cf: how does recording for FBH differ from working on TMF records?
claudia: chris first composes lots of sonic ideas, like dozens of them, and sends them to stephin. then, stephin makes melody lines over some of them, and decides which are the ones he wants to use for the album. the process goes back and forth. sometimes chris adjusts the pitch or tempo or adds a new section to accommodate the melody stephin has written. once the songs are written, we record lead vocals and harmonies, and a few more instruments.
cf: you sing on partygoing—do you contribute any other sounds / ideas?
claudia: on one song, there is a musique concrète solo. each member was instructed to go out and do field recordings of various ambient sounds, and stephin and his engineer charles knitted together all these sounds to make the solo. on other songs too, stephin added a few other instrumental lines. but the instrumental backing tracks, for the most part, are chris’s work.
cf: why do FBH play live so rarely?
claudia: we put out albums so rarely, that we didn’t have much occasion to tour. we did tour a bit after the first two albums, but back then it was incredibly difficult to get a stage set up with all those enormous bulky synths. we may do some shows for this album release, but the issue will revolve around the opposite problem, how to perform live in an interesting way without just hitting a button on a computer.
cf: do you feel freer and more playful making FBH music because it’s not your “day job”?
claudia: as the band’s manager, I can certainly say yes. but I also feel this way about playing with the magnetic fields. I enjoy my creative role with the band, since most of my time is spent wrangling over deals and contracts.
cf: who is pretending to be david bowie?
cf: is the FBH fan different from the TMF fan?
claudia: I think we have a lot of crossover but I have discovered that people, like my daughter and my parents, really enjoy FBH, because it’s got a synth-based sound and catchy beats. It’s very accessible to the disco set.
cf: how do you feel this album compares with the previous releases?
claudia: I really like the album. stephin and chris wrote some exceptional songs. it’s a bit depressing, lots of songs about suicide, and a nostalgic yearning for youth and happiness. but I think most of the FBH albums are like that.
cf: can we expect another FBH album in 2024?
claudia: hope so!
cf: the previous FBH album came out in 2002. now it’s 2013. what took so long? have you been working on it for 11 years or did you begin more recently?
chris: we began more recently. part of the reason it took so long is that stephin is obviously involved with a lot of other musical projects. another is that—since we all live in different cities, especially when stephin was living in los angeles—it was a bit more of a challenge for us to coordinate everything. back when we were recording eternal youth, we were both experimenting with different recording technologies, and successfully integrating them was somewhat of a hurdle. technology has finally caught up with what we want to do, so it seemed like the right time to collaborate again. I started coming up with some new ideas for FBH towards the end of 2009. a couple of TMF albums happened between then and now, so 2013 has turned out to be the year we’re releasing a new album.
cf: there are a lot of modern-day new bands that try to sound 1980s. are there any that match up to those from the original decade?
chris: when we released memories of love back in 1997, I was very surprised that the american press were quick to dub us an ’80s “new wave” band. it wasn’t our intention to be classified that way, and it certainly wasn’t what was in my head as we were writing and recording the album. I think that happened because we used a lot of synthesizers, which wasn’t very much in fashion back then. the times seem to have changed, and synthesizers are back in vogue, but this time around we didn’t make a conscious decision to make a blatantly new wave revival record either. however, we did use a lot of synths. ¶ one of the things that continues to attract me to a lot of music that came out in the ’80s is that it sounded like itself. it was new, fresh and surprising at the time…some of it still sounds that way. musical approaches and points of reference were blurred or sometimes completely obliterated. these days, it’s pretty easy for me to pick out what ’80s band influenced the sound of any particular new band, so the element of wonder is I experience listening to them isn’t as apparent. that said, I’m currently really enjoying the most recent albums by the soft moon, the knife / fever ray, freezepop, yan wagner and the horrors, to name a few.
cf: what kind of changes in technology have had an effect on the way FBH works?
chris: when we recorded our first two albums, we used our phones and the mail a lot, and sent things to each other on cassette or DAT. or we had to be in the same city. these days, it’s a lot easier for us to send music & ideas back and forth and develop them more fully. my studio set-up now is a lot more conducive to multi-track recording, and I’m not a slave to MIDI anymore. overall, the ways we work together have become much more flexible.
cf: there are scant details on the two first FBH albums about the “sounds” you make. can you share more info here and do SM / CG contribute to the music also?
chris: on those first two albums, I would basically come up with some song idea, and record all or most of the instruments at my studio in boston, usually MIDI sequences driven by a hardware sequencer live to two track. stephin would then get these fully formed instrumental tracks and have to write the lyrics and vocal melodies either around what I had come up with, or complementing it in some way. It became a process unto itself, as the instrumental tracks were already fully mixed, and any changes would mean lots of editing and completely re-recording the track on my end, or completely rewriting the lyrics on his. as far as the sounds go, I enjoy experimenting in my studio, and am quite content to just play around with sound manipulation. some songs came about because of a certain sound I was happy with…a full track could be inspired by something very simple. I also like to write at a piano, and then arrange those pieces for a fuller instrumentation. on the first couple of albums, since the music was already pretty much finished by the time stephin got the tracks, he & claudia would come up with elaborate backing vocal tracks, and in a few instances, stephin would add a lead instrument. these days, we have a lot more options.
cf: the house of tomorrow site says: “future bible heroes are a songwriting collaboration between stephin merritt (words and melodies) and chris ewen (instruments).” can you clarify your roles?
chris: nowadays we are much more of an integrated collaboration, and there isn’t one particular way a song will develop. “living, loving, partygoing” began as an idea stephin sang into my voicemail one night. “love is a luxury” began with the lyrics. as far as the tracks I instigated go, I made a point of sending stephin a lot of demos or song sketches, which I’d then develop more fully as necessary. this time around, we were able to write songs together using different approaches, and were able to arrange them along the way.
cf: whose music gives you inspiration?
chris: I love producers who love experimenting in the studio…conny plank, martin hannett, joe meek, lindsey buckingham. I continue to admire the magnetic fields of course, all of yellow magic orchestra, abba, brian eno, the gentlemen in cluster (or now, qluster), vince clarke, the throbbing gristle family, the human league and a lot of french and german synth-pop. recent inspirations include laurie spiegel’s the expanding universe re-issue, and everything john foxx has been doing lately.
cf: how long have you known stephin and claudia? how have they changed?
chris: we go back a while… we met around 1987 or 1988 I think, during the buffalo rome days. it’s hard to pinpoint exact changes—we’ve remained good friends over the years and through many scenarios, which means that they continue to possess the qualities that drew us together in the first place. claudia has become more self-assured. stephin’s become a more social creature. I think we’ve all grown up, which is probably something I’ve needed to do.
cf: are you involved in other musical projects these days?
chris: I’ve decided to completely revamp a project I started a few years ago called the hidden variable. It was a collaboration I instigated with several dark fiction authors, whose lyrics I set to music. besides a song I wrote with neil gaiman that claudia sings on, and one with gahan wilson that cosey fanni tutti sings, I’m planning on re-recording the entire album. there may also be the possibility of some instrumental solo material, and I’ll continue to come up with new ideas for FBH, in case we feel the urge to record a new album at some point.
classic east village mid-’90s photo by gail o’hara. please do not use.