Magnetic Personality 

We chat with Stephin Merritt and Dayna Kurtz, explore the folly of !!! and talk band battles with Thee Lordly Serpents

Stephin Merritt, the man behind the Magnetic Fields (and the 6ths, the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes), is one of the most acclaimed songwriters of his generation. He earned the acclaim with his artistic and critical breakthrough, 1999's triple-CD set 69 Love Songs, which consisted of, yes, 69 Merritt-penned love songs that floated through the ocean of American music, from easy pop to Broadway barnburners to country ditties to love chants to wall-of-sound melodic explosions. The quantity alone was overwhelming -- let alone the quality. Merritt somehow managed to make each perfectly rhymed line shine. His seventh full-length, i, is his first for the prestigious Nonesuch Records (home of Kronos Quartet, David Byrne, Wilco and the Ramayana Monkey Chant record). i consists of a more manageable fourteen songs, each beginning with the letter "i," that boil Merritt's aesthetic down to its essence.

RFT: Was it more gratifying to read praise of your work from, say, Tim Page of the Washington Post or novelist Rick Moody than from some indie-rock kid writing for a zine? Does it make you feel more "accomplished"?

SM: A few days ago I got an e-mail saying that Tim Page had been on NPR proposing that I be given a Pulitzer Prize. Indie-rock zines don't say that. So yeah, it does. And also, Rick Moody's article in the Believer was obviously a very prestigious outlet, and they don't usually write ten-page essays about me in indie-rock zines.

That's gotta be an ego stroke.

Well, actually, I so strongly disagreed with what Rick was saying that I was kind of insulted. But I like him. He's opened for us several times. We're vaguely friends, which I don't think he mentions in the article. But I like him. I wouldn't want to publicly dispute with him. But I have to say, his lack of interest in musicals is -- no, I'm not going to say that.

At what point in the writing process do you assign gender in a song? You've got songs about boys loving boys, girls loving boys and so on.

When do I assign gender? When I'm writing the lyrics -- when it comes up. I try not to let it come up. I try not to have gender, because I think it makes the songs more universal if there isn't one. But to describe any complex situation, you generally have to use pronouns. "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" wouldn't work as "I Thought You Were My Lover." That isn't so good. And I wanted to have, say, "Some guys have a beer and they'll do anything," so I'm not going to have "you were my girlfriend." But yeah, the gender is pretty random in my songs, but because my publishing company is called Gay and Loud, I don't really feel that I need to be any more upfront about being gay. I'm just open and honest about it. But I don't feel like I need to have the lyrics banging the drum of political, open homosexuality. I can do that in interviews if I want. I don't really feel any obligations that way, so I feel like I'm free to assign genders willy-nilly -- as it were.

Do you drink when you're writing?

Oh, yes. I sit around in bars.

I thought maybe you just drank tea.

Well, yes. I sit around cafés in the day, and bars in the evening. I drink much too much tea, and then I have to drink Courvoisier to calm down my heart rate. It was really a problem during 69 Love Songs, when I was writing sixteen hours a day. I would drink tea for eight hours, and this is black tea, Irish Breakfast at an Irish café, never remembering to take the teabags out of the teapot. So I'm like, "Can't breathe. Must. Drink. Alcohol. Quick."

And then you hit the Courvoisier?

Yeah. That or Hennessey. I can't tell the difference. I have very little sense of smell, so subtle tastes are lost on me. I think Courvoisier is a little bit sweeter than Hennessey, but I can't tell. -- Randall Roberts

Questions Three

Of all the pleasant surprises in music this year, singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz's forthcoming Kismet release, Beautiful Yesterday, has yielded more pleasure than most of the others. A dark European-café vibe frames Kurtz's deep, soulful alto on renditions of songs by the likes of Duke Ellington, Leonard Cohen and Prince. When you listen to the disc, you'll wonder why you didn't hear about Kurtz five years ago. You can catch her opening for Richard Thompson at the Pageant on Friday (June 25), but we caught up with her for a quick Q&A as she took a break from tending her garden in Brooklyn.

RFT: Your voice recalls a cello. If you could have it resemble any other instrument, what would it be?

DK: A muted trumpet -- or a slide guitar.

What's your most memorable experience as an adult?

I was in a car wreck about five years ago, and I fell in love with my husband in that same month. It was a really bad car wreck, and I was in a wheelchair for a few months. There was definitely a monumental sort of before-and-after feeling there.

Is there any music that you've always wanted to perform but haven't been able to nail?

As a singer, when I hear stuff that I don't know how to do -- like Mariah Carey's dog-whistle stuff -- I give it a try. You know, like, "Can I do that?" It's interesting to try to test the limits of your ability. One thing I've never been able to do that I'd really like to do is scream like Prince or James Brown. You know, that "Waaoww!" -- that really intense, sustained scream that has a note in it somewhere, but it's mostly a scream. That's probably the one thing I'd love to be able to do without hurting myself, but I haven't figured that one out yet. -- John Goddard

What's in a Name?

If you're in a band and don't already know that the Web is a powerful tool for self-promotion, then you'd better get with it. Major labels won't promote you unless you're already a superstar, and indie labels just don't have the time or the resources. Because Google.com is the number-one search engine on the Web, it's imperative that you pick a name that will show up easily in the search results.

!!! (pronounced "chk chk chk") -- a booty-shaking, post-punk ensemble that performs June 25 at the Creepy Crawl -- does not show up at all on a Google search. How is the band gonna promote itself? How is it gonna get the word out? (To save you the trouble of finding it, here's the site: www.brainwashed.com/!!!)

In honor of !!!, we've compiled a short list of bands with difficult-to-search-for names, names that have undoubtedly set them back. Learn your lesson, kids: Choose band names wisely.

The Standard: If you've heard these guys' debut, their name might seem appropriate -- that first record was so forgettable that the band bought it back from the label and took it off the market. But the Standard's latest album, Wire Post to Wire, shows the band members to be remarkably ambitious and adventurous songwriters. The new standard-bearers of indie-prog? You bet. Check out www.thestandardsite.com.

Why?: A member of the overhyped Anticon hip-hop sect, it's not just Why?'s dumb-ass name that sets him back, it's the whole pretentious art-school pseudo-hip-hop vibe. Why bother searching for this unsearchable? If you must, see www.anticon.com/why.html.

The Letter E: Because it contains members of June of 44, Rex and the Blue Man Group, you might assume that the Letter E is some sort of supergroup. But unfortunately, this band plays mostly inconspicuous instrumentals that fall into the amorphous category of "post-rock." At least it's not Kenny G. We finally found the elusive Letter E at www.tigerstylerecords.com.

The The: Around way before this Information Superhighway nonsense, The The can't be blamed for having the least searchable name ever. You might as well name a band ".com." Someone probably will. For now, go to www.thethe.com. -- Guy Gray

Eye of the Tiger

There's no right and wrong in music, they tell us. Everyone is trying his or her best, so let's all hug. It's not a sport; it's an art.

Well, screw that. Sometimes we all want blood and the thrill of combat, even music geeks. And that's where a battle of the bands comes in. Two bands enter, one band leaves.

Or, in the case of the Little Steven's Rockin' Garage Battle in Chicago, twenty bands entered, including local boys Thee Lordly Serpents. If you don't know Little Steven Van Zandt from his day job backing Bruce Springsteen, then shame on you. He's also the awesomely pompadoured Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, and his third job is hosting a pretty cool syndicated classic-rock show (on KIHT [96.3 FM] late Sunday night, thanks for asking). The battle in Chicago took place to determine who'd go on to the finals in New York.

To Thee Lordly Serpents, it felt like a street fight.

"I felt like I hadn't been nervous playing for I don't know how long," says Serpents bassist Johnny Venom. "I don't know if you'd call it nervous. It was almost like you were out on the street being threatened. It got the adrenaline pump going. [Drummer Roger Cottonmouth] said he wasn't excited at all, and then he started our first song at about two-and-a-half times the normal speed. So he was a little geeked up too. All the bands are just as friendly with each other as they'd normally be, but I did feel a heightened sense of urgency."

Unfortunately, there were no Morris Day & the Time-type villains talking trash.

"Not to our face," says Venom. "I'm sure different factions were talking behind each other's backs, but that's normal."

Thee Lordly Serpents made it to the Final Four before being beat out by Illinois' the Blackouts. Better luck next time. -- Jordan Harper

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