indie music profile: The Magnetic Fields

Even with all those labels, Stephin does not like to be labeled. “Music is not a set of sounds,” he said, and added that the thing to do is create a word for a category that you like. He continued by saying, "The Magnetic Fields make variety music. There were a million TV variety shows in the seventies.”

In 1999, the band released the three-disc album, 69 Love Songs, in which each song drew from a different genre, from punk to show tunes. For this album, the band utilized a wide range of instruments, including ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, flute, xylophone, marxophone, and of course, synthesizers and guitars.

Stephin came up with the idea for 69 Love Songs while at a gay piano bar. The album originally was planned as a live musical revue with 100 love songs; he soon realized that at two minutes per song, the revue would last over three hours without an intermission. He decided to shorten the album to a slightly leaner 69 songs.

In 2004 and 2008 respectively, the band released I and Distortion. For the acoustic and orchestral I, the song titles begin with the letter "i." Distortion, which has a strong the Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, focused on noise music and was recorded in the stairwells and rooms of Stephin's NYC apartment building. Both albums were produced without the use of synthesizers.

[image-1]January 26, 2010, marked the release of their ninth album, Realism, a contemporary take on orchestral folk albums, and showed the end of their “no-synth" trilogy. I read that the next Magnetic Fields album will feature synthesizers almost exclusively.

Click here for a January 29, 2008 Assisted Listen recorded by the Bryant Park Project.  Click here for a February 10, 2010 NPR All Things Considered story.  Click here for a January 26, 2010 WHYY Fresh Air story.  Click here for a May 31, 2005 set recorded by NPR for Creators at Carnegie.  Click here and here for March 30, 2008 and June 30, 2000 set/interviews recorded by KCRW.  Visit the band’s Myspace page here and website here.

Check here to see if the Magnetic Fields have any gigs scheduled near you.

As always, whenever possible, please buy your music from your local independent music store by people who know and love music and not from retailers like Wal-Mart (soulless, globally-homogenizing, community-killers) or i-Tunes (albums should be listened to as an entire composition with album cover and liner notes in hand). Incidentally, these two companies sell more music than any other retailer in the United States. That my friend, bites.

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While attending high school in Boston, singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt (ukulele/keyboard/vocals) — often referred to as one of the best working songwriters around — met Claudia Gonson (percussion/piano/vocals). Soon after, the two put together their first band, The Zinnias. Years later in 1989, they formed The Magnetic Fields along with Susan Anway (original lead vocalist who left the band in 1991), Sam Davol (cello/flute) and John Woo (banjo/guitar).

The band’s name comes from André Breton's novel, Les Champs Magnétiques. The multi-tasking Stephin also performs in side projects that include the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and The 6ths.

The band has no particular musical style, but at times, have been lumped into the synthpop, indie pop, noise pop, and folk-pop genres.

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