“Keep your children in a coma and stay sane,” sings Stephin Merritt on the new Future Bible Heroes album, Partygoing. It’s the kind of sardonic sentiment that Merritt has been doling out for years behind The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, The Gothic Archies and, most recently, Future Bible Heroes.
Transitioning from early ‘90s mixtapes to the go-to soundtrack of the NPR set is no easy feat, but you couldn’t find a frontman more up to the task than Merritt. Since The Magnetic Fields debuted in 1991, Merritt has gone on to do everything from writing an album of 69 love songs to scoring a Chinese opera to singing nursery rhymes for Volvo. He could be the closest thing indie pop has to a Kanye (complete with controversial newsbites).
Mixing the dark with the light seems to come naturally to Merritt, but on Partygoing, there seems to be an emphasis on the former. I asked him about this, and he regaled me with forays into sci-fi, hackneyed metaphors and how the FBH music-making process involves two “different species of beaver.”
Kate Gavino: In an interview, [FBH producer] Chris Ewen said Partygoing could possibly be a “reaction to who we are and us versus the youth culture.” Many of your lyrics seem to take the perspective of someone young and naïve in terms of love (“All I Care About is You”), while others are cynical (“Keep Your Children in a Coma”). Does anything in particular compel you to write from each perspective?
Stephin Merritt: I grow less cynical as I gradually come to understand the adult world. Nowadays, I think the powerful people who oppress us all don't know they're evil, they think they're just protecting their children from even worse powerful people. That is impossible for most young people to believe.
KG: Many of the Future Bible Heroes lyrics or song titles have to do with sci-fi (“The DJ from Outer Space” and the line “cackling in chthonian joy” from "She-Devils of the Deep") Have you been reading or watching any sci-fi or fantasy lately?
SM: Last year I managed to tracked down a copy of each Philip K. Dick book, and I'm reading my way through them all in random order.
KG: How much did you collaborate with Chris Ewen on this new album? Did you work physically together or was it done separately?
SM: In the history of Future Bible Heroes, Chris and I have essentially never met. We work separately, like different species of beaver.
KG: Topics that are familiar from many of your other songs, such as the moon and death, pop up in this album. Did you approach writing these lyrics any differently from the Magnetic Fields or any of your other projects?
SM: In the Magnetic Fields, the moon and death are hackneyed metaphors, employed for their familiarity. In Future Bible Heroes, the moon may be where the characters dwell and death may be an obstacle they have already overcome.
KG: There are many literary or historical references throughout your lyrics. Is there a book or historical event you’ve been waiting to use in a song but haven’t found a perfect fit yet?
KG: Has your process for writing pop songs been affected at all by your recent experiences with writing for theater? Do you find it helpful to have a backstory before writing lyrics?
SM: I've been writing musicals for 10 years, and the main differences are that, in a musical, you can't change a character's name just for the sake of a rhyme (well you can, but you can't do it twice) and repeated choruses are deadly boring in the theater.
KG: Now that you’ve moved upstate [from New York City], do you find the change in environment more conducive to songwriting?
SM: Hard to tell. I haven't written a song in months (I'm working on a soundtrack), except the five I wrote in Boston in the last fortnight.
KG: Since so many people are covering your songs lately, do you have an ideal singer or band in mind who would cover one of Partygoing’s songs? Death is not an obstacle.
SM: Elvis would do a bitchin' "All I Care About Is You." And everyone would buy it!
Kate Gavino is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for 7STOPS, CMJ and The Prattler, and is currently working on a novel.