Interview: Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields

Interview: Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields


This weekend, I gave Claudia Gonson a post-lunch call to talk about what is one of the most interesting relationships in the indie world: her role as both a musician in the Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt’s business manager. This year, they’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of one of the watershed albums of the ’90s, 69 Love Songs and preparing to release the follow up to last year’s much loved Distortion. We spoke about about what it means to deal with the ugly underside of the glamorous life of being a rockstar, when you can expect to hear the Magnetic Fields in the next big video game and how “weird ass Chilean reggae” will be the next big thing.

So I’d like to start by talking about your relationship with Stephin Merritt and how you work as both a creative foil for him and as his business manager. I just can’t think of anyone else who has that relationship in music and I was wondering if you could tell me how that came about?

Well, the amusing story from our childhood is that when we were teenagers I said to him, “I’ll make you rich if you make me famous.” It’s a sort of callous reduction, but it really is the case that his talents lie in creative output and my talents lie in organization and business. I always thought it’d be a tedious career to be a business person without having some sort of creative role and I happen to be a very musical person just innately from childhood. But I never had that ability to create, to make my own music the way Stephin can. So I think I’ve profited really well from my relationship with him in terms of being able to have a creative outlet. I think he would readily confess that he’s not so interested in or capable of running his business life. It’s the kind of thing most people find quite tedious. Like dealing with your royalty accounting. The ugly underside of the glamorous life of being a rock musician is that it is a business and we have to negotiate contracts and arrange for publicity and just all the day to day crap. I just find it very easy.

So it’s a very symbiotic relationship?

Symbiotic, yeah. it doesn’t really hurt him at all to have me accompanying him on piano and singing occasionally and being a part of things creatively and it certainly is pleasurable for both of us because I can look after his crappy day to day stuff that doesn’t interest him.

It also seems like having someone that he’s been around for as long as he’s been around you also makes it easier for him to trust you with the decisions. I think that it’s interesting that the Magnetic Fields, more than any other indie band, and Stephin Merritt in particular, have been excellent about working in licensing. Has this been something he intended from the get go or is this something you’ve helped steer him towards?

Well, I think he would have liked to have done multiple things his whole life, if you look at the way he’s franchised himself into several different band names. But I don’t think he had as much of an opportunity to until 69 Love Songs, which created a lot of visibility for Stephin and his music. I think that that allowed people to start to approach him and Stephin is just endlessly interested in new stuff. So I guess the answer to the question is yes and no. From the start he would have always loved to have done theatre and film, books, music, you know, whatever. But some time in the turn of the millennium, when the visibility of the band just quadrupled or whatever, suddenly there were people approaching us and us being able to meet more people we could work with.

And with the state of the industry being what it is, do you think this is truly the sort of wave of the future, for artists to look more at licensing as a way to sustain their careers?

I think there are two waves. I think there is live music i.e. touring, which is why the record industry is starting to disgustingly commission on their artists’ live profits. They’ve seen that they’re not making money on album sales so they’re saying, “Give us a cut of your merchandising and live performances and stuff.”

Which used to be the bread and butter for artists, right?

Exactly. And I don’t think that many artists are going to do that. But i think there are, with really big artists, these sort of packaged contracts where you have to give some of your money from everything to your record company for your record company to survive. But I think the two financial outlets for artists right now are going to be the merchandising and live performance and all the ways you make money from being a live performer and what we call synchronization, which is what you’re talking about. Putting your songs into films and ads and videogames and ringtones and all that stuff that 10 years ago everybody thought was selling out and being sleazy.

So does that mean we can expect a Magnetic Fields videogame sometime soon?

(Laughs).That would be cool. As much as we’ve had a lot of really fun and creative relationships that have occurred over the last few years, we’re a bit passive about them. I mean, people do approach us. And sometimes we go out and find them, but a lot of the times, it’s a very natural process, we sort of meet a person in a functional way, maybe through a friend or something and that person says, “Hey, we should try something sometime.” So if we met this cool videogame guy somewhere, sure. But it hasn’t really happened yet.

But it’s always open for the future?

Yeah. I mean, I know there’s that great group out of Boston, I can’t remember if they did Katamari Damacy, but they’re totally brilliant.

A lot of the people you guys have gone to school with or have worked with in the past have now gone on to pretty successful careers. Specifically I’m thinking of Stephin’s partnership in the Gothic Archies with Lemony Snicket.

The Daniel-Stephin thing was really wonderful and the timing was great. Neither Stephin nor Daniel had much commercial success when they met in 1998 and then they both basically in 1999 just took off. So both of them could claim that they didn’t really realize what was going to happen with their careers, it was very nice timing. They’ve come up together in their own ways, which is great.

Since you guys managed to do pretty well in 1999 with 69 Love Songs, is that what prompted the move to a bigger label, from Merge to Nonesuch?

I think there had been talks amongst Stephin and Merge for years about what different kinds of ways Stephin could present his music. I think if he could have had his way he would have a different band on a different label and worked with lots of different labels as a way to get different marketing. Merge and Nonesuch are both amazing labels. They’re uniquely the best of their kind in their respectively worlds. That said, Merge has a different approach to how they market and I think Stephin was always thinking, “I love working with Merge but they do tend to work with a certain type of approach marketing wise.” That’s become less and less the case now. it seems like a Merge band is just as likely to be on David Letterman as a Nonesuch band now, maybe more likely because of Arcade Fire and bands like that. But back in the day it was more like Nonesuch had this sort of avant-garde Lincoln Center affiliated quality to them and we thought it would be cool if we had that kind of niche market, more of the arty avant-classical world.

Right, and especially with their relationship with Wilco, it seems like you guys both wound up there at the same time.

Yeah, it was coincidental but it felt like it was going from being in a really cool college to being in a really cool graduate school. It was that sort of grown-uppy kind of venues and grown-uppy kind of opportunities, like working in theatre. But like I said, it’s all dissolved in that way now because bands that are on Merge are just as likely to suddenly be performing in an opera house. Everything’s dissolved in terms of that kind of distinction in indie versus neo-classical.

And it seems like a lot of the micro-majors and bigger indies have been able to weather the storm of industry patterns better than a lot of the other labels…

Like I said, we’re incredibly lucky in that way that the two labels that we chose actually have had more financially successful years during this economic crisis than they even had before. I think Nonesuch reported a better earnings year in ’07 than they had had in 15 years which is just ridiculous. I think even in ’08, which is weird.

Yeah, you guys have been pretty well off in that regard.

I don’t think our sales were what did it. (Laughs) Things like the soundtrack to Sweeny Todd were a huge hit for them and sold like half a million copies so it’s just weird. And obviously Wilco does really well. And then Merge, jeez, I mean, look at them.

Do you feel like that is partially because their approach to their art is different from how a major’s is? it seems like majors lots of times will put all their eggs in one basket and hope for the best…

Both Mac (McCaughan) at Merge and Bob (Hurwitz) at Nonesuch are irreplaceable human beings. It’s their ears that make what happens happen and they’re not going, “Hey, what’s going to sell? The new sound is freak folk, let’s sign up five freak folk bands now” or “The new sound is Hannah Montana, let’s get a hold of a whole bunch of teenagers…” They’re just not doing that. They’re saying let’s sign fucking weird ass Chilean reggae or something. And suddenly that becomes popular because they’re tastemakers that way. It’s been really eye opening, I wish I had that ability myself to just know.

Well, it seems like you’ve done pretty well on your own with your projects. I know you’ve done drums for Tender Trap on K Records and you’ve done some work with Kill Rock Stars as well, right?

Oh, well, I just did drums for that one band. I’ve been pretty conservative. I don’t tend to go out and play with a lot of bands, and maybe I should but I’ve just been bad about that. But I pretty much only worked with Amelia and Rob in Tender Trap and a long time ago, like 10 years ago or more I played in a bunch of bands like Honeybunch, and my other band Lazy Susan. I used to play a lot more.

I saw that you’re doing a project with Rick Moody, the novelist.

Yeah, a few years ago I did, and then it sort of stopped, we both got busy and moved on. We each have songs we secretly wrote in our closet by ourselves and we both decided to bolster up each other’s egos by performing them together live. He’d play on my songs and I’d play on his songs and sing back ups and it was really fun, but we only did like three shows.

It seems like you’ve been pretty good about working with incredibly talented people and even though some might not be as successful they’ve managed to carve their own unique space in art.

I’ve been really lucky. My job is eternally re-inventive. It spirals out. You meet someone at the comic book store who’s drawing comics and you think, it’d be cool if we did something with that person. It’s always like a new chapter…it’s great. It’s fun being in the arts.

I don’t know if other people have ever mentioned this, but it seems to me that the Magnetic Fields, not musically, but culturally in a way, are like Sly and the Family Stone in that they acquire these people from all different walks of life, different sexualities and everything and they come together as a pretty harmonious whole.

And then we all become incredible drug addicts. (Laughs)

And then go into hiding for 30 years, right?

(Laughs) It used to be really true. But when we were just starting in the early ’90’ we had one lesbian, one gay guy, one straight girl and one straight guy so we amused ourselves with this notion that we were appealing to everybody. Fast forwarding to the late ’90’s certainly the songs on 69 Love Songs were pretty much you choose your gender: you can have a guy singing to a guy or a girl singing to a girl. And the timing on that was good too from a marketing angle because of bands like Belle & Sebastian. There was this undercurrent of queer folk going on in that period, the late ’90’s and ’00’s. There was sort of a feeling of gender play.

Right, with artists like Kimya Dawson and the Moldy Peaches and those groups.

Yeah, it was great, there was a sense of a queer explosion, both academically and musically happening around us. So I think the timing on that was very fortuitous.

I remember at the beginning of your career the band was tagged with the unfortunate genre title “gay synth pop”; it seems like that has subsided since you’ve followed that work with 69 Love Songs and i and Distortion.

Yeah, and we haven’t even had any synths on our albums for years. Stephin, it’s funny, he’s always been out but he certainly didn’t seem tagged as a very politically gay person, especially in the first half of his career, sort of pre-69 Love Songs. I just felt like his songs didn’t overtly talk about his homosexuality, maybe a couple of them. But it certainly wasn’t like Pansy Division or one of those bands that was really politically gay at the time. And now, I feel like maybe it’s a little more so. And I don’t know why I feel that way. Maybe it’s because we’ve done more gay press and we’re older so our audiences are a little more wise so we get a lot more gay people in the audience. I just feel maybe we’re a little more out than in the ’90’s.

Do you feel maybe that’s a result of the cultural impact of things like Proposition 8 and the move towards a national gay rights movement?

No, I think it started way before this. I think it started in the 69 Love Songs days when I was looking in the audience and I wasn’t seeing generally heterosexual looking college kids I was seeing 40-something gay men and to a lesser extent gay women. I just felt like I was suddenly seeing the older people in the gay world. it was very exciting for me. I felt like all during my younger years in the ’90’s when I was playing with this band it felt very college radio rock, so the audience was very young and very straight. I’m sure they weren’t all, but, now I have a sense of just there’s a lot more gay people in the audience. But it could just be that there’s a lot more older people in the audience and people figure out their sexuality as they get older.

Right, and become more comfortable with it.

Yeah, so you see guys holding hands and also our audiences are seated in the last 10 years which they weren’t when we were younger, so you see people more. You see people sitting in chairs with their arms around each other, you just kind of get more of a sense of who they are.

Well, to kind of shift gears here I wanted to talk about the process that goes into making a Magnetic Fields album and I think for a lot of people the Magnetic Fields are identified with thematic work in that it seems like you guys pick a theme and then build your album around it. Does Stephin present the themes to you before you go into the recordings or is it something formed during the recording process?

I think it really changes from record to record. 69 Love Songs was absolutely completely figured out in advance, he said ,”I am making an album it is called 69 Love Songs, it will have 69 songs on it and they will be about love.” We knew they’d be in different genres and styles and stuff. Whereas Distortion I believe, I’m not 100% sure I’m right about this, but I believe it was not even distorted when it began. I believe it was a bunch of songs that Stephin wrote and oh, I’ll make them sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain. it was after he had composed them.

I feel the public perception in a way is that the Magnetic Fields are this sort of super organized group and everything is plotted out way beforehand.

Well, I mean, I don’t think that he decided to have them distorted that late in the process, he just had a trunk full of songs and he thought what should my thing be for this one? Oh, wait a minute, I’ll record these songs sounding all loud and screamy. But that’s different form saying I’m going to write a record called 69 Love Songs, which is a real thematic work from the outset.

Well it’s interesting too because that record seemed to open the doors in the indie world for more artists to do that type of thing. Especially with Sufjan Stevens and his 50 states project.

I don’t know if he knew about ours or not, but certainly, it speaks more to a type of brain than a moment in history. I had friends in a band in the ’90s that had a states project. It was a slightly different project but they were doing songs about states. I think certain bands like to have what I call parameters. Like the way Brian Eno created those oblique strategies cards, giving yourself a daily parameter. I think some bands, some artists love the confinement of a parameter and Stephin Merritt loves parameters, the more the merrier. Tell him to write using middle eastern instruments and have all the songs be exactly two and a half minutes long and he’ll be like oh great, I’ll try that.

It seems like that leads to bursts of creativity. A lot of bands work better under that sense of pressure. And you’ve worked with other projects, so do you feel like you guys are able to be more creative given those confines?

I always feel a little awkward trying to speak for Stephin, I’m not the songwriter in this band so I can’t speak for him, but it seems abundantly clear to me that he works really well with parameters. I don’t think every artist is this way, some artists I think really enjoy the freedom to just do whatever they want to do without knowing where it’s going to go. But certainly the artists I admire seem to do really well with parameters, whether it be a band like the Ramones who have a really distinctive formulaic style or an artist like David Bowie who from era to era and album to album seems to reinvent new parameters for himself and new stylistic themes.

What’s the plan for the future? Are you at liberty to say?

There’s several concrete projects going on, Stephin’s writing words and music for a theatre version of the Neil Gaiman short novella Coraline.

Yeah! I saw that! I thought that was pretty incredible, I love the story.

As you may probably know from being in the Pacific Northwest there’s a really amazing looking animated film coming out in February which we have nothing to do with but they are kind of coincidentally coming out within a couple months of each other. Our play will be out in June. Previews start in May. And their movie comes out in February, so they’re definitely going to speak to each other a little bit. And then Stephin’s going to be hard at work at that pretty much all spring. He’s almost completed recording a new Magnetic Fields record, which is much faster than he usually works. Usually he takes a few years in between but he just sort of started right up on another one. So that record has no title yet but it’s thematically going to be very very different from Distortion. It’s sort of almost like the sister album, like the partner…

Right, like the yang to the yin…

Or is it the yin to yang? (Laughs) It’s a very quiet record.

I’m going to go into the last part of the interview here. The last time you guys came through Seattle, my band actually practices in Ballard, so we were all pretty excited when you made a comment…

(Laughs) My little shout out to Ballard?

Yeah, calling it the “new Greenwich village”, that got a lot of press here. Everyone was pretty excited about that. But when you guys travel around are there a lot of areas that you feel are more inclusive and that you can be more comfortable with?

San Francisco is one of our favorite places to perform. And Seattle is great. Audiences and it’s crazy to think this, but audiences really do differ from market to market. But they also have changed over the last ten years. Audiences that maybe felt kind of more grungy ten years ago might feel more yuppie now or something. Everything changes because of the way people move from one city to the next or the way cities become cool and have more cache or whatever. It really does depend. But certainly for us, we just know we’ll always have a good show in San Francisco and for whatever reason we’ll always have a bad show in Philadelphia. It’s just the way it is. Although this last tour, as much as it was a disaster because all of our gear was lost by the airline, the audience felt different, it felt like there was more affluence or more culture going on there than the last couple times we played there. So it feels like audiences shift.

With your band, since you have a different sound on every album, do you think that it’s easier to kind of shift your audiences given that? Do you feel like different sorts of people come out for an album like Distortion than the people who came out for i?

I actually didn’t believe that would happen. But looking at the year end lists and how many young people seem to have newly discovered the Magnetic Fields through the record Distortion I’m actually convinced of something I didn’t think would be true. But Stephin absolutely always told me the noise of the album would pull in people who like rock music and loud noisy records. And it just made me laugh, because I thought well, the songs are exactly the same, they’re just packaged different.

Did you find that you lost any audiences as a result of that or did the traditional audience stick through?

I’m a very bad filter, anybody who’s going to e-mail is e-mailing just a member of the Magnetic Fields. To be honest, absolutely nobody did that on this record but I’m sure of the hundreds and hundreds of small articles that came out after the record, some of them panned the record. I don’t know, I didn’t read them. But I’m sure some people didn’t like it. (Laughs) But it was really quite well received. I think people liked it a lot more. it was a lot more of a big, kind of exciting response than I had in terms of “whoa, this is new, this is different.”This isn’t just the same old light, happy sound that we’re used to this is something else.

And for you, as a performer, was it more interesting going and doing something that seems more like what your root influences are? More like the Ramones or that ’80’s indie sound?

My relationship to the album was quite minimal. I only recorded a couple days on it, I just came in and did my parts and left. You saw the band live, when we played it live we just did our little quiet, chambery way of playing, so…

Right, which was an interesting dichotomy, I felt.

Yeah, I mean, it was essential, because Stephin has really bad ear problems. So the point is I didn’t really feel that musically involved with the loudness of the record. I mean, I just came and recorded it. That was it.

But it must be interesting to be in a group that is able to do those shifts. Because I think a lot of bands feel like they get stuck in one sort of sound and they can’t really move away from it. It must be really refreshing to be able to work with a group that is able to just shift sounds at will, like you mentioned with David Bowie.

I love it, although certainly it is a frightening thing to feel like you can never stay put and know what formula is going to work for you. it’s almost like you’re jumping off into the unknown every time. But you know at the end of the day Stephin Merritt is writing Stephin Merritt songs and as long as he’s writing Stephin Merritt songs I’m not worried.

[Photos: Gail O’Hara and John Woo]

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