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He's trying to weather L.A. 69 love songs to 50 musicals

Stephin Merritt has four distinct indie-rock bands and wants to do 50 Hollywood musicals. So how does he have time to miss New York?

January 27, 2008|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

"What do you do about the morning sunlight?" Stephin Merritt asks, like a newcomer seeking advice from a local about earthquakes or some other native affliction.

Merritt knew he'd be dealing with this when he moved to L.A. from New York, and he does what he can to resist. His Los Feliz apartment is darkened by heavy curtains. When he parks his Mini Cooper after a short drive, he fits a foil-surfaced reflector inside the windshield. He picks the shadiest block for the walk to a bistro on Vermont.

But it's one of the city's unseasonably warm winter mornings, and a year and a half after relocating, he's still squinting in the face of the inevitable.

"There's so much sunlight here," he says in his deep, droopy voice. Finally, he concedes a point. "It's nice not to have to pay attention to the weather, I guess."

Merritt might be a grudging transplant, and as the owner of a Manhattan apartment he can claim bicoastal status, but he's ours now, and like a museum's acquisition of a coveted artwork, his presence has enhanced L.A.'s creative landscape, even if he stays pretty much out of sight.

He is, after all, one of indie-rock's most acclaimed figures, with a hand in four different bands and a growing presence in the borderlands between pop and theater. "69 Love Songs," a 1999 collection by his group the Magnetic Fields, was a watershed in indie annals, an audaciously ambitious three-CD panorama of pop vernaculars that opened new horizons for singer-songwriters toiling in the underground.

It finished at No. 2 in the Village Voice critics' poll, and the success brought its reclusive auteur out from obscurity. He signed in 2002 with the Warner Bros.-distributed boutique label Nonesuch, where he's in the company of such multifaceted artists as Randy Newman, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Brian Wilson.

Though he recently made an unlikely connection with Volvo for a TV commercial, he remains a cult artist with decidedly wary sights on bigger game.

"I feel like I'm approaching the mainstream in significant ways that I haven't done before, and I don't especially care whether they lead me more toward the mainstream or away from it, because I think the mainstream is always changing." Merritt says.

"Who cares anyway? I don't want to follow what I happen to think from moment to moment is the mainstream, and I'd probably be totally deluded about it anyway. I'm happy being halfway between being an art project and a commercial proposition."

He thinks that "Distortion," the Magnetic Fields' just-released eighth album, has a potentially larger audience because it's based on the aggressive sound of the relatively popular Jesus and Mary Chain. And he's hoping that the musical "Coraline" will add a more accessible entry to his resume of stage collaborations when it opens off-Broadway, perhaps later this year

But Merritt's Holy Grail, the reason he moved west, remains unclaimed.

"I wanted to be closer to Hollywood to help realize my dream of making 50 successful Hollywood musicals," he says, drinking green tea at a table inside the cafe. That figure is a downward revision from the 100 that he was aiming for a few years ago, though it might still seem quixotic for a man of 42.

"That was before. Recently having worked on more than one musical at a time, I realized it's better to write one musical a year. Fifty seems the right number."

Fifty or 100, it starts with one, but after a year and a half, Merritt says he's simply been too busy on other projects to make connections yet. At least he's here, for what it's worth.

"It's really more about having the appearance of being accessible to the movie studios. Really, my [recording] studio could be anywhere, but apparently they like you to be nearby. I don't know why. In New York no one cares."

The multifaceted music man

MERRITT'S shrouded apartment is crammed with musical instruments and recording gear. Standing in front of a handmade clavichord, he wiggles a key to create a delicate, vibrato effect. He demonstrates a quick cadenza on a hammer zither and points out his new harp -- he just had his first lesson last night. A bass banjo leans against a wall, and in his bedroom is a pile of ukulele cases.

Add synthesizers and you have the ingredients of Merritt's oeuvre, which sprawls across a vast musical topography.

As the Gothic Archies, Merritt applies his "goth-rock bubble gum" to catchy, macabre ditties illustrating the 13-volume set of novels "A Series of Unfortunate Events," whose author, Lemony Snicket, is Merritt's friend and frequent accordion accompanist Daniel Handler.

Future Bible Heroes, his teaming with singer Claudia Gonson and DJ/producer Chris Ewen, makes evocative electronic pop, while the two albums by the 6ths put pop-leaning songs in the hands of assorted vocalists, including Bob Mould, Gary Numan, Melanie and Odetta.

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