Polarized figure

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Stephin Merritt makes no secret of his disdain for the daily grind of a touring musician. And the prolific composer's most prominent project, Magnetic Fields, is one of those groups that seems like it could survive on simply selling records to its devoted throng of followers.

Yet he still embarks on the occasional tour, including one that will stop at the Southern Theatre on Friday. Doesn't Merritt think he could get away with not touring at this point?

"No, I don't," Merritt said in his droll, dignified baritone. "If I did, I wouldn't be doing it, believe me."

Merritt, who called from a tour stop in "rainy, rainy Atlanta, Georgia," doesn't enjoy touring to begin with. He doesn't see live performance as a creative outlet. What's worse, his efforts to desensitize himself to life on the road have the unfortunate consequence of keeping him from doing what he clearly excels at -- writing and recording music.

He can't create on tour, he said, "because I've essentially turned off my brain."

This is maddening for Merritt because he usually spends his time conjuring up elaborately arranged, unfailingly clever orchestral pop. Besides the eight Magnetic Fields albums he has released since 1991, Merritt has recorded under numerous guises -- The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes -- and done a smattering of soundtrack work.

He takes on projects one at a time, throws himself into each one completely, then moves on to the next. Touring grinds that process to a halt.

"I've been working on a musical of the Neil Gaiman novel Coraline," Merritt explained. "I'm one song away from finishing it. I'm still one song away and I've gotten absolutely nothing done on it through this tour. And not for lack of trying."

When his brain is switched on, Merritt likes to tackle each project with certain constraints in place. That way, he explained, "You've already made a lot of decisions before you start." For instance, 1999's 69 Love Songs was indeed a set of 69 love songs. 2004's i included only titles beginning with the letter "I." And the recent Distortion is a celebration of -- you guessed it -- distortion.

More specifically, Distortion is a tribute to the Jesus and Mary Chain's seminal 1985 album Psychocandy, which laid harrowing noise over sunny pop tunes. Merritt's rule this time out was, "If it sounds like Psychocandy, it's right." Now seems like a curious time to pay tribute to the album, but Merritt has his reasons.

"I'm bored with popular music, and I want it to move forward. And I think the way to move forward is from the most forward place that one got to," Merritt said. "And I think that was Psychocandy."

In an effort to build on the Jesus and Mary Chain's ideas rather than just copy them, Merritt chose to apply distortion to a set of songs he had written without distortion in mind.

"I made a sort of orch-pop Psychocandy in which the production doesn't correspond to the songwriting at all," Merritt said. "And we hope that's an incremental step forward."

While the album smothers Merritt's songs in loud noises, the live show strips them down to a whisper. He suffers from a progressive hearing condition that makes his left ear unusually sensitive to loud noises, so Magnetic Fields play a "barely amplified" acoustic set. No one ever complains about it being too loud, he said, but some have called it too quiet.

Too bad, he replies. Merritt isn't into making concessions with his stage show or even acting polite. He's no showman, but damn it, he's going to play you a show if he has to. Then he'll hurry home, switch his brain back on and get back to the business of writing songs.

Magnetic Fields

Friday, Oct. 24

Southern Theatre, Downtown