With the cult triple album 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt established himself as one of the most remarkable songwriters around. The Future Bible Heroes' new album sees his trademark lyrical cleverness paired with Chris Ewen's distinctive, organic electronica.
New York songwriter Stephin Merritt must be a strong contender for the title of 'most prolific man in music'. Not only does he divide his time and his songs between four different bands, but his best-known album is a triple-CD set: 1999's 69 Love Songs, recorded by The Magnetic Fields. All 69 tracks on this absurdly ambitious album were penned by Merritt, and its unique fusion of Cole Porter-style sophistication and lo-fi production values struck a chord with critics and public alike.
Collaborators on 69 Love Songs included singer/drummer/manager Claudia Gonson and programmer/producer Chris Ewen. Together, they make up another one of the bands on Merritt's list: the Future Bible Heroes. Despite the similarity in personnel, it's pretty obvious why a different name is needed for this project, as Stephin explains. "The Future Bible Heroes material is completely different from 69 Love Songs, in that the arrangements are entirely electronic, the music is not by me it's by Chris Ewen, and Claudia Gonson sings the entire record. And it isn't three hours long."
Their new album Eternal Youth retains The Magnetic Fields' lyrical sharpness, but love songs are conspicuous by their absence, as are conventional instruments such as guitars and drums. Instead, Chris Ewen's lush electronic soundtracks blend analogue synth textures with unusual samples, many of them derived from ethnic percussion instruments: "I don't really use drum loops. I create all my own drum patterns, and if I do loop them they're loops of stuff that I've done myself, so it's not the same drum loop that was on an EMF record 10 years ago or something like that — they're unique to the song. I made a very conscious effort to use things that weren't your standard '80s-sounding drum machine, to try to go beyond that. On a song like 'Doris Daytheearthstoodstill', the sounds of the rhythm track dictated how the rest of the instruments sounded, which then of course dictated how the entire track sounded and gave it this swampy, sci-fi feel that Stephin used to write the lyrics for it. So it was a very conscious effort not to use drum machines or drum machine sounds in the way that they're used every day.
"Instead, they generally were things that I created on a synthesizer. I blended some things, and I tend to like sounds of wood and bamboo a lot too, so I used the anklung, which is one of my favourite instruments. It's a Balinese tuned bamboo rattle. There are series of them, in scales, and you shake them, there's one for each pitch. I have two sets of them and Stephin has a couple of sets of them, and I sampled my anklungs and looped them and retuned them, and then played them. If I'm using gongs or thumb pianos or whatever, I don't tend to be so exact with the tuning, but with the anklungs, which make an appearance on 'Doris Daytheearthstoodstill' and they're behind a Stylophone melody, they really have to be in key with each other, since they're both playing the same melody. Otherwise it's going to sound like a complete mess, so in that case I had to sample them and loop them and precisely pitch them. It's a really unique sound that's not really heard in a lot of Western pop songs."
"It's not traditional electro-pop in the sense that it's all synthesizers and then the human element is the voice," adds Claudia. "We try to incorporate some more warm instruments in as a bridge. There's also something great about using instruments that have been used in things like Tiki music, things that are traditionally played in an analogue way, and making them have that edge that makes you realise that they have been put into a sampler or into a loop or something. I'm thinking of that Madonna song with the acoustic guitar that's so obviously been edited, and I think that's such an enjoyable thing to do with modern music, to not just take identifiable drum tracks, or things that are identifiable as drum machine tracks, but to take things like Theremin or anklung, or little finger cymbals — things that are so almost ephemerally un-electronic, which have trails and resonances that are hard to play with — and then really cut them or loop them or stutter them in ways that are disturbing."
"Part of the fun of the anklung and the finger cymbals and such is that it creates a bridge between the electronic sounds and the vocal," explains Stephin. "Otherwise, if it's all synthesizers versus vocals, the vocal's just going to float on top of the synthesizers and it'll sound like two different things happening."
In these days of all-singing, all-dancing MIDI + Audio sequencers, it's a surprise to learn that Chris used his Apple Mac only for editing and processing stereo mixes. "I have Performer and Mark Of The Unicorn hardware, but I really haven't had time to learn how to use it yet," he admits. "For sequencing I used a Roland MC500 MkII old-school hardware sequencer, and I ran all my instruments from that. There were no soft synths, no plug-ins, it was all genuine equipment on this record at my end in the actual recording of the instrumental tracks. There's no computer sounds."
"Stephin has really been involved in collecting and using exotic and interesting and weird instruments," explains Claudia. "Chris, too, has not only collected cool instruments, but become sort of a connoisseur of '50s and '60s technology from the earliest days of electronic production. So when you hear the beginning of a song like 'Doris Daytheearthstoodstill', which is like a looped bubble, basically, you think about Enoch Light, or Martin Denny and the earliest stages of making music with electronic things, and there's a kind of integrity. There's a real artistry to it."
"A lot of it's effects, too," continues Chris. "I was doing a lot of live two-track recordings, sequencing everything and doing live mixes onto DAT, or else I had a little Korg 16-track hard disk recorder, and I would lay down some MIDI tracks and then I'd play some Theremin, or some Stylophone on a song, and did some hand playing of stuff as well. 'Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes' has hand-played Stylophone on it. Then I dumped that into my computer. There were so many different methods of recording that we used over the couple of years we were recording the record — lots of songs were done in completely different ways. We didn't sit down over a month and record everything and then record all the vocals right after that."
It would be wrong to characterise them as Luddites, but Chris and his bandmates seem to share the view that electronic music production should involve hard work, rather than simply cobbling together a few presets and drum loops. "I know that I get really bored with hearing a lot of the samey-sounding things in a lot of records, especially with electronic music," says Chris. "A lot of dance records tend to have the same kind of sounds or the same drum loops showing up here, there and everywhere. In order not to bore ourselves, we do start from the ground up — every hi-hat hit is programmed, it's not your standard loop stuff at all. On a song like 'Find An Open Window', for example, the percussion track on it consists of analogue synths doing random sounds in particular patterns, quantised to the eighth notes. Then there are ring-modulated melodic synthesizers and ring-modulated tortoise sounds — from my holiday in the Galapagos," he laughs, "ring-modulated to play 16th notes in time with the random synthesizers doing the percussion. So it really isn't a press and play drum machine!"
"So if you'd had another take of that song, it would have sounded radically different?" enquires Stephin.
"Yes. The rhythms were programmed to happen when they did, but they wouldn't sonically be exactly the same, because they would all be doing different random things."
The Future Bible Heroes' writing process is complicated by the fact that its members live in different US cities — Chris in Boston, Stephin and Claudia in New York. Although the details vary from track to track, most songs begin with Chris producing a more or less complete electronic, instrumental backing track. Stephin then writes a song to fit, often editing or pitch-shifting the backing to suit, and occasionally sending it back to Chris to be reworked. Finally, Claudia records her vocal. "We haven't used the Internet really — it's collaboration by post, a lot of phone conversations, a lot of me delivering finished tracks to Stephin when I go to New York from Boston for a couple of days," explains Chris. "We'll listen to things and he'll say 'That's really nice, I can do something with that,' or 'I don't know about that yet,' or 'Gee, this would be great if it was two minutes long instead of eight.'"
"What is great about working with Chris is that almost everything he does is something I would never, ever do," insists Stephin. "Not that we're opposites, but we're complementary personalities. Taking more than 30 seconds to get to the chorus is very alien to me. I have a very different way of setting up song structures than Chris, and a completely different chordal sense. I'm liberated from having to make the music, but I'm constrained by these absurdly complicated chord progressions that I would never write, and overly long, not sufficiently repetitive order.
"Usually I write the melody and the lyrics at the same time, but not so much with Future Bible Heroes, because then I'm more constrained. I start with the backing tracks and I try to squeeze in a melody, and then write the lyrics. I may have a title which has to be accounted for in the meter somewhere, but generally I'll start with the melody, write the whole melody, and struggle to fit in some words. If I have to start five different times, I kind of expect that. I wrote each of the songs on Eternal Youth at least twice."
The need to accommodate melodies and lyrics, and the requirement that the songs be in a suitable key for Claudia's voice, meant that some of Chris's instrumental tracks were radically butchered. "We recorded some of the songs and then threw them out and started all over again, with different lyrics and melodies," explains Claudia. "There's actually one ['Losing Your Affection'] we did with different lyrics, different melodies and at a different speed. When we slowed the song down and started again with a whole new melody and a whole new lyric. We played the final recording to Chris, we were driving him in the car and I brought a cassette of some of the final mixes, which poor Chris hadn't even begun to hear yet. We were driving along and he was listening with a furrowed brow, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, because it was playing 300 cents down on the ADAT, and I remembered that we'd turned it down and forgot to tell him!
"We did lots of little things to change the material around. We do a little bit with editing, but mostly it's a full, complete edit — not telling Chris to redo something, but more taking what he's done and shortening or lengthening ideas, chopping, and creatively working with these soundscapes that come in. The reason that there's some instrumental tracks on the album is that he's so prolific. He made all these soundscapes and some of them Stephin had good songs to, and some just sounded better as little instrumental ideas, so we mixed and matched."
"Then there are things like 'Find An Open Window' where they actually said 'There's no way we are going to do it in this key. Make it happen in another key,'" laughs Chris.
"'And, by the way, lop off the three-minute instrumental section,'" adds Stephin.
"It didn't work pitch-wise with what Claudia wanted to do, so they said 'Do it in a different pitch.' As I was saying earlier, that song is all these random-pitch generated sounds, and there was no way I could get it even remotely to sound like it did originally by recreating the recording environment. That's when I did use the computer — I threw it into Peak and repitched it."
"Ah, so that's why it has that shrill, distorted quality?" asks Stephin.
"No, it had that in the original."
"We had some interesting results from changing the pitch," says Claudia. "There were things that took on new overtones when we repitched them, so that they sounded like they were slightly in a different key. I can't understand how that happened. 'Kiss Me Only With Your Eyes' sounded slightly out of tune, and we ended up playing with it to make it sound more in tune. We got these overtones which came in, and it was like 'Where did those come from?'"
"We added another out-of-key xylophone part, and together they sounded right," says Stephin.
"The first one had a tone that was in its weird illusory way slightly sharp, I believe, and so we found an instrument and made it slightly flat so that together they sounded like the right note. It's something I didn't believe would work until Stephin saw it would," continues Claudia.
"It makes the combination sound like it's in the right key, but with chorus," concludes Stephin. "So, if it's out of tune, make it more out of tune, and it sounds better!"
As an album, Eternal Youth probably will surprise those who know Stephin Merritt's work only from 69Love Songs. In many ways it's closer to '80s electronica than to lo-fi indie music, and his lyrics have taken a sharp turn towards the dark side. Meanwhile, the wild diversity of The Magnetic Fields' masterpiece has given way to a more consistent sound.
"The means of production were unified, thank God," concludes Claudia. "With 69 Love Songs it was like 'Here's a song that's electronic, here's a song that'll be played on the onimercksophone, or whatever.' The means of production were all over the map, we had songs with all sorts of instruments, all sorts of ways of producing instruments, all sorts of recording studios, all sorts of musicians. This one really is Chris doing the backing tracks, Stephin writing the lyrics and melodies, and me singing the songs."
"And," Stephin Merrit laughs, "it took four times longer to make than 69 Love Songs."