The Magnetic Fields (named after the André Breton/Philippe Soupault novel Les Champs Magnétiques) is an American indie pop group founded and led by Stephin Merritt. He is the group's primary songwriter, producer and vocalist, as well as frequent multi-instrumentalist. The Magnetic Fields is essentially a vehicle for Merritt's songwriting, as are various side-projects, such as The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and The Gothic Archies. While the musical style of the band is as malleable as Merritt's songwriting, its songs are commonly attributed to pop genres such as synthpop, indie pop, and noise pop. The band is often cited as being recognizable by Merritt's lyrics, often about love and often with irregular or neutral gender roles, that are by turns ironic, tongue-in-cheek, bitter, and humorous.
The band released their debut single "100,000 Fireflies" in 1991, which was typical of the band's earlier career characterized by synthesized instrumentation by Merritt with lead vocals provided by Susan Anway (and then by Stephin Merritt himself from The House of Tomorrow EP onwards). A more traditional band later materialized, currently composed of Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, and John Woo, with occasional guest vocals by Shirley Simms. Their best-known work is the 1999 three-volume concept album 69 Love Songs. It was followed in the succeeding years by a "no-synth" trilogy: i (2004), Distortion (2008), and Realism (2010). The band's most recent album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, was released in 2012.
The band began as Merritt's studio project, under the name Buffalo Rome. With the help of friend Claudia Gonson, who had played in Merritt's band The Zinnias during high school, a live band was assembled in Boston, where Merritt and Gonson lived, to play Merritt's compositions. The band's first live performance was at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1991 where they played to a sparse audience that was expecting to see Galaxie 500 spin-off Magnetophone.
The 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs showcased Merritt's songwriting abilities and the group's musicianship, demonstrated by the use of such varied instruments as ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, flute, xylophone, and Marxophone, in addition to their usual setting of synthesizers, guitars, and effects. The album features vocalists Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute, L.D. Beghtol, and Gonson, each of whom sings lead on six songs as well as various backing vocals, plus Daniel Handler (who has written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) on accordion, and longtime collaborator Christopher Ewen (of Future Bible Heroes) as guest arranger/synthesist. Violinist Ida Pearle makes a brief cameo on "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side".
The band's recent albums, i (2004) and Distortion (2008), both followed the album theme structure of 69 Love Songs: The song titles on i begin with the letter (or, in the case of half the songs' titles, the pronoun) "I", whilst Distortion was an experiment in combining noise music with their typically unconventional musical approach. The liner notes claim the album was made without synthesizers. According to an article: "To celebrate the release of Distortion, Merritt and The Magnetic Fields played mini-residencies in cities around the country, culminating with six shows at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music."
Realism was released in January 2010, concluding what Merritt termed the "no-synth" trilogy (following i and Distortion). The next album produced would feature synthesisers "almost exclusively".
In 2010, the documentary film Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields made its debut in film festivals around the world. It was directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara. Shot over a period of 10 years, it discusses the formation of the band, Stephin's friendship with Claudia Gonson, the production of various albums, and Stephin's move to California from New York. It won the Outfest 2010 Grand Jury Prize for Feature Documentary and Starigrad Paklenice Prize for Directing.
The band was chosen by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform a rare festival performance at the All Tomorrow's Parties event that he curated in March 2012 in Minehead, England.
The band released its tenth full-length album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, on March 6, 2012 to critical acclaim. This album, sometimes compared to 69 Love Songs, brought back the use of a synthesizer. Merritt told fans on his website, "I was very happy to be using synthesizers in ways that I had not done before. Most of the synthesizers on the record didn't exist when we were last using synthesizers." The song "Andrew in Drag" has garnered much attention, receiving play from entities such as CBS News and NPR's "All Songs Considered."
In 2012, the Magnetic Fields celebrated its new album by launching a North American and European tour. It began on March 6, the release date of Love at the Bottom of the Sea, and continued for two months.
Stephin Merritt - ukulele/keyboard/harmonium/melodica/lead vocals,
Claudia Gonson - percussion/piano/vocals (and group manager),
Sam Davol - cello/flute,
John Woo - banjo/guitar,
Shirley Simms - vocals/autoharp/ukulele,
Current and former contributors include singers Susan Anway, Dudley Klute, Nell Beram, and LD Beghtol, as well as instrumentalists Johny Blood, Daniel Handler, Chris Ewen and engineer/producer Charles Newman.