The entertainment at live shows is usually formulated into the same split: 90 percent music, 10 percent banter. Generally, that's a fine balance. Hearing some conversationally impaired frontman mumble bad jokes is a buzz kill. But every once in a while, you get pithy stage quips from a Jeff Tweedy, a David Lee Roth, a Jonathan Richman (or a Ryan Adams meltdown), that's nearly as much of a show as any of the songs being played that night.
The new City Arts & Lectures series, Talking Music, reverses the equation, giving you 90 percent banter and 10 percent music. And if last week's guest, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, was any indication, that flip in programming makes for a very amusing event – even when the guest is a misanthrope who hates everything from Costa Rica to going on tour. Merritt opened the second season of Talking Music last Thursday night, kicking off the Herbst Theater musician interview series that will also feature Neko Case, Quincy Jones, Will Sheff, Michael Tilson Thomas, Laurie Anderson, and John Darnielle over the next seven months.
The Magnetic Fields, the most popular of Merritt's myriad projects, ranges in sound from synthpop to distorted indie rock, with subversive lyrics anchoring every album. The group's figurehead is a master wordsmith, whether he's hitting you with candor ("I hate California girls") or giving tender feelings a barbed turn of phrase ("Sober, you're old and ugly/shit-faced, who needs a mirror?").
While he was onstage, Merritt's mouth stayed hooked somewhere between smirk and frown. He pressed into his orange chair as if in traction compared to his giggling, gesticulating interviewer and occasional bandmate, author Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame (big-name interviewers are part of City Arts & Lectures' appeal). For 45 minutes, the pair played an awkward game of verbal tennis. Handler lobbed simple questions about the number of instruments Merritt owns, or his songwriting techniques. And the songwriter, for his part, halted the conversation with long pauses, three-word answers ("I don't remember"), and the general vibe that he suffers neither fools nor good friends gladly.
For some in the crowd (like the Magnetic Fields fan I brought with me) Merritt's refusal to let down his guard proved for an excruciating experience. But I loved it. If you've seen Merritt live before, you know he revels in retorts that are more clever than cutting, but still combine a bit of both. And he makes fun of himself as much as anyone else. Having his crotchety stageside manner extended to become the performance was a risky endeavor that proved successful even as it made the crowd uncomfortable.
After all, Merritt is a provocateur, and it came out unadulterated that night. He recalled, for example, a previous stint as a music critic, where his opinions could be categorized as "This is crap. This is shit. This is dumb. This is guano." "You run out of words to describe things," he added. (Handler, who got in a couple of zingers himself, had set up this part of the conversation by joking, "Hard to believe, but he has some strong opinions about music.") Later, during the audience Q&A session, Merritt answered a fan inquiry about what, if anything, pleases him (answer: We'll never know) by dismissing his beach vacation to Costa Rica. He quoted from his mother's guru, who expressed confusion about why Americans "like to go lie in the dirt." Add in the fact that Merritt speaks in a baritone deadpan, not unlike Harry Shearer in A Mighty Wind, and you have a sly comedian who easily slips into a caricature of himself onstage.
Even with Merritt's charismatic crankiness at full force, though, Handler's interview actually revealed one of the sharpest minds in modern music. For one, Merritt is constantly thinking conceptually, and his ideas are both cutting-edge artistically and hilariously offbeat. Fans of his Magnetic Fields output are no doubt familiar with past album constructs such as 69 Love Songs (an A-Z catalog written about amore) or i, the disc where every song title starts with that particular letter. But his creative well runs even deeper. Merritt discussed ideas ranging from naming new songs with old titles and packaging it as a "greatest hits" collection (just to confuse people, of course) to his desire to franchise the Magnetic Fields so he never has to hit the road again. "Several incarnations of the band could go on tour at once, and I could stay home," he explained, adding that the franchise would entail "band auditions, a reality TV show, auditions for the reality TV show, a reality TV show about the auditions to be on a reality TV show ..."
As a finale, Merritt and Handler picked up the ukulele and accordion, respectively, and played a couple of songs from the guest of honor's repertoire: witty tunes about loving to fail at love. It was the perfect encore to an evening as memorably erratic as the best rock shows – except, of course, this time there was little in the way of sterile stage banter.