John Krewson: “Is it true that you asked the singers on Wasps' Nests to sound bored out of their minds while they sang?”
Stephin Merritt: “Well, not out of their minds, no. Not really, really bored, just bored.”
--AV Club, 6/4/97
Tribute albums are generally mighty rough terrain. Admittedly, you will every so often come across a gem of an interpretation like the Cowboy Junkies' killer version of "Ooh Las Vegas" (on Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons), but these collections generally require you to paw through a disproportionate amount of oyster gunk to get to their pearls. Lucky for us, the Magnetic Fields' fastidious idea-geyser Stephin Merritt decided to preempt anyone else's attempts to pay tribute to his music by doing it himself. The result was 1995's indie-pop classic Wasps' Nests, recorded under the tongue-punishing name the 6ths, for which Merritt wrote and recorded all original songs, but recruited the cream of the who's-who of mid-'90s indie-rock to sing each of the tracks.
On this episode of D&R, Will plays tour guide, herding Amanda, Dan, and Rich through Merritt's menagerie of indie-rock icons, exploring how their own musical styles react and fluoresce when combined with his singular, synth-heavy indie-pop backdrops. And holy every-profanity, Barbara Manning, Will's musical heroine, stops by to tell us about her experience contributing to this album and hanging out with Merritt in general!
Huge, huge thanks to Barbara Manning for patiently submitting to Will's stumbling attempt at conducting an interview, and for all her insight and anecdotes. You can and should check out her music at her Bandcamp page. If you are wondering where to start, Under One Roof: Singles and Oddities makes a wonderful introduction to her heartfelt, sweetly funny, uniquely canted indie-rock world.
Chris Knox, reflecting on his experience recording “When I’m Out of Town” (from an unsourced interview posted on the Stephin Songs fansite): “I was in Boston and [Stephin] said, 'Do you want to do this?' He gave me a tape, and the tape was really lovely: just him and an acoustic guitar and a beatbox, and it was gorgeous. It would have been fine just as it was. He wanted me to do it. I got along there and he had this total rock arrangement that had lost the beat entirely and it was difficult. And he was doing it on computer so there wasn't the reassurance of reels of tape going round and so forth. I did about five takes and I was very conscious of the fact that I wasn't quite getting the beat, one, and two, that I was emulating his accent because I had gotten so familiar with the song. I was trying to do better with all these things going on and I ended up having an epileptic seizure. But it's the last one I've had. I used to have them pretty regularly and this is the last one I had. So God bless St. Stephin.”
Erratum: during the episode, we claimed that Let's Active had released only one album, Afoot, before breaking up. It turns out Afoot was the EP that I have on a twofer disc with the full-length album Cypress, and I got the two titles backwards. Also, they released two additional full albums, Big Plans for Everybody and Every Dog Has His Day. So basically, we made a total hash of the Let's Active history. Sorry.
Rich did recently make good on seeing Ex Hex live, following the rained-out attempt at the Pitchfork Festival, thus staving off Armageddon.
Amanda would like to emphasize that she was not throwing shade at anyone who did fall asleep during their English class discussions of Great Expectations. It is indeed so boring that, in her high school class, three students received potentially lifesaving diagnoses of sleep apnea during this unit.
“San Diego Zoo” official video, with Barbara Manning and Stephin Merritt looking adorably uncomfortable. Will's awesome spousewife, Bev, managed to almost instantaneously locate this video after an hour of searching on Will's part failed. (YouTube)
Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara’s fine documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (Amazon)
The 1995 CMJ New Music Monthly interview we referenced, in which Merritt has some characteristically blunt things to say about Amelia Fletcher’s vocals on “Looking for Love (In the Hall of Mirrors)” (Google Books)
Merritt's full appearance on Good Day Atlanta, which we excerpted during this episode. It includes a performance of his Gothic Archies song “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel.” (YouTube)
In this snippet of the documentary Just Gimme Indie Rock!, Merritt talks for a minute about the marketing of indie-rock as distinct from grunge. It's not particularly enlightening, but the video does show him at his most unexpectedly adorable, as he is giving this interview while rubbing the belly of his beloved Chihuahua, Irving. (YouTube)
Discord & Rhyme’s Wasps’ Nests playlist (Spotify)
Discord & Rhyme roll call
Chris Willie Williams (host)
Amanda Rodgers (moderator)
Barbara Manning (special guest appearance)
Elvis Watkins the Cat (cameo)
Wasps’ Nests tracklist
San Diego Zoo (feat. Barbara Manning)
Aging Spinsters (feat. Stephin Merritt)
All Dressed Up in Dreams (feat. Mary Timony)
Falling Out of Love (With You) (feat. Dean Wareham)
Winter in July (feat. Ayako Akashiba)
Pillow Fight (feat. Mitch Easter)
Dream Hat (feat. Mac McCaughan)
Movies in My Head (feat. Georgia Hubley)
In the City in the Rain (feat. Lou Barlow)
Looking for Love (in the Hall of Mirrors) (feat. Amelia Fletcher)
Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket (feat. Robert Scott)
Here in My Heart (feat. Anna Domino)
Puerto Rico Way (feat. Mark Robinson)
You Can’t Break a Broken Heart (feat. Jeffrey Underhill)
When I’m Out of Town (feat. Chris Knox)
Bonus track: “Yet Another Girl” (feat. Stuart Moxham) (Initially included only on the limited-edition 7” box set version of Wasps’ Nests. It eventually wound up on the Obscurities compilation, which Merritt released under his own name in 2011.)
Other clips used
The Magnetic Fields - Long Vermont Roads
The Magnetic Fields - Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits
The Magnetic Fields - Strange Powers
Future Bible Heroes - She-Devils of the Deep
Barbara Manning - Haze Is Free (Mounting a Broken Ladder) - From Under One Roof: Singles and Oddities
Helium - Lullaby of the Moths - From The Magic City
Luna - Lovedust - From Romantica
Sunshower - Blue Dolphin - From Blue Dolphin
Let's Active - Every Word Means No - From Afoot
Portastatic - Through with People - From Bright Ideas.
Yo La Tengo - (Thin) Blue Line Swinger - From the Camp Yo La Tengo EP. This is an edited and remixed version of the original “Blue Line Swinger,” which was on Electr-O-Pura. (We're not trying to be all hipstery by picking a lesser-known reworking of a fan favorite. The Electr-O-Pura version is a blissful panorama that shows off YLT's ability to confidently tap dance on the border wall separating mellifluous beauty from exhilarating chaos. However, this EP version is mixed in a clearer way that makes a better glimpse into the band in the 40 seconds or so that we allot for these clips.)
Sebadoh - License to Confuse - From Bakesale
Heavenly - Cool Guitar Boy - From Heavenly vs. Satan
The Bats - Land 'O' Lakes - From Couchmaster
Anna Domino - Paris - From Mysteries of America
Air Miami - Definitely Beachy - From Me. Me. Me.
Velvet Crush - Weird Summer - From Teenage Symphonies to God (I completely forgot to talk about Velvet Crush at all during the “You Can't Break a Broken Heart” segment! They're a melodically-enjoyable—if not hugely imaginative—power-pop band. And Teenage Symphonies to God was also produced by “Pillow Fight” vocalist Mitch Easter, who, as we mentioned during the episode, produced Helium's The Magic City. Ol’ Mitch gets around.)
Chris Knox - Grand Mal - From Seizure
Jean-Michel Jarre - Magnetic Fields Pt. 2
Smash Mouth - All Star
Songs we mentioned but didn’t clip
Terry and the Lovemen - The Good Things
SF Seals - Ipecac
Electric Light Orchestra - Strange Magic
Galaxie 500 - Cheese and Onions
The Beatles - A Day in the Life
The Rutles - Ouch!
Polaris - Hey Sandy
Thievery Corporation - Lebanese Blonde
Smash Mouth - Every Word Means No
The Gants - I Wonder
The Beatles - In My Life
They Might Be Giants - Whistling in the Dark
They Might Be Giants - Shoehorn with Teeth
Eminem - Under the Influence
The Magnetic Fields - The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side
U2 - With or Without You
Journey - Don’t Stop Believin’
Semisonic - Closing Time
Green Day - When I Come Around
Bobby Darin - Mack the Knife
Buzzcocks - Orgasm Addict
Mariah Carey - All I Want for Christmas Is You
Band/album personnel (not counting the vocals, since we’ve listed all the singers above)
Stephin Merritt: Everything except the guitar solo on “Pillow Fight”
Mitch Easter: The guitar solo on “Pillow Fight”
“Discord & Rhyme (theme),” composed by the Other Leading Brand, contains elements of:
Amon Düül II - Dehypnotized Toothpaste
The Dukes of Stratosphear - What in the World?? ...
Faith No More - Midlife Crisis
Herbie Hancock - Hornets
Kraftwerk - Autobahn
Talking Heads - Seen and Not Seen
The 6ths - San Diego Zoo (this episode only)
You can buy or stream Wasps’ Nests and other albums by Stephin Merritt and his associated acts at the usual suspects such as Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon [affiliate link]. Follow Discord & Rhyme on Twitter @DiscordPod for news, updates, and other random stuff. Follow Rich @zonetrope, Amanda @MagneticInk67, and Dan @DanSWatkins. Special thanks to Rich for editing and Mike for production. See you next album, and be ever wonderful.
On April 30, come and hang out with Phil, Rich, Mike, and Dan while Phil explains how Blue Öyster Cult made MANY more songs besides “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla.” In fact, those are two of the least representative songs in the band’s entire catalogue. Very little cowbell here, but plenty of great songwriting and intentionally provocative lyrics.