Q&A with Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields’ Frontman and Possibly the Funniest Musician Ever

A fixture on the New York downtown music scene since the 80s—with his ironic, experimental, synth-y, post-New Wave band The Magnetic Fields—singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt has sported a myriad of fashionable looks. The recent documentary about the tunesmith and his music, Strange Powers, touches on his unusual sartorial choices. We delve deeper…

What’s your most glamourous moment?
I’ve never had a glamorous moment. I’m 5’3″, with a big nose, both of which make glamour so difficult. (How does Sade do it?) In childhood I was a hippie in rags with hair down to there, but with multiple uncontrollable cowlicks. Then I wore the strangest possible vintage paisley unisex clothes, and completely changed my hair constantly (for a few months I had one 18-foot extension with spikes), and caused car accidents, and had projectiles hurled at me. Then, having been persecuted enough, I dyed my hair green for ten years and always wore a black leather jacket. Then I got depressed and weighed 96 pounds, and wore children’s clothes. Then I wore nothing but vibrantly colored Marimekko stripes. Finally I settled on the white-to-sepia spectrum, and now that’s all I wear. And I have no hair, but at least I never have to wonder what it’s doing.

What is your worst fashion disaster?
One of my bands, The Magnetic Fields, were concertizing at Irving Plaza and I bought a great T-shirt from a girl in the front row. I gave her mine, but it took her several songs to give me hers, forcing me to be shirtless in front of two thousand people or so, during my 96-pound period. Having a footlong operation scar down my abdomen probably contributes to the horror of my appearing shirtless, even in front of loved ones and medical personnel.

What is your favorite article of clothing?
Definitely the ginger-snap-colored Trovata Bullit waxed-cotton twill trench coat, which I bought at their sample sale for twelve dollars.

Have you ever made an outfit? If so, what was it and where did you wear it?
I can’t sew, I can barely play the ukulele. So I haven’t actually made anything structurally, but I’ve certainly done extensive renovations. I once had a terrible, flimsy black vinyl jacket I was ashamed to wear to Danceteria, so I bought a white paint pen and wrote the names of pop groups on every inch of it, in improbable combinations. Then it looked like a priceless pop-art piece, like it was maybe a jacket Joseph Beuys had made to satirize Boy of London. When I wore nothing but black, I dyed a lot of improbable clothes black, but I refuse to do that much work anymore.

Your wardrobe currently consists of white to all shades of brown—or sepia, as you say. When did this occur and what brought it about?
People naturally ask about the unmentionables, for which I wear and recommend chocolate-brown American Apparel briefs. (Why is underwear ever any other color?) I was pretty happy though unlovable in my clashing Marimekko stripes (a bartender at the New York Eagle leather bar took me aside and explained that he kept hearing people laughing at me behind my back—I figured I should just avoid the Eagle), but burgeoning baldness prompted me to enhance my assets by matching the tones of my eyes (chestnut) and skin (fawn).

If you could make someone over, who would it be and what would you do?
Well, it would be me, of course, and it would involve lots of surgery and electrolysis, diet and exercise, implants and transplants, platform boots and a plush bunny outfit. It would not involve a reality show. It would be done in secrecy, and I would deny it to everyone forever. The question is how to do all that without my manager and accountant finding out.

When do you feel your prettiest?
In dark bars, surrounded by elderly men who can barely see me. Fortunately that’s where I am for several hours a day, since I’m an alcoholic songwriter who writes only in bars. I used to write in cafés too, but the caffeine made me need to drink too much before I could sleep.

What’s a look you had to abandon?
See above.

What’s a look you wish you could pull off?
Most of all I wish I wasn’t allergic to wool. I love wool, but if I wear any, I have to take Benadryl, and then I fall over. If I walk into a Pendleton store my throat closes up and I have to leave to breathe. Most of the best brown clothes are wool. Even wool ties make me uncontrollably itchy. I can’t wear a normal suit or winter coat, and adding insult I’m also allergic to feathers, so I spend winters in waxed oilcloth Barbour fishing coats. I seem to be the fashion equivalent of a pygmy John Merrick, enduring the trials of Job. Why are you interviewing me?