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Stephin Merritt Talks About His “Strange Powers”

Stephin Merritt Talks About His “Strange Powers”  (photo)

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“Strange Powers” chronicles the quirks and songwriting habits of one of the great songwriters of this generation, the elusive Stephin Merritt. Over a decade in the making, the documentary from directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara is a fascinating look at a very private man, known for his aversion to the press and fame. Merritt spends his days writing songs in gay bars that are at once catchy and somber. Many of them are so oddly familiar you can’t believe they’re original, but that’s Merritt tapping into a kind of musical Cosmogonic Cycle, harnessing some simple melody shared in our subconscious.

For all his gifts, Merritt does not suffer fools. He’s honed a reputation for a sharp tongue and a blatant disdain for answering stupid questions from neophyte interviewers, which is painful to behold. Author Neil Gaiman says of him that, “He made Lou Reed look like Little Orphan Annie.” You couldn’t dream up a scene more hilariously awkward than Merritt opposite a back-slapping automaton on a FOX morning show, which “Strange Powers” thankfully provides some context for. When musician Bob Mould was prodded about a writer labeling him the “the most depressed man in rock,” he responded by saying “He’s never met Stephin Merritt.”

I had a brief exchange with Merritt in anticipation of the film’s release during which I inquired about a few things it raised, such as his father — pop/folk singer Scott Fagan, whom he’s never met. We also covered some things not raised by the film such as his true love: Hawaiian lounge extraordinaire Martin Denny, the “father of exotica.”

Let’s set the stage: “It was raining broken glass in the forgotten part of town.” Where are you, what are you doing?

I read that line from a very old notebook, and it was presumably a dummy lyric, intended only to jog my memory of a melody, now long forgotten and unjoggable. It sounds like a parody of a 70s Bruce Springsteen lyric. Or, listen! You can almost hear Peter Murphy singing it. It has come to sound like a World Trade Center reference, but the notebook is much older than that.

What film would you inhabit/live in, if you could?

I want to live in “L’il Abner.” Instead, I live in “Carnival of Souls,” and that’s okay too.

You say in “Strange Powers” when mentioning your Father and his island influenced pop rock, that your music is not at all island influenced — which I first nodded along too of course, before thinking about your penchant for Ukulele’s. I don’t like The Doors much, for example, because somewhere in there all that organ sounds like a scary carnival to me, but one of the things I love about your music is that somewhere in there, sometimes, there’s a touch of “island.”

When you’ve lived in “Carnival of Souls” for a few decades you get used to the crazy carnival. “Island” refers to the Caribbean, not islands in general. England, Manhattan and New Zealand are islands too. That said, I have enjoyed a great deal of music made in Hawaii, not least the Creatures album, “Feast.” And of course, I love Martin Denny more than life itself — much more.

I’m fascinated that you seem to have inherited your father’s musical proclivities and talent (and exceeded them) without even being directly influenced by him. Have you ever wondered what kind of music you could make together?

Not really, no. Would you write even better articles if only you had your parents’ help?

Fair enough! — Your top 100 music list received criticism [and claims of racism] for not including many black artists. If you rewrote it today what would change, if anything?

I should mention that it wasn’t a top 100 list, just a list of 100 pieces of music I liked, one from each year of the 20th century. And I haven’t seen that list in years, so I don’t know what I’d change, but it actually includes plenty of black artists, so that wouldn’t be among my changes.

What are you listening to now?

Right now I’m listening to the Okko album “Sitar & Electronics.” Oops, it’s over. Got to go put something else on. Choosing between ESG and Pauline Oliveros…

“Strange Powers” opens today (October 27th) in New York at the Film Forum, and in LA on November 5th at the Laemmle Sunset 5, with a national release to follow.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.