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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.