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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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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