The singer on posing naked, growing a beard, and why Germans don't recognise the sound of a ukelele
'I stopped shaving and discovered I was more popular' … Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields. Photograph: Marcelo Krasilcic
How long have you had a beard?
A few months. I stopped shaving and discovered I was more popular. Maybe people can't see my ordinary, rather dour facial expressions as easily and so they don't seem to think I'm the total jerk they seemed to think I was before.
You said your new single Andrew in Drag is (1) autobiographical – in what way?
I write a lot of songs about unrequited love because I'm very, very familiar with unrequited love, both as a lyrical theme and coincidentally in my own life – which is a good thing because it provides lots of material.
Speaking of unrequited love, you posed naked for Butt magazine(2). Did it have any effect on your love life?
It complicated the relationship I was about to have, but once we convinced him it had been taken months before, it was less complicating.
There's a song on the album (3) called God Wants Us to Wait. Have you ever encountered anyone who told you that?
If you Google "God wants us to wait" there are whole websites about so-called abstinence education – as if one has to be taught how to not have sex. I went to elementary school partly in Boston, which is a very Catholic town, and there was a lot of talk about abstinence and guilt.
Obviously it didn't have much effect on you.
It's actually a complicated issue for me because while I detest Christianity and think ethics are bunk, I also realise Aids more or less destroyed the argument that we should all fuck like bunnies in the street and that anyone who says otherwise is a moron. While it is true, obviously, that we should fuck like bunnies in the street, we need to be wearing the proper clothing while doing so. Anyway, it's a complex situation easily satirised with stupid but fun little songs such as God Wants Us to Wait.
I remember a few years ago in the Guide, Damon Albarn saying with great self-satisfaction that he'd written a Chinese opera (3). But you've written three (4). Does that mean you're three times as talented?
I write them in my sleep. We were doing it with the same director as him –Chen Shi-Zheng (5).
Did you get gossip?
I did! Not that I'm willing to share.
Why are the songs on this album so short?
All songs should be short. They're only a little shorter than they are on69 Love Songs (6). This is an average of 2:15 and 69 Love Songs is an average of 2:40.
Do you ever worry that 69 Love Songs overshadows everything else you do?
The whole point was to make it a career-defining move, so I can't complain. I knew we were going to have a big backlash immediately afterwards, so i (7) was written knowing no one would ever prefer it to 69 Love Songs, or even pretend to. So I will spend the rest of my life living down 69 Love Songs, just as I planned to. It's fine.
It must be gratifying that a lot of people cite it as their favourite album ever.
I'm not aware of these people, but I applaud them.
How's your chihuahua, Irving Berlin?
He's 12. The average chihuahua lifespan is 13 years so he's going a bit deaf, which is actually convenient for him. Now he can only bark at the neighbours if he sees them.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about your music?
One of them is that in Germany they have no tradition of the ukelele. German journalists don't recognise the sound of a ukelele – they hear it as a badly recorded guitar. All German journalists think the Magnetic Fields are literally low fidelity – not lo-fi the genre, but literally very badly recorded and out of tune.
Will you vote for Obama again?
I didn't vote for Obama in the first place. I didn't vote at all in that election – I wasn't there. But anyway, I want to keep my passport so I don't reveal my actual political leanings in the national press of any English-speaking country.
Are you staying in this hotel (8) for its proximity to Tate Britain or the discos of Vauxhall?
Neither – I'm hanging out at the King's Arms in Soho.
That's the bears' pub. Are you a bear (9) now?
I'm not big enough to be considered a bear, except if you believe in the phrase "pocket bear", which I'm not really comfortable with.
Like a koala.
No, koala's something else – Australian bear. Many of my friends are bear or post-bear, like my friend LD Beghtol who sang on 69 Love Songs. He's had a big, bushy beard for decades and considers himself post-bear.
What do you do if you're post-bear?
You're beyond all that now.
1) From new album Love at the Bottom of the Sea, released by Domino on 5 March; it's the first Magnetic Fields album to use synthesisers since 1999.
2) Cult gay magazine based in Amsterdam that ran from 2001-2011, and now lives on the internet at buttmagazine.com.
3) Love at the Bottom of the Sea
4) Monkey: Journey to the West (2007)
5) Orphan of Zhao (2003), Peach Blossom Fan (2004), and My Life as a Fairy Tale (2005)
6) Director of several theatre works and the film Dark Matter, which starred Meryl Streep.
7) The Magnetic Fields' classic 1999 album.
8) The following album, on which all the song titles began with the letter "i".
9) Doubletree Westminster.
10) Gay subculture that prizes the hairier, chubbier and more mature man.