There comes a point on every tour—very early on, after about the third show—when I completely forget that my traveling companions play music. We sit in airports together, we ride in crowded minivans, we play games, we eat both terrible and amazing meals. I think of them as my older siblings, some of whom are grumpy in the morning, others who always want to chat. What happens onstage is so separate from the rest of the experience that I really do forget that they all speak this other language—when I duck into the crowd every night, for just a few minutes here and there during the down times at the merch booth, it’s like waking up and realizing that the rest of my family is fluent in Japanese.
When all together, we talk about the merch more than the music. That is not a joke or an exaggeration. Is that because it’s easier to talk about T-shirts (a quantifiable object) than the experience of playing music? I don’t know. But it was bothering me, this distance, so I decided to ask the band what they enjoy about the act of playing music. The first three responses came to me live, while we were all sitting in our hotel’s lobby bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Because they were (sick? warm? perverse? besotted?) individuals, the people in charge of the hotel sound system played nothing but the Magnetic Fields for the entire first day of our stay, and so while we were talking, we were also listening to their albums, played on shuffle. When there was an unusually long pause between songs, Stephin Merritt said to me, “We are listening to the absence of ourselves.”
Stephin gets asked about playing (and writing) music all the time. He and I talked a little bit at the bar about when he learned to play music (age ten, roughly, with the usual piano/guitar/recorder lessons that the rest of us suffer through, but with vastly different results), but Stephin’s discomfort playing live due to his hyperacusis has been well documented. I thought it might be more fun to get the rest of the band’s various perspectives. The Magnetic Fields is not a bunch of college students who all share a flophouse (this is how I imagine 90 percent of bands who play at SXSW). They are adults, one married, two with children, several with mortgages and other steady gigs unrelated to playing music. Being on tour is by far the most time they spend with one other, perhaps with the exception of Stephin and Claudia Gonson, who talk on the phone approximately seven hundred times a day, about matters large and small.
So, what do the Magnetic Fields think about playing live?
Sam Davol, cello: I love performing because my f*ing iPhone is turned off for ninety minutes. I’m kidding but not kidding at all. Focus is everything to me. And I think it’s what the audience wants as well. I don’t have a favorite song, venue, city, or special guest in mind when I play. The opposite really: I want to be unaware of my self and locked into the music, down to the very note at hand. That’s what seems right to me, and it makes me happy. I’m a monk about music, and I like to think that I’m part of a tribe of musicians carrying that torch. Lots of people in this business, performers, too, seem absorbed with everything BUT the notes. Anyway, as Tourganizer and I say every morning in the lobby when loading the van: “Good morning! Stay focused!”
John Woo, guitar: “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old” is challenging for me because not only is it a fast tremolo picking pattern, but it’s often not always a given that Stephin will be able to actually hear it well enough to sing over it. So when it gets to that point in the set, it’s like Stephin and I, tethered together with a strand of dental floss, suspended over a dark abyss —with scorpions, vampire bats, and C.H.U.D. waiting at the bottom. Then again, I suppose that’s part of the joy of live music.
Shirley Simms, vocals and ukulele: I love playing live music with these particular people more than I am terrified by the notion of an audience watching me as I do. “It’s Only Time” is just a joy to sing and I call “Fear of Trains,” “Fear of Fear of Trains.” Everything happens very fast in that song, and it can be nerve-wracking.
Claudia Gonson, piano, vocals, management: Certainly after the twenty-five or so gigs we’ve played during these last weeks, things can get really tiring, even when you enjoy playing as much as I do. I find some songs grow better to perform, some more tedious. Sometimes they’ll shift back and forth. My solution is to remember that it’s new for the audience every night. So ultimately it’s the audience that keeps me enjoying these performances, knowing that some of them are experiencing something important. On the final night of our U.S. tour, there was a man in absolute ecstasy by the stage—just swaying back and forth with his hands playing around in the air. That’s why it’s worth it.
After six weeks on the road and a long drive back from Atlanta with my indefatigable husband at the wheel, we finally made it home. All the trees on our block had bloomed in our absence, and the cats made their disapproval at our vanishing act known. We ordered in dinner and went to bed early. No lobby bar, no T-shirts to count, no songs stuck in our head. As much as I love my house and my cats and my steady life, I think some small part of me will miss it, standing in the lobby, or in the very back of the audience, knowing when someone drops a lyric or misses a note—not because it makes the songs less beautiful to the fans, but because I’ve been listening for so long that I know the songs backward and forward, whether or not I can find middle C.
No one asked me, but I’ll tell you anyway—my favorite part of going on tour is watching the band enjoy themselves onstage, when they’re too engrossed in what they’re doing to gripe about the air-conditioning in the car or how much their bag weighs. There’s hardly a sentimental bone in the whole band, but I don’t mind exposing this one: sometimes, when the stars align, they’re all in it together. No, wait—that’s my favorite part of watching the show. My favorite part of going on tour is right afterward, when the audience is gone and there’s a bottle of wine or two left from the rider, and we go and sit somewhere together, because we have nowhere else to be, and we’re all divorced from our normal lives for a little while, and all we have is each other, a tiny island floating in the middle of the ocean.
Emma Straub is the author of the short-story collection Other People We Married.