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.”