For a while there, indie kids nationwide were ready to spray paint city alleys from Bangor to Santa Cruz with three simple words: “Martsch is God”. Such was the swirling majesty of Boise native Doug Martsch’s guitar on Built to Spill’s 1997 prog rock masterpiece Perfect from Now On. Martsch recorded the album three times before he got it right, committing what had to be an unfathomable amount of overdubs to tape in the process, and he still wasn’t happy with the finished product. But for those lucky enough to have their minds blown by breathtaking epics like “I Would Hurt a Fly”, “Stop the Show”, “Made-up Dreams” and “Velvet Waltz”, Perfect From Now On stood with OK Computer and Urban Hymns as part of a magical trio of 70 mm wide-screen rock records put out that year.
It seems like everything Martsch has done since has been inversely influenced by Perfect From Now On. The next Built to Spill record Keep It Like a Secret had songs that still sounded epic but were actually much shorter and simpler. Last year’s Ancient Melodies of the Future didn’t sound epic at all, and the songs were even more scaled back. While both were fine albums, there were also frustrating at times. Martsch is one of the few guitar players you actually want to play forever, who gets you excited when he ditches the song and heads straight for the stratosphere. Since his solos are based so much on repetition and unique sound textures, the full affect often doesn’t register until several minutes in.
Martsch continues to strip himself down on his just-released first solo album Now You Know He plays unaccompanied acoustic slide guitar on much of the record, giving his music a never-before-seen blues dimension. It’s a modest collection of songs; nothing earth-shattering but it grows on you, like the rustic title track and a cover of “Woke Up With Jesus on My Mind” by Mississippi Fred McDowell, a country blues guitarist whose music was a major influence on Martsch during the making of Now You Know.
Martsch recently sat down for a phone interview with PopMatters to discuss his solo album, good blues music, the state of Built to Spill, and his new cover band.
It says on your web site that the album was recorded in the fall of 1999. Why did it take so long to come out?
Well, when I finished it, I asked Warner Bros. if I could put it out on an independent label and they said they would be willing to license it out to an independent label. I didn’t want them to license it; I wanted them to give it away to me and let me do whatever I wanted with it. If they licensed it out, I wouldn’t get any money from it because I’m so far in debt to them. I wanted to wait around and see if they were going to pick Built to Spill up again because if I was going to be giving them the record and get dropped, I would have given them a record and never seen anything about it again. Then they decided to pick Built to Spill up and they also decided to put out the record themselves.
PM: Why did you initially want to put it out on a small label?
I just felt it was more suited to a small label. Just like the quality of the recording. I felt like it would only be suited for a smaller audience, for people who like Built to Spill a lot but not for the run of the mill Built to Spill fan. It seemed like a kind of weird record that not many people would like.
PM: What do you think of the album three years after you recorded it?
I guess, just from the reaction I’ve gotten from people, that it’s more widely accessible than I thought it was.
PM: Your web site also says that you were into Fred McDowell around the time you were making Now You Know, and that you emulated his style. What was it about his playing that grabbed you?
It’s all really simple, the idea of it. He just has a great handle of the slide, it sounds really nice. His style is sort of playing the notes that he sings, and that’s kind of what I took. I saw a picture of him and saw that he used finger picks, so I tried using those. Just the basic idea was that, singing the notes that you play. It’s all real kind of driving rhythms, too. That was another thing I took from that. That sort of just came naturally to me, the rhythm he does. Maybe that’s why I ended up emulating him, because automatically I already played that way a little bit.
PM: Listening to your records, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a blues influence there. What made you finally come around to this music?
I think it was just a matter of finding the right blues. I always liked Jimi Hendrix, he played the blues. I always liked Led Zeppelin, and they’re basically the blues. But I never really found the real blues. Who ever heard of Mississippi Fred McDowell? I mean, we’ve all heard of B.B. King, but that didn’t really do much for me. I kind of thought of the blues as beer commercial music. So it was kind of just a matter of finding the right blues. Hearing that Fred McDowell stuff, just right away, I thought, “This is the shit.” Then I started listening to country blues and I started finding stuff I liked.
PM: While we’ve been talking a lot about the blues influence on Now You Know, I wouldn’t say it’s a blues record. It still sounds very much like you. How did listening to that stuff influence your style of music?
Mostly I just took the instrument and made up my own sort of songs with it. All the songs are just little exercises for myself to learn how to play with a slide. Rather than learn blues songs, I just more kind of wanted to learn how to play with a slide. I had no intention of writing songs or making an album, I just wanted to learn how to do it. Then over the course of a few months, I had a bunch of little exercises that I would do all the time when I would play the slide. At some point I played things for a couple friends and they thought it sounded really nice, so I decided that I might go ahead and pursue it a little bit. I put together a band just to jam around, just for fun, and to play a benefit here in town, and that’s how I got the band. And then I thought, shoot, might as well make a record and see that how goes.
PM: You made this album with friends from around Boise?
PM: How did that come together?
Just really casually. One of the guys was a guy I played basketball with, the bass player. The drummer, somebody recommended him. . . . And the other two guys, they were good players and nice guys basically. They both have bands of their own that are really good, they’re both really good singers and songwriters. Travis the bass player is actually a better blues player than I am. He actually has a couple records of blues stuff that’s really good.
PM: What was it like working outside a steady band again?
The way Built to Spill is, two of us live in Idaho and two of us live in Seattle, so we don’t really practice regularly or anything. So unless we’re about to tour or make a record, we don’t do anything. So months go by that we don’t see each other. So over the years I’ve always sort of had other things going on, like just having different jam nights and having different people come over and mess around. So it was kind of along the lines of things I’ve already done. It just seemed really natural.
PM: It’s a cliché that guys in bands do solo records because they feel they can’ t do something they want to do within the confines of their current situation. Is that true in your case?
No, um, but I guess in a way (laughs). But not really. I could have easily made this be a Built to Spill record if I had the Built to Spill guys play on it. Or I could have made half of the Built to Spill album acoustic songs with slide. I’m not against that at all. It just seemed to happen this way.
PM: What is the state of Built to Spill right now?
We’re going to start doing stuff in the springtime, I guess. Just get together and start writing new songs and try to make a record. Last November was the last time we’ve done anything, and I think by January or February we’ll start writing songs and hopefully do some touring in the spring or summer. I’ve got another band, too, that I just kind of started a few months ago that’s a cover band. Hopefully by the end of this year we’ll have made a record here at my house, too.
PM: What’s that band called?
Boise Cover Band.
PM: What covers are you playing?
Mostly they’re reggae songs, but we do them straight-ahead, not reggae-style. We just do them as pop songs. A lot of reggae songs, the influence came from soul music from America. So they kind of took soul songs and turned them into reggae, and we’re going to turn them into something else.
PM: Most guys form original bands so they don’t have to play covers. What made you want to start a cover band?
It actually started out as one of those jam things I was talking about, where I just had a few friends who wanted to play more and we talked about getting together once a week and just jamming. We did that once or twice and I was like, “This is boring, I’m tired of jamming.” I want to actually play some songs. It comes and goes, the moods of what kind of music I feel like making. Sometimes jamming is just dull and boring, so I started learning some songs. I want to do this forever. I’d love to have this going on always, just to keep in practice of playing and recording but you don’t have to write the songs. We’re still interpreting music. I feel very much super involved in it. I feel as excited about doing this stuff as I have about any Built to Spill things, and I feel its every bit as valid as a Built to Spill record.
PM: Any songs you want to mention that you’re working on?
Most are kind of obscure reggae songs, but there’s a couple popular songs. Like we do a instrumental version of “Back on the Chain Gang” by The Pretenders. It’s sort of pretty and we sing “ahhs” in it but no words. We do “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. Everything we do is really mellow and I play bass in the band. Our drummer and our guitar player are actually a guitar player and a keyboard player that have switched to those instruments. They’re good. We’re all in our mid-30s so everyone is pretty good at playing even instruments we don’t usually play. And we have another guitar player who is like a virtuoso hotshot guitar player. His name is Ned Evett and he plays a fretless guitar. He’s kind of a pioneer fretless guitar player. He’s amazing, beautiful. He just got done touring Europe and he did a couple shows with Steve Vai and shit.
PM: Now You Know is the third record you’ve made in a row now with relatively short, simple and compact songs. Have you tried to back away from that indie rock guitar hero label that people have tried to pin on you?
I never took that seriously in any way at all. None of this is a reaction to that. It’s more about what I listen to. Before this record and before end of the last Built to Spill record, I had been listening to blues and folk music, so it influenced both those records. I think that’s where the simplicity comes from. And the shorter songs, on “Keep It Like a Secret”, I definitely wanted to shorten the songs because of Perfect From Now On I definitely got really burnt out making that record, it was way too much work. When a song is eight minutes long, it’s not like working on two three-minute songs, it’s like working on ten of them. The math involved is geometry instead of addition or something, so I was not into making songs with passages and shit.
PM: On Ancient Melodies of the Future it seems like there’s several songs that fade out just as the band is about to stretch out and make the songs longer. Where those songs shortened down?
Yeah. That was something we’ve always done, to let the tape roll and see what would happen. And I just felt like I didn’t want the songs to go on anymore. And it’s true, they do do that. I felt like they didn’t really go anywhere, it felt kind of tacked on if they jammed on too long.
PM: Do you see yourself ever going back to longer song structures like on Perfect from Now On?
There was a compilation that was supposed to come out of Boise bands, and they wanted me to do something and I did a song working at the local studio and at home. And it’s like 13 or 14 minutes long, and it just has all these different passages and parts and stuff, but it’s all based on this one not even chord progression, just one chord. Mostly instrumental, but there’s some kind of singing on it. Big weird song, and now I don’t think the compilation is going to happen. So I have that song laying around
I’m not opposed to making long songs or anything. Just sort of whatever comes up. I think for a Built to Spill album, you never know, maybe this next record will be long songs. I still want to make a record that’s one 50 minute song. I think that would be a blast to do.
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Excerpts from this interview originally ran in The Foundation of Minneapolis.