Interviews

Still Built to Spill: An Interview with Doug Martsch

Doug Martsch and Built to Spill march on. Despite a core lineup shift, they never plan to slow down.


Built to Spill

Untethered Moon

Label: Warner Bros.
Release Date: 2015-04-21
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Doug Martsch isn’t a man easily changed. Since 1992, Martsch and his band Built to Spill have made a strict case for consistency, rejecting musical nosedives and label drama, opting instead to adhere to the model that has become their main focus for over 20 years: make the music they want to make.

On the surface, It’s a mantra that seems simple enough, but very few indie rock bands from the '90s have managed to weather the millennial storm in the way that Built to Spill have. They work hard, tour hard, play hard, release and record consistently great albums, and remain impervious to hip trends. In short, there isn’t any other band quite like Built to Spill in the musical clime of 2015.

Yet Built to Spill have changed through the years. Their records move subtly from point to point, addressing a range of mercurial subjects: politics, family, grief, joy, and, most importantly, the role music plays in both the listener’s and the artist’s lives.

Their latest album, Untethered Moon, has exactly what fans have come to expect from Built to Spill -- tight structures, thoughtful lyrics, inherent melodies -- but it's also a powerful and lingering record, one with the type of staying power only a veteran band could create. Additionally, it's a record made with new members in tow. Martsch is joined now by bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere, who take up the mantle left by former drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson. But even this type of change did very little to disrupt the well-oiled machine of Built to Spill. The songs are tighter, certainly, but Martsch is still at the helm, refusing to let a sizable two thirds lineup change deter him from the music he makes.

What is most striking about Martsch, perhaps, is his everyman persona in conversation. A family man based out of Boise, Idaho, Martsch speaks honestly and sincerely about the music he loves, the shift in band members, and his lack of preparedness for a career in music. All that plus a little bit of inspiration from producer Sam Coomes and a Canadian band named Slam Dunk (of all things) lead to the creation of one of Built to Spill’s finest records of their lengthy career.

I wanted to start with the new record, Untethered Moon. It feels like rejuvenated effort on your part in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, it definitely felt that way for me, getting the new guys in the band. And also I discovered a band from Canada called Slam Dunk that really inspired me a lot on many levels. And the producer, Sam Coomes, he’s someone we all admire and trust and gave us a lot of confidence to make this record.

The band Slam Dunk -- how exactly did they inspire you?

Well, in a lot of ways. I think mostly they just made a record that sounds great. So much of music sounds forced to me, like I can’t understand what a band is going for or what they want to do. And sometimes I think, “Well, is our music like that? Does it sound that way when I try to make a song -- forced or fake?” And then I hear Slam Dunk and I think, “Oh, that’s it. Music is good!” You just do it and don’t try too hard to be original or weird. And Slam Dunk just made sense to me.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you actually had an album recorded before this one that you scrapped.

Yeah, we had an album that had five or six of those songs from [Untethered Moon] on it and we reworked them a little bit over time.

What went wrong with those that made you feel like it just wasn’t working out?

You know, it was with the old rhythm section that we recorded it, and they all did a great job, but we didn’t really rehearse very much. We kind of had the songs in a real simple form; they were pretty straightforward, not very many parts or anything. Then I went to the studio to work on some kind of crazy overdubs to bring them to life at that stage. The rhythm section recorded them and it sounded great, but then we got into the studio and pushing the songs to the next level wasn’t really happening or, if it was happening, we weren’t recognizing it. So we were getting the record done but we weren’t thinking, “Oh, that sounds rad!” it was more like, “Oh, that will work.” There was a lot of that.

Maybe that’s fine, but it didn’t feel very rad, and it wasn’t a lot of fun. I wasn’t looking forward to finishing it. Then [Brett Nelson and Scott Plouf] quit the band, and I saw that as an opportunity. But then we went back and worked on those songs a bit more and didn’t have to rely on studio magic or inspiration to make them good. We changed their arrangement a little bit, and they were automatically better songs.

I noticed that the songs on the record are really tight and really succinct.

Good, yeah. We worked really hard: [we] did tons of rehearsing, tons of jamming and demoing, and trying different parts. We were definitely well-rehearsed by the time we started those songs again.

Did you feel that you had to start over when Brett and Scott left?

You know when Jason [Albertini] and Steve [Gere] filled in, they were in the band right away. We didn’t rest for a moment. I knew that those guys are so great that I wasn’t worried about the band at all. I felt like we were just picking up where we left off. I told them not to even try to think of it like we were a brand new thing; we’re not trying to sound like things we’ve done in the past. We have the freedom to do whatever we want. So I feel pretty good about it either way. We are an established band that has all of our old songs, but I’d like to be a fresh band, too, and forget about all that old stuff in a way.

Well, I wanted to ask you about some of the “old stuff” you reference on one of your new tracks, “All Those Songs.” You wrote, “all those old songs / sound like they’ve been here forever.” What kind of songs were you talking about?

I guess I was thinking of that from kind of a teenage point of view. Just the feeling you have when you hear music that resonated right away with you for whatever reason. Where the songs just felt really natural and it sounds like it’s always been there. It doesn’t sound like it’s been made up or even being created; it sounds like it’s engrained in the universe.

I get the sense with some records, that I’ve known them my whole life after listening to them once.

Yeah.

And I get that sense with a lot of Built to Spill records, too.

Well, that’s good. At least, I hope it’s good. Sometimes a record like that will burn you out, too. It may sound great the first time, but then, after a few listens, that’s all there really is to it. I think some of the most rewarding records are the ones we can’t stand at first but for whatever reason we were forced to listen to them a bunch. You know I listened to so many bad records as a kid that I spent my whole allowance on, and I had to, you know? I had to deal with it and make myself like a lot of shitty things. And some good things (laughs). Records like Heroes by David Bowie, which I did not like the first few times I listened to it, but I learned to love it. [Laughs] That’s one good thing about the internet; kids don’t have to deal with that shit, they can just move on to whatever they want for free.

Right, but at the same time, there’s something beautiful about making yourself commit to a really shitty record. At the end of the day you might feel a little bit better about music, even if you feel worse about yourself.

And you can learn from anything. I can, at least. Especially live, I can enjoy almost anything. Well, the shittier the better. Some things I can’t enjoy, like when bands have their shit down so slick and tight; sometimes that can suck all the joy out of every aspect of it. But I can find joy in almost any music.

You have a pretty big discography in Built to Spill. Do you have a favorite time period or favorite record that you’ve worked on, one that really sticks out to you?

I don’t think that I do. I’m still pretty happy with our whole collection of records. I also have things I hate about our entire collection of records, too. I guess I might have some opinions of my own. I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s such a subjective thing, you know? And I have no idea what any one hears when they put on one of our records. There’s so many aspects to the music it’s hard to understand what each person might be getting from it. But I have no idea what I’m doing; I don’t know why I pursue a certain melody, chord progression, or lyric. I don’t know why certain things mean something to me and certain things don’t. I just don’t know.

The pieces that you don’t like, why do those stick out more to you?

Well, you know you wish you could have done it all right. You have regrets in everything. Mostly I wish I would have left some things alone and not messed with certain things. I think people think that I try to create a “wall of sound”, but I really don’t. I want things to stand out clearly, like a reggae record or something, and I just wasn’t good enough to pull it off. But that’s also neither here nor there. I’m also willing to just totally let that stuff go. But a record like The Normal Years or the Live record, I could never listen to those records. Those two records I’m not proud of at all. I kind of got talked into putting them out. But over the years, I’ve gotten something out of them, so I doesn’t really matter what I think. [Laughs]

You’ve had a consistent career in music for over 20 years. Do you have any advice for musicians or artists who are looking to keep that kind of consistency, or how they can keep finding joy in their music?

Well, the longevity part of it is weird. As far as making a career out this? I have no idea. I had no intentions of making a career out of music. Now I’m this far into it I think, “Oh shoot, this is my career, I gotta start thinking serious about this.” Because I really just started drifting along with it, thinking it was all a pipe dream and that I could go along and do music for a while. But now I think, “What would I do besides this?” And I don’t know. But my advice? I don’t have any advice. I guess that people should enjoy what they’re doing and enjoy the process of what they’re doing. But that’s kind of beyond advice because you either do it or you don’t. It’s not something you’re being advised to do.

I always think about what Calvin Johnson told me on this subject when he saw The Decline of Western Civilization. In the heavy metal one (The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years) they ask them, “What would you do if you don’t make it?” And they all say, “Oh no, we’ll make it.” In the first movie, that question doesn’t even come up because they are making it. It is what it is. Every day they’re making it. So, if you could embrace that spirit it would make things easier for you regardless of what happens.

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