Built To Spill's Doug Martsch: The Cream Interview


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A funny thing about seminal indie-rock band Built To Spill? They haven't technically been an "indie" band in over 15 years. They signed with Warner Bros. back in 1997 for the release of their exquisite Perfect From Now On — that's right, I called it "exquisite" — and Warner's been their home ever since. I talk a bit about that in my feature on Built To Spill in this week's dead-tree edition of the Scene, so go ahead and have a look at that if you feel so inclined.

In prepping for the aforementioned feature, I got the chance to chat with B2S frontman Doug Martsch via phone. (On a personal note, I have to say that Keep It Like a Secret helped shape my taste in my formative years more than perhaps any other record — though Radiohead's OK Computer is certainly in the running ... I digress!) Martsch and I spoke about seeing his idols sign to majors, the making of their forthcoming record, writing shorter songs (and not-shorter songs), M.I.A, The Clash, The Halo Benders and more. Have a look below.

Nashville Cream: I think a funny bit of irony with you guys is that you’re known as one of the cornerstone indie rock bands, but you’ve been with Warner Brothers, one of the biggest labels there is, for something like 15 years. How is it that you guys have been able to maintain that sort of consistency and affiliation for so long without any shake-ups?

Doug Martsch: Well, I think maybe people consider us indie rock because we’ve never really had any hits or made any kind of mainstream impression — we kind of run our band like an indie band still — and we never tried to do that stuff. And, you know, the way we tour — I don’t know, I guess that’s indie rock. The spirit of indie rock.

When I was a kid in the ’80s and punk bands started signing with major labels — like The Replacements and Husker Du and stuff, or even, like, R.E.M. — it seemed to us at the time that these bands would sort of change their sound and stuff when they signed to a major label. That was something that we kind of tried not to do. You know, there is something that changes in the quality of your sound when you go from no budget at all to a serious recording budget. These studios are just going to make you sound a little slicker and stuff. You know, we tried to temper that. So yeah, I guess that’s what’s that’s all about.

NC: So no interest in — as you’d said with Husker Du or The Replacements — making the sound kind of more palatable or mainstream?

DM: Not too much. I feel like every time I make music I try to make music that I think anyone can like. But maybe not quite anyone [laughs]. I also understand that with the quality of my voice and sort of the weirdness of our musical ideas just from the influences that we’ve had, I know that it’s not super radio-friendly or anything. But at the same time, I still feel like anyone that likes any music could like Built To Spill. Definitely the idea behind it is always to make music that is accessible to just about anyone that’s not totally stuck into something specific.

NC: Well kind of keeping with he same theme, you guys have pretty much had the same lineup for the better part of Built To Spill’s existence, right?

DM: Definitely. Yeah, more than 10 years I‘ve been with the rhythm section. And then Jim [Roth] joined us eight, nine years ago — he might have even been with us 10 years by now. And then [Brett] Netson, our other guitar player, he’s been on and off in the band from the get-go. He was on our first record. And then played on records — on every other record or something for years, and then toured with us a little bit and then joined the band for real maybe five or six years ago.

NC: A lot of your contemporaries that split up at some point are doing or have recently done the whole reunion thing. Guided by Voices, Pavement, Archers of Loaf. But in all that time that those guys were defunct, Built To Spill was still around and making records — good records. So what’s it like to look around and see that sort of ’90s nostalgia fest going on?

DM: Well, I really enjoyed doing it the whole time. I kind of wonder sometimes if we had stopped after Keep It like a Secret — after that record, our popular dropped off quite a bit. It was still fine. But it actually didn’t really drop off. What happened is, I felt like we kind of were rising, and then we plateau’d, and then it’s kind of declined a little bit or just plateau’d since then. Maybe if we’d stopped and not made Ancient Melodies of the Future, maybe people would think that those records — which people still think are the best records of ours, those three records, Keep It like a Secret and Perfect From Now On and There's Nothing Wrong With Love — maybe if that was really our legacy and we did a reunion tour now, maybe we would make a lot of money, like Pavement or Pixies. But I don’t know if that’s true. You know we’ve made not a lot of money, but we’ve made enough money to keep the thing going.

NC: Right, and isn't that kind of the long game anyway? To keep it going rather than to have a drop-off and a resurgence?

DM: Absolutely, yeah. And I’ve enjoyed it too, the whole time. So I don’t regret it at all.

NC: So you guys are still working on your new record currently. Is that right?

DM: Yep.

NC: How long have you been at that?

DM: We started in April, but it’s going very slowly. I’ve been up there to do overdubs a few times, but I’ve had a hard time doing anything that inspires me very much. You know, just chipping away at it and hoping at some point some things will open up. But that’s just the nature of making records — sometimes it takes many, many tries to come up with something that sounds good to me.

NC: You guys kind of do take usually something like three years between. So is that the usual process? You’ll try something and maybe self-edit? Or maybe go at it with a new batch of songs? Is there a usual way you approach it?

DM: Yeah, we basically — it’s always, “I’ll make these songs work.” We don’t write a new batch of songs. I’ll just keep working on these songs until I figure out how to make them listenable.

NC: Where are you doing the record this time?

DM: We are recording in Portland at Audible Alchemy with Steve Lobdell. Which is the same scenario that we made You in Reverse in 2006 or something like that — 2005.

NC: I read somewhere not that long ago that you said you were trying to keep the songs shorter. Maybe more succinct. Is that right?

DM: Yeah, you know, I’m kind of always trying to do that. Ever since Perfect From Now On I’ve been trying to do that, because it’s just so much work with those long songs. But a few long songs keep coming through, because the songs seem to warrant that. That’s a lot of where their strength comes from is from being long and going through different passages or whatever.

NC: Right, kind of morphing into a different thing than from where it started.

DM: Yeah exactly. Going through different things. A lot of those songs, it seems like these days, the long songs — on Perfect From Now On the long songs were because I was taking all these little parts and sticking them together, and making a long song that changed. Like “Kicked it in the Sun” or something where it just goes through part after part and never comes back to anything really, choruses or verses or whatever.

NC: So you just cobble things that seem to fit in that way?

DM: Yeah, exactly totally. Like I have a bunch of little parts and you just make up little things and try them out together and change the key of this one so it fits with this other part, or change the tempo of this one to fit with this, or change the time signature if you have to. You know that kind of stuff.

NC: When you’re building a song like that, will one of the Bretts or Jim or whomever pitch there? Or is this kind of a process you go through before you even get to doing a full-band thing?

DM: Yeah well that stuff — Perfect From Now On, those songs I just wrote all by myself and then showed them to the guys. The last couple records, long songs are on those, and those long songs that are going to be on this record — ‘cause there are a couple — they’re more of the type where it’s just one part and different things happen within the one cord progressions. Kind of like “Going Against Your Mind.” Sort of. The chord progression doesn't change but the dynamics and melodies within those chord progressions change. That kind of stuff.

NC: The lineup for this tour cycle and this record, you’re saying it’s those same five dudes, yourself included. Right?

DM: Yeah.

NC: Are any of these songs that you have been working on for the next record — are you planning on playing anything new or anything unreleased? Do you have anything like that in mind for the tour?

DM: Right now I don’t think we are going to, but you know, during the course of a tour things change, and a lot of times you learn stuff on tour and decide to do things then. Right now I don’t think we’re going to. Right now I’m thinking this will be a real nice break from even thinking about that stuff. But my mind might change, and I might think this is a good opportunity to work on that stuff.

NC: Sure. So how long of a run is this?

DM: A month. Exactly a month.

NC: Well that’s nothing for you guys, right?

DM: Well you know, we tour quite a bit, but we don’t go out for very long at once. We go out for six weeks at the most. So it’s a medium tour. This is the longest tour we’ve done in a couple of years. We took 2011 off pretty much, and we’ve just done shows here and there. It’s our longest trip since two years ago when we did South by Southwest. We did a couple weeks touring down there and back.

NC: So with some of these songs you said you might change your approach on tour, or decide to play news songs or whatever. And some of theses songs you’ve been playing for 15 years. Do you ever say mid-tour that you want to switch up the way you’re playing them, or tweak an arrangement or something? Or do you guys pretty much stick with what you’ve honed already?

DM: No, we really like to mix it up. On all our tours and all our shows, I write a fresh set list every night. We hadn’t toured in a couple years and we’d only done shows here and there, and we don’t live in the same town so we never got to practice really. So for the last couple years those shows we’ve been playing we’ve had about 25 songs to work with, and last week we got together and practiced for a few days and learned another 15 old songs so that we’d have a lot of stuff to work with. And during the tour you realize if something just isn’t working. You may try it at a few shows and realize, “Oh, this song is flat for whatever reason,” or, “I can’t really sing it right anymore,” or, “I’m not feeling it for some reason.” Or someone else in the band will complain that they don’t like to play it at all, that it’s super boring or something. Then we change it up, and learn stuff on the road as we go. A lot of times we do covers, and sometimes the covers develop while we’re on tour. Someone will be noodling around with something during sound check, and over a few days the whole band is playing along, and we decide to go ahead and play it in front of people [laughs]. You know, it’s pretty loose. We all try to make it enjoyable for ourselves. We’re all kind of — especially the guitar players — we all like to noodle around and fuck around and keep it exciting for ourselves.

NC: I was actually going to ask about the covers thing. I know you guys like to do that. So those covers aren't exactly planned per se? Do you have things in mind for set list, or does that just arrive at sound check one day?

DM: It depends. There are definitely tours were it’s like, “OK, we’re definitely going to do this cover,” and we learn it before the tour and play it every show. Then there are some where it’s a little more casual or develops from someone goofing around in sound check on something. Or everyone jamming and being like, “Hey, that might actually might work.” It just depends. We haven’t played a cover in a while, mostly because we just haven’t has anything that really seemed like we needed to do it. I love doing the cover — the cover is the funnest part of the night, but if we don’t feel inspired by something to be our cover, then we don’t really do a cover just to do one. We don’t really feel like we should force it in that way either.

NC: It should be organic. Like you guys did [M.I.A.’s] “Paper Planes” for a while there, didn't you?

DM: Totally. And that was the perfect example. I heard on tour for the first time and feel in love with it. I kind of played it a little at sound check. Walked around with headphones for a couple of days memorizing the lyrics. It was a blast.

NC: So it samples The Clash [“Straight to Hell”], right? Any plans on covering that song?

DM: You know what, I have done that song. I did that before I heard the M.I.A. song. We did a tour where — well, maybe it was a different tour. There was some tour where I played that song just by myself — maybe in an encore every once in a while I would play that song by myself, “Straight to Hell.” So of course I loved it because of that. But you know, I loved everything about that M.I.A. cover. That got me hooked. It’s funny too, we were in Europe, and this bus driver listened to this shitty fucking horrible pop music station. Just shit all day long, and then that song came on, and I was like, “Whoa, this is — this is good.” [Laughs] Maybe it’s the juxtaposition against all that shit. But no, that song to me is perfect all the way through. The shotgun sounds and everything about it is so great. Although I was a little disappointed with the lyrics. When I first heard the lyrics they seemed a little political to me, until I learned them, and they’re just, like … I don’t know what they are. Kind of like drug-dealing outlaw sort of lyrics. That’s all right, but I would have preferred something political.

NC: Yeah. I’m not sure there’s any real allegory there. I think it’s just about robbing people.

DM: Exactly [laughs].

NC: I know it’s been a while since you’ve done anything with Halo Benders, and it’s been a while since your solo record. But is that something that you think you’d like to approach again?

DM: Halo Benders tried to do something a few years ago. We got together and jammed for a few days. I had some stuff, and we made some stuff up together. And it seemed to go OK, but I just wasn't too excited about it. It just seemed like a lot of work. It was right before — well, maybe right in the middle of when I was working on Built To Spill stuff. So anyway, somehow it felt like I just didn't have the energy for it, and I kind of didn't think it was going that well. I took some of those songs and they’ve become some of the songs for the new Built To Spill record. I recently listened to some of the jams that we did. Some of the jams from that time, and they were really good. I was kind of bummed that we didn't just go ahead and do it. Brett Netson, Built To Spill’s guitar player, was playing bass for us.

NC: And it was with Calvin Johnson?

DM: Yeah. Calvin was there too. Everyone was there except Steve Fisk and Wayne Flower, the two of The Halo Benders who weren't around. So we had other Boise guys filling in. Anyway, Brett was always like, “Yeah. Let’s just do it. Make something up and do it.” I was always really picky. I’m really all about editing and revision. You know, making sure that you’re getting the most out of what you’re doing instead of just the first thing off the top of your head, going with it. Brett’s the opposite — he wants to go with the first thing off the top of your head, and he thinks that’s the highest quality. Neither of us are right, you know.

NC: It’s somewhere in between though, right?

DM: Yeah exactly. It’s somewhere in between, or it’s either extreme. Or both extremes working together. Where elements are edited and some elements are just things that come of the top of your head. Anyway, I wish that we kinda would have pursued it a little more. We like a lot of that [Halo Benders] stuff. It was better than I thought it was. But anyway, now a few of the songs are Built To Spill songs. I think they’re going to work out really nicely as Built To Spill songs. I don’t know if we’ll do something again. And the solo thing was a total fluke. I was kind of trying to learn to play slide guitar, and made up a bunch of little things and decided to turn them into songs. If I did something that was under my solo name, I don’t think it would be another blues record. It would probably be some other kind of music.

NC: Maybe just use it as an opportunity to teach yourself something new again?

DM: Yeah, it would be like an all-drums record [laughs].


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