Built to Spill: When music’s almost a religion
When singer-guitarist Doug Martsch first started the indie rock band Built to Spill back in 1992, he initially thought the band would be a studio project and deliver a series of finely tuned recordings with a rotating lineup of musicians. That didn’t wind up being the case as Martsch & Co. would become a touring outfit and only produce a handful of albums over a 20-plus year run. This summer, Built to Spill returned with Untethered Moon, its first studio album in six years. Despite a lineup change, it doesn’t represent a huge departure. The opening number, “All Our Songs,” features the snarling guitars and high-pitched vocals that have become the band’s signature sound. Martsch phoned us from his Idaho home to talk about the album and the band’s lengthy history.
Over the years, you have covered songs by a wide range of artists including Dinosaur Jr., The Cure, M.I.A., Macy Gray, Elton John, Daniel Johnston, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cat Stevens, Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground, Metallica and Neil Young. Talk about your taste in music and how it became so eclectic.
Just being in part of the music scene and music world and being surrounded by people who love music. That’s how I got turned on to a lot of stuff. When I was young, I was focused on punk rock and alternative rock. It wasn’t until I was around 30 that I gave reggae music any sort of chance at all. That became my favorite. And I started listening to old soul music. People have turned me on to cool stuff. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. It’s about having something that speaks to you, whether that’s the quality of someone’s voice or how things were recorded. There are so many different aspects to music. When I was younger, I could relate to people who were making punk rock music. My experiences were so different, it was hard for me to relate to reggae music or soul music. As I got older, I realized they’re not that different. They’re passion is really similar and it just sounded good.
Do you think the typical music fan of today has broader taste than the fan of the past?
For the passionate music lover fan, it’s definitely gotten broader. The young people I know listen to such a broad, eclectic range of stuff. When you’re young and involved seriously in music, it becomes a big part of your personality. It kind of defines you. That’s why I was so attached to that stuff. I had a feeling that certain things reflected on me. I had to be careful what I liked and listened to because it was all creating me or something. As I got older, I loosened up and got less attached to my taste.
When I grew up in the ’80s, radio seemed very genre specific. College radio went against that.
In the ‘70s when I was listening to the radio, it was very inclusive. Ronnie Milsap had a bunch of hits. That was country. Soul bands had hits on the radio and also rock bands. It was pretty diverse when I was growing up. Maybe that’s when I discovered punk rock, I felt it was my thing and everything else was shit. It was all mainstream and part of the music industry. I was happy to get away from that and I thought the stuff I discovered was more pure. Then I went back. Those people were pure too. They weren’t just cogs in the machine, which is how they seemed to me when I was in my teens.
Talk about the band’s formation. Did you originally intend that the group would have a revolving lineup?
Yeah, that was the original idea. It had to do with coming out of being in a band with people for a long time. As a fan of David Bowie, I liked the way he did different records throughout this career. They weren’t the same thing over and over again. At the time, I thought I would be a record maker and not a touring band. I imagined being more of a studio act. Now that we’re a touring band, it doesn’t make sense to change your lineup ever. Once [bassist] Brett [Nelson] and [drummer] Scott [Plouf] were in the band, I didn’t want anyone else. I thought, “These guys are great. I want to grow up with these guys. I want everyone to have a stake in the band and they can contribute more easily.”
Why did Brett and Scott quit?
They were just both burnt out for different reasons. Scott was done playing drums. He hasn’t played drums since. Brett wanted to do his own thing. He’s tired of playing my songs. He’s the one that got me into music. I met him in junior high school and he wanted to be a professional musician back then. He wanted to follow his own muse.
Talk about what made them want to quit and what’s it been like with Steve Gere (drums) and Jason Albertini (bass).
Jason has been a roadie for us for ten years. He plays in other bands. When we first toured with him, he was playing drums with Mike Johnson. He’s been around all the time and he’s an incredible musician. Steve we met a few years ago. He was out on tour and we knew he was a great musician. It was a no brainer. It was such a smooth transition. We played a show within a month. I knew they would be good but there’s this feel that’s hard to get. I felt like Scott never got the feel of and was a little heavy on some of [former drummer Andy Capps’] drum parts from there’s Nothing Wrong with Love. Steve can nail them all. He can do Scott’s stuff. He can do Andy’s stuff. He can do Ralf [Youtz’s] stuff. He has a cool style of his own too that he’s developing. It’s as good as it can be.
Untethered Moon’s opening tune “All Our Songs” sounds like it’s about having a deep emotional connection to music. Can you talk about the song’s theme?
Yeah, it’s about having music and the community around music. It’s almost like a religion for some of us. When you find out that someone else loves a record that you love, all of a sudden that person makes more sense to you. For me, I can come up with musical ideas pretty readily. That’s where my main focus is. Lyrics are almost always a struggle. If I can get any kind of glimpse or any kind of idea at all, I will grab it and run with it. Maybe just jamming, I sang out, “All our songs.” I realized it could be a song about loving songs. I had all these big ideas that would go on a trip. I sort of half used those ideas and it turned into a Built to Spill mess. I love Public Enemy but I wished they would give me more details when they only hinted at stuff. I wanted a story. I don’t have that in me.
“On the Way” is really noisy. Talk about what you were going for sonically with the song.
I think that song started out with that chord progression and melody. It was something I had for years. It had too much of a country sound or a full-on Neil Young rip-off sound to me. I played it once when Jay and Steve and I were jamming. Jay loved it, so that helped. It was a song that I didn’t know what to do with. I wrote many sets of lyrics. There are three or four different versions. I decided I needed songs that tell a bit of a story. Some songs need that. I kind of ripped off Quasi because they had a song about Mars. I thought, “Going to Mars is interesting and there’s always things I could do with that.” It’s kind of a little bit cheap to me. The sound came over time. I did a demo on acoustic guitar. Then, I put an electric guitar to it. It slowly evolved and in the studio it came together in a nice way. The crazy guitars that sound like horns — that’s an idea I did while demoing around. I improvised it at home and it sounded cool. I didn’t know if I could recreate it at the studio but I got it right on the first take.
You’ve often been proclaimed to the last guitar hero. Is that a title that you embrace?
Well, you know, if you find anyone who knows how to play guitar at all, they won’t be impressed. I’m not that good. I think what people like is that I just go for it. I was influenced by Neil Young and J Mascis. To me, those people have something visceral about the way they play. It wasn’t that they are technically good. They know how to get some thing out of the guitar that has some emotion. That’s what I try to do. Technically, I’m not very good and haven’t gotten any better over the years. I just play in a playful way. There’s a freedom that people see that I have. And the fact is that Brett Netson played guitar on a lot of the records. He really is a guitar hero. He’s as good as anyone has ever been. I think there’s a mix-up in thinking some of the shit that he does is me. A lot of the “wah” stuff on Perfect from Now On that sounds like Jimi Hendrix is pretty much him.
So has the new lineup been really revitalizing?
Yeah. Definitely. We even started writing some new songs. I feel some revitalization with what we’re doing for sure.