Built To Spill | Unassumingly Successful

doug1-sm.jpgI don’t think we could make different music if we wanted to. If we tried to make it a hit, I don’t think we could. We just make the music that comes natural to us.



There are many bands that seem to focus more on their image than on their music. They spend less time in the studio working on their riffs and vocals and more time getting inked in the tattoo parlor. It’s not entirely their fault, though. The music business is fickle and it’s hard to catch and keep the attention of listeners on based on music alone. To be unassuming is to be nobody.

This is probably what makes Built to Spill such an interesting band to follow. Since 1992, the band–led by singer/guitarist Doug Martsch–has released album after album in an unassuming yet well received manner. In fact, if you were to ask the average customer in the music department of a large chain store who Built to Spill or Doug Martsch was, they would probably have no idea who you were talking about. Yet Built to Spill have become indie rock icons and have established a sound that is a collective of all the best parts of rock music from the last forty years. This same sound can be heard all over the modern music scene. Google them and you will surely come across dozens of personal blogs in which writers make at least one comment on great they feel Built To Spill or Doug Martsch is.

The secret seems to once again be in Martsch’s unassuming style when putting together an album. When listening to a Built to Spill album, the listener is eased into a musical experience of driving guitar riffs and solos without the machoism and ego you often hear in jam bands. Instead, one gets a more welcoming and natural feel.

I recently got to spend a little time with Martsch and ask him some questions as he was promoting Built to Spill’s current US tour. I would quickly learn that Doug has a much stronger persona than one often sees in the media and I began to understand the underlying characteristics that have made Built to Spill a success for the last fifteen years.

Built To Spill

at the Pageant, St. Louis

Saturday, March 15, 8 p.m.

w/ the Meat Puppets and Helvetia

$20, all ages

For more dates, visit www.builttospill.com

What have you been keeping yourself busy with lately?

Trying to finish writing some songs for Built to Spill to record, and I have a couple other little musical projects I have been working on.

Anything you can talk about yet?

Well nothing, not really. Trying to do a Halo Benders thing, but we started that about a year ago, we have not even got anything off the ground. It’s just hard to get everyone together and when we have gotten together, it’s been pretty slow moving. But it’s something that we all want to do so, we’ll try and get it going. And I have just been paying with this classical piano player here in town a little bit, trying to record some stuff.

What can we expect from the tour that is coming up for you?

Just kind of the same thing we’ve been doing for a while.

You’re just going to get up there and jam?

Yeah, play some of our songs nothing exciting and new or anything, just kind of… this is our last trip across the States before we make another record and put it out. We kind of had planned on not doing anymore touring until our record had came out here in the States, but we got this offer to play in Florida, which we hadn’t been able to do for a long time and so we just hadn’t been to the south for a couple years. So we figured it was sort of worth doing, but I don’t know I feel a little guilty that we… I don’t want to burn any people out on us. Where are you calling from?

I’m actually in St. Louis, writing for PLAYBACK:stl.com.

Okay, well, there is a good example. St. Louis is a town we’ve probably been playing too much.

I would disagree with that, I know there is huge hype for you guys getting ready for the show next month.

Well, I’m glad to hear it.

So, is there an actual set day for the new album release yet, or have you guys gotten that close?

No, we’re going to start recording at the end of the tour. We have our last show in Pomona, California on the 22nd of March, and we go in the studio on the 23rd.

But you know, I think that it’s going to be at least a year. ‘Cause I just know how I work and these songs, it’s really hard to tell how they are going to go. Just to be safe, I’m thinking it will take a year to record and a few months to actually get it out.

I actually read a quote from you in a magazine a couple years ago that says that, based on how you feel about music today and your own personal state, that Built to Spill actually has greater potential now then in the early 90’s. What has changed for you as far as writing and performing since the early 90’s?

I think that everyone is a lot more confident players, you know? And I don’t know if that makes for better music. I say all different things in interviews, and I contradict myself a lot, just because I know when I get ready to go on tour, I have to do a bunch of these all at once, all in a row.

Yeah, I understand.

I don’t want to repeat myself, so I make up different answers and stuff, but I do think that Built to Spill could be something better than ever just because our lineup is better than ever. Most of the records in the past have been have been mostly stuff that I have come up with and then Brett Nelson comes in and out, but Scott Plouf is really in the band, [and] Jim Roth was only on our last record. [The] way of playing [that] Jim has and that Brett has are really distinct and I think that, at some point, we can figure out a way to really bring to life the three guitars [and] the way they interact…kind of a big hard thing to do. This coming record we’re not doing that–it’s mostly going to be songs that I have been working on, because we haven’t had time and just because I had all these songs kind of laying around. But you know, I think there is potential for the five of us to collaborate on something that is just way better than anything that I have ever come up with by myself or that we have done in the past, and you know everyone kind of seems [to be] better players and better tones on their guitars and just…I don’t know. I just think that we’re better players than ever.

Can you describe the personality of the band, what it’s like trying to make the dynamics of three different guitar players work at the same time?

Well everyone is a…no one wants to be a star. We all play rhythm guitars, lead guitars, and when we’re figuring out who’s doing what, it’s always just like, "He did this, he did this, and I’ll do this." Everyone accepts that readily, no one thinks of it like how much solo time they’re getting or anything like that. We integrate really great. Everyone has a different sound in general. Their basic guitar tones are different enough that everything kinda comes through all right.

And this is all live that I am talking about. Recording is whatever; it’s all up in the air, anyone can do anything. But for live, [I’m just] really enjoying it. It’s really fun to figure out how we want to incorporate a lot of these songs and which parts we think are going to be important parts. But I think we still have some room for improvement, and every once in a while need to step back and reassess it and say, "Hold on a sec, on this song it sounds like everyone is just going wild here, let’s tone it down a little bit." You can focus on one of the guitars and be more interesting. We’re all just thinking of things along those lines.

Do you think with the advent of the music culture online and the fans having so much access to the music and the bands through the internet that we will ever see another true geographical scene, like you saw in Seattle, like the New York scene of the 70’s?

Yeah, of course. I mean, there’s always going to be things like that because it’s not so much [that] those scenes really were geography specific. Like the Seattle scene, I don’t think really was a Seattle scene. I think that’s just who got credit for it. There were bands like that in other parts of the country, too, just that the most popular ones happen to be around there, and same with the Minneapolis stuff now who plays acoustic, that was a big deal. Yeah there was Nirvana and The Replacements, but at the same time there was Meat Puppets and whoever else in California doing similar cool things. So to me, that’s a media thing. That’s just critics and journalists trying to put things together in a little package that could be an interesting story for people.

You guys are always grouped in with being part of the indie scene or being an indie band, but really you have been on a major label since the 90’s , How do you think you guys have been able to stay legit against the indie fans and how did so much control getting with a major label?

I think why people consider us to be an indie band is because we still carry on as if we were a indie band. Still make the same music we would be making otherwise. We have bigger budgets for our records, but it’s obvious that we haven’t tried to water our sound down in order to get a Grammy or something. First of all, I don’t think we could make different music if we wanted to. If we tried to make it a hit, I don’t think we could. We just make the music that comes natural to us, not because it’s the best music. And we don’t want to make other music, because that’s all we can do. Were just kind of playing what comes natural to us, mostly. And as far as the record company giving us a lot of freedom, I don’t really know how to account for that. It’s just basically a record company coming through on their promise. When we signed with them, they told us we would have creative control and they’ve given it to us. They haven’t tried to tell us what to do really at all.

Have you been following the basketball season at all?

Yeah, of course!

I know you get this asked a thousand times but you following anything else or you just mainly into sports?

No, I just…I have NBA’s games saved. With my cable I don’t even get much college stuff. I don’t even get enough stuff to make it worth my while. I have kind of been interested in the Blazers, a little bit in the Pistons. The Pistons and The Suns are my contender teams. The Blazers and The Sonics are kind of my passion. [The] Blazers have been playing pretty great…they lost a few games in a row, but they always seem to put up a pretty good fight and [are] pretty fun to watch. I’m super psyched about their bright future.

Do you get over to very many of the games?

No, but I watch them all, I got an elite pass. I am psyched about the Suns and I always like to see pundits all be proved wrong, so I hope that Shaq performs mostly for that reason. I would like to see the Suns go all the way.

Have you been following the Presidential primaries?

No. I regularly watch Democracy Now because they have been talking a lot about it because I’m not really very interested at all. I’m not excited about any of it, because I watch Democracy Now and haven’t been following it.

Does anybody stand out to you?

No I’m not interested in anyone that’s left. I would totally support Dennis Kucinich, but a I’m not interested in these other Democrats. John McCain…that guy is super, super scary.

They always say the lesser of the evils, but we’re getting down pretty bad this time aren’t we?

Yeah, you know, the thing is Barack seems like he could be okay, but how does a person get to the point he is without being a complete fuck? None of it seems very hopeful to me, but just getting rid of Bush is going to be so amazing. It might be one of those things where just getting rid of that fucker is going to be great, unless its McCain because McCain might be even worse than Bush.

It’s the whole unknown with those guys.

Yeah, McCain. I know enough about him to know he would never get out of Iraq. He is completely comfortable being there forever. I mean, that’s a famous quote of his for being there for a hundred years, he actually doesn’t mind. He compares it to North Korea with South Korea, "We have troops there for sixty years and they have been fine." It’s like, well, first of all, there isn’t any suicide bombing in Korea. Second of all, it’s not fine. If you talk to the South Koreans, you find out they are not psyched to have us there even though it seems like we are there with no controversy at all. Anywhere there are American bases there are locals that hate it, everywhere. So you know he’s an imperialist. He’s a bad scary man and I think he’s not smart and he’s a fuck up and he’s way more full of shit. He gets away with way more respect than he deserves because he was a POW. He does not deserve any of that respect.

Are you actively involved in politics around the Boise area?

No I’m not at all.

Another quick tour question: you will be playing 26 gigs in 28 nights. Is that very common for you guys, or how do you prepare for that?

That’s pretty much what we do because we all have families, so when we hit the road it’s pretty much just work. We’ll have a couple days off for long drives or something but if we have a choice between a day off and a show we always choose the show.

This tour will actually be pretty mellow. This is our first U.S. tour in a bus, in the past we have taken vans and it’s really nonstop drive every day. So, the bus will be a lot better. We’ll be able to sleep in the bus as it drives, get to our places early and have a lot of down time. We’ll have a lot of time to work. We’re going to be rehearsing a lot and work on our new material and practicing, hopefully, a couple hours a day, every other day. This tour will actually be a lot easier than past tours just because we don’t have to drive ourselves.

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?

I don’t know. You know I kind of I guess the last thing I liked a lot that might fall into a category like that would be Amy Winehouse. I think that she’s amazing. I don’t feel guilty about it.

Any Justin Timberlake in your iPod?

Not in mine. Some Built to Spill members or member has a lot of JT. I recently bought a Bread greatest hits and that was sort of a…I don’t know if that’s a guilty pleasure or some sort of…

I wouldn’t call that a guilty one.

I would call that a pleasure at least. I bought an iPod and started loading it with weird old things I listened to as a teenager. In a way, maybe those are guilty pleasures, because they’re more about the reminiscing. It’s a feeling you get when you hear those songs that take you back to those old times.

What kind of songs are those?

You know, like things [from] when I was in high school. Things from the 80’s. The Replacements , Butthole Surfers, stuff like that. It’s good stuff, but in a way I feel like when people listen to the music they listened to when they were teenagers, somehow that seems like a little bit of a…not a copout, but like if the person didn’t develop anymore or something. But I went through a lot of other phases between then and now and I have just sort of gone back and re-appreciated those things. I still feel like we should evolve a little bit in our lives and listen to better things than when we were teenagers, but at the same time I don’t really give a shit.

One last question: Every time you guys put out a new album you almost take on a vibe like you’re a brand new band taking off instead of an old band that keeps putting out new albums. How do you think you guys keep that freshness and newness the fans keep coming back for?

I’m glad to hear that, but we don’t do anything specifically to accomplish that. I’m sure different people have different opinions, and I’m glad you feel that way, but I’m sure there are other people who are like, "Oh, another Built to Spill record. Why do they even bother?" So we’re just doing the same thing we have always done and I’m just trying to make music we think is good. I don’t really know how to explain it or I don’t really understand it, it’s just trying to make good music. I don’t know what it is…I guess it’s good. That’s another thing, it sounds like you like it, and that’s nice I’m pretty happy with it, but a lot of people don’t like it I don’t know. It’s all so subjective I don’t even know. I have no idea. How’s that for an answer?

Do you feel successful then?

Yeah, oh yeah, I’m really…I have so surpassed whatever I expected to do with music in my life. Yeah, I feel successful. | Ryan Parker


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