“I kind of felt uninspired. I just didn’t think the music I was making was all that good.” An echelon exists when we find ourselves in the mood to categorize our indie rock favorites. There’s a spot on that top shelf that belongs solely to Guided by Voices (of course they count, those papa bears of the genre) and a spot on the bottom shelf belonging to, oh, let’s just say the Buttless Chaps and Limbeck, for argument’s sake. All matters of the in between are left subjective, sometimes shifting up or down in drastic jerks due to simple whims and room temperature. There are days when Aloha and Maritime’s disrespected “Adios” don’t mean the same thing at all, and other days they’re exactly as defined. The Olivia Tremor Control could be riding the back fender of that Rogue Wave record you love so much, jockeying for a high spot in the order on Monday and come the weekend, be as forgotten and disgracefully tossed down as a banana peel. On most days, John Roderick of The Long Winters retains his gold standard, effectively telling every other songwriter within earshot that they’re free to go fuck themselves if they foolishly suspect they can do any better. But then, you can sit down to watch an average movie like Love Song for Bobby Long, hear Nada Surf’s “Blonde on Blonde” in a scene where it hardly belongs, and think that nobody does it better than Matthew Caws.
Each time any of these thoughts cross, they’re correct. You’re right, “Jesus, Etc.” is the best song Wilco’s ever made and the world’s ever heard. Then two seconds later, you’re just as absolutely right to believe that The Arcade Fire rules you and makes everything else look like crumbs, forcing you to block all entrances and snuff out all lesser affinities. And while there is a constant flux in everything questionable, there does seem to be a basic frame. As most people would put a jigsaw puzzle together starting with the border, establishing order to indie rock begins at the top and it rarely wavers. The ultimate pecking order is staked out with a lot of lightly penciled-in names making up the body, but the head and shoulders are marked in black permanent ink.
You’ve got the above-mentioned GBV, originators of the 20-year bender/hangover and some of the most renowned power-pop nuggets ever made. Then there’s Pavement, led by Stephen Malkmus, the modern-age’s foremost language twister and off-key troubadour. And last, but not least, the last member of the foundation’s triumvirate, Idaho’s Built to Spill. You really get the sense that to be titled good indie rock, a band must don some, if not all, of the characteristics that these three purveyors of spectral and impossible brawn do. Their effect is not ephemeral, but stained deep into the fabric of what’s to come forth.
Built to Spill, more than the other two bands most-noted for their contributions to the cause, has had, if not influence, then coincidental relevance to a strong movement of indie rockers making up the new breed. Doug Martsch, Brett Nelson, and Scott Plouf have been doing the deed—mixing irrelevant, yet speculative lyrics with bold, exploratory guitars—since they formed Built to Spill properly in 1993 and recorded their debut album, Ultimate Alternative Wavers. So much can be guessed at when you’re thinking about independent progressions in music. Someone who everyone believes writes and sounds like Ray Davies may never have heard a Kinks record. As hard as that is to imagine, there are circumstances like that.
But with Martsch and BTS, it’s tough to see how The Shins or even Hot Hot Heat, for that matter, might have gotten to similar places without their predecessor. It’s all fairly obvious who was there first and yet Martsch, finishing up the group’s eighth album in the far Northwest, doesn’t place much stock in his band’s luster or its position as the world’s biggest least recognizable band.
“I definitely appreciate having a big enough fan base that we can keep touring and making records,” Martsch said by telephone last month from his home. “But anyone’s ideas of us are basically wrong because my own ideas about us are basically wrong. I don’t think about where our place is. I just like to stay out of the spotlight.”
The new album, tentatively set for a September release on Warner Brothers, has no title and even the song titles are up for grabs. It’s following Martsch’s 2003 solo debut and the band’s last full-length, Ancient Melodies of the Future, which came in 2001 and was ten tracks of preciously precise and adventurous pop, all mashed together. There are bits and pieces of it that appear on The Shin’s Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World, anything The Waxwings do, and on records like the self-titled—and only—release by Slowreader. It’s an influence that Martsch would almost prefer to didn’t exist. He’d sooner play the role of the faceless, toiling away at his pretty little songs in the privacy of his home and playing the occasional tour for bread and milk money. He’s found that he’s become more averse to getting involved with his esteemed status as a songwriter.
“It gets that way even more so, the older I get,” he said. “There are a lot of things that I like about it. I find pop culture kind of annoying and I don’t want to be any part of it. I think people become too attached to their aesthetics and their opinions. I do it too and I hate it. I think it’s a huge façade. To see other people doing it—‘pundits’ describing the world—it takes what’s good about it away. I think it’s bad for people’s souls. And I don’t believe in souls. So it’s bad for their nervous systems, at least.”
Martsch, when he wasn’t playing the assorted solo show, spent his time over the past few years playing basketball and reading as he awaited the time when he’d feel some sort of pull to play Built to Spill songs again. When the final tour for Ancient Melodies was completed, the three members went their separate ways to do their own things, needing time to recharge.
“We got back together a couple years ago. I did some Halo Benders stuff [a side project with Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson on K Records], but I don’t even know what else I did during that time,” Martsch said. “It was nice to not have to play those songs. It was just a hiatus. We all get along fine and stuff; I was just tired.
“I kind of felt uninspired. I just didn’t think the music I was making was all that good.”
His battles with his own inferiority complex tend to kick in randomly, yet regularly, getting Martsch to question his talents. He sometimes, despite being a skilled wordsmith and a chap who can stitch together spectacular melodies with ease, has been known to not find worth in his own work. He talks himself into thinking he’s just another guy with a guitar, a pick, and a pen, writing another meaningless song no one could possibly share a conviction with.
“That happens daily. You just deal with it,” he said of doubting his music. “That’s part of my life. I don’t really let it get to me. If I ever get stressed out about it, all I have to do is take a step back and say to myself, ‘I don’t really have that much to complain about.’
“A lot of [my music] would never pass my own personal criteria for what I’d choose to listen to on my own. When we started, I felt like the stuff I had to offer was as good as what other people were doing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to listen to really good music—blues, jazz, reggae, old soul—and people with voices that just melt you and make you want to do it yourself. They make stuff that’s beautiful, not me. I love and appreciate what I get to do. It beats washing dishes, but I never thought that anyone would be interested in what I was doing.”
Plenty have taken notice over the years since Martsch and Nelson became best friends in a junior high debate class and started Farm Days, their first band together. They’ve amassed boundless numbers of loyal fans, many of whom have gone on to form bands of their own and are now almost accomplices in keeping music unpredictable. And what these people want is not the solo record—actually recorded right after Keep It Like a Secret in 1999—that Martsch put out to tide everyone over. Though it was an impressive courtesy, “a little fuck-around thing for hardcore Built to Spill fans,” plumb-full of slide guitared-up gems, it was not the main course, but a mere carrot stick.
“We’re trying to go slowly,” Martsch said. “I like to do that when we can. That’s one of the best things about being on Warner Brothers. We have the time and the money so we’re not busting our asses to get it done. I’m pretty anxious to have it come out, but it doesn’t really matter to me if people are looking forward to it. I hope that people want to listen to it, but I don’t really care either way.”
At that point, following the fall release of the mysterious sixth full-length, they’ll be on a full-fledged tour for months on end and those hardcore fans will have the chance to see Martsch confident and enjoying himself on stages all across the country.
“I don’t think they would be able to tell I’m enjoying myself,” he said. “I think when I fuck up, I scowl. I used to always turn and scowl at the other guys in the band and they started thinking they’d done something wrong. Now, I have to keep my scowls to myself. But no, I don’t think anyone would think that I’m having any fun.”