Built to Spill still at the forefront of inventive pop
August 31st, 2001
By Mark Guarino | Daily Herald Music Critic
Doug Martsch is a mess of contradictions. In conversation the Built To Spill leader is soft spoken, unassuming and humble.
In concert he’s bold, brash and loud. I remember his last show at Metro two years ago when he swept through his acclaimed last album, “Keep It Like A Secret” (Warner Bros.) like a tornado. No wonder he gets endless comparisons to Neil Young – it was the loudest club show I’ve been at to this day.
“I remember that, too,” he said, laughing on the hone from his home in Boise, Idaho, where he lives with his wife and son. “Our sound guy was Phil (Ek) who produces our records. He would do that everywhere, just push the sound systems as far as they would let him crank it. There (at Metro), they were just like ‘whatever.’ They wouldn’t try to stop him. I think it’s always better to get it as loud as you can. People can always put earplugs in. A-lot of it is just the feel of it, thumping against you. I think the louder the music is, the better it sounds.”
Although Built To Spill recently released its third studio album on Warner Bros., it has a prolific career recording on smaller labels and is one of the last bands from the ’90s indie rock scene to remain on a major.
Emerging from the Northwest rock scene, the band steadily evolved into a sturdy trio marked by Martsch’s Zen-like lyrics, high purist singing , colorful, sweeping guitar playing and strong melodies. Its new album is “Ancient Melodies of the Future” (Warner Bros.).
Martsch, 31, spoke about Built To Spill’s two-night, three show return to Metro next week starting Thursday.
Q. You’re a legendary perfectionist in the studio, but your live shows really show off the real frantic energy of the band. Has playing live gotten easier?
A. Definitely, for sure. I think I’m more comfortable. I think also recording is less fun than when I was younger. There is something about getting your ideas down on tape, it’s exciting. You’re less critical, you’re just a kid and you think, “this is pretty good for me.” Whereas now I’m like, “this isn’t good enough for me.” Plus we just have great shows and are lucky that people go and are psyched to see us and that makes it super fun.
Q. How different was recording this album from the last one?
A. Not much of anything is different. It pretty much felt routine in a way. It was the same producer, same studio, same band. Really it was going in and doing what we do with a different batch of songs.
Q. Why’s that? Most bands feel compelled to change directions completely.
A. Because we liked everything the last time around. Phil’s been producing our records for a long time and he, of course, is a shoe-in. It was really routine in a good way.
Q. How set are the songs before you take them into the studio?
A. The song structure, the chord progressions, all of that is set. Later on is when we’ll do basic tracks, get drums and bass down and go back and do the guitar and vocals and then it’s a matter of fleshing stuff out. That’s how it’s been on all of our records. It’s just a matter of adding things, taking things away until you think it sounds good.
Q. One thing that this album has are shorter songs. Your Warner Bros. debut, “Perfect From Now On” sounded incredibly epic by comparison.
A. Well, the way I wrote songs on that record and the way I wrote the songs on the newest record basically was the same. There were just snippets of parts I’d record, just goofing around on guitar. I’d record myself when I came up with little melody ideas. But on that record I was like, “That’s a cool idea, but I don’t want to make a whole song with it. “I’d stick it in the song whereas on this record I was listening to a lot of old blues and folk music and so it was like ” that’s a cool part, that could be a whole song.” My thinking was the complete opposite.
Q. You covered Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” on your live album last year and you’re a magnet for Neil comparisons. How big of an influence was he for your guitar playing?
A. Not really a big one. But I like him. He wasn’t a big factor in the way I make music. I was influenced by Dinosaur Jr. more than Neil Young.
Q. A band that was probably influence by Neil Young.
A. Exactly. Totally. A lot of stuff I was influenced by in the punk rock world were bands really influenced by classic rock. Like the Pixies.
Q. The best way to describe your playing is colorful. You pack so much in, but it always sounds interesting.
A. I just try to keep songs interesting all the way through and if there’s not something going on somewhere, there’s a chance to put in some kind of guitar flourish. I’m not technically proficient on the guitar, so it’s more about weird ideas or maybe a weird tone. When I was younger, I’d come up with more intricate parts. Now I’m kind o lazy and threw in whatever I can on there.
Q. Your band is one of the last bands from the indie rock scene that is still on a major label without being dumped in favor of the next boy band or reap metal band. Why do you think you’ve survived the purge?
A. We had a firm deal with them where they agreed to put out three records by us. They just put out the third one, so I think that’s why we lasted so long. It was either they had to do that or give us a bunch of money.
Q. You got a lot of criticism from fans early on for signing to a major. How has it been beneficial?
A. The main benefit is we’ve gotten to spend a lot of money on making records and then have a little bit leftover, too. Everything else we do, we basically run the band as if we were still on Up (the label that put out the band’s fragile pop masterpiece, “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love” in 1994). We still make our own records, no one tells us what to do, we book our own tours separate from the record company, we decide everything we’re going to do. The record company gets us some interviews, but Up would kind of do that, so it’s not too much difference except more money.
Q. It’s incredible that you’ve survived. So many bands, like Wilco on your same label, have the opposite experience.
A. It’s really amazing. They totally stuck to everything they said they were going to do.
Q. Being on such a big label, how do you think you fit in with the mainstream?
A. I’ve kind of grown up always just assuming the mainstream is going to suck and does suck and I’ve never eve thought about the mainstream as any place for me. There was a point when grunge broke and it looked like the Pixies and the Butthole Surfers and a few interesting bands might emerge as big stars. And I was even leery then that it would really take to the more interesting stuff. I thought it was pretty obvious that bands like Third Eye Blind were going to creep in and ripoff the good things with a handsomer package. So I’ve never expected the mainstream to do anything but suck and we’d have any place there. The level where we’re at is a level I never expected to be at. I always thought I’d be playing for my friends and that’s it.