Built To Spill – Digging with Doug Martsch

Accolades don’t seem to stick to Doug Martsch. 

The singer, guitarist and songwriting force behind indie rockers Built to Spill has seen his share of praise in close to two decades with the band.  He is often touted as one of the genre’s best guitarists, and the group has released six albums to critical acclaim – most recently 2006’s You in Reverse.

But the man is known for his humility, and he shrugs off most attempts to acknowledge his status.

Built to Spill formed in the early 90s after the dissolution of Martsch’s former band, Treepeople.  Along with bands like Pavement and, later, Modest Mouse, the group helped define the Northwestern indie sound.

You in Reverse marked a major change in the dynamic of the group with the addition of guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson.  Unsure of what kind of music they wanted to make, they jammed for hours, letting the songs grow organically.  The result stands as the band’s most collaborative effort to date.

In late February, Built to Spill set out on a month-long tour that ends in Los Angeles, where the group will begin recording their next album.

Martsch talked to Glide just before he set out on tour about his feelings on You in Reverse, the upcoming album and what the future holds for Built to Spill.

What goes through your head or what do you feel like as you start a tour?

Well, I kind of don’t think about it all.  Except we don’t have a manager so we kind of have to take care of a bunch of crap.  So I think about that sort of stuff, the logistics.  Today I’m thinking about packing.  It takes me about a day and a half to pack, to do this, because I always forget things, so all day long I kind of wander around and look at stuff and think about what I’ll need and want and start sticking it all in a big pile.

You’ve been touring You in Reverse for about two years now.  Does the process of touring an album change the songs for you, the way you play them or what they mean to you?

You know, I never really felt like we tour an album.  We don’t really play that album.  We play a couple of songs from it, maybe three.  But we’ve always tried to keep it real even, songs off of everything.  When we went out on tour for Perfect From Now On, we didn’t play any of those songs because we were completely burned out on it.  Our tours and studio things are kind of – to me, touring is not in support of a record.

Which ones do you play from You in Reverse?

It depends.  We have been known to play about half of the record – “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” “Liar,” “Conventional Wisdom, “Traces,” some other stuff.

I wanted to ask your feeling toward a few of the songs after touring them for a couple of years, for instance, “Goin’ Against Your Mind.”

Well, let me think.  It was a lot more exciting when we played it before we recorded it, because I think it’s an exciting song automatically.  It’s a fun one to play, it’s kind of a little bit hard, it has a few tricky things that are a little hard for me to remember for some reason.  But it’s a really fun song to play live.  I mean, most songs are fun to play live. 

Sometimes I’ll think I’m going to get burned out or bored with playing these songs, and sometimes you do and you don’t play them anymore, but mostly they’re all fun to play because they’re all kind of challenging to play, period.  And then the crowd gets you excited.  If you don’t think it’s exciting to play it, you can look out at people and steal their excitement about it.  Because some of them have never seen you play before.  I know how I feel when I see a band whose record I’ve listened to a bunch, so you definitely get a lot of energy from the crowd.

What about “Conventional Wisdom.”  That was the single, wasn’t it?

Yeah, as far as singles go with us.  Every record they put out a single, I don’t know why they do it, but they do it. Yeah, that song is really fun to play and it seems to be a pretty good one, like a crowd favorite type of a song, and it’s fun one to play because it has a lot of passages, little instrumental sections that are fun to play, and it ends with the guitar solo.  I just play rhythm guitar and kick back and listen to Jim and Brett wail.  That’s always fun.

I wanted to ask about that a little bit, because there are four guitar players on the last album.  Is it hard for you to relinquish control of the guitar parts or do you enjoy it?

Oh, I love it.  In the past, when I’ve made records and I would kind of come to the limit of what I thought I could come up with, I’d always bring Brett in to liven things up and come up with things that I would never dream of.  Not only is he a better player, but just coming at it from a different angle makes a difference.  So when someone else adds guitar to the records, it’s always like, “Whoa, I never thought about the song going in that direction, that’s great.”  I love it.

Do you think that was a necessary thing for the album to develop in the way that it did?

Oh, for sure, it would definitely be a whole other record if it didn’t have those three guys playing on it.

You have a really unique singing voice.  Is that something you feel like you were born with, or do you work with it, develop it and grow into it? 

I’m not really sure.  First of all it sounds the way it does because I just don’t know how to sing.  I don’t know the proper way to do it, and I was influenced by things like Camper van Beethoven and Dinosaur Jr.  I don’t really know how it came about or how it developed.  And over the years it’s changed a lot – early Built to Spill is different from [Martsch’s first band] Treepeople and the way I sing now is a lot different from early Built to Spill.  You know, I have kind of a weird relationship with my voice.  Sometimes it just drives me crazy.  I love singing and I love singing live, but then I listen back to it and it doesn’t sound at all what I thought it was sounding like, which is annoying to me.  But the basic quality of my voice I like, and I’m glad that I sing the way that I do, but sometimes it’s just torture to deal with, especially in the studio and that’s why I double my voice a lot because it’s kind of thin and nasally sounding.

You say your singing has changed since the band started.  Was that something that was conscious?

I’m not really sure.  I’m not exactly sure how that happened.  It’s probably sort of conscious, and I think I might have started singing maybe not as hard and a little more naturally.  On early things, I think I sing harder and kind of lower and I think my voice sounds kind of crappy when it’s lower, it sounds better when it’s in the higher register.  I think it’s more musical.

You are often associated with the beginnings of the indie movement along with bands like Pavement, etc.  Do you ever think about where you fit in to that pantheon of indie bands?

I have my own ideas about where we fit in.  That stuff is not all that interesting to me.  How will we go down in history is not too important to me.  I mean, I don’t think that we’re a historically important band.  I don’t think we’re a band that has originated anything. 

Does that bother you?

No, not at all.  I can’t think of the word though . . .  innovate.  We’re not an innovative band.  All we’ve ever done is taken things from music we like and tried to blend it, you know, just use our natural abilities and what comes naturally to us to come up with ideas.  I like our music, but it’s not groundbreaking music at all.  I’m having a great time.  I like the music we make.  But I don’t think we’re like Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, any of those innovative bands.

I’ve read interviews where you’ve said that the You in Reverse took a while to make because you took a few years off and kind of got burned out on the whole thing.  How do you feel about that now and where do you feel like your music can go from here?

I got burned out on us.  That was a long time ago, and it had to do with a shift in my own musical paradigm as far as what I like about music.  We only took a year off, and in that year I did a bunch of other music stuff.  And then we got back together and I was totally rejuvenated and ready to do it.  And that record took a long time because it took us a long time to even figure out what kind of music we wanted to make.  Incorporating Jim Roth into the band as part of the recording band – he’d been playing live with us for years –  but incorporating him as part of the creative part.  And then the record took a long time to make also because the studio we went to was a new studio and it was kind of a big project for a new studio and there were technical things that came up.  We also did touring, we just kind of took our time to let the things evolve and not push it because it didn’t seem like it was ready to go until after working on it for a year.

We have stuff ready to make another record.  It’s mostly just songs that I’ve written and I’m already thinking about another record after this one that will be more of a collaborative thing.  So I can definitely see us having at least a couple of more albums.

So the upcoming album is less of the collaborative jamming process that went into You in Reverse and more of you writing the songs and taking them into the band?

Exactly.  I pretty much wrote all the songs and showed them to the band.  It’s still collaborative, everyone still comes up with things, but the germ isn’t collaborative like on some of the other stuff.

Where is that process right now?

Well, we’re going to start recording actually at the end of this tour.  We end in Pomona, California and the next day we start recording in L.A.  Some of the songs are songs that were left over from “You In Reverse,” and other things we’ve written since then, and there are a few songs that are still half written.  So we’ll do a bunch of rehearsing and working on stuff while we’re on tour during sound checks and stuff, because we all live in different towns so we don’t rehearse regularly.

When you go in to make an album, is there a goal?  Are you hoping for something or do you just let it take its own course?

There’s both.  Some songs you know exactly what you want to do and there’s some songs that are sort of up in the air and you just see how the studio affects it.  Like that song, “Just a Habit” on You in Reverse was one that we ended up using kind of a jam and that’s why it’s so weird sounding because we had everything miked kind of weird and we ended up just using it anyway because it had a cool energy. 

Then there was a song like “Goin’ Against Your Mind” where we pretty much knew what it was going to do.  There were some overdubs and effects and stuff, but we knew we wanted it to build up and go down and get really loud and all that kind of stuff.  And then a song like “The Wait,” where I kind of was waiting for a perfect catchy little riff or something, a musical thing to come out, and just laid down acoustic guitars for the rhythm, and worked on it a bunch, for months and months, and just finally gave up.  There’s no little special catchy thing ever going to come up for this song, it’s just going to have to be left alone, just be straightforward.  So sometimes you wait around for something cool to happen and when it doesn’t you just accept the song as it is.

Do you have a process for writing songs?

I don’t have any process at all.  I am maybe the most undisciplined person in the world.  Every once in a while I’ll work.  I’ll go weeks without picking up a guitar sometimes and then I’ll get nervous and work on stuff for a couple of hours some night.  I work mostly at night when my family is in bed and I’ll work for a while and watch basketball for a while and work for, you know, 10 minutes and then do something else.  I’m not a very good worker in that way.

Everybody seems to have a different way of doing it.

I don’t know if it’s working, but I’m doing it.

I think you could make the case that it is working.

I think when I was younger and I put a lot more time into it, I was a lot more confident about what I was doing.  I’m coming up against this deadline, so that always kind of kicks my ass a little bit.

So does the inspiration or the drive that originally made you want to play music change after you’ve put out several albums that have been critically acclaimed?

It has definitely changed.  When I was young, I would spend all my time thinking about music.  Every free moment, as I went to be at night, that’s all I would do was work on songs in my head.  And then maybe in my 20s, after I had seen a few records come out, it was hard to get quite as excited about it.  When you’re young, just coming up with a chord progression can be so exciting that you can just be high off of coming up with an interesting chord progression for a long time.  And then to see stuff like going into a studio and actually putting it on tape and then holding a record in your hand, that’s all really exciting, but it’s only good for a few times and then the excitement kind of wears off. 

And when I was in my mid-20s, after putting out a few records, I saw a Noam Chomsky movie and kind of became obsessed with politics and read and spent my time thinking about that stuff, trying to understand the world.  I mean, that’s part of what music is too, trying to understand the world.  And then in my 30s, I became obsessed with basketball, and that became the thing that I would spend all my free time doing and thinking about.  And at the same time, I still could do music, but I just didn’t have the same amount of time that I was spending on it, I wasn’t as obsessed.

You just mentioned using music to try to understand the world.  Do you still do that?

 Yeah, a little bit.  When you’re young and you listen to music, you’re really listening to what people are saying.  And now I think I have a better understanding of the world from other angles.  That’s why I don’t really listen to much current alternative rock music because I don’t really feel like it has too much to tell me about anything, so I’m more interested in old blues or reggae or old soul music that has some mystery and talks about things that are kind of foreign to me.  And you can romanticize it a lot easier than you can romanticize The Shins or something.

It has all that history behind it.

Exactly, whereas The Shins are just a bunch of white guys just like me.

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