A Few Minutes With Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch

Built To Spill is coming out with its first album in five years and hitting the road, so we thought this was as good a time as any to talk to the indie rock band’s founder, Doug Martsch.

Music journalists use terms like “iconic” and “seminal” to describe the act, which has been cited when discussing the influences of bands such as Death Cab For Cutie and The Shins.   

Despite Martsch’s initial thought that the band would have a changing lineup every album, guitarist Brett Netson has been in the group since its start in the early ‘90s and guitarist Jim Roth has been on board for many years. The new album, Untethered Moon, is the follow-up to 2009’s There Is No Enemy and the first to feature new band members Steve Gere on drums and Jason Albertini on bass. Martsch produced Untethered Moon with Quasi’s Sam Coomes, who has appeared on every Built To Spill album after its major label debut, 1997’s Perfect From Now On.

Built To Spill’s discography, which will soon be up to eight studio albums, also features 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. That LP and Perfect From Now On were included on Pitchfork’s list of the “Top 100 Albums of the 1990s.” 

In his write-up of 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum asks, “True or false: Doug Martsch is the Peter Frampton of 1990s indie? Sure, he might not have the hair, the tight pants, or the voice box, but it’s difficult to think of another soul more worthy of resident guitar god; maybe J Mascis, but he never brought the pop side like King Framp.”

Built To Spill is celebrating Record Store Day by releasing Untethered Moon exclusively at independent record stores April 18. It will be available to the rest of the world April 21. Pre-orders come with an instant download of the track Living Zoo.”

While writing and recording the new album, Martsch has been spending time at his house in Boise, Idaho, and hosting a weekly radio show on the city’s community-programmed radio station.

The band just headlined Boise’s Treefort Music Fest but is kicking off its 2015 tour down the road from Pollstar at Visalia, Calif.’s Cellar Door April 10.

Photo: John Davisson
Sasquatch! Music Festival, Gorge Amphitheatre, Quincy, Wash.

It’s an awkward explanation as to why we took this interview but I just wanted to say that, at some point, Pollstar can say we spoke with you. It’s just that Built to Spill is one of those bands like The Jayhawks or Guided By Voices or Wilco. I just wanted to have this interview in the “archive,” if you will.

That sounds really good! I’m kind of humbled!

That being said, we’re focused on touring so the simple question would be about hitting the road again. Are there any new markets that still appear on your itinerary?

Yeah. Seems like every year or so we play a few new places. A few towns here or there.

Does that mean you’re still introducing the band to people?

Yeah, I kind of feel that happens all the time. We always meet people who haven’t heard us before. Their friend brought them to the show. … And it’s really fun to play those shows. Usually the case is it’s people who have known about us for 15 years and never got a chance to see us. So it always fun to play in a town where a good portion of the crowd is seeing us for the first time after hearing the records for years.

But I think we’re a lot better band live than on records. Stuff just gets worked out a little bit over time live. And having Jim (Roth) and Brett (Netson), the other guitar players, who are so great but aren’t really on the records. I think there’s an energy live. We’re just more focused as a live band. On record, so often, we don’t know what we’re doing or what we want to do.  It’s more meandering on the records.  And after years of playing [these songs] they become tighter and more focused.

And there’s a lot of improvising, too, you know? I’m not talking about noodling solos. I’m just talking about basic parts of songs, between versus and stuff, picking different leads, throwing in a few notes here and there, singing a little differently.  When I see bands, I like it when their songs aren’t etched in stone and they’re not trying to sound like the record.

I need to double check this, but are you and I the only two people who aren’t at SXSW right now?

Maybe! Hopefully none of my other band guys are there either!  We’re actually gearing up for Treefort Music Fest, which is really cool, here in Boise.

Has it been a while since you’ve been to SXSW?

You know, we’ve only been there a few times and we were only just talked into it. We’ve never really volunteered to go down there. The last time was 2012 and it was because of this Treefort festival. This guy here in Boise, Eric Gilbert, wanted us to play here at his festival but also wanted us to go down to SXSW and headline a Boise showcase that would bring a little attention to Treefort. We had a really fun time. We ended up playing seven shows in four days or something like that. It was really a blast. But I’ve never just gone and checked stuff out. That seems too crazy to me. But it’s fun to play there. It’s fun to set your stuff up in a hurry and get to it. I like the hectic atmosphere there.

Photo: Stephen Gere

What are some of your strongest markets?

We just seem to do well in big cities. Seattle and Portland are in my backyard. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. But we didn’t go to Florida for a long, long time. It just seemed like too much driving with too few people showing up. But we’ve been going there the last few years and it’s been great. We don’t have the biggest crowds but the people are psyched to see you down there. I like going places where people aren’t used to seeing much stuff so they’re more excited about it.

Another summer, another tour, another new record: is it routine or have you noticed anything unique this time around?

It is kind of routine at this point, you know? I’m kind of more excited about this record than the last few just because it was just a fun record to make. I think most of the time – maybe every time except for our first record – I was pretty burned out by the time we were done.  I didn’t want to hear any of it, or think about it at all.

And, yeah, I’m kind of burned out on it but this was a funner process than usual. Maybe I just appreciated it more. When you’re young, the first few times you go into a studio it’s unbelievably exciting and then you kind of settle into it; it becomes routine. And it also became more high pressure.  I was never worried about selling a record but I was always worried about making a good record. That can be a lot of pressure, and you can start to doubt yourself. Maybe that’s why this record was so fun. Maybe it was Sam Coomes working on it and his positive attitude, making us feel like we were on the right track so often. I didn’t mess with the self doubt I so often have.

I don’t often hear that but it’s true: you write a song, you rehearse a song, you record the song and by the time you present it to people, you’re almost sick of the song.

There is a little bit of that. Yet there were songs we’ve played from our first album and I definitely feel like I can still get up on stage and not get tired of them. It’s like I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten any of them right.  Or there are still places to go inside them all. Even with the simplest song, you’d think there wouldn’t be room for any improvisation or that it would be boring after a couple of years, but there’s always space to move around, and things to do, and ways to keep it interesting for me.

So far, at least, that’s been my experience.  I definitely had a feeling, by the time I was 30 or something, it was, “Oh my God, how can people play those same songs over and over again? To be 50 years old and playing the song they wrote when they were 20 years old? How can that be anything but hell?” But so far it kind of works itself out. It’s not hard to feel inspired and creative, even when you’re playing tunes you wrote 20 years ago.

I like to think you have some wiggle room on your setlist versus Aerosmith, which can’t squeeze in one song they want to play in a two-hour show.

Yeah, yeah, because it’s two hours of hits. They want to go out and give their crowd the show they want.  I understand that. And their fans probably want to hear the songs the way they’re supposed to be, too. We’re definitely lucky that we have fans that will give us some leeway, and we’re lucky we’ve never had a hit, so all of our deep cuts are just as important as the songs that would have been hits.

So you could switch out a little, if you wanted to.

Absolutely, and we do. I draw up a setlist every day and if we’re in a city for three days I make three almost completely different setlists. There might be one or two songs we play each night but we try to switch it up so if somebody decides to buy three tickets, they’ll get three different shows.  And it’s fun for us. It keeps us on our toes. We usually start a tour with 45 songs and when we end the tour we’re down to about 30 of them. A certain amount fall off – mostly because of me. Some of them I just don’t want to sing; they’re in a weird key or I have to struggle with the vocals.

Georgetown coach John Thompson would say he didn’t care about his starting lineup. What counted was who was on the court at the end.

Right. When we start a tour we’ll say, “Oh, that sounds killer!” By the end, we can become so focused on it that it’s not even fun. It doesn’t sound good any more. You start noticing the tiniest, little bit of tempo difference. At first you can play a song way too slow and think, “Oh, that’s cool. We’ll just jam with this.” By the end, it’s, “If that song is not exactly right in the pocket, if it’s a half-a-beat-a-minute off, it ruins the song!”

It’s a weird thing. Every little mistake starts to bother you. There’s kind of a curve to it.  At first you’re trying to hit all the right pedals. That’s the struggle for the first week: you’re trying to hit the right foot pedals at the right time. Then you hit your groove: for a couple weeks it’s great. Then there’s a downhill at the end, for me, where everything starts to sound shitty because I’m hyper-listening to things.

Yeah, there’s always those songs where you can anticipate one person in the band consistently flubbing a particular thing, every night. “Oh, here comes the second chorus where Bill will screw up the bass part.”

(laughs) In this band, that’s me! There’s a guitar solo in one of our songs, “Kicked It In The Sun.” Half the time I totally just blow it and I look around and see my bandmates smirk.

One last thing: you’re self-managed. Has that’s been a longtime situation?

Yeah, we just never had someone. I think, for a band like us, we’ve done everything sort of low-key. I think if we had known someone who was a tight friend and part of the scene from the get-go we probably would have had that person as a manager, but there wasn’t a person around like that. A couple of times we talked to people about managing us but once we started down the road of self-management there was no getting out of it. We know what we want to do and even if we had a manager we’d still have to make all these decisions.

But if we started with a manager who was part of the scene, he’d know what we were all about and actually do it without our help. Right now we kind of have someone – Eric Gilbert, who does Treefort. He plays in this great band, Finn Riggins, and he books a lot of bands. He’s been kind of road managing us. He’s gone to Europe with us. In the past we split up road duties: one guy would get paid at the end of the night, one guy would do the advancing. But it will be nice to have a real kind of manager on the road. I’m a horrible manager. I only do what has to be done. We show up at a club and a manager is supposed to give everyone their passes and tell them what’s going on, and I just don’t have it in me. Everyone has to figure it out for themselves. So it will be nice to have a manager, just for morale.

Seems like a manager would be good just to play the bad cop. “I’d love to play your birthday party but my managers says no.” Maybe you can make one up.

Well, my wife pretty much “co-manages” the band. She does a lot of bookkeeping and stuff. She actually doesn’t let me do a lot of stuff. She’s definitely my bad cop!

(As we posted this one of our buddies, within the same 15 minutes, independently posted a blog about Built To Spill’s significance.  It was serendipitous so we gave it a link.)

Upcoming dates for Built To Spill:

April 10 – Visalia, Calif., Cellar Door
April 11 – San Luis Obispo, Calif., SLO Brew         
April 12 – Indio, CA Empire Polo Club (Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival)            
April 13 – Santa Barbara, Calif., Soho Restaurant & Music Club    
April 14 – San Diego, Calif., The Irenic        
April 15 – Los Angeles, Calif., Shrine Expo Hall (appearing with Brand New)     
April 16 – Tucson, Ariz., Rialto Theatre
April 17 – Phoenix, Ariz., The Crescent Ballroom    
April 18 – Flagstaff, Ariz., The Orpheum Theater    
April 19 – Indio, Calif., Empire Polo Club (Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival)
April 20 – Las Vegas, Nev., Bunkhouse       
May 7 – Nashville, Tenn., Exit / In    
May 8 – Birmingham, Ala., Saturn    
May 9 – Atlanta, Ga., Central Park (Shaky Knees Music Festival)
May 10 – Carrboro, N.C., Cat’s Cradle        
May 11 – Charleston, S.C., Music Farm
May 12 – Jacksonville, Fla., Jack Rabbits     
May 13 – Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Culture Room        
May 14 – Saint Petersburg, Fla., State Theatre         
May 15 – Orlando, Fla., The Social   
May 16 – Tallahassee, Fla., Sidebar Theatre  
May 17 – New Orleans, La., The Howlin’ Wolf New Orleans         
May 18 – Houston, Texas, Warehouse Live  
May 19 – Austin, Texas, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph.    
May 20 – Dallas, Texas, Granada Theater     
May 21 – Oklahoma City, Okla., ACM @ UCO     
May 22 – St. Louis, Mo., Ready Room         
May 23 – Omaha, Neb., Slowdown  
May 24 – Minneapolis, Minn., Varsity Theater         
May 26 – Madison, Wis., High Noon Saloon
May 27 – Indianapolis, Ind., The Vogue
May 28 – Detroit, Mich., St. Andrews Hall  
May 29 – Nelsonville, Ohio, Robbins Crossing @ Hocking College (Nelsonville Music Festival)
May 30 – Chicago, Ill., Metro / Smart Bar    
May 31 – Grand Rapids, Mich., Founders Brewing Co.            
June 13 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Various Venues (Northside Festival)
July 8 – Troutdale, Ore., McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheater (appearing with Death Cab For Cutie)    
July 9 – Bend, Ore., Les Schwab Amphitheater
July 11 – Berkeley, Calif., Greek Theatre      
July 24 – Seattle, Wash., Capitol Hill Festival Grounds (Capitol Hill Block Party)

For more information please visit BuiltToSpill.com.