Vol. 3, Issue #4 February 22nd - March 6th, 2008

Doug Martsch Interview
By: Graham Lee Brewer

Doug Martsch and crew have been cranking out alternative rock under the name Built To Spill since the early 90’s. Doug’s music has played a vital role in the evolution and prominence of rock music in the northwest area of the country and thrown its influence on a generation of rockers. Now in his thirties, he’s grown modest and reflective on both his music and that of those around him. He has also become an avid basketball enthusiast. Built To Spill will be ast The Diamond Ballroom with The Meat Puppets on February 29. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 the day of the show.

- I noticed on You in Reverse, as well as on the singles you recently released for the new album, that it sounds like there is a definite departure from your old way of songwriting. Like there is more collaboration going on maybe?

There is definitely a lot more collaboration going on with that record. Different records had different things happening in that way. Some of the records I write the songs and bring them in and show them to people. That was the most collaborative. Keep It Like a Secret was also collaborative. A lot of the songs cam out of jams. When we started to make the record we had actually taken a big break as a band. We got back together and basically just jammed and figured out what kind of music we wanted to make. We were also integrating our guitar player Jim, who had been on tour with us for a long time, into the band as part of the writing and recording. We just recorded hours and hours of jamming, and then we went through that and kind of found stuff we thought was interesting. We stuck some of those things together with other things that I had written on my own. That was kind of the writing the songs part of it. When we were in the studio we tried to make the album live. At first we started playing live together and that went okay, but we thought we could get better sound, especially drums, if we did everything separate and isolated. Then we took a long time working on it and trying different things. Usually when I’m making a record I’ll come home in between trips to the studio and spend hours and hours trying to come up with guitar parts to work on when we are in the studio. Well this time I didn’t do too much of that. Most of what we came up with was stuff we did in the studio. It was a little more casual. We kind of wanted it to sound live and have the feel of the jams. Sort of loose and like we were jamming, even though we weren’t jamming. So, we kept things, not necessarily fuck ups, but some parts that were not super tight. In the past I’ve always liked to double guitar parts and layer tons of m. We didn’t want to do that this time. We wanted to sound more like a band than a studio project.

- You mentioned the time you guys took off from the band. Where you listening to a lot of reggae at that time, because I hear that influence in the new singles?

Yeah, actually that was about all I was listening too. Well, starting off I was listening to a lot of old blues. Then some reggae and soul, too. But mostly reggae. That reggae song was just an anomaly. When we would jam sometimes the songs would turn into reggae, and that was one of the reggae e that sort of evolved over a couple years until I thought it got good enough to record it. I didn’t really want to record reggae music. I thought it was fun to play but I didn’t really think that was what we were supposed to be doing. But that song got too good to not record and play live. So we did that and that’s it. We don’t have any other reggae songs. Mybe we will someday, but nothing coming up.

- You also mentioned the way your guitar is structured. One thing in particular that I’m looking forward too with this new one is the variances in your guitar sounds. You in Reverse had all these great tones and levels with the sounds of the guitars. Is that a trend that will flow into the new record?

To some degree. That was because the place we were recording, the guy Steve who ran it, he had a bunch of amps, and jim our guitar player collects amps. We had more amps at our disposal than ever before and we had four guitar players. So each time one of us would sit down and play we would try out a different guitar and amp. That was just kind of part of the part of the process of collaborating, messing around with different guitars and amps.

- I read once where you said that once you knew a lot of people were listening that it became harder for you to write music. Is that something you have become more comfortable with?

I think that I moved into another phase. Now it’s kind of hard to write and do stuff because I just don’t have the same obsession that I used to have. When I was young, the first bunch of records I made with Treepeople and Built to Spill it was just so exciting to come up with ideas, be recorded, and go through the whole process. I would spend almost all of my free time just thinking about music and obsessing over it. Any free time I had that’s where my mind went. And then after a couple of Built to Spill records, I got into my mid twenties I became interested in other things. I was less obsessed about it. I got interested in political theories and stuff. I discovered Noam Chomsky and that kind of became what I was interested in thinking about. Then in my thirties I became obsessed with basketball. I would spend my free time playing or watching basketball and not music. I like it just the same. I still feel like we can make just as good music, if not better music, than we ever could. It takes a lot more effort to get into working on it though.

- I know you are a politically minded person, and I’m curious how you view the current election and the possibilities it presents. The possibilities, to me, make this a very exciting election.

I might be a little more disillusioned. But getting rid of George Bush is going to be wonderful. Unless he’s replaced by John McCain. He s maybe even worse. Hilary is nothing at all to be excited about, for m. I think Barack, I guess it’s nice that there is one sort of unknown. I don’t really know much about Barack. I like Dennis Kucinich. I would be very happy if he became president or Ralph Nader. I think I’m a little too radical to be excited about anything that is going on in politics on that level. I think capitalism has to end. But what’s going to happen is it will end of its own volition. So, we’re just going to have to wait for it to collapse.

- Do politics play a large role in your songwriting?

Definitely! There are many political elements to the lyrics. Nothing that is too overt. Every record has a few songs, Keep it Like a Secret at least. Maybe even before that to some degree. I think of politics as just another aspect of life. It’s kind of about culture. It’s a huge part of what defines culture and that’s what music is about. And you know, the reggae song “They Got Away” is full on political, but it’s also political in a reggae sort of vein. Reggae somehow lends itself to being political easier than pop music, to me.

- When you guys play your older songs live now a days there is a noticeable maturation or evolution in the way they sound. Do you guys feel like a very different band than you were back then or do those changes just simply signify different members playing those parts?

It’s mostly because of the different members. It’s kind of a natural progression. Sometimes we play the record and figure it out and decide who is going to play what parts. We’ll play it for a couple years and play back the record and it’s totally different. We’ll have the tempo all wrong or a guitar parts not in it anymore. It just kind of naturally evolves over time. Playing the song every night you kind of try to keep to it, but there are so many subtleties to music. How hard you’re hitting the strings, if you’re doing down strokes or up strokes, little things like that play a big part in the tone and feel of things. So, things get lost, and that’s fine. But I listen back to those old things, and I can’t even deal with the quality of my voice. Of course my singing has changed. I think back then the worst my singing was at the time the more I seemed to not mind it at all. As I got older and started singing better I got more judgmental about my singing. I don’t really understand that. The more I listen to those old records I just cringe.

- Is that why you overdub your vocals a lot?

Yeah that’s definitely why I double them a lot. I kind of have a thin voice. When it’s doubled it sounds a lot better. I’d like to be able to sing a single track especially on certain material, and there is some things I wish I hadn’t done that. But when I was there and in the studio and planned on not doubling it, it just sounded so weak, so I had to do that.

- Well even though those older sons sound different, at the same time there are new songs, like “Conventional Wisdom,” that take me back to being a kid in the 90’s. It just has that 90’s feel about it.

Yeah, it definitely has that Dinosaur Jr feel to it.

- I love that aspect of your music. A piece of that decade will always be in your albums.

Good. That’s nice. Thanks.

- A lot of the time when I hear you referenced as an elder of the indie scene and I’m curious about how that label feels to you. Also how you feel about being this iconic figure that bands like Modest Mouse draw influence from?

Well you know the only time I ever think about it is when I’m doing interviews and I’m asked about it. To me it’s just sort of, I don’t think of Built To Spill as having a unique or interesting sound. What we’ve done is taken things from music that we’ve liked and tried to incorporate it into what we are naturally able to do. To me the only reason why Modest Mouse sites us is because they grew up in the northwest and happened to be a few years younger than us. That’s why they happened to stumble across our albums. If it had been a few years later it might have been The Shins they stumbled across. Or if it had been a few years later Dinosaur Jr. To me that’s neither here nor there. I don’t feel like we had anything to do with it. For me it was REM, that was the first alternative rock band I listened to.
- It sounds like you guys should be the ones with the word modest in the title of your band.

(Laughs). I’m not necessarily modest. I think bands like Dinosaur Jr, bands that did break some new ground. I don’t think that we ever did. I think we make good music. I’m not overly modest. But we didn’t bring anything new to the table. We just kind of rehashed what we liked. We’re more traditionalists. So to me bands that break new grounds are the bands that should be considered influential. I don’t see us fitting that mold. We were only influential because of the time and place. And maybe because Isac [Brock] liked it (laughs). If one person that makes it big sites your band that makes you look a lot better on paper than yo might be.

- How do you feel about the way that independent music has gone in the last few years? I feel like it’s a completely different thing than it was when you started.

I do too. I think that’s a natural thing. I don’t really know anything about the current music scene. Actually, I got an iPod last year, and I’m pretty immersed in that. It’s loaded up with lots of reggae and soul and stuff, but also a lot of stuff that I liked when I was young. Things like 90’s and late 80’s stuff. Barely anything that is new or current. Part of what I like about music is that when I was young it was another way to learn about the world. Whether it be through movies or books or whatever, music also played that same kind of role. So to listen to current young bands, to me I don’t really feel like I can learn anything from kids from America. So that’s part of why I think I was drawn to old music when I was in my twenties. I became disillusioned with alternative music and just felt like I had had enough of it. I like music and they way it sounds, and that’s mostly what I like about it, but there is also something about who is bringing it to you. There are certain bands that I loved as a kid, like Kiss, but I will not listen to Kiss because I just think they are such disgusting people. It kind of bums me out. I’ve thought about a couple of those records and how it would be nice to hear them. But they’re so disgusting I can’t get past that. Making that separation between the sounds of music and who is making it to me those things are not exclusive from each other. I don’t even remember what I was trying to say. Something about why I don’t listen to new music. I’m just not drawn to the people making it. I am into some modern music, but it’s mainly my friends making it. I don’t listen to radio hits or the big bands that are current.

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