The solo wasn’t a break from the band, it just appeared that way. We just got back together because we’d had our break and were excited to play again…We need to take time, jam and figure out what kind of band we are again.
story by Emily Bryson York
photo by Tae Won Yu
Indie rockers are cool. Gregarious they are not. With their soft but gruff voices and downcast eyes, they rarely speak unless spoken to and when they do, their responses are often indiscernibly brief.
That is why this writer found it surprising that Doug Martsch, mastermind of the critically acclaimed indie rock icons Built to Spill, was alternately thoughtful, excited, kind and tough inside the 20 minutes of a recent phone interview with Chicago Innerview.
An idol for many of the evasive indie rocker types, Martsch possesses the deeply cool air of an accomplished artist who has been, seen and done, without the slightest trace of pretension. This coolness remains intact despite the fact that Built to Spill was one of the first big indie acts to cross over to a major label back in the mid-’90’s.
“I wanted to be able to have more money to record and not have to work,” Martsch said of the transition from indie labels Up and K Records to the band’s current label, Warner Brothers, which has released three Built to Spill records since 1997’s Perfect From Now On. “I’ve never been that interested in trying to make the band more popular or trying to convert people to us.”
He was similarly nonchalant about how the band established its roster after years of changes. “When we started, the idea was to have line-up changes all the time,” Martsch said. “We sort of did that for three or so years and then me and [bassist] Brett [Nelson] and [drummer] Scott [Plouf] made a record [the band’s 1993 debut Ultimate Alternative Wavers] and it worked. We’ve had Jim Roth playing guitar live for most of that time, and now he’s going to record with us as well.”
Unfortunately, Martsch had to put rumors to rest about a return to the studio this fall. Plouf will be attending baking school and there most likely won’t be time to record. As a result, Martsch says he’s spent the summer “hanging around” – which for him means some touring, a “few little jam sessions,” and then listening back and figuring out what can be turned into songs.
It also leaves Martsch, a reputed hoops aficionado, time for basketball. When asked who he likes to watch, Martsch said that he’s been a Blazers fan but the lineups change more often than his own projects. Being from Idaho lets him pick and choose.
Perhaps it was the laissez-faire attitude that concerned fans when Built to Spill finished their last tour and Martsch released his 2002 solo album, Now You Know, and toured alone. Many thought the band – which hasn’t put out a record since their seventh studio effort, 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future – was finished.
When asked why he decided to get the band back together now, Martsch explained that after the last tour, “We took a break. We were kind of burnt out. I had done the solo record a year before and I decided to play solo for a few shows. The solo wasn’t a break from the band, it just appeared that way. We just got back together because we’d had our break and were excited to play again. It just turned out we didn’t have much time [to prepare.]”
Despite this aforementioned lack of time, Built to Spill’s legendary singer/songwriter sounds very optimistic about the group’s prospects. “We need to take time, jam and figure out what kind of band we are again,” Martsch said. “If we’re given time, I think there are some interesting things we could do.”
While Martsch is clearly looking forward to this fall’s Built to Spill tour, which kicks off Sept. 15 with a 2-night stint in Minneapolis before heading down for two nights at Metro, he’s less enthusiastic about the coming rehearsal time. Because the band members live in separate towns, the week before every tour is spent on “hard core” rehearsing of the same songs over and over and over.
“That can be aggravating, he said. “But when you play the first show, people get excited and you feed off that energy. You forget how much the crowd can contribute.”
And once on the road, it doesn’t seem that monotony poses a problem for Martsch. “I don’t know,” he said of how the same songs stay exciting. “It’s really weird. It’s just like anything else. There was [a time] a few years ago [when] I was getting ready to practice for tour and I was dreading playing the same Built to Spill songs.” Once the tour started, however, he says it was as enjoyable as it had ever been.
Part of it, he said, is the constant changes in every song. “I’ve never played any of them right. You can change things up. It’s all just playing music. It doesn’t matter if it’s something new or something you’ve played for years. I think some bands would make better live records than studio records because of that.”
Martsch’s approach to writing and musical equipment also leaves a lot of hope for beginners. Built to Spill’s song “You Were Right,” which opens with the pessimistic declaration, “You were wrong when you said ‘everything’s gonna be all right’,” and covers of classic rock songs at their shows have been surprising.
“It’s a simple thing,” Martsch said, “Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll use the first lyrics that come into my mind. ‘You were wrong’ was the first thing that came to me and it was somewhat cliché, so I just started to put in all these negative things.”
Martsch was also characteristically unpretentious about his equipment. “I’m not much of a gear person. I like to think that if everything were stolen tomorrow, I could go down to the Guitar Center and be all right. As long as I can find some old Fender amp, an old Bassman or Tremoloex from the ’60’s or ’70’s…from what I know, that’s the most important thing.”