If you were to look through my notebooks and saw my pages of lyrics, you’d be like, ‘that is so stupid, that is really dumb, that is horrible.’ And then every fiftieth one you might say, ‘okay, I can see how that might work.’
BY JAMIE ROBASH
One of the most influential indie rock bands of the ’90s, Built to Spill has for the past two decades served as the primary vehicle for Doug Martsch’s multi-layered guitar orchestrations that have spearheaded the Boise-based band’s sound and creative direction ever since 1993 debut Ultimate Alternative Wavers. Existing around the fringes of mainstream success for much of their career, the longtime Warner Bros. act most recently released 2015’s Untethered Moon after a six-year silence following 2009’s There Is No Enemy. Chicago INNERVIEW sat down with Martsch to chat about making a Built to Spill record, the painful process of penning lyrics, and not wanting to be remembered only as a “band from the ‘90s.”
Chicago INNERVIEW: It’s been a year since Untethered Moon was released. Now that it’s aged a bit and you’ve had a chance to play those songs live, have your feelings about the record changed at all?
Doug Martsch: I don’t really think about it. We’re going to be doing this tour as a three-piece, so we’re going to be playing a lot more songs off that record. We’ll play almost the whole record. So I guess that’s a little different. So yeah but I don’t know, I don’t really think about it. We’re thinking about our new record, not about the old one. Once it’s done, it’s done in my mind.
Chicago INNERVIEW: Do you have a pretty clear idea of the record you want to make before you go into the studio or is it more an act of discovery?
Doug Martsch: It’s a little of both. We try to be as prepared as possible. The songs have been re-worked and edited many, many times, and tried in different styles. The stuff gets worked a lot. So by the time we get into the studio, we definitely know the main idea of the songs, all the parts, but maybe not exactly how to treat them instrumentally. I spend so much time working on it that I don’t feel comfortable unless it’s at least in some kind of shape that it could be finished up the way it is.
CI: There was a six-year gap between There is No Enemy and Untethered Moon. Were you playing or writing music during that time?
DM: No, I was working pretty much as I always have. That record came out in 2009 and we toured a bunch. We actually went into the studio in 2012 and recorded pretty much most of an album. Then the rhythm section guys quit the band, so we just bagged that and started all over again. It wasn’t any kind of intentional break. Then we got together with the new guys, who had to learn all the old songs, and it took us a while to rework this new material. We just take our time. I wish I worked a little bit faster but…it does take a long time.
CI: Reading past interviews with you, I found you often dismiss your talent as a lyricist. Do you find writing lyrics difficult?
DM: Yeah exactly, they’re like six years in the making you know [laughs]. If you were to look through my notebooks and saw my pages of lyrics, you’d be like, ‘that is so stupid, that is really dumb, that is horrible.’ And then every fiftieth one you might say, ‘okay, I can see how that might work.’ They’re definitely important to me, but it’s not something I thrive on. In the end I stand behind my words, for the most part, but they’re just hard to come up with.
CI: You’ve been going at this for over 20 years now. Do you ever say to yourself, ‘I’m done. I’ve taken this as far as it can go’?
DM: I think I’ve probably had those feelings here and there, but for the most part I’m more worried that other people are gonna be done with it. I’m more concerned that music fans will have had enough of us and then we’ll be done. I’ve definitely had some dry periods, creatively. But right now, I’m pretty psyched about making music. I feel like I can do it as long as anyone out there is willing to listen to it. I don’t want to be a band that’s just known for our music from the ‘90s. I’m sure we are to some degree, but I would hope that the new things we’re doing can be interesting to people too.