FOREWORD: There’s been a lot of indie rock guitarists who’ve tried emulating then reconfiguring Neil Young’s wiry electrical tone. One of the best and most efficient is Doug Martsch, head honcho of Built To Spill. Perfect From Now On (done in its entirety during an ’08 tour) became their certified masterpiece and the band has toured relentlessly since then, slowed down only temporarily in ’06 due to drummer Andy Capps untimely death. After a folk-blues-styled ’02 solo debut, Now You Know, Martsch got the band in the studio for You In Reverse, an adequate ’06 disc Warner Brothers delayed for two years. As a big fan of Martsch, I remember being quite pleased and relieved when he told me he liked my penetrating questions.
Built To Spill frontman Doug Martsch is a man obsessed with sounds. Growing up in rural Idaho cut off from city life made him appreciate the “little things” more and probably informed his lyrical themes investigating alienation and loneliness. He bought a collection of weird records at local “happening stores” when punk took hold, amassing a bunch of ‘80s SST albums by stalwarts the Minutemen and the Descendents.
“I’d listen to the radio as a kid. Queen and David Bowie made an initial big impression. Then, I got into post-punk like the Butthole Surfers, Camper Van Beethoven, the Replacements, and Dinosaur, Jr.,” he recalls.
When Martsch moved to Boise, he was intrigued by State Of Confusion, a local hardcore band. “They were older and I’d hang out and go to their practices. They let me sing at some shows around ‘85 or ‘86. I had a fanzine and their lead singer booked time and made demo tapes. That made a huge impression on me. Their drummer quit, so I played bass and the bassist went to drums. We started learning some of my songs, became a band, and moved to Seattle, the nearest cool place.”
Taken in by the straight-edge punk contingent, they became very serious and practiced a few hours a week. As the newly christened band Tree People fell into place, Martsch was given free reign to release a few swell albums.
“We were at our peak for Guilt Regret Embarrassment on K Records. I like that better than the last few Built To Spill records. It was really perfect at the time,” he says.
Although Martsch moved back to Idaho following Tree People’s demise, the exposure the Seattle scene offered and the knowledge he gained there helped set up his next project. Sure, they may not be properly classified as a grunge act, but Built To Spill has the same slacker attitude, post-punk ambition, and refusal to submit to commercial consideration many of those Northwest bands desired. And while the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and the Melvins all played an obvious part influencing the Seattle grunge scene of the early ‘90s, Kurt Cobain’s untimely shotgun suicide left behind a teen-spirited trail of tears that ruined the scene’s momentum and led directly to a less desirable second wave of pop-derived, out-of-the-area-code knockoffs like Florida’s Creed and Matchbox 20 to fill the ever widening gap.
But unlike their Washington State neighbors, the resilient Built To Spill has managed to survive, continuously unloading decisive statements of purpose throughout the ‘90s. So despite Nirvana’s demise, Soundgarden’s split, Alice In Chains’ transgression, Hole’s current uncertainty, Mudhoney’s undeserved below-the-radar status, and Pearl Jam’s willful Separatism, Built To Spill keep plugging along thanks to a stubborn refusal to admit rock and roll is dead or that electronica, hip-hop, and lounge-core have taken over.
Following the independently released debut, Ultimate Alternative Wavers (where Martsch assumes a timely slacker pose on “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup”), ‘94s more concise, fully-formed There’s Nothing Wrong With Love found Built To Spill perched on the cusp of national underground prosperity. On ‘97s Perfect From Now On, Martsch took several calculated risks on a few distended guitar-hewn epics and then finally settled on a stable rhythm section consisting of bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf.
By ‘99, the brilliant, undeniable masterstroke Keep It Like A Secret turned the heads of critics, fans, and fence sitters alike. Besides the charging “Sidewalk,” possibly Martsch’s greatest achievement, it offered the investigative “You Were Right,” which strung together Classic Rock clichés dispelling the utopian hippie culture and malignant hedonistic idealism grange bands had also begun to deride (‘you were wrong when you said everything’s gonna be all right/ you were right when you said you can’t always get what you want/ you were right when you said a hard rain’s gonna fall/ you were right when you said we’re running against the wind’).
But Martsch downgrades the implied messages of his songs. When asked if new songs such as the reserved, somber “You Are” and the piano-based, flute-laden acoustic retreat, “The Weather,” were his most personal reflections yet, he deflects, “I don’t know. I don’t notice those things. Lyrics are less meaningful than getting a good sound. Those songs in particular do make concrete sense, but an abstract sense still persists. I may manipulate things more than I’m aware of, but it’s intuitive. I don’t think of the emotions.”
Self-effacing in its titular glory, ‘01s Ancient Melodies Of The Future finds Martsch refining his approach with more neo-orchestral embellishments and a touch of the Blues (check out the slack-chorded opening and slide glissando of “Happiness” and the bloozy Spaghetti Western guitar-motifs-gone-awry pervading “Don’t Try”).
“Brett’s a great Blues guitar player. I’ve always taken something from him. On Keep It Like A Secret, I started getting into the Blues, specifically Fred Mc Dowell. I played all the guitars on that record.” He also points out, “There’s even a little slide influenced by George Harrison.”
Quasi’s Sam Coomes dropped by the studio to lay down a catchy Roxichord beat above the heavenly scree and decorative backwards tape loops of “Strange.” Recalls Martsch, “I played with guitars for that song, but it didn’t sound cool. It was like a bad R.E.M. rip-off. So I hired Sam (to play keyboards).”
A Beatle fan with a keen sense of pop history, the orchestral mist of “The Host” and “Alarmed” conjure memories of the Fab Four’s Magical Mystery Tour period.
“The mellotron stuff is inspired by the Beatles” he quips. “I wanted thick sounds you couldn’t get with the guitar, unless it was distorted. It was mostly a practical decision.”
Drifting along rather casually, “The Weather” trades the wankering guitar fury of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” (covered on ‘00s Live album) for an acoustic pulse more in tune with that aging rockers’ Harvest days.
Meanwhile, the sassy country bumpkin, “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” is a peppy turnabout which would fit in well alongside long lost ‘70s pop drifters Emitt Rhodes or Thunderclap Newman. From its pulsating acoustic origins to its overblown distorted closing, the ominous transcendence and cathartic lyrical runs of “In Your Mind” cut through a psychedelic melody in a swirly, circular manner.
Of the latter, he insists, “I originally thought it would sound good with minimal guitar-voice-drums. But I messed around with it and made up lots of parts.” The result is one of Built To Spill’s finest achievements, mischievously incorporating surreal imagery to a vexing wave of eerie instrumentation.
Over the years, Built To Spill have fooled around on a few cool split singles and loaded up some rarities for the neat compilation The Normal Years. Along with fellow Boise-based band Caustic Resin, they released a ‘95 Up Records EP that featured a few stretched out opuses like the advice-smitten “When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough” and the instrumental “Shit Brown Eyes.” According to Martsch, the best split single included a Heavenly song Built To Spill covered, which he claims “was a beautiful song and fun to record. It was a fluke. I remember I got a good recording even though I’m not an engineer.”
But, he explains, “Although Warner Brothers would allow me to do that, I have no extra tunes lying around. I’m proud of our albums. The side things bummed me out. If I don’t go into the studio, be serious, and spend time, it’s not worthwhile.”
Spoken like a true perfectionist, indeed.
True fans should do their best to search for the two fabulous collaborative side projects Martsch did with indie-eccentric Beat Happening wunderkind Calvin Johnson (with some assistance from post-rock noise geek Steve Fisk). Both ‘94s God Don’t Make No Junk and ‘96s Don’t Tell Me Now are equal to or better than the albums each artist has made with their permanent bands.