Comfort can be a fickle thing, and we take it for granted once we no …
photo by Katie Summer
To say Doug Martsch is humble is an understatement. The Built To Spill leader often borders self-deprecation in his avoidance of the ideas of fame and success. For Martsch, becoming a professional musician was unintentional; a combination of passion and circumstance. He doesn’t understand the widespread connection fans have toward his music, nor does he attempt to. For him, music is subjective and something that happens differently for each individual.
Dating back to the early ’90s, Built To Spill has released eight full-length albums, with their most recent being last year’s Untethered Moon. During that time, the band has toured extensively, and through such activity carved themselves an influential place in music history.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Built To Spill is their ability to remain relevant for more than 20 years while retaining a similar sound. Martsch himself seems surprised by the expansive and devoted crowd Built To Spill has accumulated. From Millennials to Baby Boomers, a wide range of people identity with Martsch’s songwriting. If you’ve been to a Built To Spill show, you know what I am talking about. A 60-year-old standing next to a teenager, both singing every word.
That doesn’t mean Built To Spill hasn’t changed throughout the years, however. Change was one of the original intentions of the band as Martsch planned to be the only continuous member with a different lineup for each album. That did not end up being the case, but like any relationship, time has naturally affected the band. They have had families, lost and gained members, and taken long pauses between releasing albums; all things that subtly incorporate their way into a band’s sound.
Internal factors are not the only ones that have changed during Built To Spill’s expansive career. The band has experienced the spectrum of the industry shift from the profitability of album sales to the tour-until-you-die mentality. Making a living means life on the road, and Martsch is okay with that. Built To Spill has toured thousands of shows.
With 2016 marking the the end of 20 years worth of contracts with major record labels, the future of Built To Spill is a bit in the air. That does not concern Martsch, though. He is not one to jump through hoops and will ultimately do what his band has always done: make music that feels right and take it on the road.
photo by Katie Summer
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ELEVEN: Do you have any fond memories from back in the day, before “making it,” that are especially noteworthy?
Doug Martsch: Well, actually we’re going to be playing some shows with The Hand, who’s going to be on tour with us, and they’re actually not playing the Portland show, but they’re playing the rest of this ten day West Coast tour with us, and the guitar player is from my old band Treepeople. That’s about how I got my start playing music was in that band. It was just a bunch of guys here in Boise, they were a band called State of Confusion, a hardcore band, and they broke up, and when I was old enough, I joined up with them. They were older guys. We formed Treepeople and moved up to Seattle together. They were really the people who got me going into music, and made it a real thing instead of just messing around by myself.
11: Watching projects come and go, and people start new collaborations, do you still see a lot of people that you saw or played with back in the day? Are they still active, or have they moved on to different things?
DM: Well, it seems to me that most of the people that I’ve played music with are still doing it. They’re lifers. Brett Nelson, who played bass in Built to Spill up until just a few years ago, he was the first person to really get me into music when I was just in junior high school, he was … In Twin Falls, Idaho. He was the first person I knew that had a new wave haircut and owned a synthesizer and then he got a bass. He kind of made the whole thing, the idea of making music, seem within reach. He was into a lot different music than me, but [there were] a few things that we did love, that we had in common. We also had a lot of the same appreciation about music. We liked a lot of the same things about it, even though we had pretty different tastes. He still makes music. He’s in a band right now called Sick Wish. His son plays drums, and Scott Schmaljohn, like I was saying, that’s the guy from Treepeople, he’s in The Hand. The other people in Treepeople, Wayne Flower, he’s still making music. Most of the people that I know are kind of lifers that just love it and have done it. None of the people I ever played with… I never played with anyone who thought they could make a career out of music. We were all doing it for fun, and that was it. Nothing’s changed. If you played video games when you were a teenager you probably still play them. If you made music, you’re probably still doing that too.
11: What kind of music were you listening to in junior high? What kind of shows did you go to?
DM: Well in junior high school, I kind of got into heavy metal, like sort of poppy heavy metal. Things like Quiet Riot, or AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, kind of that sort of stuff. A melodic kind of heavy metal or something. And Brett, my musical brother or whatever, he was into new wave stuff. And then as we got into high school we kind of grew together and we both got into punk rock. You know, David Bowie and The Smiths and things like that. Echo and the Bunnymen was a band that we both could love.
11: You’ve expressed the idea that music is subjective and it means something different to each person. Why do you think so many people connect to your music?
DM: I have no idea. It’s strange. It’s really nothing that I ever expected to happen. Like I said, we all just did this stuff because we liked doing it, and my feeling about making music was that I was just trying to sort of… I can pretty well remember when I first started doing it that I thought, I like a lot of bands, but it always seemed like nothing was totally perfect to me. Maybe as I got a little older, a few things did become perfect to me, but when I was young and first started playing music I remember thinking, “Well I like this part of this thing, and I like the way they do this, but I don’t like this part of it.” So my idea in making music was to try to do what I think it should be. I didn’t even come close, I had no clue about all of the subtleties of music and all the different aspects of it. I focused really on melody.
11: Is it ever kind of overwhelming to have so many people have your music and art mean so much to them?
DM: You know what? I guess it kind of is. I feel like people like the music. I don’t feel like our music is anything … People that come up to me and say they like the music after the show or something, I appreciate it, but I know that it’s not just about us. It’s about music. If they were in a Modest Mouse show they’d go up to Isaac and say the same thing, or The Flaming Lips, whoever it is, Clark & The Himselfs. And I feel the same way when I go see bands. I can go see some famous band that everyone loves, I can go see some local band that only a few people have heard of and be just as moved by either experience. I don’t really take it too seriously. It’s the music that people love, and I happen to be in that field.
11: What is the ideal show setting for you? What kind room do you like to play, and what kind of crowd?
DM: I like small shows for sure. I like to go to small shows, definitely, and I like to play [smaller shows]. We play pretty much the [ideal] level of clubs almost nightly that’s really great, I think. Like a 500 capacity place. Not super tiny, so it has a decent PA because it’s an established place, but it’s not so big that it sounds washed out, or that people are uncomfortable, too far away. It still feels intimate. The Crystal, I think it is a great place, I think it’s not the best sounding room and a lot of people complain about that and we play there a lot and I complain about it, but I don’t know if there’s anything they can do about it. As far as the feel of the room, it’s great, and I love the people there.
11: So going back to the subjectivity of music, what, in your opinion, makes for good music?
DM: Well, I’m not really sure. I think it might be kind of a… I don’t know, I really don’t know. My musical taste changed a lot over the years. When I was growing up, I think what I liked most about music was melodies and interesting chord progressions, I didn’t really pay much attention to tones and rhythms and beats and things like that. Later on, I learned to appreciate those things more. When I was younger and I was into punk rock, when I was a teenager and stuff, I liked people that just had interesting ideas and things that were kind of weird and unconventional. I didn’t care if someone sang in key or were one of the good musicians, as long as they were trying and pushing themselves in an interesting way. Then as I got older, when I got into my thirties, I got into the blues and old soul music and reggae and then my aesthetic really changed. That was all music that was real conventional, and people weren’t … It wasn’t so much about having great new ideas, it was more about just getting into a groove and being a good player, being a good singer. It was more about kind of raw talent. And not bringing anything totally new to the table, just by being yourself you would interpret things and make it your own, in a subtle way, not in a real drastic way like punk rock and art music.
11: What are some bands that you’re into right now?
DM: Right now I think my favorite thing going on is a band called Slam Dunk out of Victoria, BC.
11: Oh yeah, they’re awesome! I saw them at Treefort a couple years ago.
DM: Oh good! Yeah, they’re some kind of party, punk, fuckin’ fun … But they’re also really great songwriters, all really great players, just an amazing energy and … It’s a fun thing, but as a record they’re serious. They’re fun too, but they’re really super talented people. I can listen to any of their records all day long still.
11: What are your feelings about Treefort Music Fest and what it’s done for the Boise music scene and Built to Spill’s involvement in it?
DM: We’ve played every year. The first year I think was 2012. Does that sound correct?
11: Yeah, that was the first year.
DM: It seems like it’s been around for a decade, but this is only the fourth one coming up. Eric [Gilbert], when he first thought about doing it, he proposed to have us play as like… That we would sort of be a draw and a help to the festival, and it seems like year two, in the first year things just blew up. We’ve been lucky enough to get to play every year and get to kind of hog up some stages. A couple years in a row we took over one of the rooms and played three nights and kind of booked our friends and got to turn it into a little festival of our own. This year we’re going to play two shows. We’re going to play one on the main stage opening for Charles Bradley with a five-piece and then we’re going to play another show at the Shrine on Sunday as a three-piece. Mix it up a little bit. Yeah, Treefort is amazing. It’s one of those things too, where everyone I know loves it. People that are jaded or hard to please… I consider myself among those sorts of people that… With things like this, usually there’s a lot to bitch about, I have not had anything to bitch about with Treefort, and I’ve really caught the spirit of it. I think [that] it has really moved people, it’s kind of amazing. We’ll see. We’ll see how long it lasts. Maybe that’s just the first four or five years and it really does become something that annoys people [laughs]. Up until now, it’s been magical every year. Just seeing the streets of Boise transformed into people walking around happy and going from one venue to the next. It’s got a great reputation and it’s a pretty amazing thing.
11: There’s definitely something kind of magical and spiritual about the event.
DM: For sure.
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Built To Spill plays live in Portland Feb. 7 at Crystal Ballroom and at Treefort Music Festival in Boise March 23-27.