A Conversation With Built to Spill: Guitar Rock's Modern Legacy
  • WEDNESDAY, JUNE 24, 2015

  • Posted by: Don Saas

There aren't too many genuine titans of 90s rock left. Death, drugs, and ego have robbed us of many of that decade's most talented acts, but without fail, one name keeps returning to the fold, like an old friend you can rely on to deliver the sonic goods: Built To Spill. Their first record, Ultimate Alternate Wavers, was released in 1993. That's the year my 21 year old sister was born, and though they've gone on an extended hiatus or two (their most recent being a six year stretch between this year's excellent Untethered Moon and 2009's There Is No Enemy), these icons of reverbed 90s guitar rock are still ticking when their most obvious peer, Pavement, have been out of the game for ages. We had the chance to chat with Doug Martsch about his new record, his role as one of guitar rock's new elder statesmen, and the legacy of Built to Spill.



It's been 23 years since the original incarnation of Built to Spill was formed. Most bands don't make it five years, but you're pushing a quarter of a century now. How has it felt to be a working musician for this much of your life?

Doug Martsch: I never thought I would do this at all; I never could've imagined being a professional musician for a moment, so I guess it's all kind of icing on the cake for me. I always loved playing music but I never thought I could make a living doing it. And well yeah, now here I am; I don't know what to say about it.

Earlier in your career, in interviews, you talked a lot about the role Dinosaur Jr. and J. Mascis played in influencing your music, but now you've reached a point in your career where very popular bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie -- who you have tour dates with soon -- they talk about how you've had an influence on them. What kind of emotions do you feel knowing that you've become that sort of figure to other artists?

Well, of course I'm flattered by it, humbled by it. I happen to think it's an arbitrary thing. Death Cab for Cutie, I just happened to be up in the Northwest. I just happened to be playing shows that channeled some of the stuff that they liked. You know we're all just on a continuum of other bands, things that we love, and things that we like, that we just happen to hear. So you know I don't take it so serious; you know, of course it's flattering and nice, and it's cool to be a part of the continuum.

Untethered Moon is your first record with Built to Spill in six years; that's a long time between records. Were you pursuing other interests, or is it a matter of not making an album until you had the exact material that you were wanting.

You know actually we finished that record and touring and then we wrote some songs, and in 2012 we recorded an album and then in the fall of that year we went on tour. And then the drummer quit the band, so we ended up dragging all that stuff. And then we spent 2014 breaking in our music with a few new guys. 2014 we spent rehearsing.



In a lot of ways Untethered Moon feels to me like a "return to your roots" type of album but also a chance to explore a lot of heavier, riffier guitar work, maybe as on some of your past records. Am I imagining that or is that something of an intentional choice for the record?

No, I think it was intentional. I don't know if it was so much choice to capture our early sound but I think to capture a rawer sound. You know I feel like it's more of a raw, punk record than all of our records so far. I don't know how true that is. It's hard to assess. I wanted to make music that was raw and visceral and stuff that I like mostly these days. Yeah it was definitely intentional to make it post-punk...you know stuff that I grew up with. That seemed exciting to me.

There's been this return in recent years to lo-fi but sonically ambitious guitar rock that bands like Built to Spill and Pavement really helped to make famous in the early, mid-90's. Bands like Cloud Nothings, wear that inspiration openly on their sleeves. We just had that conversation about what it feels like to be part of that continuum but what is it about that specific sound that you think has become so timeless in rock?

That's hard for me to understand. You know I grew up with that stuff so it was, for myself it was the combining of punk rock with pop; you know the Pixies did it; the Butthole Surfers did it; Sobre Beethoven did it...Husker Du. These bands that have sort of punk rock ideals and then also that sort of had the skill set of a punk rocker. You know they weren't really talented singers. And I don't know, something about that hybrid just really appealed to me. I don't know because I grew up with pop and rock on the radio, so that was firmly in me. Then when I was a teenager, I discovered punk rock and that was exciting to me...kind of things combining... it was powerful for me.

You're in your mid-forties now but the band still tours pretty regularly. Are there any differences to your tour routine now that you're a little older, a little more mature versus when you were in your twenties and just starting out?

(Laughs) Not really. We've always been pretty mellow. We're not big partiers or anything so. We've always had a, not quite professional, but we're pretty mellow.



I can't help but hear a little early REM on some Untethered Moon tracks, like "Living Zoo." Were you an REM fan as a teenager growing up in the 80's?

Absolutely. It was the first alternative band I listened to I think. Transition from hard rock to alternative music. I heard REM right when I started high school, right when I moved out of a small town to a larger town, and right when I started playing guitar. So all of those things happened at the same time so yeah Murmur was a big shift.

Having been in the game for as long as you have now, do you have any advice for kids with cheap electric guitars and cheap amps that are trying to make a career as musicians?

Jeez, I don't know if people can make careers as musicians much anymore. I guess a handful of people will be able to, but it's pretty tough now that you can't really sell your music too much. You can sell records. But there's just so many people doing it. I don't know; I've never had any advice of my own of how to succeed commercially in music. I can give you advice that's probably bullshit by now, like "Follow your Heart. Do your own thing. Don't think about making money." That's about the best advice that I would have. If someone wants to know how to make money, then I don't know how that's possible.

Untethered Moon comes out this month. It's the first chance in over half a decade for your fans to hear new Built to Spill music. What are you kind of ultimately hoping your fans take away from this record and do you have any last message that you want to say to people who've been listening to your music for twenty years now?

Well I mean of course my message to anyone that's been listening to us, or even if they just started, is "Thanks, I'm flattered and I appreciate it a lot." You know when you make a record you kind of... I guess I hope people like records the way I liked records when I was young and like records now. I would like it to be something that can withstand a lot of listens, and you can find things in it, that it doesn't have the same overdone layers that some of our other records have. That it feels like there's still things to find within. A little bit of simplicity. And you know a lot of the overdone stuff I did when I was making other records, a lot of it was about trying to hide my voice, or hide a guitar part that I don't think is that interesting, or more stuff. Some things are there for the overall effect of having lots of things going on. A lot of times I was trying to hide things cause it ended up coming out in kind of a pained voice. You know even sometimes I had specific ideas that were a lot of good ideas, but then they all would pile up on each other, and become this big wall of sound, which many people thought I was trying to do on purpose but I really was more trying to make these things stand out on their own, and kind of failing. So you you know finally, and I tried for the last few records I wanted to make it simple. This was the first time we were able to stick to our guns and keep it simple and not freak out if I was insecure about the way I played or sang, even alone. So you know I like that about it and I hope that it still has some punch to it even if it's more stripped down.


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