Q&A with Built to Spill's Doug Martsch
Photo by Autumn DeWilde Doug Martsch, foreground, and the rest of Built to Spill.
Doug Martsch, whose band, Built to Spill, headlines this year's Westword Music Showcase on June 12 (click here for more details), is a rarity -- a indie-rock musician who signed to a major label in the mid-'90s who's still inked to the same imprint today. He's also a rare, if modest, talent with interests that go well beyond music to family and pro basketball, as he demonstrates in the following Q&A, conducted for this week's Built to Spill profile -- the first with Westword in twelve years.
The latest interview with Martsch picks up where the last one left off -- talking about his son, Ben, who was three at the time of the previous chat and is now fifteen. From there, Martsch discusses the pros and cons of travel; the different kinds of satisfaction he derives from live performances in comparison to studio recordings; a recent tour in which the band recreated all of the material from one of its richest albums, 1997's Perfect From Now On; his guess as to why he remains in the good graces of Warner Bros. when so many other labelmates are now former labelmates; a preview of the BTS' forthcoming album, There Is No Enemy; and the Denver Nuggets' just-ended playoff run, the future prospects of Martsch's favorite team, the Portland Trail Blazers, and his fervent wish that the Orlando Magic defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals.
The Magic won their first game last night. Hope springs eternal.
Westword (Michael Roberts): I got a chance to interview you in 1997, and back then, we spent a lot of time talking about your son, Ben. He was three at the time, and would get really emotional when you had to leave for a tour. Do you remember that stage?
Doug Martsch: Barely. That was a long time ago.
WW: How old is Ben now?
DM: He's fifteen
WW: And does he have any siblings? Or is it just him?
DM: Just him.
WW: What's he like now? How would you describe him?
DM: Pretty amazing, really. He's really sharp and funny, and really laid back. I couldn't have hoped for a better son. I can't believe how nice he's turned out.
WW: Is he into music?
DM: He is. He plays cello in the orchestra. And he mostly listens to hip-hop. Wu-Tang and all those variations on the Wu-Tang Clan are kind of his favorites right now.
WW: So kind of old school?
WW: What's he think of your music?
DM: I think he likes it all right. He knows what we do, and he comes and sees us every once in a while if we're doing an all-ages show in Boise. I don't know that it's too much his thing, but he's nice about it, at least.
WW: So he doesn't come to you and suggest you put in samples or anything like that?
DM: He pretty much leaves us alone. He lets me listen to whatever I want, too. He's pretty good.
WW: How does he handle your absences these days? Does he even take note of them, since I'm sure he's busy with his own stuff?
DM: No, I think it's tough. But it's all he's ever known. I've done it forever, so he never gives me any grief for it. But it definitely bums him out.
WW: It seems like you guys tour a lot. How much of the average year are you out there?
DM: Maybe two to three months.
WW: How is that divvied up? Is it a few weeks here, a few weeks there? Or those two or three months in a big block?
DM: It's all spread out. We don't usually go out for more than a month at a time, or maybe a little bit more. Maybe it is more than two or three months at a time. It does add up, but I don't really think about it that much. We had our longest tour last fall, when we were out for ten weeks in a row. That was by far the longest. We've been pretty strict at keeping it at four or five weeks at most.
WW: Was it all in this country? Or did you tour internationally?
DM: Yeah, it was overseas. That's why we did it. We had, like, six weeks overseas. Part of it was, we were doing one of our albums [1997's Perfect From Now On] in its entirety. So we added a bunch of touring to play that, as long as we'd learned it. So it turned into this big thing. It wasn't supposed to be a ten-week tour, but it ended up being one.
WW: I'm sure a lot of people assume you must love touring, given how long you've been out there doing it. But I came across some old articles where you talked about it not being your favorite thing....
DM: No, I do enjoy it. I like it a lot.
WW: What's your favorite part?
DM: Just being able to play. Playing music live is one of the funnest things in my life. I love that. And of course, no one really likes the traveling, but it's not that bad. The worst part, of course, is just being away from my family. But I love to play live. I really appreciate that I'm able to do it. As I've gotten older, I've realized more what a nice position I'm in, and how lucky I am to be able to do it. When I was younger, the traveling and all that stuff seemed really horrible to me. But it's not really that bad at all.
WW: During those long stretches going from one place to another, do you have a technique to make it go by faster? Have you found a way to get into a certain mindframe that makes it easier?
DM: Yeah, exactly. We've mostly traveled in vans, but when we go to Europe, we do it in a bus, and we've done one bus tour here in the states, and our next tour is going to be another bus tour. And that's really easy. You just sleep through the night, and the driving happens then. And you wake up and you're somewhere and you do whatever you do. But when you have to drive in a van for eight hours, that's kind of the worst of it. You can listen to music and read books. Just sort of resign yourself to it. And I also stay up really late, and then sleep in the van a lot of the day. Sometimes it's kind of lame to show up. You don't want to get out of the van.
WW: The way the music business has changed over the past few years, it seems that bands like yours that have a great live reputation have a real advantage over groups that specialize in studio work. Do you think the way your band is put together sort of fits the way the music business has developed?
DM: I never thought of that at all. But we make most of our money playing shows. Almost all of it. We don't really get much out of record sales or publishing money. It's just always been that way, and it's always seemed like the most natural relationship. To get paid for actually going out and doing some work.
WW: Do you get as much enjoyment out of making an album as you do playing live? Or can you even equate those two things?
DM: They're so different. In a way, making a record is more satisfying, because you can always refer back to it. It's the thing thousands of people will have in common, whereas a few hundred people might have a show in common. And also, it'll be known by some people inside and out. It's a whole other kind of record of what you do. I mean, it really is a record (laughs). Whereas the live stuff is so fun, because it's not that. You can fuck up and forget about it a minute later and move on. And do things that you might not want to be totally remembered for, things that wouldn't be totally representative of Built to Spill... Things on the guitar or whatever. You do them on your guitar for a minute and then move on. It's a really freeing experience to play live.
WW: You're well known for elaborating on your songs live. Was there ever a time where you thought, we need to play our songs the way people recognize them? Or from the very beginning, did you look at the songs as a kind of launching pad for whatever you were feeling on a given night?
DM: Definitely more of the latter. That's kind of how the band was founded in the first place. That it would be a changing, rotating lineup, and there'd be nothing that would be specifically Built to Spill. It would be whatever kind of music that group of people happened to make together. So from the get-go, I was never interested in trying to make us sound anything like the recordings. The only time we really try to do that is when we bring new people into the band, and we're teaching them parts, trying to get it closer to the record. Or when we did the Perfect From Now On shows. Then we wanted to go back and get it a lot closer to the record. We wanted to make sure that we put in the special things: little sounds here and there that we'd maybe forgotten about, and that really weren't integral to the songs, but that if you're listening to the songs on the album, some of that stuff is actually more important than it seems. But for the most part, I almost think of us as a Built to Spill cover band.
WW: On the Perfect From Now On tour, did it feel a bit limiting to have to try and recapture certain things? Or was the experience actually kind of fresh, because that's not usually the way you do things?
DM: We've been playing these other songs for years and years, too. There are a few songs we play almost every single show. And every time you play it, you try to play it better than you did the last time. That's always the challenge. I don't really get tired of playing anything, especially if you're playing in front of people. I get tired of practicing. But when you're playing in front of people, you get a lot of energy from them, and they're enthusiasm is contagious, and you get excited to be doing it, because those people are excited about hearing it. Most of the show is just that, anyway. Trying to play things right, trying to not make mistakes. So whether you're playing the same songs every night or a different set every night, it doesn't make too much of a difference, if that makes any sense.
WW: Do certain songs evolve to the point where, maybe five or ten years down the line, you suddenly find yourself saying to yourself, "We finally got that one day the way I always imagined it"?
DM: Yeah, there's definitely some of that. And with the Perfect From Now On tour, that's what we did. We took things back to more of the way it was on the record because they'd evolved over the years for whatever reason. Sometimes because things sounded better, and sometimes because you just were lazy or forgot something cool. So we got them back to that point, and from there, we might be like, "That was actually cooler the way we had been doing it." By the end of the tour, the songs were what we thought were the best way they could be. A mixture of getting back to some of the cool, basic things, but also things that we've improved upon.
Mostly, it was fun to sing it all. When we went back to learn the songs again, I was disappointed with the quality of my voice on most of that stuff...
WW: Really? That's an album your fans love. But for you, the tonal quality of your voice just didn't seem quite right?
DM: No, it didn't. I think I was working a little too hard, trying to hit the notes too much and not really singing as naturally as I like my singing to be. So it doesn't sound as good to me as I wish it did.
WW: You guys have never been anyone's idea of a singles band, but somehow you've managed to stay signed to Warner Bros. since the mid-'90s. Have you used a strategy to stay in the good graces of the label? Or did it just kind of happen?
DM: It just kind of happened from our side. We've made money for Warner Bros. We haven't made them a lot of money, but we don't lose them money, because we don't cost that much. We don't spend that much to make our records, and they don't spend that much on promotions for us. And you know how expensive some records are. I don't know how they're going to do with us in the future. But up 'til now... We're not a charity case.
WW: At the same time, though, you guys have made your recordings at a reasonable price. You haven't brought in lots of expensive, big-name producers and insisted on only working at the most expensive studios....
DM: No, and we're not a pain in the ass to deal with. It's easy to keep us around. Although I might be wrong about that. We might be more of a pain in the ass than I think we are.
WW: I've read you guys have a new album in the works called There Is No Enemy. Is that right?
WW: Do you have a release date yet? And how far along is it?
DM: We're hoping in September, when we hit the road, it'll be out. And we're actually mixing it right now. It'll be done in a couple of weeks here.
WW: How would you compare it to You in Reverse [the band's most recent studio album for Warner Bros., released in 2006]?
DM: There's actually quite a few songs from that session. Ones that didn't make it onto that album.
WW: Have you been playing some of that material live since then? Will folks recognize some of it?
DM: Maybe some of it. But we haven't really been playing it live continuously. We actually started recording a year ago. So some of them have been played, and some of them have been played for a few years. Like I said, they were songs that didn't make it onto the last record.
WW: Could you mention any of the titles?
DM: Sure. There's one called "Gun" that was from that other record, and "Life's a Dream." And "Oh Yeah."
WW: On the last record, there was a lot of collaboration on the songs, as opposed to you pretty much writing everything yourself. Is that the case on the new one as well?
DM: Yeah, definitely. A lot of these songs came out of those jams. They're more songs that I've written, not built out of jams, but they've been played by the band for a few years, and everyone's kind of written their parts around the songs. And we recorded them and then I kind of took over for the past few months. Deciding which parts to use: using some things, getting rid of some things, messing around with it. So it's kind of a record where I started out writing all the songs, and everyone joined in and did their thing, and then everyone left and I took back over again.
WW: Would you describe the final product as raw? Polished? What word would you use?
DM: That's what we're finding out right now. We're just starting to mix it, mixing the first songs. I don't really know. It's pretty poppy, I guess. With lots of guitars.
WW: How about guitar solos?
DM: There's a few of those (laughs). I'm pretty excited about it. I don't know how it's going to come off, and whether it'll sound raw or polished. Hopefully, it'll sound more on the raw side. It's our first digital record, so that's why I'm a little bit concerned about it sounding raw.
WW: A lot of people use digital to get rid of any rawness. But it sounds like you want to sustain that feeling....
DM: Yeah. Well, we recorded some basic tracks onto tape and then bounced those onto digital, and we've been doing our overdubs onto digital stuff. But now we're mixing it as if it were just a tape machine. We're not using any plug-ins or internal effects. Everything is running out into boards, and we're not doing it inside Pro Tools. We're just trying to use it as a tape machine at this point. And I've loved using it as far as being able to edit things, and being able to take things home and record at home. But I'm just a little worried about the fidelity of digital stuff. Hopefully, it'll sound good the way we're doing it.
WW: Regarding the whole soloing aspect, that seems to be a dying art in some quarters. But for you, is a big part of Built to Spill simply the sounds you make when you're playing the guitar?
DM: Yeah, and Jim [Roth] and Brett [Netson] as well. And it's not so much solos. I guess there are a couple of straight-up kind of solos. But to me, those are as interesting as kind-of-weird solos, or weird, small little lead things that kind of come in and do something for a minute. The right thing, hopefully. I'm not really a traditionalist as far as guitar solos go. But I like instrumental stuff. I don't know: It's more about how things fit together. Whether it's a guitar or a keyboard or whatever isn't as important to me as whether it fits together and makes sense together. You just want it to make sense when you hear it, so that it's recognizable and familiar and comfortable in a way.
WW: That dovetails in a strange way to another topic I wanted to ask you about: your love of basketball. I'm in Denver, and we've just come through this really exciting playoff run...
DM: Oh, yeah.
WW: ...and what seems to really have made the difference for the Nuggets this year, as opposed to past seasons, has been teamwork, and the way everyone worked together. Is that one of the appeals for you in both music and basketball: that they're better when all of the parts work together, as opposed to one element standing out above all the others?
DM: Definitely. I never even thought about it that way, but yeah, for sure. And that was sort of the Nuggets' downfall. When they were getting into some trouble, Chauncey and Carmelo and J.R., those guys kind of tried to take over. And any one of them is capable of doing it, but it's better if they play team basketball and get some easy shots instead of some big shots.
WW: I think you're exactly right. What got them to the Western Conference finals was sharing the ball and understanding that it was more important to get the role players better shots as opposed to Carmelo thinking he had to put up 35 or 40 points every night. But when things started to go wrong, they went back to the we-need-to-fire-away philosophy.
DM: Yeah. And that's a big thing, too, and I feel really strongly about both things. No one wants to be just a rebounder. Everyone wants to play the whole game, and everyone wants to have a real stake in it. The Birdman doesn't just want to rebound. He wants to get some touches and score some points and make some passes and do all the things that are cool and fun about basketball. And I think everyone feels that way in this band. Everyone feels they can do whatever they want to do and have a say in what happens and stuff. It's not just my thing. In the end, I'm just taking it under control because I've figured out what needs to go on. But when we're writing songs and doing stuff, it's different. And in the band's business aspects and when we decide to tour and everything, we all have a say in all that stuff, too.
WW: When you're playing live, are there moments you can equate to team basketball, too? Are there times when players have to lay back in order to let someone else shine?
DM: For sure, yeah. Of course.
WW: You're a Trail Blazers fan, right?
WW: What's the future hold for them?
DM: Oh, it's going to be beautiful. I think we'll be in the playoffs these next few years, and maybe four years from now, we're going to get into the finals. That's my prediction. They're on the way up.
WW: Will that depend on whether or not Greg Oden stays healthy? Or is that even a factor?
DM: I almost think it's not a factor. If he can get his stuff going, that's going to make all the difference, but I don't know. I'm not sold on Greg. I love him and want him to succeed more than anything, but it's hard to tell. I think he's going to be fine. But I watched every game he played this year, and sometimes he looks so bad. It's so sad. But I think most of his problem is just getting into foul trouble. If he could just learn to move his feet a little bit better. I think the things he needs to know, he can be taught. Sometimes he looks really awkward to me and I wonder if that's the case. But then sometimes he looks so good, so commanding down there. He's aggressive, he's strong, and he really does have good hands. Sometimes it seems like he's got it.
If he gets his stuff going, we're really in good shape. But I think even without him, I think we're on our way up, still. I just think there's too many awesome players there. LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Brandon [Roy] are as good as anyone, and there are a bunch of other guys who are amazing, too. Like [Rudy] Fernandez and [Nicholas] Batum. Batum, I think he's going to be a mindblowing player in a few years here. I don't think people have any idea how good that guy's going to be. And I think Jerryd Bayless is going to take over as point guard, and I think he might be a better point guard.
WW: Do you see the Nuggets and the Trail Blazers battling it out for playoff position in the next few years?
DM: Definitely. Absolutely. As long as Chauncey's around. Chauncey to me was the key to that team. And he was pretty disappointing in these playoffs, which was too bad. Like, he couldn't shoot any free throws, and he turned the ball over so much. It was a drag to see him stumble so badly at that level. Because I thought he would be the guy, especially against the Lakers, since he'd already beaten them in the finals [as a member of the Detroit Pistons].
WW: Yeah, it was shocking, that moment when he missed three consecutive free throws....
DM: And wasn't it at the very beginning of the series? I think it was the very start of the series, and I thought, "Oh, good, he's going to get all that shit out of his system right now." But no. Damn. Sometimes Chauncey seems a bit arrogant when the team gets into trouble. But the way he beat the Lakers that year, he earned my lifetime respect.
WW: So I take it you're rooting for Orlando over the Lakers in the finals?
DM: Yep. As long as I don't have the Blazers to root for, I've always got the Lakers to root against.
WW: That's where Portland fans and Denver fans can come together.
DM: Oh, yeah (laughs).