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Q&A: Doug Martsch on Built to Spill’s New Album, Scrimmaging With Stephen Malkmus, and Still Having No Idea What He’s Doing

A sitdown with an indie rock legend.

When asked about Built to Spill’s indispensable fourth album, Keep It Like a Secret, shortly after its 1999 release, founding guitarist/singer/songwriter Doug Martsch went so far as to say he was “basically happy with it.” By his standards, that was a strong endorsement, one he immediately undercut by expressing his ambivalence in several subsequent sentences. So when he tells me he’s “pretty happy” with the band’s eighth album, Untethered Moon, I wait a few seconds, just in case he wants to walk his exuberance back. This time, though, he lets the statement stand. Sixteen years after Secret, 20 years after landing on the Warner Bros. label, and 23 years after Built to Spill became a band, Martsch sounds almost satisfied.

In the ’90s, Martsch’s contemplative lyrics, winding song structures and solos, and compelling live presence made Built to Spill into influential indie idols, prominent members of the Seattle (by way of Boise) scene whose underground cred (and creative freedom) survived their early adoption by a big label. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they’ve continued to produce long after the initial adulation died down. Untethered Moon, the band’s first full-length release since 2009’s There Is No Enemy, had a difficult conception but an untroubled birth. After recording sessions in 2012 stagnated and long-running rhythm section Brett Nelson and Scott Plouf left the band blaming burnout, Martsch regrouped and recruited bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere. The trio (and the two other guitarists it takes to replicate the records’ layered, crisscrossing sound) have spent the past two years on tour, eventually becoming comfortable enough to return to the studio to rerecord the discarded demos. The second sessions went more smoothly, as the new blood — a staple of BtS’s early albums, which limited each lineup to one LP apiece — restored the missing circulation, yielding 10 tracks that stand up to any of the band’s best since last century. As Martsch sings on the record’s first single, “Living Zoo,” “Sometimes when you wake up you feel alone/Somehow you get over it and you go on.”

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Earlier this week, I spoke to Martsch about the mysterious source of his songwriting skill, his complicated relationship with lyrics, and his rapidly atrophying athletic ability.

It seems like a lot of the time you’re a little let down by the difference between the perfect song you envision making and the reality once you’ve actually recorded. Is there something on this album that came through like you wanted it to?

This time around my goal and idea was more to make a record of what we’re up to at this point, instead of trying to make some perfect song out of my imagination. Most of the songs I love are songs by punk bands, by regular people making simple music. So to me, that can be perfect. I had relatively low expectations. I wasn’t trying to create something beyond what we just are. In the past I’ve always tried to push things. I’ve also been a little bit insecure and tried to fix things when I don’t think my guitar-playing is good, or the singing’s good, and end up layering things to hide things. I think maybe it gets boring when you start adding things. A lot of my overdubs have been neurotic in the past, but this one is just stripped-down and simpler. That’s the kind of music I like, mostly.

Is there a voice you hear in your head that sounds different from the one that actually comes out?

It totally is that way. There is a way that I sing that I hear in my head, and it sometimes comes out, it works. But I kind of have to find it in my throat and in my stomach. It’s something I’ve gotten a little better at over the years, just from playing so much. It’s hard to capture it in studio. And that was a big thing for me in the early days — sometimes my pitch wouldn’t be that great, and I’d focus too much on that and lose something else. So this time I just sang that shit out and didn’t worry about the pitch, and I think it’s a lot better.

What allowed you to let go of that insecurity?

I don’t know — who knows, you know? Maybe getting old and accepting myself a little bit. Playing with new guys was cool, too.

What are the pros and cons of rotating band members? I imagine there’s a renewal that comes with it, but there’s also some catch-up that guys have to do.

In the early days, when we changed lineups a few times, it was really difficult learning the songs and getting used to each other. But then [bassist Brett Nelson] and Scott played in the band for 15 years, and the new guys joined a couple years ago, and the transition was unbelievably smooth. They were able to learn that stuff and kill it right away. It was really easy.

When you’re the only constant in the band, what’s the distinction between a Built to Spill album and a solo album? What makes it Built to Spill? Why not call it a Doug Martsch album?

You know, I don’t know why. [Laughs.] I just didn’t want to call it Doug Martsch. I knew when I did make a record that I called Doug Martsch, it was because I didn’t want it to go under the Built to Spill moniker because I felt like it was too different from Built to Spill’s other stuff. And I think it’s fine that Built to Spill has different kinds of stuff, but it seemed misleading to call that record a Built to Spill record.

You’ve established the brand of Built to Spill, so you might as well stick with it.

Yeah, exactly. You can sell more records if it says Built to Spill than if it said Doug Martsch.

I’m not a technician, and I don’t always have the ability to describe what I’m hearing. And yet I hear you, and I can tell that it’s you. Why is that, do you think? What’s the main element that distinguishes your playing?

That’s interesting. There’s a finite amount of sounds you can make with a guitar. Someone asked me about figuring out your own style as a guitar player and how that happens, and it mostly happens just from playing a lot. It happens from copying other people, but it comes just from playing the guitar a lot. You just learn little tricks and how to do the things that appeal to you, you know? That’s a broad thing, too. There’s not one guitar trick that I use, or that guitarists use. Sometimes you play hard, sometimes you play soft. Different effects, different parts of songs call for different styles of playing. And that’s where I’ve run into problems in the studio. I might have some ideas that were just beyond my guitar-playing abilities. This time it was like, “Well, if it’s beyond my abilities, I’m not doing it.” I’ll do something that sounds more like what I naturally do instead of trying to force something great.

What do you see as the key to writing an instrumental that doesn’t lose momentum? So many Built to Spill songs have no lyrics for minutes at a time, and yet there’s usually a progression to them, a sense that they’re building toward something.

It’s just messing around with stuff. We spend a lot of time writing our songs and hammering them out and jamming and trying different parts together. A lot of times it’s that. And I listen to things a ton, so I listen to stuff enough to know, to my own mind, which things can stand. It’s so arbitrary, all this stuff. It’s so subjective and arbitrary. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know why I like a certain melody, or why I like a certain guitar sound. It’s all still completely mysterious to me, but it intuitively makes sense. And that’s what I do — play around with these intuitive ideas.

There’s a moment in “Some Other Song,” about 1:10 in, where this shimmering, cascading guitar comes in and makes me close my eyes, like you do onstage. Are those moments that you plot out? Would you hear that first in your head?

No, no, no. I mean, maybe sometimes to some degree, but I think most of that’s you. That’s your imagination and creativity contributing to the music.

Does a moment like that come to your hands almost independently as you’re holding the guitar, or is there a conscious element to it?

When I’m jamming up onstage, I don’t know the notes I’m going to go to. Sometimes I know which note I’m hitting, but I just know the shapes and patterns and keys, and then I’m as surprised as you are half the time.

Half of your albums are 10 tracks exactly, and all the others are within a couple of tracks of that. Is there a reason that you tend to gravitate toward that length — that there’s no Built to Spill double album?

[Laughs.] There’s actually — and it’s not the end of it, of course — but there’s a financial incentive to do that, because mechanical royalties are based on a rate of 10 songs on a record. That being said, that’s not the end of it for me, either. I wanted to make this a double record. We recorded 16 songs, but it just was hard to make it through it all. It was kind of too long of a record, and I kept falling asleep. Couldn’t make it all the way through it, so we shortened it to 10. And I might’ve made it nine, but I made it 10 so we’d get a tiny, tiny, tiny bit more money. [Laughs.] I’m joking. It was 10 songs because we found 10 that were good.

2015 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2 - Day 3Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic

There’s a lot of astronomical imagery on the album — there are three songs that mention stars, there’s Mars, and of course there’s the moon. Are you on an astronomy kick?

Yeah. I always am a little bit. Cosmos came out, and that sort of got me excited. I love any sort of stuff about space and physics and science. I don’t know very much — I don’t know math or anything — but I love just imagining some of those concepts and the scales of things in the universe.

There’s also a lot about impermanence and memory — it’s kind of melancholy in parts, although the music isn’t, necessarily. Is that the mood you were in while you were writing these songs? Is forgetting a fixation for you these days?

My songs are not ever about me. I mean, maybe there are some things. But they’re just about people, just about all of us. It’s all universal stuff. I’m not trying to tell anyone anything about me. I’m trying to throw some stuff out that hopefully someone will relate to.

Recently you said, “To me, it’s important that music has singing, and that the singing is actual words, and that the words, they have to be at least OK. They can’t be horrible.” What, to you, makes a horrible lyric? What’s the worst way to go wrong, lyrically?

I don’t know what the worst things lyrically are. For myself, I have a tendency to go to clichés, or to just flip a cliché on its head. That’s kind of what I’m most embarrassed of in my own lyrics. But I still like that stuff, too. [Laughs.] You’ve got to be careful. It really just has to do with how it arbitrarily, for some reason, hits me as I’m doing it. And it can be bad and I’ll think it’s good, and there it is, it’s a done deal. It can be good — everyone else might for some reason love it — but it just doesn’t work for me, and then it’s not a done deal. Actually, if I knew that everyone was going to like it and I didn’t like it, I might go ahead and record it.

I know that often you focus on the music and the words are sort of incidental, but is there a lyricist who makes you really zero in on the words?

To me, every piece of music that I like, everyone that I like, their lyrics are great, almost. Maybe even bad lyrics, like Billy Squier. I like Billy Squier. That might be just the thing for his music. Lyrics don’t have to be great as long as they don’t derail the song by being so, just, totally inane. They will work, because music is so powerful, the music is going to breathe life into the words, breathe meaning into the words. And if the listener has a good imagination and is enjoying themselves, they will go ahead and take the lyrics and take them to another place.

Are you more or less interested in side projects as your career progresses?

The good thing about Built to Spill is that we’re not really known for a specific thing. We have records that are all over the place. So I feel like we can do anything under that moniker and get away with it. Even that acoustic record, my solo record, it could’ve been called Built to Spill. It just didn’t seem right to me. So right now, I’m definitely just fully focused on Built to Spill.

You can’t read anything about Built to Spill without coming across Neil Young and Pavement comparisons, but is there someone else that you wish you would get compared to, or think you should get compared to?

For me personally? No. I feel pretty lucky to be compared to the bands that we get compared to. It all makes sense to me, that we’re lumped into that stuff.

We’re both a culture site and a sports site, so I want to ask you for a scouting report on your basketball skills. And also, if you would, a scouting report on Stephen Malkmus, who I read on Reddit that you played against once. What kind of player are you, and what kind of player was he?

He seemed to have it all. I don’t know how good his handle was — he didn’t do too much dribbling — but he had a great shot. He’s pretty tall. He looked really tall out on the floor with regular people. But he seemed like a scorer to me.

I’m done playing basketball. I started when I was about 30 and played for about 10 years. My thing was, I’m better than you think I’d be. That’s kind of about it. I’m not very good, but I’m a little better than you’d think. I’m definitely more of a shooter. When I was younger, when I first was playing, I was all about hustle, too. I played really hard, because I wasn’t very good at all. And then I got a shot after a while, but I played really hard. I like to play defense. I like to try to stop people.

This interview has been condensed and edited.