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Built to Last

Doug Martsch talks about Built to Spill and their latest creation, You In Reverse


Whenever the name Doug Martsch is uttered around Boise, invariably someone within earshot has a story:

"I played basketball with him once."

"He let me into a Built to Spill show once ... for free!"

"I went to high school with him."

That last one was mine. I did go to high-school with Martsch. While we didn't run in the same circles, we had some mutual friends. That's about all there is to it. But around here, we're proud of our local boy made good and love having a rock star living among us. Even though Boiseans consider him a star, he's so approachable that even if you don't know him from a pickup game or from 20 years ago, if that if you live around here, chances are you could someday have a "Doug story" of your own.

It's been five years since Martsch and Built to Spill put out an album and the wait for a new one is finally over. Their latest release, You in Reverse, hit store shelves April 11. With just 10 songs, it's still a full-length CD (thanks to the epic first track, "Goin' Against Your Mind"), and as a whole reflects a softer side of the band. It's still as powerful a piece as any other BTS release, but minus the usual wall-of-sound guitar riffs. The album is well-produced but not over produced and is a back-to-basics, earthy opus worthy of one of contemporary rock's most influential bands.

After listening to an advance copy of You in Reverse, I scheduled a face to face interview with Martsch, and in the late morning of one of the first warm, spring days, I arrived at Martsch's house. I was greeted by his wife, a pleasant, friendly woman who confirmed that they were expecting me, and I could hear '60s soul music playing as she led me to his studio. Even though I hadn't seen Martsch in almost 20 years, when he stepped through the studio door, I flashed to a memory of the 17-year-old Martsch who used to play guitar on the front porch of his friend's house. Granted, he now has a little less hair on his head and a little more on his face (and a big, black patch over his right eye as he heals from surgery for a detached retina), but the boy was still there.

Martsch said, "Hi. You must be ... Amy! I didn't realize you were the Amy who was coming over!" He gave me a big hug and said, "I'm glad it's you and not some stranger."

We decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and do the interview outside. As we settled in, Martsch's wife handed the family's little Maltese, Gabby, over to him and headed off to meet some people for coffee. Martsch and I caught up on old times a bit and then got down to business.

How do you decide when it's time to put out an album? Do you have a bunch of stuff you're working on and realize you have these nice, solid pieces and think, "Wait. We have enough here for a CD"?

It depends. This time, we consciously took some time off after we made [our last] record. We recorded it, did some touring and then said, "Let's take a little break." I was kind of burned out on making music. During the time off, I did some other musical things, just at home. Just some mellow things. And then we got back together, did a little touring to make a little money and then decided we'd start writing songs. We had this guy Jim [Roth] who'd been playing with us live for years and we decided we wanted to incorporate him into the band. So we did a lot of just jamming [in Martsch's studio]. Those guys would come ... Jim and Scotty [Plouf] live in Seattle ... Brett [Nelson] lives in Meridian. We would get together for, like five days and just record. We'd jam for 10 minutes on an idea--either something someone had or something that spontaneously came up. We've all played with each other long enough ...

... that you know what's coming up next?

Totally. Or that no one's shy about just jumping in. Everyone enjoys just jamming out for 10 minutes. So, I recorded all these jams. Some of the songs on the record I wrote, like "Liar," but a lot of the things just came from the jams. "Going Against Your Mind" was based on a jam. Then we'd kind of fine-tune the jams in subsequent visits. A lot of it, too, had to do with just figuring out what kind of band we were going to be and what we were going to sound like, because we didn't really have a direction we wanted to go in. And that's kind of how the band's always been. We write songs and mess around in the studio until it sounds interesting. It's always just what happens naturally ... we always try to get the most out of what we're doing and try to form it a little bit, but it's really pretty loose. We don't have any preconceived ideas of what kind of music we want to make.

Are you saying you don't know what kind of music you're going to make before you get started?

(Laughs) Yeah, or even far into the process each time around. Originally, when I started the band, I wanted to have different people on every record--have the lineup change constantly. We did that for the first two or three records, and then I decided I wanted to get a band that was really tight and good. I didn't want to teach the songs to people over and over, and I wanted the other people to have a stake in it musically and for their livelihood. And I wanted to have people excited about things and not be alone in my enthusiasm for what was happening. We still kind of kept that idea of the band being elastic and being able to be whatever we feel like it being at the time. I didn't want to be a two-dimensional band. Then we decided we would work on stuff and make sure we were really ready to record before we went in the studio so we didn't go into the studio not knowing what we were doing.

So you went in really ready to go?

Well we thought so, but then we got into the studio and realized we didn't know what we were doing and kind of spent a long time figuring stuff out in the studio, too. The studio we recorded at was Audible Alchemy, a new studio that a friend of a friend had opened in Portland. So, it took a year to make the record--that's working for a week or so every month. And we did two tours in that time as well. It was a long process of making the record both from our point of view and from the studio's point of view. Some of it was technical things at the studio. Some of [the problem] was that none of us had really produced a record of that magnitude. The engineers had both worked on stuff for years, but they'd never worked on a 24-track machine with automation. It was just a bigger project than any of us had ever dealt with.

And it was all done in analog wasn't it?

Yeah. It was all just a lot of learning, which I thought was fine and fun. I enjoyed it. So we spent way more time on each song than we ever had before. And, not necessarily ... well, you've heard it. It doesn't sound super polished.

The CD comes across as so organic.

That's a good word for it. I think when people hear we spent a year on it, they think they're going to get an over-produced product.

OK, I have to ask you something: Why did you decide to put a 9-minute song ["Goin' Against Your Mind"] as the first track? Was that intentional?

(Laughs) No, that was later. We recorded the songs and we were thinking about sequencing, it just set the tone for the record in a nice way. The way the song builds up itself, I think anywhere else on the record it would have been boring. I like the way it starts with drums and then one guitar comes in and then a second guitar and then the bass ... it's like the band all showed up on that one. Brett Netson is in the band now, too. I thought that was important, too, that the first song be one that he's on. He kind of "joined" the band in the middle of recording. He played on a tour with us and we asked him to join the band. He plays a little bit on the record and that's one of the songs he plays on. And then the guy who recorded the record, Steve Lobdell, plays a ton. He plays all kinds of things on it. He's a great guitar player, but he also plays a lot of percussion, and noises, and a space-echo machine and vibes.

There are definitely some interesting sounds on the record.

He really contributed a lot. He collaborated with us a lot on every aspect of the record.

Why did you add Brett Netson to the band now?

Well, he's always had his own band, and right now, he doesn't, really. He's still doing things, but Caustic Resin doesn't have as much happening right now. Mostly, it's because he was on tour with us, playing with our opening act, Mike Johnson [El Dopamine, Dinosaur Jr., Caustic Resin]. So, he was going to be on tour with us any way, so we said, "You should play with us." He had done a few tours with us.

And plenty of recording too, right?

He's been on most of our records. But he'd never been a member. And we were like, "We should get him into the band," basically so we could pay him. We'd been paying him by the show, but he's been doing enough stuff, we wanted to give him an equal split of what we're doing. So, we asked him to join the band.

Was it an easy decision for him, too?

He was like, "I think I'm ready to do it." He's a really strong personality and the person in the band who probably most understands music. He's the most focused on music and what he wants music to be. I think for him to decide he's going to permanently join a band was kind of a big thing.

So, what kind of music are you listening to for fun these days?

I mostly listen to this kind of stuff (indicating the groovy music coming out of his studio). I'm not even sure who this is. A friend of mine in Seattle has been sending me these compilations over the years. He's a hard core record collector. He makes nice covers for them [the compilations] and everything. He actually runs Up Records, the record label we used to be on. I listen to a lot of reggae, too.

So, there's no new artist you're listening to?

I mostly listen to compilations. There aren't very many full albums I like. I just like to listen to mixtures of things. I wonder if "the album" will become obsolete at some point.

(Laughing) I've wondered myself if there will be a time when no one puts out 12 songs any more.

I think it's kind of a form like the blues, or jazz. There will always be people who will be interested in a collection of 40 minutes by a band. Plus, sometimes certain things go together and you wouldn't want to hear just pieces of it.

You said a lot of this record came out of jam sessions, but do you ever find yourself writing thematically?

Sure. Some of that happens unconsciously, but we purposefully will take a word or a melody and have it reappear in different songs. Like this record, all the songs have a real similar chord progression. There's a D minor, C, F, G thing that happens in a bunch of the songs. I don't know why, exactly, it's just something we stumbled across.

The songs on this album really do go well together.

Yeah, but it was really hard to sequence. It was the hardest record to sequence we've ever done. There was no perfect first song or last song; it just seemed like they were all middle songs. And they're all kind of slow, so it was hard to figure out the order. I thought, "God, what a sludgy record." (We laugh.) But, I'm really happy with it. The sequencing really brought the record to life for me.

I still think it's funny: Any other band, even on their second or third album, probably wouldn't dare put a nine-minute song first.

(Laughing) We're aware of that too, that it's pretty funny.

It is, but if that's the one that works ...

And if it doesn't, you can skip it. It's easy to skip songs on CDs. Really, the sequence doesn't even matter on a CD. You can always just put it on shuffle.

But you're right: you do get an idea right away of the kind of album You In Reverse is.

And, what else would we have started the record with? I can't think of another song that should have been first.

I heard "Goin' Against Your Mind" on 3WK Underground radio. Did you know you guys were on Internet radio?

I don't know anything about the Internet, but I think that song is available on Myspace, too. You can go on there and hear that song. And the record was leaked.

Ooh, yeah. I heard about that.

Warner Bros. kind of freaked out and we had to get every advance CD copy back.

You had to go get all the copies back?

We had to call everyone we'd given them to. Warner Bros. was cool about it and we do what we can to cooperate with them. They've been nice to us and all the people we work with [at Warner Bros.] have been really nice.

Do they promote you guys well?

I don't really care about that.


No. In fact, I'm kind of glad we're not promoted too hard. I like the level that we're at right now. I don't want to be any more famous than this. Things are perfect and I'd like to keep living like this forever.

Martsch said this last line as his family and some friends returned home. The smile on his face and the smiles on theirs made it clear that they are all right where they want to be. I packed up my notebook, pen and recorder and thanked Martsch for his time. With a parting word to his wife and a last look around their home, I stepped back out into the sunshine. I can't wait for the next time someone mentions Martsch's name: I have a great Doug story now.