Built to Spill (Doug Martsch): Interview
“I didn’t want to say something overt. I didn’t know how to.”

2012 marks the 20th anniversary of Built To Spill making music that has proved to be foundational for modern indie rock, and the Boise natives have shown a profound consistency when it comes to their releases. Built To Spill have never stopped sounding like Built To Spill. If anything, the group has tightened its sound and found ways to musically marry the concepts and lyrics with the overall tone of the songs.

Doug Martsch spoke with Tiny Mix Tapes about how his songwriting has evolved, also sharing his thoughts on the creation of the song “Pat,” which is dedicated to Pat Brown, who was in the band Treepeople with Martsch and committed suicide in April 1999.

With the material for the upcoming Built To Spill album do you see a change in the recording process?

I don’t know. I feel like we’ve slowed down. It takes longer to do things. We’re going to try to make a record with Steven Lobdell in Portland. We made the record before the last one there, You in Reverse it was called, and we’re going to try working with him again. And, you know, I don’t really know how long it will take to make the record, maybe a year or so. That seems to be a minimum for us on the last couple records.

I’ve personally been a fan of the two Record Store Day 7” albums you’ve put out, especially that B-side of “Linus and Lucy (Live).” Is this something you plan to continue to do in the future for like Record Store Day releases?

I don’t know. What was on the other side of that?

That was “Water Sleepers.”

Oh, sure. Yeah, that was kind of a leftover track from There Is No Enemy. A friend of mine here in Boise wrote that song, and we just covered it.

I’m partial to the 2000 live album, and I think a lot of people are. Have you thought about putting out another live album or something along those lines?

You know, we actually recorded a few tours, and it’s all just sitting around… I get home from tour and I don’t want to listen to it at all. So when we’ve done these Record Store Day things we put out a couple of those. I haven’t really been that excited about it. I haven’t sat down and given stuff a good listen because I’m really burnt out and don’t feel like listening to live Built To Spill shows after doing them. So you know, maybe somewhere down the line that’ll change and I’ll for some reason be interested in it or find someone else who is interested in compiling it that I trust enough or something. But, there’s nothing right now as it just doesn’t interest me at all.

How was the experience with working with Brett Nelson on the Electronic Anthology Project EP?

Well, you know, actually all I did was go over to his studio and sing the songs. I didn’t really have anything to do with it at all. It was all Brett’s idea and his project. He did all the music and produced it. All I did was go over to his house for an hour and sing the songs again.

As a youngster I liked just all kinds of weird sounds. I was more willing to explore things that didn’t make sense. And, now I’m more interested in trying to, you know, make things there just for a specific reason and really have a tone.

It sounds great. I can tell the differences made with the vocals as well. It’s just a neat project that’s pretty different than other Built To Spill stuff.

Yeah, it’s cool. He’s doing the Dinosaur Jr. one now. He’s got that finished up.

I understand you’ve listened to a lot of reggae and other genres in the past. Has there been anything recently that you’ve been listening to that has influenced your current songwriting in any way?

Um, you know, not really. I started DJing at a new community radio station in Boise that started here last spring. So I’ve been doing a lot of that – putting together a three hour set each week. And, in doing that I haven’t really had much time between that and regular life and working on our new songs. I haven’t had much time to get into the new albums. So just more of the same, kind of. I’ve been going back and listening to things I liked when growing up, and also I’ve been DJing at clubs, somewhat, rediscovering things that I grew up with that were sort of soul. I don’t know, kind of soul hits from the 1960s and 70s. And, that stuff is kind of having a little bit of an influence on me because of, I don’t know, the sort of conciseness of some songs. You know, some Built To Spill stuff is sort of rambling, you know, kind of a long, extended sort of thing. And, with our last record, and I think with the stuff were working on now, we’re trying to make things a little more concise – make a little more sense of just the song by itself and not be so dependent on the album. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Yeah, I mean, I kind of get it. I find your response interesting, because I kind of felt like there was some soul, like, not necessary right out there and in your face, but I kind of feel that in There Is No Enemy. On a personal level I feel like you really knew what you wanted to do with this album in a sense of tone, with the backing vocals and additional instrumentation. To me, it feels so concise, stripped down, and clear, maybe compared to some other albums you’ve released. Was that the kind of feel you hoped to emulate with the album?

Yeah, definitely, and we’re glad to hear that. Yeah, I think like in the past I’ve been more experimental, and I kind of wanted to almost make a conventional record because I’ve been listening to so much of what I kind of consider conventional music – soul and reggae. You know, soul and reggae, there’s like a way to do it, and if you do it a certain way it sounds right. It relies on certain conventions. But, it still is powerful and fresh sounding, or maybe sort of this unconventional thing you hear, if it’s done right. I didn’t want to add stuff just to add stuff. I wanted everything that was there to be there for a reason. You know, when I was younger and making music I didn’t understand those things very well and I still don’t have that good of a grasp on it. But, as a youngster I liked just all kinds of weird sounds. I was more willing to explore things that didn’t make sense. And, now I’m more interested in trying to, you know, make things there just for a specific reason and really have a tone. You know, with like old songs of ours, if a song was happy or sad or something, I never felt that way. I didn’t feel like there was a tone to the songs. I just sort of wrote them and was more about making melodies and chord progressions than words. It was not so much about the tone; it was how it felt. And, I would just sort of strum it out and add things to it to fill it up, but now I’m more concerned with making things concise.

Yeah, I definitely think there’s something of a “less is more approach.”

I think when I was younger I tried to mask things, and stuff that didn’t sound good to me, I’d add a bunch of stuff and that would take some attention away from the vocals or something like that. With this record I wanted to get away from that. And, I’ve been trying to get away from that for a long time, but, you know, it’s hard when you’re insecure about something you’re doing to just let things just happen.

Yeah, I understand that, definitely. Throughout there’s kind of this intentional lull into subconscious territory and an existential dream state, which is fairly forward in tracks like “Life’s a Dream.” Is this at all the type of mood you were going for with this record, and how do your thoughts on dreams relate to writing these songs?

You know, I think like the idea of just whatever it is to be human and life are the things I’ve wrote songs about. I mean, I’ve never wrote songs about specific subjects very often. Most songs are, you know, just kind of ideas thrown together that really stick to a certain themes. And, of course dreams are just a huge part of that and subconscious ideas. I try to stay away from the concrete ideas, I guess. Here or there there’ll be a line that’s concrete. But, you know, for the most part, I don’t really feel like I have anything important to say to the world. But at the same time I feel like if you’re writing a song and there’s words in the song then they have to say something. They have to be important in some way. And, my wife writes a lot of the lyrics too, so your guess is as good as mine as to what a lot of those lyrics mean. But they appeal to me on some level. A lot of it is about the sounds of the words. I don’t know, it’s really an intuitive thing. I tried to write straight up songs and I did an acoustic album a few years ago. I’m kind of influenced by acoustic and folk music. I really wanted to tell stories with the lyrics and make them sound like old folk songs. And, I couldn’t do it at all. I don’t have that sort of storytelling skill. (For me), it’s more like a free-association thing.

I’ve been going back and listening to things I liked when growing up, and also I’ve been DJing at clubs, somewhat, rediscovering things that I grew up with that were sort of soul.

Also, I feel like this album, maybe more so or not than other stuff you’ve made, there’s a lot of honesty and personal references as well. For example, “Pat,” which is such an amazingly heartfelt and thoughtful song; it feels Treepeople-like to me. Was it a particular challenge approaching this type of material?

Well, thanks. Yeah, that was kind of like an eureka moment. This song had kind of been around for a few years, and every once in a while Built To Spill would attempt to do something with it. And, then, you know, I just had this moment where maybe a couple lines came to me seeing Pat in dream. You know, he was such an important person. I would not be here doing what I’m doing today if not for him. He was a person [who], when I was young, who got me to take it from my bedroom to something more serious with music. And, that was really a fun song to write because it came in a hurry and did stick to a theme. And, I’m always proud that I am able to make a song that’s coherent and sticks to one thing. And, it has Scott Schmaljohn, Pat’s brother, who played guitar on it. I had the blessing of his mother for the song. It might be my favorite song I’ve ever done in a lot of ways.

Yeah, I think a lot of people outside of you can relate to it as well, and that’s just a true testament to the song.

Well, I appreciate it. For me it kind of seemed a private thing that only me and a handful of people who knew Pat would appreciate and like, so it’s really, really awesome to hear that someone who didn’t know Pat personally understands a sense of it.

It’s admirable to put that out there, and I think that’s maybe why it crosses over into, you know, different people’s experiences as well.

Yeah, it’s different experiences that everyone has of, you know, seeing someone that they loved who has passed away in dreams. I don’t know if it’s possible to lose someone and not dream about them.

Every time I listen to “Planting Seeds,” the Bill Hicks reference in there always sticks out. Did the Hicks bit that the title comes from kind of inspire the song, and has Hick’s philosophy on advertising and marketing and other topics influenced you?

Yeah, I don’t think I was really influenced. I think by the time I discovered Bill Hicks I had already been influenced by other people, I just felt the same way as him in a lot of ways. I didn’t get that from him. I just agreed with him on it. By the time I discovered Bill Hicks I was in my thirties and he was passed away. I’d been turned onto that stuff, but you know, Noam Chomsky, [Amy] Goodman and other people had already pointed me in that direction.

It’s a great line and how it’s used in the song it just comes right at you.

Every once in a while I’ll stumble across something that’s a lot better than what I would have been capable of (laughs), and of course I’m proud to have that line in one of my songs.

You said you don’t really stick with themes, but throughout Built To Spill records since Perfect From Now On, some people could even interpret something like “The Plan” as something being kind of about advertising or marketing.

“The Plan” is sort of something political, but I don’t know. I think it’s something political, but it’s very vague. It was at the time I was first getting into Noam Chomsky and stuff. But I didn’t want to say something overt. I didn’t know how to. I still don’t know how to, you know. A few people can do that. Some reggae singers can be straight-up political and it works. Here and there, The Clash or something. I was not able to find a way to write political lyrics without sounding cliché and ridiculous. So I’ve kind of been coded and hint at politics.