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All Our Songs: Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

Today Built to Spill releases their eighth album, Untethered Moonan energized, impassioned work that burns even brighter in light of the band's longrunning career. Singer/guitarist Doug Martsch maintains Built to Spill as a beacon of sustainable creativity, adding and subtracting new members, touring constantly and releasing new music every handful of years from his homebase in Boise, where he spoke to us over the phone. 

This album is life-affirming, Doug. Built to Spill's first album in six years and it's so full of life and ideas and energy. It gives me hope! 

That’s fucking awesome. That’s exactly what I wanna hear. 

How do you maintain that creative spark after making music for so long? What drives to to continue to create?

In some ways it's like being a little kid and just playing. And in a way it's like getting up and going to work very day. This is all I really know how to do and sometimes I go through periods where I don’t work on stuff and have other interests. With this record we were trying to make a record that was like records we grew up with or that I discovered as an adult from the '70s or '80s, something that should be sorta like punk rock, simple and a little bit fucked-up, not too slick sounding. Just trying to make music that I like by other bands.

What other bands are you listening to?

I haven't been listening to too much stuff. Slam Dunk from Victoria, BC—that’s a big influence. They're great. They’ve been around for the last couple years. But mostly I'm listening to old soul and reggae. When I'm making a record I don’t listen to too much other stuff because it takes me so long to write songs. I have to go through things so many times to be able to turn it into a song. Every song in the record represents like 100 hours of writing—and then trying to make it sound like we didn’t spend any time on it at all. Just to make stuff, just to make something sound good, often takes a long time. If it really is popped off you can hear it.

So it's no easier writing songs now, 20-some years into your career, than when you started? 

Might even be harder. I might have a higher standard now than I did when I was young. Then I didn’t know what I was doing and when you're ignorant you don’t know about certain aspects that take care of themselves. When you get older you wanna cover all your bases and look at things from more angles. You can overthink it. Each time I go into the studio it’s a brand new thing. I have no idea how to write a song or do any of this stuff. We figure it out from scratch.

Do you have any tricks or games that you use to trigger ideas?

Every once in awhile we might have a jam where we have certain parameters, certain limitations to help you be creative. One thing we did, actually: We recorded the record on tape and we could’ve recorded on 16 or 24 track and we went to 16 to give ourselves a limit on tracks. So we did do that. Then we realized we overhandicapped ourselves so we transferred to ProTools to add more tracks because 16 wasn't enough.

Each track represents one instrument or one sound, yeah?

Yeah. One track is snare drum, one is kick drum—you have five or six for drums, the bass is a track, every vocal has its own track. Every instrument basically. We recorded on 24 in the past. We were just in Modest Mouse's studio and everything had 150 tracks. Which is not uncommon at all, especially for anyone with a budget. Everyone can do things on Protools so even small bands do things with 60 tracks.

But you pulled back from that on this album? 

Exactly. Built to Spill built a reputation on making records that have lots of layers and tracks. So we wanted to get away from that and make it more raw and sound like the things that were inspiring to us as kids, like Wire or the Smiths or REM—those are bands rather than projects. They kept it stripped down and to me that’s exciting. A lot of the overdubs that Built to Spill has done in the past make things more interesting but sometimes I think I was trying to make a simple record and listened to it and thought it was boring and added overdubs out of insecurity and ended up with more of a wall of sound than I had in mind.

So sometimes the sound of an album is a reaction to what you've done before.

This time I was more interested in punk than classic rock, and Built to Spill is a combination of those things. I don’t pay too much attention to what's going on in the musical world. I do a little bit, but I think I react to it and I think we reacted to it several times in my career. When we made There's Nothing Wrong with Love it seemed like no bands were writing love songs or making pop music at all. And with Perfect from Now On, it didn’t seem like alternative bands were making epic songs, big songs with lots of parts. And now it seems like everyone is doing that stuff and doing it better than I ever could, so I thought maybe the world could use some punk-rock stuff. Though it does seem like a lot of bands are making stripped-down punk music. A lot of bands have embraced this lo-fidelity thing but when lo-fi happened in the '90s it was because people didn't have good gear so they made bad-sounding recordings. Then people realized that stuff has personality and kids today are making records that sound weird on purpose because they understand the power of it. When we signed to Warner Brothers I felt obligated to make a record that was more hi-fi, something that justified the position we were in, the money we were getting. This record I let all that stuff go. And I think it it doesn't sound lo-fi but it is weird-sounding and raw.

One awesome, weird sound is on the song "Another Day." Sounds like a Rhodes or some kinda organ going through a Leslie speaker.

Yeah, that's it—it's one guitar played through a Leslie. The part is kind of split in two. I'm stepping on the pedal so sometimes the Leslie is going slowly and then it goes fast. It's thick-sounding. It's that guitar and another guitar playing the same stuff through a little tiny amplifier and the two together made a cool sound. That was all Sam's doing. Sam [Coomes] produced the record.

And I heard your new bandmembers are former Built to Spill roadies.

That’s correct. These aren’t just run of the mill roadies, they're a couple of the best musicians I've ever known who happened to be roadying for us at the time. Not discounting the other rhythm section when we recorded the record, but having some new guys in the band, I'm sure there was some rejuvenation on my part being around them. 

You've been around so long you're writing songs about songs—"All Our Songs" on Untethered Moon is super self-aware. It's a callback to your first album and the song "Built to Spill." I like it when bands have mission-statement songs. 

I didn’t hope ["All Our Songs"] to be about us—it's more about other people's songs. The song "Built to Spill" was influenced by hardcore bands growing up—every hardcore band had a song that was their own name. "All Our Songs" is about songs I grew up with.

Your song "You Were Right" from Keep it Like a Secret is like that too, citing lyrics from a bunch of classic songs and adding your own voice to the litany.

Built to Spill is part of a continuum. That’s all we are—another band that’s taking things from other bands before us that we like and making something barely different. We're not interested trying to do anything new other than create new songs based on conventional things.

Screen cap taken from Built to Spill's video for "Never Be the Same" off Untethered Moon. 

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