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Building for the Future

Built to Spill's Doug Martsch searches for the happy medium between fatherhood and rock and roll.

To some, Martsch's achievements feel old-fashioned; in a day and age when machine-driven electronica is the form of music being embraced by the pre-millennium crowd, his reliance upon established chord patterns and loud riffing has made him a hero to those observers fonder of tradition than change. But Martsch has no interest in becoming a poster child for the back-to-basics movement. "This whole electronica thing is a complete fabrication by the music industry," he asserts. "To say that a certain genre that wasn't valid is valid now and another one that was valid isn't is complete nonsense. The next thing you know, they'll be trying to sell us heavy metal like they had back in the Eighties again, even though it sucked then and it sucks now. But still, there's a lot of electronic music that I like."

Paradoxically, Martsch is unfamiliar with a lot of the music with which his is being likened--namely prog-rock, a Seventies-era style that shares a certain structural adventurousness, but little else, with Built to Spill. When the names of acts like Yes and King Crimson are dropped into Built to Spill notices, Martsch says it makes him realize "that people have this total preconception of what independent music is all about, and anything that's a little different confuses them. It seems to me that there's a lot of bands that are doing similar things to what we're doing--and just because songs have different parts or tempo changes doesn't make them prog-rock. I never listened to that stuff. I listened to the Thinking Fellers, and unless that qualifies as prog-rock, I don't really know what that's all about."

However, Martsch understands all too well the pitfalls inherent in some of the other comparisons that have been made in reference to his work, positive though they might be. Exhibit A is a February 1997 New York Times piece by Neil Strauss, headlined "60's-Style Heroics for the 90's," that claimed that Martsch "makes music as powerful as that of Hendrix or Clapton." Most performers would kill for such a rave, but to Martsch, "that was just annoying. On the one hand, you can't complain when someone says something nice about you. But at the same time, I definitely don't think it's all true. I mean, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton--those guys are like the masters. I'm just a guy who makes up songs.

"To me, the songwriting is the main thing. Songs take a long time for me to write, and a lot of ideas pass through my head when I'm writing them. But basically, what I try to do is make them interesting all the way through, so you won't get that bored with them. As most people do, I have a wide variety of influences and a lot of different aesthetics, and a lot of times I find two opposites equally appealing--and I don't see any reason why both of them can't be in the same song. I think just about anything can be pulled off in music and sound cool if you do it in an interesting way, and that's what I try to do within the limitations of how well I can sing and play guitar." He pauses. "Maybe if I was a better guitar player or a better singer, it would sound like prog-rock."

Such modesty masks Martsch's perfectionism--a quality mocked in the new CD's title. He started recording Perfect From Now On in Seattle with drummer Peter Lansdowne but was dissatisfied with the results. A couple of months later he recruited percussionist Plouf and started over again, only to have the second master destroyed in an editing-deck malfunction--and so he, Plouf and Nelson were forced to cut the recording from scratch for a third time. But in his opinion, the extra effort was well worth the trouble. His only regret was that the sessions kept Ben and him apart for so long.

"Being away has been getting harder," he says. "We went on tour for the first time when he was only a few months old, and that was no problem. But when we went on tour when he was a little bit older, he was pretty upset. I used to put him to bed, and when I came back from that tour, he wouldn't let me do it anymore; his mother had to put him to bed then. And when I left for the recording trip, he was pretty mad. He wouldn't even talk to me on the phone, he was so mad.

"I've been trying to get him ready for me being away this time. Every day I'll tell him that I'm going to leave for a while but that I'm going to be back--kind of preparing him. But I don't know what difference that makes, because all he does is say, 'But not now, right?' And I'll go, 'Yeah--not now.' And then he'll be okay again. No big deal."

If Ben refuses to take Martsch's calls again this year, how will he stay connected with his son? Musically, of course. "When I was touring after There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Karena would put on our music, and Ben really went for the song 'In the Morning.' He likes it so much we hardly play it anymore. And he's familiar with a couple of things on the new record. Like 'Stop the Show'--he's been making up his own words for that, totally making fun of it." He laughs before adding, "He changes so quickly. I hope I don't miss anything."

Built to Spill. 8 p.m. Friday, May 2, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $8-$10, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-SEAT; with Modest Mouse, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $9.45, 433-3399 or 830-

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