A Better Build
Boise, Idaho: Much has been made of the fact that Doug Martsch and his band, Built to Spill, are based there, as if a vast chasm yawned between the coasts where no one in the music industry could possibly reside. And like his neighbors -- gun-happy militia members, snowboarders and timber-industry dinosaurs -- Martsch seems almost aggressively unconcerned about happenings in the outside world. To hear him talk, the distance between his hometown and Los Angeles, the capital of the record-industry empire, seems even longer than 1,400 miles. He would rather play basketball with his seven-year-old son, Ben, whom he has just picked up from daycare, than worry about that stuff.
"No, you can't call a time-out," he says to Ben and then explains, "We're kind of playing basketball and watching basketball at the same time. We just started watching basketball a couple years ago -- I've become a fanatic about it. Since the season started, I watch every game they show on TNT and TBS."
These days, it's clear that family is the serious business in which Martsch is involved -- and that music will always have to come second. Whatever its merits, Ancient Melodies of the Future, Built to Spill's fourth release with Warner Bros. (counting last year's live album), will only be moderately supported by touring. That's mostly because of Martsch's resistance to leaving his home and the people in it.
"The older I get, the less I like going out, but the more noble I sort of think it is, somehow," says the 31-year-old Martsch. "When I was younger it was really fun, because I wanted people to hear my music, and I wanted to party, hang out and stuff. But now I don't really care about any of those things. So to go out on tour for me now is like giving something back to people who are buying our records and who like the music. It's less selfish than it was at one time, but it's more rewarding that way, too."
With Built to Spill, Martsch always seems to be on the verge of becoming huge -- musically, if not commercially. He has an uncanny ability to capture a wide range of emotions with seemingly obscure lyrics and to implant them in tightly crafted, pop-radio-worthy -- but consistently off-center -- songs. But Built to Spill has always been more of a grassroots enterprise than a steamroller of slick marketing and heavy airplay. Despite having signed with Warner Bros. and having all the possible ingredients for more mainstream recognition, the band continues to do things at its own pace. That means recording when the bandmembers want to and playing only a few dozen shows a year. The wider world of rock and roll will just have to catch up -- or slow down.
"My lifestyle hasn't changed much at all," Martsch says of leading the dual lives of dad and musician. "I was always pretty much a homebody. I didn't have to mellow out at all -- I was already pretty mellow."
Since releasing its major-label debut, Perfect From Now On, in 1997, Built to Spill has continued to develop a reputation that has little to do with top-forty recognition. The band's peculiar but engaging brand of breezy, guitar-heavy pop/rock, indelibly stamped with Martsch's homey, unpretentious voice, has flustered critics as much as it has delighted fans. Many critics are transfixed -- almost obsessively -- on Martsch's high, warbling vocals. This earns him nonstop knee-jerk comparisons to Neil Young, something he hasn't tried too hard to dispel, as evidenced by the band's decision to record a searing twenty-minute cover of Young's sweetly savage "Cortez the Killer" for its live album last year. In a rather ironic example of the band's emergence from more underground circles, comparisons are now being made between Washington's Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, with the latter in the role of established elder statesmen.
"Everyone still has their own ideas," Martsch says. "A lot of people talk about the Modest Mouse thing, and a lot of other people -- or the same people -- compare us to Neil Young. It's just helpful for some people to do that, to put things in some sort of context. It helps them understand things better, I guess." That's where the comparison should end. Their vocal ranges are similar, but Young's guitar playing -- though magnificent at times in its spastic but heartfelt repetitiveness -- is nothing at all like Martsch's. For someone who doesn't think of himself as much of a guitarist, Martsch still manages to coax surprisingly intricate melodies and chord progressions from his stringed machine.
"I'm not really a very technically proficient guitar player or singer, so it takes me a long time to do things right [in the studio]," Martsch said. "The only thing that I've ever had going for me as a guitarist is that I'm kind of bold. I play hard, and that gives the impression that I'm better than I am.
"I think part of [the Young comparison] is the fact that we kind of...jam, and it's more along those lines, of jamming. Not like Phish or the Dead or something, [but] that's part of it, I think. It's just kind of straightforward music, which is sort of what Neil Young is."
"Straightforward" is a rather modest way of describing Built to Spill's music. In some ways, Ancient Melodies of the Future picks up where the band left off with 1999's Keep It Like a Secret. But in other ways, Martsch and company -- drummer Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson on bass -- go out on limb after limb and experiment more than they have in the recent past. There are still plenty of songs with the trademark riffs and radio-friendly, if somewhat off-kilter, melodies one expects of Built to Spill. "Strange," the first song on the disc, opens with a cheerful, bright chord progression that is rendered muddy with viscous, bubbly distortion and the guitar's tone turned all the way down. It draws you in anyway with an instantly likable hook that echoes songs such as "The Plan," from Secret. Martsch has found a way to balance his savant-like pop sensibilities -- he somehow creates pop hooks within song structures that seem intransigent, stubborn and almost rude -- with his need to explore strange rhythms and chord progressions.
Martsch is still quite handy at producing fun but simple songs such as "Strange" or the aggressive yet goofy slide-guitar romp "Happiness," both of which seem to be perfect little packages destined to be launched like missiles of nourishment at quality-starved radio audiences. By doing so, Martsch gives himself permission to create slightly weirder, slightly more eclectic songs as well. The third song on the new disc, "In Your Mind," is based around a three-chord acoustic-guitar line, but that's where its simplicity ends. The rhythm is a hard-to-grasp time signature, in which each bar seems to end a little before it should. And the song is seeded with humorous references to the old-school classic rock that is clearly one of Martsch's influences. For instance, there are subtle lead-guitar riffs sprinkled throughout that are back-masked perfectly in the style of Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" And there is a keyboard part at the end of each chorus that sounds as if it was lifted straight from the Stones' "2000 Light Years From Home." Though it all seems to be somewhat tongue in cheek, a playful swipe at, as much as a celebration of, overwrought psychedelia, these touches also seem to have been done with love.
For his part, Martsch says nothing is ever deliberate when it comes to making a Built to Spill record.
"It's all just messing around with guitar and stumbling across things," he says. "I've never sat and decided I was going to write a certain kind of song. Sometimes they change, and I totally forget what was good about it. Sometimes they change for the better or for the worse. Basically it's just trial and error. It's all very intuitive."
On Ancient Melodies, that intuitive process again featured Martsch in the primary role of songwriter. He has developed a bit of a reputation for changing his band's personnel early and often, but it's a claim that's wearing thin after four years and four records with Plouf and Nelson. "It's been the same lineup for all of the Warner Bros. records," he says. "The last record, Keep It Like a Secret, a lot of it was collaborative even. That's the only record I ever really did that way. It was fun to do. But then on this record I went back to the old way."
Despite well-placed fears that corporate ownership ruins anything worthwhile, Martsch has managed to sidestep that bugaboo as well. Since 1997, his relationship with Warner Bros. has been one of mutual respect, according to Martsch. He still gets to call the shots, and although the people he used to work with at Warner's aren't there anymore, he has found the corporate beast to be gentle, if impenetrable.
"It's been fine," he says. "They're real nice. I don't really know how many records we've sold. We're not making a lot of money for them, but I don't think we're losing any money for them either. I don't really know what that means, what they'll do with us. I don't know how they make those decisions, who makes them and how we look to those people or anything.
"I don't think anyone really knows -- it's such a strange entity. We sort of play it by ear."
Playing it by ear seems to have worked pretty well so far. The slow, steady rise of Built to Spill shows that there is another way of doing things that can work out just fine -- even in the vast chasm between the two coasts.
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