Building for the Future
Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, among the few sparks on the swiftly dimming alterna-scene, is a guitarist, singer and songwriter of great skill and intensifying renown thanks to Perfect From Now On, an impressive full-length recently released by Warner Bros. But he has another job that's just as important to him, if not more so. You see, he's also a dad--a good one, he hopes. And while he wants to make a decent living in the music industry, he doesn't want to do so at the expense of Ben Martsch, age three.
"He's definitely the priority for me," Martsch says from the Boise, Idaho, digs he shares with Ben and wife Karena Youtz (who took the photograph that appears on this page). "And I don't think people really understand quite how important it is for parents to be around when a kid is that little. When you're gone a lot, it's really disconcerting for them. But I have to do a certain amount of touring--so I'm trying to figure out how to do it in a way that's best for him."
To say the least, this kind of talk is atypical of the average modern rocker. Most are too busy trying to hump anything that looks vaguely human to bother with trivialities like reproduction--and those who do have children tend to keep them in the shadows for fear that their presence will persuade members of their key demographic groups to lust after more available icons. The late Kurt Cobain was a rare exception to this rule, but the public appearances he and Courtney Love made with their daughter, Frances Bean, left most viewers fearful that the toddler would be dead from chewing on stray hypodermics before she was old enough to drink from a cup.
Martsch's parenting style could not be more different from that of Kurt and Courtney. He refuses to use Ben as a prop, preferring to parent in a more low-key manner. But ask him questions about his progeny and he becomes positively effusive. He admits that he was initially nervous about changing diapers: "It was something I totally dreaded, but it turned out to be one of the easiest parts, really. At least when you're doing that, you can get them to sit still for a minute." He boasts about Ben's latest musical discoveries: "We have this Clash record, and when I showed it to him and asked if he wanted to listen to it, he didn't, because he never really wants to listen to anything at first unless there's an animal on the cover. But then I said, 'It's punk rock--it's all about smashing stuff up.' Then he was totally into it." And he reveals that one of the main reasons Built to Spill signed with a major label after recording for independent firms such as Up Records (which released 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love and 1995's Built to Spill Caustic Resin) and K Records (issuer of the 1996 compilation The Normal Years) was the willingness of Warner Bros. to provide him and his loved ones with health insurance.
"It was a hard decision to go with them--but it probably would have been harder if I wouldn't have had a family," he concedes. "If that was the case, and I was going to tour a lot and just work, then being on an independent label would have been fine. Because touring's not that bad, and I kind of like the idea of a more fair system where we get what we deserve and the record company gets what it deserves. I mean, I don't think we deserve to get whatever advance we got from Warner Bros.--we haven't earned that yet, you know. But since I have a family, I didn't want to tour a lot, and I needed to know I could still take care of things."
Of course, Martsch was just as adamant that Warner Bros. grant him the same degree of creative freedom that he enjoyed in indie land--and had the corporation reps balked at this demand, he would have told them to take their health insurance and shove it right back into their portfolios. "There was no way we would have done it otherwise," he says. "And they said okay and pretty much stuck to it. The A&R guy showed up one day when we were mixing the record--he hung around for an hour or so and said, 'That sounds fine,' and that was it. We turned in what we wanted, and there were no complaints."
Nor should there have been. Perfect From Now On is every bit as rough-edged and genuine as any of Built to Spill's previous efforts, and Martsch's songs are better than ever--melodic without being sugary, guitar-heavy without sounding cliched, lyrically evocative without seeming precious. His compositions have a spontaneous feel: Odds are good that Martsch had no idea that the rambling "Untrustable/Part 2," which concludes the album, would turn out to be nearly nine minutes in length until he'd put down his six-string and turned off his amplifier. But that doesn't mean the tunes are formless. On the contrary, numbers such as "Stop the Show," "Velvet Waltz" and "Made-Up Dreams" move with purpose, thanks in large part to the ever-shifting band's best rhythm section to date--bassist Brett Nelson (who appeared throughout There's Nothing Wrong With Love) and drummer Scott Plouf, whose muscular patterns are well-known to followers of his other group, the Spinanes. But the man who deserves most of the credit is Martsch, whose quavery vocals and folk-art guitar solos are so palpably real that they leave most of today's market-tested post-grunge in the dust.
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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