For Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, music is a different kind of hoop dream
At first blush, professional men's basketballers and guys in rock bands don't have a lot in common. Those who fall into the first category are most often enormous, physically gifted dudes who've spent their entire lives attracting female admirers with mere flexes of their biceps, while the other kind of players tend toward anemia, questionable hygiene and an understanding that if their music sucks, their love life will, too.
Yet there are parallels between these two groups, as Doug Martsch demonstrates. The lead singer-songwriter and guitarist for Built to Spill, one of the most acclaimed indie-rock outfits of the past fifteen years (despite its presence for most of that time on the roster of still-hefty Warner Bros.), Martsch is the combo's superstar: the equivalent of the Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony or Brandon Roy of the Portland Trail Blazers, the squad that Boise-based Martsch follows with a passion bordering on the obsessive. (He didn't miss seeing a single Blazers game this past season.) But while he could certainly hog the spotlight for himself, he's much more interested in a team concept that also lets the supporting players shine.
"No one wants to be just a rebounder," Martsch says. "Everyone wants to play the whole game, and everyone wants to have a real stake in it. The Birdman doesn't just want to rebound," he points out, referencing Nugs ball hawk Chris Andersen. "He wants to get some touches and score some points and make some passes and do all the things that are cool and fun about basketball. And I think everyone feels that way in this band. Everyone feels they can do whatever they want to do and have a say in what happens and stuff. It's not just my thing."
Indeed, Martsch's supporting cast — guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson, similarly named bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf — adds immeasurably to the Built to Spill sound, which combines basic rock elements with a sense of improvisational adventure that's earned the admiration of jam-music fans without alienating the critical intelligentsia. And whereas Martsch once penned all the tunes, he's gotten a lot more assists in recent years. The lion's share of tracks on the 2006 album You in Reverse were conceived collaboratively, and the entire crew has also been involved in shaping the material for There Is No Enemy, due in September. Not that he took a backseat in the creative process.
"They're more songs that I've written," he concedes, "but they've been played by the band for a few years, and everyone's kind of written their parts around the songs. And we recorded them, and then I kind of took over for the past few months, deciding which parts to use — using some things, getting rid of some things, messing around with it. So it's kind of a record where I started out writing all the songs, and everyone joined in and did their thing, and then everyone left and I took back over again."
That was probably a good idea. In the studio, after all, Martsch is driven to get things right — a characteristic mocked by the title of the 1997 album Perfect From Now On, which (irony alert) was far from perfect, in Martsch's opinion. BTS recently put together an extensive tour during which the band played Perfect in its entirety, and after relearning the songs, the musicians had to re-relearn them due to subsequent upgrades.
"We took things back to more of the way it was on the record, because they'd evolved over the years for whatever reason," Martsch notes. "So we got them back to that point, and from there, we might be like, 'That was actually cooler the way we had been doing it.' By the end of the tour, the songs were what we thought were the best way they could be. A mixture of getting back to some of the cool, basic things, but also things that we've improved upon."
Like his singing, for instance. "I was disappointed with the quality of my voice on most of that stuff," Martsch says. "I think I was working a little too hard, trying to hit the notes too much and not really singing as naturally as I like my singing to be."
This twist on typical perfectionism — one in which feeling is more important than technical precision — carries over to his approach to mixing Enemy. The album marks the first time Built used digital recording techniques, and Martsch doesn't want the finished product to seem slick. "We recorded some basic tracks onto tape and then bounced those onto digital, and we've been doing our overdubs onto digital stuff," he explains. And even though they eschewed "plug-ins or internal effects," thereby treating the gear "as if it were just a tape machine," he's still concerned. "I don't know how it's going to come off and whether it'll sound raw or polished. Hopefully, it'll sound more on the raw side."
Few major-label bands could get away with such statements — but Built to Spill has managed to remain on Warner Bros. since 1995. How has the band avoided the ax that's cut down all but a handful of acts inked during the Great Indie Signing Boom of the '90s? "We've made money for Warner Bros.," Martsch insists. "We haven't made them a lot of money, but we don't lose them money, because we don't cost that much. We don't spend that much to make our records, and they don't spend that much on promotions for us." In addition, "We're not a pain in the ass to deal with. It's easy to keep us around — although I might be wrong about that. We might be more of a pain in the ass than I think we are."
Doubt it. After all, Martsch is a man of simple pleasures. He loves his wife, Karena, and his fifteen-year-old son, Ben. He loves playing live, even if it means driving long distances between shows. (For the Enemy tour, Built will be traveling in a bus, not a van, which he sees as a wonderful luxury.) And he loves any basketball team that might defeat the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers. For a while he thought the Nuggets had a chance to vanquish this longtime Blazers enemy due to their renewed commitment to teamwork, but they got off the track.
"When they were getting into some trouble, Chauncey and Carmelo and J.R., those guys kind of tried to take over," he says. "And any one of them is capable of doing it. But it's better if they play team basketball and get some easy shots instead of some big shots."
No wonder Built to Spill is in the finals year in and year out.
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