Music News

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts