Built to Spill Guitarist Doug Martsch Reboots Treepeople

Treepeople, back in the day.
Treepeople, back in the day.
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Treepeople was a short-lived band, but fans around the Pacific Northwest and beyond still speak of the Seattle-based quartet in reverent tones.

The act was a paragon of the DIY/punk scene, pioneers of the region’s wiry guitar-rock sound, and a launch pad for guitarist Doug Martsch, who would go on to form Built to Spill and become an indie guitar god.

For some, Northwest rock never got much better than what Treepeople produced in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 2018, the act is a direct path to warm feelings for a simpler time.

But not for Martsch. He’s too busy trying to remember old Treepeople songs to feel nostalgic.

“I don’t think my memory is good enough to have much nostalgia,” he says. “But I’m having a blast. It’s so great hanging out with those guys again. That’s sort of where I am with it now.”

Indeed, after nearly a quarter-century apart, Treepeople’s classic lineup is back together and playing shows, including the upcoming Westword Music Showcase. That includes Martsch and Scott Schmaljohn on guitars and Wayne Flower on drums, with Troy Wright playing bass in place of original member Pat Brown, who passed away in 1999.

Back in the mid-’80s, Schmaljohn, Flower and Brown were members of Boise hardcore band State of Confusion, Martsch’s favorite band. Martsch is a few years younger than the other guys, but once he graduated from high school — and after State of Confusion broke up — the four decided to start a new project, Treepeople, and move to the big city of Seattle.

There they played shows and recorded a handful of albums that fit snugly into Seattle’s burgeoning punk-influenced music scene. On 1992’s Something Vicious for Tomorrow, for example, electric guitars buzz and squeal around Flower’s distinctively chaotic drumming, creating a dense latticework of noise. Still, Martsch’s knack for melody — honed to perfection over many years with Built to Spill — regularly peeks through the din.
Martsch left Treepeople in 1992 or ’93, for “convoluted” reasons he can’t really remember. Since then, he’s made some of the best guitar-driven rock music of the past quarter-century with Built to Spill, blending prog, pop, rock and an appreciation for grandeur, especially on 1997’s classic Perfect From Now On and 1999’s equally classic Keep It Like a Secret.

But the underground guitar hero and indie-rock elder statesman (despite having spent two decades signed to Warner Bros. Records) says he owes everything to Treepeople.

“I cut my teeth doing that stuff. I wouldn’t be doing anything if it wasn’t for Treepeople,” he says. “When I was in Treepeople, I was useless. I didn’t drive. I didn’t pitch in on anything. I had the least amount of money of anyone in the band. Even just being in a band — I would never have even imagined that I could be in a band and record music and go on tour. I never would’ve even thought that kind of stuff was possible for regular people if not for Treepeople.”

Martsch, Schmaljohn, Flower and Wright are letting their current reunion unfold gradually. It started four or five years ago, when Built to Spill played with Schmaljohn’s band the Hand at Boise’s Treefort music festival, and Schmaljohn asked Martsch if he wanted to join the group on stage and play some Treepeople songs. They practiced a bit and played a few tunes, and they were “kinda okay,” Martsch says. But it motivated him.

“I was like, I’d like to do this for real,” he says. “Spend some time learning these songs. It’d be fun to do a real show.”

Treepeople, now.EXPAND
Treepeople, now.

Schmaljohn and Flower were interested, but everyone was busy until last year, when the group finally got together and started working in earnest on their old songs. They set a goal — to play a Treepeople set at last fall’s Treefort — and practiced like crazy to be ready.

“I just wanted to make sure we were super, super, super well-rehearsed,” Martsch says. “I can be a pretty brutal critic. I want to have my mind blown, so that’s what I want to try to do. I don’t know if we’ll succeed, but I want to surprise people — try to rock ’em in half, if you can.”

To date, the band has played a few shows in Boise, a couple in Seattle and Portland and one in Vancouver, plus a short tour of the West that brought Treepeople out to Denver. Some dates have drawn good-sized crowds, others not so much — a reminder that the group’s heyday was long ago and intensely concentrated in the Northwest.

Martsch would like to take the act out to the East Coast, if it’s financially feasible.

“Of course there are Treepeople fans everywhere, but there are only four or five of them [in each town],” he says with a laugh. “It’d be wonderful if we could gather them all up and put them in one place and play for them. But that’s not going to happen.”

For now, he and his bandmates are just enjoying being back together and playing their old ragers for anyone who’s willing to listen. For Martsch, it’s not about reliving a bygone time or scratching a sentimental itch. It’s about having fun playing songs together, and playing them well.

“Playing the songs mediocre-ly just gave me the feeling that it would be fun to do them right,” he says. “A lot of people have their nostalgia about it, but for us it’s just work or play, or whatever you want to call it. It’s just trying to hit all your notes.”

Treepeople, Westword Music Showcase, Saturday, June 23, noon, Golden Triangle neighborhood.

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