Before I write anything else about Doug Martsch, I want to state for the record that, yes, he is aware of the meme conflating his band, the long-running indie-rock institution Built To Spill, with the mega-successful K-pop group BTS. And — like so many other middle-aged guys who like indie rock — he also enjoys making his own Built To Spill/BTS jokes.
“Even I get fooled,” he says during a recent Zoom call. “I’m looking at my Apple newsfeed and see something about us, and then, aw! Always disappointed.”
While the 52-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist might experience the occasional letdown over, say, not having his own McDonald’s meal, he does feel satisfaction regarding Built To Spill enduring as one of the great legacy indie bands of the ’90s. As their peers have navigated various break-ups, reunions, and other miscellaneous peaks and valleys, Built To Spill have chugged steadily along, putting out consistently strong albums and touring regularly. By design, Martsch — who started Built To Spill in 1992 after exiting his former band, the pioneering Idaho group Treepeople — has been the only constant in that time. Playing with different people has kept the project fresh, he says, though the band’s jammy, shambling guitar pop sound has remained remarkably distinctive and influential no matter the constantly changing lineups.
Not that Martsch agrees with that assessment.
“To my mind, nothing sounds like classic Built to Spill,” he says. “But I think that’s just the way that artists have a so fully different interpretation of what they’re doing. To me, every song’s an anomaly.”
I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree — the new Built To Spill record out Friday, When The Wind Forgets Your Name, sounds like, well, classic Built To Spill, with the rustic melodies and wigged-out solos that fans have come to love. Ahead of the album’s release, I asked Martsch to look back at the other Built To Spill records to chart his path to the latest LP.
Ultimate Alternative Wavers (1993)
It was originally a bunch of songs that I had written to take Treepeople in a different direction. Then I left that band, and we just messed around at a friend’s studio. It was really exciting to experiment and record ourselves. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have any engineering skills, but we engineered it ourselves.
I didn’t know where I was going to be in a year. At the time that I made the record, I was living in Caldwell, Idaho while my girlfriend at the time was finishing college. She was planning on going to graduate school somewhere else, like Montana or Colorado. My idea was that I would make this record and then call the project Built to Spill, and then when I moved to wherever we moved to, I could maybe find some people there and still call it Built to Spill. That’s part of the reason why the rotating lineup concept was part of the band. From the get-go I was going to be needing to play with some different people.
A friend of mine found a letter in an alley in Portland, and we printed the letter inside the record. This girl wrote to a friend of hers and she made up that term in the title. She’s talking about how crazy her friends and she are, and how wild they are and how they call themselves the ultimate alternative wavers.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (1994)
When I was a teenager, punk rock was starting to happen. There was a hardcore scene, bands touring, and people putting on shows. The hardcore scene, I didn’t really care much about the music. There was a couple things I liked — State Of Confusion, a Boise band, I loved more than anything. They were a hardcore band, but most hardcore I didn’t care much for. But I did like the SST stuff, where they took punk rock and also had some pop and classic rock sensibilities. They had melodies, and it was more musical. But it still had a punk rock kind of “do it yourself” feel. That was the stuff that appealed to me — Butthole Surfers and Dinosaur Jr. and Pixies, all that kind of stuff. It really resonated with me and that was the kind of music I wanted to make.
With There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, my friend Chris Takino put it out, and it was really heartbreaking that he didn’t put out our first record, too. This horrible person, Daniel House from C/Z Records, put it out, because at the time Chris Takino did not have his record deal and all I had going for me was this C/Z guy. Fortunately, Chris stepped in right before I was about to sell my soul to this guy just to get a tape machine out of him. I would’ve been so ripped off and had such a depressing musical career if Chris Takino hadn’t stepped in and signed us for the second record.
I don’t pick what kind of music I make or play. It just comes out from fooling around on a guitar. For that record, I just started writing a bunch of poppy songs. It was a little bit of a reaction to what was happening in music, where grunge was really taking off with Nirvana and all that stuff. It’s a lot of clean guitars and it’s not grungy at all. It doesn’t sound tough. There’s no attitude to it. It’s just kind of sweet and straightforward. It’s nicely recorded — it was the first record with Phil Ek. There might be a little bit of delays on some guitars, but no vocals or drums or guitars or bass or anything have any reverb to make it sound like it’s in a room. It’s all dry-sounding.
I was really super in love at that time. I think that might have influenced me. I was in a happy place in my life. There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, really, it’s about love.
Perfect From Now On (1997)
I signed to Warner Bros. and I was a little [wary]. Nirvana happened and all these grunge things were happening, and I wasn’t into any of it. I didn’t really enjoy any of that music. I also didn’t like the idea of our stuff being played on the radio a bunch, and I didn’t want us to have a hit. I was a little nervous that we might accidentally have a hit, and that our music would be shoved into people’s faces. I really didn’t feel comfortable or confident about that. I felt like our music was more of something that you listen to by yourself or your friends turn you onto it and you make your own decision about whether you like it or not. At this point, I’m fine with shit being shoved in anyone’s face, but at that time I wasn’t. I didn’t have that in me. So, I made the songs a little long and un-radio friendly. I wanted to have a lot of people listen to it, but I wanted it to be really organically done, the way that I learned about music when I was a teenager, through your friend telling you it was cool, not the radio playing it.
I was listening to more Beatles. I had a drummer, and I was going to play everything else myself. I worked on it for a little bit and just didn’t really feel like it was grooving. There is one song on that record, “Made-Up Dreams,” from that session. I can’t remember what the rest sounded like, to be honest. I don’t remember what I didn’t like about it. It might actually have been a really nice record with Peter [Lansdowne] and me. I might have just been so insecure about taking on such a big task and being on this label. I might have just chickened out a little bit.
Then I did it with Brett [Netson] and Scott [Plouf], and then the tapes got damaged. What happened was, we put the tape on, did some overdubs, and there was a little bit of powder on the tape machine, some tape residue. It might have been something with the calibration of the machine. It might have been so minute that it didn’t affect things, but we didn’t want to take a chance of working on this stuff and then it might be damaged.
Neither of those versions got too far into it. I feel like it was a couple weeks of work each time. But at that time that was a lot. Before then I’d make a record in a week or a few days. Now we were going to nice studios and paying producers and having a big budget with Warner Bros. It was really difficult to get used to the idea of, “OK, I just wasted all that money.” $20,000 down the drain just sounded like a nightmare to me at the time. But Calvin Johnson told me that, eventually, the music is what’s going to be remembered and that money’s not going to matter. So, we did it a third time.
The third time was a charm. It really was. It was better than the second time, because I’d shown those guys the songs and we rehearsed them in a hurry, and so we did a lot better job on every song. We just played them better, recorded them better, just everything about the performances and recording was much, much improved, so it worked out fine.
Keep It Like A Secret (1999)
After Perfect From Now On, I did not want to make another record of long songs. Those long songs are really hard to work on. Back in the day when you worked on tape, it was really tricky to record and to mix, and really a pain in the ass. I didn’t want to deal with that so I tried to keep the songs a little simpler on the next record.
This was the first record where a lot of the songs were written together. The other albums, I just brought every song in and showed them to the band. After we made Perfect From Now On, I was like, “I love playing with you guys.” They were like, “We love it, too. Let’s keep this going.” Part of that was saying, “Let’s collaborate.” I was listening to bands that I thought were making really interesting music together, like Modest Mouse. In the early days, they were very collaborative. Jeremiah [Green] and Eric [Judy] were contributing a lot. It wasn’t just Isaac [Brock]’s songs. It was jams that were creating the songs. We did a bunch of that. A lot of the stuff on that album comes from jams. And then I would be the one that would go through the jams and figure out what’s good and turn the jams into songs.
I grew up with bands that had lead guitar players and guitar solos. J. Mascis was really big for me, and Neil Young, too. Just melodic guitar playing. I never really had the greatest tone and skills at all. I’m not fast. There’s a lot of regular guitar things that anyone knows how to do that I don’t know how to do at all. I’m just using one or two fingers, and trying to find little melodies that sound nice. The fact that I became considered a great guitar player is totally weird to me. It’s just melodies and a little bit of imagination, I guess, but I’m not very good at guitar playing.
Ancient Melodies Of The Future (2001)
A weird record. When we finished Keep It Like A Secret, I lost interest in alternative music. I was done with it. Didn’t really want to hear it anymore. I started listening to old blues and learning how to play slide guitar. I’d make up these little riffs, little exercise riffs, and those eventually turned into the songs on the solo record, Now You Know. Songs like “You Are” and “Happiness” are just my blues songs that went over to Built to Spill.
At the time of making that record, I really wasn’t into making a record. I wasn’t very excited about rock music, and that’s why there’s a bunch of keyboards on the record. I showed the songs to the guys in a hurry. I wrote all the songs and showed them to them and didn’t really work on them a bunch.
I would’ve waited, but I thought that I had a contractual obligation to put a record out in a certain amount of time. I found out later that I really didn’t need to do that, that we had a little bit of leeway with that stuff. Then we started making records every six years after that. But it’s a little bit of a rush job and my heart wasn’t 100 percent into it. I feel good about some of it. I feel like some of it could be a lot cooler.
You In Reverse (2006)
I felt like we were a really good five-piece band at that point. There’s a lot of Jim [Roth]’s stuff. A lot of riffs that are Jim’s, just from jams. I remember going through lots and lots of jams to come up with songs. It was really a fun record to make. I’m really proud of it. I feel like it had a little more classic sound to it, or something less modern.
To my mind, nothing sounds like classic Built to Spill. To me “Goin’ Against Your Mind” is an anomaly. I feel like none of our songs are like that, but I think that’s just the way that artists have a fully different interpretation of what they’re doing. To me, every song’s an anomaly. I don’t feel like there’s anything that’s a quintessential Built to Spill song to me.
We changed producers to try something different. I always felt really confident working with Phil Ek, because he dug what we were doing. I had a lot of issues with confidence as a young person, because I was not a good guitar player. I was not a good singer. I was not trained. I didn’t know really what I was doing at all. I liked what I was doing, but I was constantly surprised that other people dug it. When I found someone that liked it, I was psyched. I didn’t think we sucked, but I knew it wasn’t for everyone. Just the fact that he was into it really was a lot, and it really felt like he was on our side and was doing everything he could to make it good and knew what my strengths were. I loved working with him. Those records that he produced are our most popular records to this day. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. We owe a lot of our career to his production.
We made You in Reverse, the first record without Phil Ek, with this guy, Steve Lobdell. He was not a fan of our music. It took me that long to have enough confidence to work with a producer who didn’t really give a shit about me. He liked me fine and he liked our music OK. I don’t think he hated it, but he wasn’t into it the way that Phil was. It was more just doing his job and getting paid.
There Is No Enemy (2009)
Netson played on every record, practically. On the first record Netson plays, he plays on Perfect From Now On, he plays on You In Reverse, but he wasn’t in the band any of that time. He always just came in to the studio and laid down some stuff. On There Is No Enemy, he was part of the band. He was writing his guitar parts while we wrote the songs, and Jim was doing the same thing. I’d bring the songs to practice and they’d just bring them to life in these really cool ways.
We tried to record it live, but as cool as it was, what everyone was doing, it just doesn’t work. It’s just not that dynamic for an album, so we had to go back and ended up making it more of a studio record. We worked with this guy, Dave Trumfio, producing it, and we let him mix it by himself a little bit and then just didn’t love it. I ended up mixing it almost by myself, because he was busy at the time and we needed to get it done. For some reason we had no automation. We had the console and they rented another little console and I was running around on two boards, me and an engineer, mixing it live. It was fun, and kind of nerve-wracking. But, yeah, I like that record.
Untethered Moon (2015)
Well, that’s the record where Brett and Scott quit the band. As far as I know, it was amicable. They both were just done with it. They’d done it for a long time. I don’t really know exactly why they didn’t want to do it. Scott hasn’t played drums since then. Brett, he has another band, Sick Wish, with his son playing drums and a couple other guys his son’s age on guitar, keyboard, or bass. Depends on what songs they’re doing.
We went on as a five-piece with Jason [Albertini] and Steve [Gere], and then I wanted to make that record as a three-piece with just me and Jason and Steve. Lots of jamming, lots of things that I brought in. I loved playing with those guys. They’re both so incredible. And we had Sam Coomes produce it. He’s played on a bunch of our records. I like his aesthetic and I just like being around him. It’s just a really calming presence.
When The Wind Forgets Your Name (2022)
A couple of these songs tried to be on records before. Most of them are pretty old, and a couple of them are really old. We probably could have made this record a year or two after Untethered Moon, but we didn’t have a label. We were about to record when I let [Jason and Steve] go and started playing with the Brazilians [Le Almeida and João Casaes of the band Oruã]. They recorded basic tracks, went back to Brazil, and we had plans to get together again to produce the record, and then everyone got stuck. I ended up just finishing it mostly by myself. I sent some stuff. We sent stuff back and forth a tiny bit. I worked with this engineer in Boise, Josh Lewis, for just a few days to make sure that I wasn’t totally on the wrong track sonically, just a young person that could hear stuff that I couldn’t hear.
The first thing I did when I stopped playing with Jason and Steve was reach out to Melanie [Radford], who I’d seen play in her band, Marshall Poole, a Boise band, a couple years earlier. I’d seen them one time, but she just blew my mind. She was the first person I thought would be awesome to play with. Then Theresa [Esguerra] was playing in a band, Prism Bitch, who was on tour with Built To Spill. After a few weeks of playing with them, I became a big fan of her drumming. That was it. People are really digging them. They have a lot of soul and a lot of joy when they’re playing. My feeling when I’m playing with them is I’m not even thinking about them. I’m able to just 100 percent just think about what I’m doing. They’re just a perfect foundation for me to do whatever I want to do.
I had no idea I was going to have a career in music when I was a young person. I loved doing it and just always wanted to keep being creative and playing shows and being around my friends. Everything about it I love, going on tour. Just the fact that I get to keep doing this and it’s still fun and people give a shit about it, it’s so crazy to me.
I’m older than the Beatles were when I was in high school. When I was in high school, the Beatles were 40 or something and I was like, “They’re old.” Of course we’re classic rock. We have been for a long time.