Built to Spill [Howlin’ Wolf, March 3, 2008]

In 1997, Boise, ID, guitar-stretchers Built to Spill released Perfect From Now On, a sprawling record that patches together bits of Neil Young guitar, Pink Floyd atmospherics, and singer Doug Martsch’s star-gazing lyrics with melodies to match.  Though they had already released a couple of well-received indie pop records on Up that caught the ear of Isaac Brock, who went on to form Modest Mouse, it was Perfect From Now On that launched Built to Spill into the realm of Important Indie Rock Bands.  That record, along with follow-up Keep It Like a Secret, established Martsch as the genre’s only active guitar god, the one guy besides J Mascis who could trill into a wah solo and actually get the tight pants shaking.  The centerpiece of 2000’s Live is a twenty-minute version of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” that more-often-than-not surpasses the original in its spacy noodling.  In 2006, the group released You in Reverse, which, while lacking the slick melodies that so define Perfect and Secret, shows that Martsch’s ability to experiment with song structure without losing pop sensibility has only grown in the ten years that his band has been on Warner Brothers.
ANTIGRAVITY called Doug Martsch at home in Boise and immediately proceeded to confuse the voice of his wife for that of a child, much to our embarrassment.  Lucky for us, Martsch is a forgiving guy.

ANTIGRAVITY: Was that your daughter in the background just now?
Doug Martsch: No, that was my wife.
AG: Oh, wow, my bad.
DM: That’s alright, I don’t care.
AG: Okay.  Good.  So, you recorded You in Reverse in 2004, right?
DM: Shit, I don’t remember.  That sounds about right.
AG: Why did you wait so long to release it?
DM: When did it come out, in 2006?  I think we started it in 2004, finished it in 2005, and it came out in 2006.  It took about a year to make for various reasons and then it takes the record company half a year to put something out after it’s done.  They have to do – I don’t know what they have to do.  They have to produce it and do promotional things for it, supposedly.  It just takes a while.
AG: Have you guys enjoyed being on Warner Brothers?
DM: Yeah, totally.  The people we work with are all real nice and they treat us with a lot of respect and let us do whatever we want to do.  We’ve had a great time there.
AG: Have you been working on new material?
DM: Yeah.
AG: Do the new songs show up in the live show?
DM: You know what, over the last few years, some of it has come and gone in the live shows.  It kinda depends.  A lot of this stuff is kinda old and we go back and forth on it.  We’ll work on new stuff and get burnt out on it then hit it again.  We haven’t been playing these songs live for a while, just for the last few years, but some of them have been in the rotation for a while.
AG: I know you got deep into back porch blues while you guys were on hiatus.  Did you try to incorporate that into Built to Spill when you got back together?
DM: Yeah, sort of.  I think a lot of old folk record and reggae records sound cool.  We’re kinda trying to do that to some degree.  When you’re producing a record, some of the limitations are within the gear and within the people you’re working with and stuff, so it’s hard to make things sound exactly like you want them.  You may have a record in mind with a special kind of sound, and you can get close to it, and that’s what I think we did.
AG: Was it tough to get back together after the break?
DM: No, it was actually really easy.  It was fun and exciting to start playing again after taking so much time off.
AG: And you have a new single out that’s got a bit of a reggae sound, right? [“They Got Away”]
DM: Yeah, it’s just straight-up reggae.
AG: How did you get so into reggae being from Boise?
DM: (laughs) Well, I had heard reggae all my life and I never really like it much until I was maybe 30 years old and I heard some dub things that sounded really interesting to me.  Because up to that point, the only reggae I’d heard was Bob Marley or UB40 or something.  And there’s some good Bob Marley, but I’d mostly been exposed to Legend or whatever, his mediocre stuff.  Then one day it just made sense to me.  I heard some rock steady stuff, some Delroy Wilson, some Lee Perry, and I became kinda obsessed with it.
AG: Do you play the reggae song live?
DM: We played that song off and on for a year or two while we were writing it, but we haven’t been playing it for a while.  I don’t know if we’ll play it again.
AG: I read somewhere that you had a professor in college who described eternity as this process of whittling down a metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter to the size of a pea with a single feather and that you took his words verbatim and wrote “Randy Described Eternity” from Perfect From Now On.
DM: Pretty close.  I think it’s a standard metaphor that’s used by Christian religious people to describe eternity.  It wasn’t exactly that.  I had to change some things from how I remembered because of syllables and meter and stuff, but basically that’s the idea – something giant getting slapped with a feather [until it’s worn down to nothing], you know, just some ridiculous metaphor for how long eternity is.
AG: You guys are one of the few bands in indie rock – maybe you and Dinosaur Jr – that are allowed to have these long, sprawling solos like the ones on Perfect From Now On.  For the most part, it’s seen as cliché in the indie world to strut into a long solo, but you guys are not only given license to do it but lauded for it.  Why do you think that is?
DM: We have different kinds of records, and to me that’s the only record that’s really like that.  Maybe there are moments on other records, but I mostly think of us as just an alternative rock band.  Like Dinosaur, we’re influenced by a lot of classic rock and all.  That band was important to me when I was young, as well as some other SST bands, in the way that they took alternative or punk rock sensibilities and tied them in together with more traditional music ideas like classic rock.  Punk originally was a reaction to the musicianship of the bands of the time, so it was taking some of the punk rock ideas and mixing them with musicianship and songwriting and that just made a big impact on me when I was young.  And the fact that you can kinda do anything, that nothing is off-limits as long as it’s put together in a tasteful way.  Bands like the Butthole Surfers and Camper Van Beethoven I felt did the same thing.  David Bowie was my introduction to that sort of thing, a musician who’s free to go wherever he wants, but those other bands – Dinosaur especially – they were closer to my age and easier for me to relate to than David Bowie.  What was so great to me about punk rock was that anyone could do it.  David Bowie was obviously an especially gifted musician.  But punk rock had bands like Hüsker Dü, where they write great songs but they weren’t Eddie Van Halen or anything; they were just regular guys that worked hard and figured out a way to make music with the medium amount of talent.
AG: So it must be pretty cool for you guys getting to play with a band like the Meat Puppets, who were certainly involved with the SST scene.
DM: Of course, yeah, it’s really exciting.  And we were able to do some shows with Camper Van Beethoven over the last couple of years.  It’s been really fun for me to be able to play with some of the people who really formed my ideas about music.  Dinosaur, too; we were able to play some shows with J and Dinosaur Jr.
AG: Are they just doing a couple of dates with you?
DM: No, they’re doing the whole tour with us.  Month-long.
AG: Whose tour is it?
DM: It’s actually ours.  It’s kinda embarrassing.  But it’s the same thing with Camper Van Beethoven: the band breaks up for ten years and a lot changes.  People who were into them don’t go out to shows anymore and young people don’t know about them.  Somehow we were able to avoid that.  We had the hiatus and stuff but we hit the road before we put out the record and reminded people that we exist.  We didn’t take a long enough break, luckily.  Yeah, we met the Meat Puppets when we were in Austin.  They were recording in a studio that we were recording at and met them briefly.  Then when this tour was coming up, I took a chance to see if they were up for touring with us and it all kinda worked out.
AG: So is there any chance that we’ll get to see you and Curt Kirkwood do some long jam on Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” or anything like that?
DM: I don’t know.  (laughs) You never know.  I hope something like that happens.  Usually something like that happens, unless, you know, we just don’t get along at all.  With Camper Van we did a little bit of that.  The thing is, we already have three guitars and it’s hard to go anywhere from there.  With Camper Van we had a couple of shows where Jonathan [Segel, Camper’s multi-instrumentalist] came out and played violin with us.  If there’s one or two guitars, you can bring another one out and it’ll make a difference, but anymore and it’ll get lost.
AG: Do you know if Neil’s heard your version of “Cortez the Killer”?
DM: I have no idea.  I’ve never met him or anything.  I saw him play for the first time a couple months ago.  He started his tour here in Boise.  But I have no idea if he knows about it.
AG: The tour where he did a split electric and acoustic set?
DM: Yeah, exactly.  His wife opened.  This guy in Europe told me that Neil Young had heard the song and that he really liked it and I thought it was cool, but I wasn’t convinced.  So I looked it up on the internet – I don’t remember what I typed in, something like “Neil Young Built to Spill” – and I couldn’t find anything.  Finally, I found something and it was like, “Neil Young likes Built to Spill’s version of the song and when I told Doug that he seemed pleased.” It was that guy who told me that, writing on the internet about it!  So I don’t know about that story.
AG: Are you doing any covers on this tour?
DM: Yeah, we’re doing a Brian Eno song on this tour.  “Third Uncle.”
AG: You guys along with Pavement and one or two other bands are usually called the Biggest Indie Band of the 90s, which I think means that you guys laid the foundation for what people are doing now.  What’s it like for you to look at what’s become of a genre that you helped to create, with Kidz Bop doing Modest Mouse songs and indie rock all over the place?
DM: I don’t really know what to think of all that.  To me it makes sense for Modest Mouse to be hugely famous because they’re so good; it doesn’t really surprise me that much.  But I don’t know about our genre; it’s kinda a loose thing.  All that stuff is neither here nor there for me.
AG: What kind of people come to your shows?  I’m 23, and I imagine I would be neither the oldest nor the youngest person at the show.
DM: You know, it seems like a pretty wide spectrum.  Like you say, there are people your age who seem to be interested, there are some even younger kids who are coming out still.  Then there are a handful of oldsters that still go out to shows, so it’s a pretty diverse crowd.  We feel pretty lucky to have that mix of people – or anyone at all showing up.  We’ve got people that have stuck around for a long time, people like you that learned about us later.
AG: I saw Willie Nelson a few weeks ago and his crowd was really mixed.  Frat guys, hipsters, the elderly.
DM: Totally, that’s exactly how the Neil Young show was.  There were rednecks, hipsters: the whole gamut.  Yuppies.
AG: What was it like growing up a music fan in Boise?
DM: Well, I moved here right when I started high school and I was into music, but I was just starting to break out of listening to heavy metal music.  I discovered Bowie and REM, a few of those alternative things.  And there was a thriving hardcore scene going on, so I met some of those people.  They were always having concerts, but it was all hardcore bands who weren’t that great.  But there was this local band, State of Confusion, that I liked a lot.  It was just cool seeing people put on their own shows and bring out of town bands into town.  There were all kinds of networks of fan zines and concert promoting and stuff.  Again, it’s like the SST thing where normal people put out records and put on concerts and did these things that you always thought big companies were only able to pull off.  I mostly learned about music through the guys in State of Confusion and a couple of other guys who were deeply into punk rock and stuff.  And I was into the Smiths and the Church and bands that were more pop.  There was only a handful of punk and hardcore that I liked, things like the Replacements, for instance.  Things that were punk rock but more melodic.
AG: You’ve said recently that you think that Built to Spill has yet to reach its full potential.  Where do you see the band going from here?
DM: I think that at some point, we could do something that’s really collaborative for the five of us.  The last record was more done between the four of us and Steve, the producer.  Brett Netson sort of got in at the last.  The reggae single that we did was really collaborative.  Everyone wrote their own parts and fit everything together.  This next record, I’m not sure if it’s going to be that one, because the songs have come along quite a ways.  This record is mostly songs that I’ve written and they’re mostly pop songs.  But I imagine us making a record where everyone brings what they’ve got to the table, and I don’t think that that’s happened yet.  There are moments of stuff, yeah, but I think that we can make a record that really highlights what everyone’s capable of.

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