For over 20 years, Doug Martsch has carved out his trademark blend of indie rock, serving as guitarist for Treepeople in the late ’80s and eventually as frontman for the now iconic Built to Spill. With seven full-lengths to date, Martsch & Co. remain strong, and next week, the Boise rockers hit the road for yet another sprawling tour. Not too long ago, Consequence of Sound had a chance to catch up with Martsch, who offered his two cents on the band’s forthcoming eighth studio LP, how he once put together an obscure reggae cover band, and his experience covering The Smiths.
It’s my understanding that you guys are back in the studio and working on a new album. Is that correct, and if so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
Well, no, there’s not much to talk about yet. But, yes, it’ll be another Built to Spill record. [laughs] We’re going to record in Portland at Audible Alchemy with Steve Lobdell, the same studio and producer that we did [2006's] You in Reverse with.
When it comes to your lyrics, do you prefer the literal to the figurative?
No, I feel my words are definitely more on the figurative side. Every once in a while there’s a literal song or a literal line in a song, but mostly it’s about just the feel of the song. It’s more about avoiding bad lyrics than necessarily making good ones. I think that’s a big part of music in general. A lot of the trick to making music is just to avoid making bad choices.
Do you think that is why you are taking longer in between albums now versus in the ’90s?
Yeah, ‘cause I have a lot more bad choices I have to weed through.
What do you mean by that?
I’m just joking. [laughs] I don’t know why it takes so much longer. In a way, I’m just less obsessed than I was when I was younger. When I was younger, I would think about it all the time. I’d get a lot more work done that way. As I’m older, I’ve spent too much time with basketball, which I didn’t care about when I was young.
When you conceived Built to Spill, it was originally going to be you as the sole member, and then you’d have a rotating cast of players. When, how, and why did that idea die?
It died when we made Perfect from Now On, and there were a few reasons. One of them was that I wanted to make more collaborative music. I was really influenced by bands like Modest Mouse and Unwound, bands that were making music together, [like] Quasi. And it just made a difference to the quality of the kind of music people would make when they collaborated on it. That was a reason. Another reason was to have people in the band that had a stake in it the way I did, so it could be fun and exciting for them as well.
So, is the songwriting fully collaborative?
It kind of changes from record to record. Some are more collaborative than others. The last record we made [2009'sThere Is No Enemy] was pretty much mostly my stuff, but the record before, You in Reverse, was real collaborative, lots of jamming to come up with parts.
How’s the new one looking to be?
The new one’s going to be less collaborative again, just things that I’ve had. You know, we just haven’t had much time to jam and stuff. Over the last few years, since we haven’t been jamming very much, I just have some little things here and there that I’ve put together.
How is it that you came to put together an obscure reggae cover band, Boise Cover Band?
Well, it’s not really a reggae band. We had a brief little cover band, but it wasn’t reggae. We did a reggae song, but we did it non-reggae style. That was just something, you know… [I] got together with some friends, and we were going to jam, and then we decided to try doing some covers. We learned a few and recorded them, and that was it. It was just a little project that started out as a little jam session and turned into that. We never played any shows or did anything else. That was it.
Any chance for another solo outing or maybe a Halo Benders’ album [a side project with Calvin Johnson]? I know you’ve done some live appearances as The Halo Benders, but anything concrete?
Well… nothing planned for that stuff. The solo record was kind of a fluke. I was just learning how to play that style and then wrote some little things just to practice and learn the technique of playing slide guitar. And then those turned into little songs. I haven’t been doing that really at all. And then, Halo Benders, we tried to get together, work on some new stuff, and actually a few of the songs that we worked on have turned into songs that will be on the next Built to Spill record. It wasn’t happening fast enough that it was worth everyone’s while, because everyone lived in different towns and stuff. It was just turning into more work than it should be. And Built to Spill can be tons of work, and that’s just the way it is, and I accept that. But it seems like a band like The Halo Benders shouldn’t require as much effort as it seemed like it was going to.
On last year’s Smiths’ tribute, Please, Please, Please…, you did “Reel Around the Fountain”. Did you choose that, and if so, what was it about that song?
I kind of had an idea of making sort of, like a soul-sounding version of it, like making it really mellow and changing it up a lot. I just thought it sort of reminded me of a soul song, just the melody of it and the feel of it. And then I struggled for a long time trying to change it. Everything I did, I just wanted to hear the guitar parts and the bass parts that were on the original, so eventually I ended up learning it and playing it pretty straight, because I wanted to hear all that stuff. That’s about it.
Can we talk about your relationship with Warner Brothers? When you signed up with them, the band was pretty young, three years old, but the contract is one that gives you creative freedom. One of the label reps even said something along the lines that your contract puts you at a level like U2 or Coldplay when it comes to that no-pressure attitude. How were you able to do something like that?
[laughs] I’m sure we’re way beyond them in terms of no pressure. There’s zero expectations for us.
How did you manage to get such a creatively fulfilling contract so early? It’s kind of amazing.
We had a lawyer who had worked with R.E.M. and Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and stuff, so he was sort of someone who already understood how important that stuff was to us. And then you can put that sort of language in your contract and then hope for the best. It turned out that everyone we’ve worked with there has just respected that for whatever reason. I don’t know why.
We’ve gone through a few A&R guys. There have been a lot of different presidents. I don’t think there is anyone there at Warner Brothers that was there when I started. I don’t know why they let us do what we do, but they have let us do exactly what we wanted, all the time.
That’s awesome. That’s gotta allow you so much more freedom to just be more creative.
I don’t know what they expect from us. Maybe they recognize… you know if they told us what to do, I don’t think we could do things really any differently. We don’t try to make this kind of music or do things a certain way. It’s just kind of what happens. It’s not like a choice. But, at the same time, though, they could tell us to work with certain producers and stuff. At one point they did, actually. Our A&R guy wanted us to remix Keep It Like a Secret with a different producer, and we said, “We’ll remix it. That sounds like a good idea, but we want to use Phil [Elk] again.” And we did that. They wouldn’t totally leave us alone.
But they weren’t hovering over you…
Yeah, and that was the most extreme example, too. No one’s ever made any suggestions like that since. [laughs]