Photo by Philip Cosores
Doug Martsch is a certified guitar hero. And yes, we’re aware that Built to Spill’s eighth record, Untethered Moon, has already cemented itself as one of the best releases of the 2015 calendar year thus far. But if there’s one thing that Martsch has staked his name to besides being a seasoned indie rock vet, it’s his die-hard devotion to basketball. With the NBA Playoffs in full swing, we caught up with Martsch by phone during the first round of playoff action to talk about the rigors of touring, the trials of being a Trail Blazers fan, and why softball can’t compare with basketball. Did we mention Built to Spill also has a new record out? Got that covered, too.
I understand you’re in physical therapy?
Yeah, it’s some sort of tendinitis. I have no idea where it’s from; it popped up like a year ago. Just getting old type of stuff. We all have it — everyone in the band has it right now.
Does that make touring more difficult or less enjoyable than it once was?
No, not that much. We’re not so old that it matters that much. It depends too on how you travel. Sometimes we’ll travel in a bus, which is a little easier on you. You can sleep during the drive and wake up in a town. You don’t have to sit in the van all day long, and you have a little more free time. Also, you have a place to rest. Van tours are tougher. You just drive all day, and sometimes you get to a club that has no backstage. So you drive all day and don’t get much sleep, and you get to the venue and there’s no place to take a rest. That’s the toughest part. When you’re young, you show up and that stuff doesn’t matter. You’re just so excited to be doing it. It gets harder when you’re older. It can wear you down.
Are you still playing basketball on tour?
Well, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve really been able to play. My knees are just too messed up. I still shoot around a little bit. A van tour, again, there’s little time to do anything. On a bus tour, you wake up and can go find a YMCA for a few hours before soundcheck. But a lot of times it’s hard to play unless you’re at a club with a hoop.
Those are few and far between, I’d imagine.
Have you been following the playoffs? I take it you’re a Blazers fan?
[sighs] Yeah, Portland’s my team.
You say that with a little bit of resignation, but they rallied Monday night to stay alive.
Yeah, definitely. It’s just that it seems like that took everything they had, and they barely did it. You know, without Wesley Matthews, I don’t know. They’re just too beat up with injuries. I guess [Nicolas] Batum looked good, but that 3-0 deficit doesn’t seem doable.
There are two teams now that are fighting back from 3-0. The Blazers are still in it, and Milwaukee’s rallied for two straight against the Bulls. Maybe there’s hope.
That’s true, very true. And we almost did it. I don’t remember what year, but we took the Lakers to seven games in the conference finals (Editor’s note: Portland has since been eliminated).
It’s great that a lot of these teams that have been dormant for so long are coming around. It’s cool to see teams like Portland, Golden State, Washington, and the Clippers competing in the postseason.
Yeah, of course. Lillard, Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews is an exciting lineup. Definitely more exciting than anything they’ve had in a long time.
You came to basketball pretty recently, right? How did you get into it?
It was pretty recent, as an adult. When I was little, I’d watch any sport, mostly football. By the time I got to high school, I didn’t think about sports much anymore, and that continued through my 20s. Then I just caught a basketball game and got drawn into it. I started playing and watching it obsessively. That’s what I did pretty much through my 30s, played basketball every day and watched it as much as I could. I was definitely more obsessed with basketball than music through my 30s.
Why basketball and not baseball or football?
I have no idea. I mean, it’s obviously the best sport, but I can’t quite put into words why. I played some softball too for a little while around the same time. I remember one time I was standing out in the outfield, and I looked over and saw people playing basketball on a court. I just thought, that looks like so much more fun. I’m just standing there waiting for something to happen; meanwhile, in basketball, there’s always something happening. There’s not a moment where there isn’t something happening.
It’s way more fluid. I have a lot of friends who love baseball, but for me it’s just too slow. There’s no pace.
Totally. I mean, I can appreciate pretty much any sport, you know? Whatever. And there’s a lot of things I hate about basketball and the NBA especially. There’s so many things that annoy me about it so much, but I can’t help it. i just love it.
Especially this time of the year. Even if you’re not a huge NBA fan, there’s something great about playoff basketball.
Yeah, definitely. The competition level is great. Everyone just puts everything into every play. The thing that’s most fun about basketball to me isn’t when someone’s shooting threes. It’s when they’re scrambling. I love watching guys go up five times for a rebound. To me, that’s really exciting, that super-intense feeling of competition. The skill and coordination it takes to dive to the floor, grab the ball, and make a play is impressive. To control your body and pull off something in some weird position.
Any predictions? Who do you like in each conference?
I don’t know. I don’t really have a prediction. In the East, I assume Cleveland is gonna do it.
Even without Kevin Love? He’s out for the postseason.
Yeah, I still think they’ll do it without him for some reason. I’d say either them or Chicago. Atlanta’s for real, too, but I’ll stick with the Cavs. You could be right about Love, though. In the West, that’s hard. Golden State looks pretty rad, and of course the Spurs are never out of it.
The competition is so much stiffer in the West. There are two or three teams there you look at and can see winning it all. Not so much in the East.
Exactly, you’re right. I guess I’d go with the Spurs, just because of the history part of it. Houston didn’t make it through the first round last year, and Golden State I’m not sure of yet. So the Spurs might have to be my pick for the West.
They’re perennials. You watch them, and it seems like they’re immune to aging.
Totally, and they have more playoffs wins than anyone. That’s key. They know how to do it (Editor’s note: The Spurs were eliminated in seven games by the Clippers).
Are you on the road now?
We had a really quick tour that we got home from on Friday, then we leave next week for a month.
Are you excited to get out there with a new slate of songs? Does touring behind new material re-energize the touring experience?
We still haven’t really played [the new songs live]. There’s a few songs that we’ve been playing for a couple of years, but we haven’t had the time to rehearse or play much stuff. We’ve been learning a few songs on the road, but they still haven’t quite come together. We’re going to practice a few days before this trip and try and learn a few more. But I’m excited to go play ’em. It’s kind of a routine for us. It’s enjoyable, but I don’t really get excited for it. We just go do it.
Is there a special sense of satisfaction or relief that comes with having Untethered Moon out? It seems that there were a lot of hurdles that had to be cleared to get things done this time.
Yeah, the logistics were difficult, especially toward the end of everything. But I can’t tell. It’s always sort of like that. It’s always exciting though to get something done after you’ve spent years working on it. To hold the finished product is exciting. And this is the first record where I did the record cover, put a lyric sheet together and stuff. It was fun. We were all more involved with this record on a lot of fronts than we were on the other ones, probably.
You get out of it what you put into it — that sort of thing?
Yeah, totally. We made a few videos, too. It was a fun record to make. It was less stressful than it usually is for some reason.