When singer-guitarist Doug Martsch first started the indie rock band Built to Spill back in 1992, he initially thought the group would be a studio project and deliver a series of finely tuned recordings with a rotating lineup of musicians. That sure didn’t happen. In fact, Martsch & Co. would become a touring outfit and only produce a handful of albums over a 20-plus year run.
“Yeah, that was the original idea,” admits Martsch via phone from his Idaho home. A fall tour brings the band to the Grog Shop on Sept. 16. “It had to do with coming out of being in a band with people for a long time. As a fan of David Bowie, I liked the way he did different records throughout this career. They weren’t the same thing over and over again. At the time, I thought I would be a record maker and not a touring band. I imagined being more of a studio act. Now that we’re a touring band, it doesn’t make sense to change your lineup ever. Once [bassist] Brett [Nelson] and [drummer] Scott [Plouf] were in the band, I didn’t want anyone else. I thought, ‘These guys are great. I want to grow up with these guys.’ I wanted everyone to have a stake in the band and they can contribute more easily.
Just this summer, Built to Spill returned with Untethered Moon
, its first studio album in six years. Despite a lineup change that involved the departure of Nelson and Plouf, it doesn’t represent a huge shift in the band’s sound, though Martsch says he’s become recommitted to the band and feels reinvigorated by the new lineup. Quasi’s Sam Coomes produced the album, which the group recorded in Portland, Oregon.
"He’s someone we like and trust," says Martsch. "He’s also a fan of Built to Spill. He’s also kind of a hater. He doesn’t like much stuff. I liked that combination. He’s on our side even though he has a bad attitude about music and only really loves certain stuff. That’s how I feel about myself. The stuff I love just kills me. He was so fun to work with. He has good ideas. He’s a nice person to be around. He’s so enthusiastic from the get go and encouraging. Even at this point in our career, I need that. That’s the most important thing the producer does. During this recording, I had as much confidence as ever and I think Sam helped a lot.”
The album’s opening number, “All Our Songs,” features the snarling guitars and high-pitched vocals that have become the band’s signature sound. The tune is about having a deep emotional connection to music, a fitting theme since Martsch is such a huge music fan.
“Yeah, it’s about having music and the community around music,” he says of the song. “It’s almost like a religion for some of us. When you find out that someone else loves a record that you love, all of a sudden that person makes more sense to you.”
The song resulted from a jam during which Martsch sang out, “All our songs.” The lyrics came together after that.
“I realized it could be a song about loving songs,” he says. “I had all these big ideas that the song would be about a trip. I sort of half used those ideas and it turned into a Built to Spill mess. I love Public Enemy but I wish they would give me more details and they only hinted at stuff. I wanted a story. I don’t have that in me. I’m not storyteller. If I have a line here or there that does that, I’m happy. There’s a ton of storyteller singers that we wouldn’t like but for someone who can tell stories and make good music, that’s rare. I have a song here and there throughout my career but I can’t do it on purpose. It might fall into my lap, but I can’t do it on purpose.”
Another one of the album’s highlights, “On the Way,” features noisy guitar riffs that sound like blaring horns.
“I think that song started out with that chord progression and melody,” says Martsch. It was something I had it for years. It had too much of a country sound or a full-on Neil Young rip-off sound to me. I played it once when [bassist] Jason [Albertini] and [drummer] Steve [Gere] and I were jamming. Jason loved it so that helped. It was a song that I didn’t know what to do with. I wrote many sets of lyrics. There are three or four different versions. I decided I needed songs that tell a story. Some songs need that. I kind of ripped off Quasi because they had a song about Mars. I thought, ‘Going to Mars is interesting and there’s always things I could do with that.’ It’s kind of a little bit cheap to me. The sound came over time. I did a demo on acoustic guitar. Then, I put an electric guitar to it. It slowly evolved and in the studio it came together in a nice way. The crazy guitars that sound like horns — that’s an idea I did while demoing around. I improvised it at home and it sounded cool, but I didn’t know if I could recreate it at the studio. But I got it right on the first take.”
Over the years, Martsch and his bandmates have covered songs by a wide range of artists, including everyone from Ozzy to Elliott Smith.So how did Martsch develop such eclectic taste?
“Just being in part of the music scene and music world and being surrounded by people who love music,” he says. “That’s how I got turned on to a lot of stuff. When I was young, I was focused on punk rock and alternative rock. It wasn’t until I was around 30 that I gave reggae music any sort of chance at all. That became my favorite. And I started listening to old soul music. People have turned me on to cool stuff. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. It’s about having some soul or something that speaks to you, whether that’s the quality of someone’s voice or how things were recorded. There are so many different aspects to music. When I was younger, I could relate to people who were making punk rock music. My experiences were so different, it was hard for me to relate to reggae music or soul music. As I got older, I realized it’s not that different. Their passion is really similar. And it just sounded good.”
Often been proclaimed to the last guitar hero, Martsch says the title is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, he might be more of a guitar anti-hero.
“Well, you know, if you find anyone who knows how to play guitar at all, they won’t be impressed,” he says. “I’m not that good. I think waht people like is that I just go for it. I was influenced by Neil Young and J. Mascis. To me, those people have something visceral about the way they play. It wasn’t that they were technically good. They know how to get some thing out of the guitar that has some emotion. That’s what I try to do. Technically, I’m not very good and haven’t gotten any better over the years. I just play in a playful way. There’s a freedom that people see that I have. And also another thing too is the fact that Brett Netson played guitar on a lot of the records and he really is a guitar hero. He’s as good as anyone has ever been. I think there’s a mix-up in thinking some of the shit that he does is me. A lot of the wah stuff on Perfect from Now On that sounds like Jimi Hendrix is pretty much him.”
When asked if the new lineup been really revitalizing, he answers in the affirmative.
“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “We even started writing some new songs. I definitely feel some revitalization with what we’re doing. For sure.”
Built to Spill, Crosss / Clarke and the Himselfs, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $22.50, grogshop.gs.