Doug Martsch has been in the music business for a long, long time. He started in the early ‘80s with a band called Farm Days, before moving to Seattle with the proto-grunge band Treepeople, who self-released their first cassette tape (!!!) in 1988. The band reached some level of indie fame with their fuzzy guitar rock, but in 1992, Martsch set out on his own with Built to Spill, a band he hoped to front with a continually evolving lineup supporting his vision.
Over the course of the band’s eight albums, though, things have changed. Martsch found a roster that worked well for him and Built to Spill toured the country, building an ardent fan base, and finding that their music could cross over into mainstream success. But after 2009’s "There Is No Enemy," Built to Spill took a five-year break from making music and Martsch ended up scrapping an entire album before returning to the studio with a new rhythm section in place to create their latest work, "Untethered Moon."
Now the band is back on the road playing in front of a hometown crowd at Boise’s Treefort Music Festival and before a giant throng at Coachella, along with club shows across the country.
Salon talked to Doug Martsch about the band’s new album, hitting the road, and about still not buying into the politics of music after all these.
After all these years do you still love playing live?
I love it. It’s still really fun. I can imagine how people burn out on it playing the same songs over and over again, but that’s not how music works for me. I enjoy playing the same things over and over again. Touring is exciting and daunting, though. It’s sad to leave my family and my dog, but it’s also exciting to get to play concerts every night.
This was your first time playing Coachella, too.
Yeah, we’ll show up, play early in the day, and then we’re out of there. We’re not going to be hanging out and enjoying the Coachella experience.
There are a lot of articles out there that refer to you as “the godfather of the indie scene.” Do you feel like a godfather of the indie scene?
Yeah, I refer to myself as the godfather of the indie scene. I have a little godfather hat. No, I don’t think about that sort of thing at all. I am around godfather age, though.
Since you’ve been around the music scene for so long, when you get to a place like Coachella, do you ever feel like shaking your fist at the young whippersnappers who don’t know anything about music?
Ha! Not at all, that’s just the way the world is. I wouldn’t expect anyone to know anything. People are drawn to things they are interested in and if someone doesn’t know about us and likes some other music that we are supposedly ahead of, that’s all arbitrary. It’s all suggestive, arbitrary stuff. I don’t expect anyone to know anything other than what their own experience has presented to them. We’re all ignorant. No one really knows anything; no one knows what’s really going on. When it comes to the continuum of rock 'n' roll and what has to do with what, well, there’s a lot of theories out there, but it’s all kind of nonsense. All that matters is whether you like something or not. If someone doesn’t understand the history of rock 'n' roll, that doesn’t matter. If someone thinks that Death Cab for Cutie influenced us, that’s fine with me. I don’t give a fuck.
Speaking of which, Built to Spill is supporting Death Cab on a few dates this year. Is that a little frustrating?
Not at all. We’ve played with them a couple of times before and, no, definitely not. We’ve done some touring with the Kings of Leon. We don’t care about anything but playing our music.
I only asked because Ben Gibbard has made it so clear that he was really influenced by Built to Spill.
We’ve had that experience too. We played a couple of shows where Dinosaur Jr. opened for us. That’s crazy! The Butthole Surfers opened for us once! That’s ridiculous. Camper van Beethoven! It’s just the way it goes. These bands that totally shaped us, open for us a few years later. The Mekons opened for us on tour! That’s all just the business of music. The marketplace. What the market thinks has nothing to do with reality.
You sound very accepting of it all. Is that something that comes with age?
Probably. I was probably more hate-filled when I was young.
Your new album, "Untethered Moon," featured a whole new rhythm section. What was it like shaking things up this time around?
It was great. [Steve Gere and Jason Albertini] have been in the band for a year, playing shows and stuff, and they were in the crew for a long time, so they’ve basically been in the band for years. We had a lot of rehearsing. We were very well prepared and then jammed a ton. All our stuff is collaborative, to differing degrees.
How did the album come together?
Most of the stuff, I would bring a part in and we would jam on them and then there were other parts where I would tell them what I wanted. Sometimes we would just jam and I would go back and listen and find an interesting part and it would end up on the record. There are dozens, hundreds of hours, of us jamming, of demos, of us getting ready to make a record. Then we ended up recording 16 songs for the album.
There are only 10 songs on the album, what happened to the other six?
I wanted to put them all and make a double album, but when I got down to sequencing it, I couldn’t make it through the whole record. I got bored, I would fall asleep. So I decided it was too long and I’d rather have 10 songs that you can get all the way through. I wanted it to be a tight little project that would fit on one vinyl record.
You talked a lot about the music, but when do the lyrics come into it?
They come in very last. They are the hardest part of making music for me. I have all the melodies and meter and I’ll just make up sounds and noises and sing them like that for months before I come up with words. A lot of songs I’ll write words for a few times. It’s my least favorite part of making music. And I especially hate it right now because I have about 10 songs ready to go that I have no words for at all. Don’t get me wrong, though, I take them really seriously and I’ll fall in love with the stupidest lyric and put them in my song. It just has to click with me and I never know what that’s going to be.
You’ve been on Warner Bros. for something like 22 years now, but you seem to have remarkable freedom. How did that happen?
We were signed by a really cool guy, Joe McEwen, who left the company long ago. We had creative freedom in our contract, but even if that’s in your contract the label can still challenge you on it. But Joe was there for our first couple of records and helped set the precedent. We wouldn’t even let him come in the studio when we were recording! When we signed to Warner Bros., I was 25 years old and I never imagined being able to make a living off of music. It just happened. But it’s worked out.
You’ve been on a major label for a long time, but people really seem to consider you as indie rock icons.
Yeah, we’re flattered by that. It just means that we sound and behave as if we’re doing this because we love it. That is definitely how we feel about the whole thing. Bands like the Replacements or Hüsker Dü, bands I loved, would sign to majors and their whole sound would change. It seemed like it was an inevitability that someone at the label would tell you to do something that would change your sound. But people would do it to "take it to the next level." But the next level is stupid, because you were already killing it. That made a big impact on us and we knew we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to keep making music that sounded like us.