|Photography by Eleonora Collini|
Built to Spill is one of the few American indie rock bands from the ‘90s that have managed to last long without going through a break-up, drama, a reunion followed by another break-up, or a total style change mainly due to either loss of creativity or unexpected stadium-like commercial success. Something even more admirable considering the over fifteen-year deal they’ve had with a major label.
A few lineup changes aside, frontman and main creative force Doug Martsch has been making beautiful indie rock based around catchy yet cleverly layered guitar hooks, witty lyrics and vaguely melancholic vocals for quite some time now.
While still working on the follow up to their critically-acclaimed There is no Enemy, the band has once more been touring North America and Europe (Photos of London show at Electric Ballroom).
Doug spent some time with me talking about the new band members, the creative freedom Built to Spill has managed to get from Warner Bros, their writing process as well as his side projects and love for music.
Eleonora Collini: So you guys have a new rhythm section now?
Doug Martsch :Yeah. I met our bass player Jason (Albertini) when we went on tour with Mike Johnson something like ten years ago as he was playing in that band. Shortly after that he started going on tour with us as part of our crew, as our roadie and stuff, and then he did that for ten years or something. As for our new drummer Steve (Gere), I saw him playing keyboards with a friend of mine a few years back as well, and loved him, and then bumped into him a couple of other times over the years. He then became an engineer, so we took him on tour with us to record our shows, not only because he's an engineer but also because he's a sweet guy and a funny person to be around. On the last tour we did in the States a year ago, we had Jason's band Helvetia opening for us and Stephen was also playing bass in it, so they were both on the bus with us on the whole tour, and when the other two guys (ex drummer Scott Plouf and ex bassist Brett Nelson) quit, Jason and Steve just joined the band. They are both multi-instrumentalist so we put Jason on bass and Steve on drums.
Eleonora: You were writing a new album last year but then decided to scrap it and start it all over again with Jason and Stephen. Can you give us an update on that?
Doug: Yeah we are still working on it. Jason lives in Portland which is a eight-hour drive from Boise and he also has family, he has a little kid so it's a bit difficult as we either have to go to his or he has to bring his family. He just moved there so he still doesn’t have his network. At the moment we have all the songs we did last summer that we reworked, and then we have a few new ones. We are still at the stage of figuring out which ones are going to make it on the record. And it's also Steve's first album. So yeah I think it may be a couple of years down the road before it actually comes out.
Eleonora: How do you think your writing process has evolved?
Doug: I don’t necessarily think it has evolved, we just try to do different things here and there. My basic thing is that I play around with the guitar, and I keep a tape recorder nearby so that if anything interesting happens I record it. Sometimes I just try to do chord progressions and come up with a melody on the spot and see if something will happen. And then I play that to the rest of the band and see how everyone jams around it, which to me seems the best way to do it. As if I write the whole song and take it into rehearsals, the rest of the band will just try to figure out what’s going on and they won’t really feel it, so it's better if we just take one part and we jam around that for lets say twenty minutes, and we play that same part again without even knowing it’s the same part just to see what people naturally do. Then we take those parts all together and there is a lot of editing in my head, thinking about it and sitting there trying the different parts together. So a bunch of little parts, jamming them all together, changing keys or tempos and whatever we have to do to make them fit together, just messing around, goofing off….
Doug: I am not sure exactly how that works. I don’t even know if that has to do with sales or anything, and not even sure if that’s true. I don’t pay attention to that kind of things.
Eleonora: In 2011 you contributed to The Smiths tribute album Please Please Please covering the song “Reel around the Fountain”. How did the whole thing come about?
Doug: Someone got hold of me, and I picked that song. Originally I wanted to do a kind of different version of it, sort of soul, I messed around with it for a long time but it didn’t feel that I was doing anything interesting with it. So when I recorded I just played it straight and I got our sound guy Ian to play drums on it and I played everything else. We recorded it at a friend’s studio that I’d wanted to record with for a while. It was a fun project but I don’t know what people thought of it as I didn’t get much feedback about it.
Eleonora: You also recently covered The Grateful Dead for Record Store Day 2011 and in general Built to Spill has played lots of covers over the years. What does covering a song mean to you?
Doug: Well I just like to play music. Normally we have a cover at every show and that’s just the highlight of the evening for me. Being able to play and sing songs you love is very fun, and it’s also fun to figure them out, it adds a sort of puzzle aspect to it, trying to figure out what chords they are playing, what exactly they are doing. We mainly do live covers, we like to do them like pretty dead on, but it’s something kind of spontaneous.
Eleonora: What is it like to revisit your old songs and is there any in particular you still feel the most connected to?
Doug: I don’t know, some songs are more fun to play than others, but for technical rather than personal reasons. But they are just old songs, I don’t have any sort of emotions, I mean every now and then I sing a line and I remember something, but for the most part it’s all just work, it’s very technical. I was actually very surprised as when I turned thirty, around fifteen years ago, I was thinking “am I going to play the same songs I wrote when I was twenty years old?” and the thought of it sounded horrible, whereas now maybe yeah at the end of a long tour you get pretty fed up with them, but I still keep playing those songs, it’s not that bad as there are still things you can explore in most of them. It’s a matter of doing something right, it doesn’t really get old, you get a special energy out of playing songs right which we weren’t when those songs were new.
Eleonora: Halo Benders reformed for a couple of shows in 2007 and then in November 2010 you and Calvin appeared for a children cancer benefit show in Olympia. Would you consider playing other shows or collaborating with Calvin again in the future?
Doug: Yeah we tried to get back together a couple of times in the past. First time I think it was around 2000, when we got together for a week and showed each other new songs, like old blues and country/folk music, but then we went our separate ways making solo records. And then we tried again in 2007 with ex Built to Spill’s Brett Nelson and Steve (Gere), our current drummer, who like I said was playing keyboards when I first met him. And that was very fun, but I remember at the time I was thinking that was just too much work to do and I didn’t have time. I actually listened to those songs a couple of years ago and thought they were pretty good and we could have made a good record, so some of that stuff has been rewritten and may end up on the next Built to Spill record. So yeah I would like to, but if that doesn’t happen in a sort of spontaneous kind of way it’s almost not worthy for me. If I have to work my ass off, then I’d rather do that for Built to Spill (laughs).
Eleonora: How was working on the Electronic Anthology Project?
Doug: Well that didn’t have much to do with me. That was our ex bass player Brett Nelson’s project. You know he’s my friend, so when he asked me to sing on it I just re-sang those Built to Spill tracks he selected.
Eleonora: Did you get involved in the Dinosaur Jr. one that was released on Record Store Day 2012 as well or that was just a Brett’s project?
Doug: No that was totally just Brett. He also just did a Death Cab for Cutie one.
Eleonora: You have been with Warner Bros since the mid-90s. How is your relationship with them? Being a major label can you get the kind of freedom you want?
Doug: Well we got a lawyer that had been R.E.M. lawyer so he was sensitive to those matters that were very important to us, so it’s in the contract that we have creative control though I think that’s on a lot of people’s contracts, to avoid things to be interpreted in a different way. But for some reason they really let us do what we wanted, so we book our own tour, we tour with bands we want, we book our own studio, we decide who we are going to record with, we are supposed to record a new album within something like two years from each other, but we clearly spent way longer than that, so we really do what we want and I really don’t even know why. So it has been very nice.
Eleonora: How important are music videos for you?
Doug: When we first started I hated music videos as at that time they were so ubiquitous and I thought they somehow turned something away from the music as they were trying to interpret music for people. Having said that, we actually made a couple of good ones in the 90s as we had a friend, an artist who was into animatic stuff, and then again over the years we did another couple of videos someone gave us a really good treatment for. For instance last year I asked my friend Bob Odenkirk who is my hero if he was willing to make the video of "Hindsight". But now I would like to make some cool videos because I think they are good promotional and also artistic tools, and I now know a lot people that are good at it, so I hope that if the budget allows it we can make a few cool ones. For instance MGMT, I only checked them out because my friend made one of their videos and it was very beautiful, so after watching it many times I also got into the song and ended up buying the record. And I don't usually buy much new music, I tend to like old soul, reggae stuff.
Eleonora: So, do you still buy records?
Doug: Not really, I am really bad at it. I am really bad at taking time to find out about stuff, I don't know who plays what and everything (laughs)
Doug: Yes. It's been close to twenty years now.
Eleonora: How was the Matt Groening ATP experience? Did you get to meet him?
Doug: I really don't think Matt picked us to play as he didn't really know who we were. Maybe he picked a couple of old popular bands like Iggy and the Stooges. And the day I saw him, I got to him and introduced myself and he seemed very annoyed as I got him to sign something for my son, but then he drew Bart Simpson and "Hi Dan" for him which was awesome.