Talking With Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, the Unaffected Rocker

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Interview by Tanya Richardson & Lisa LeeKing

    Built to Spill IN the fall of '98 we saw Boise's Built to Spill play three New York shows in 36 hours. Their last, an unannounced gig at Tramps, immediately followed Dub Narcotic Sound System. The crowd that had been at Built to Spill's earlier Bowery Ballroom show hadn't heard of this "secret" show, so it was an intimate and memorable gathering. After seeing both of the two earlier gigs, our bodies were as worn down as our tolerance level. But it was CMJ, and we were in it for the long haul. Friends of Built to Spill, like Calvin Johnson and an extremely intoxicated Heather Dunn, joined them onstage, adding interpretive dance moves and tambourine accompaniment, respectively. This encouraged others to bum-rush. Singer/guitarist Doug Martsch remained unaffected, which is exactly how Built to Spill's new album, Live (Warner Bros.), comes across. Doug Martsch: No problem.

    Lisa LeeKing: We thought it would be interesting to talk with both of you, considering the Built to Spill and Looper shows are a week apart.

    TR: You like Belle and Sebastian?

    They're all right. I've listened to them a tiny bit.

    TR: Stuart David, he was kind of a nobody in Belle and Sebastian. He's not the main guy. I think he might have some jealousy issues with the main guy, Stuart Murdoch.

    Well, I'm glad that he's not involved then.

    LL: A lot of reviews compare Built to Spill to the Smiths or Hüsker Dü, but if you listen to the guitar and vocals, especially on the last two albums, you can hear Neil Young. The influence is even more prevalent on the new Live album. Is this a toast to Young and all the classics?

    I like Neil Young. I like a lot of classic rock. But the records that I was listening to when I first started making music were postpunk albums like Dinosaur, the Pixies and the Smiths.

    LL: What kind of classic rock are you into?

    I like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix?the more bluesy-complex, kind of weird, dramatic classic rock. I'm not into riff-rock all that much.

    LL: We've been playing your live album a lot this week, and every time someone walks into the office they ask, "Is this Neil Young?"

    Is that right? On every song?

    LL: No, but your cover of "Cortez the Killer."

    TR: All the men I know, their favorite Neil Young songs are "Cortez the Killer" and "Tonight's the Night." I think women get into "Four Strong Winds" and "Helpless." I guess dudes like the tough stuff about heroin addicts and the massacre of indigenous peoples.

    "Cortez" reminds me of "Helpless" or one of the soft songs.

    TR: I was talking with a friend about music and how people have an immediate emotional reaction to it, which makes music different from other forms of art. Like when I hear Puccini, and I don't even understand Italian, I cry. Why do you think that is?

    Music is less intellectual than a book or a movie because it deals with things that are less tangible?sound, notes and the way it fits all together. It's harder to define those sorts of things.

    LL: Can you tell us about your producer, Phil Ek? Did he record the live album?

    Well, not really. It was recorded by various mobile recording units. Phil didn't have anything to do with the actual recording of it, just the mixing.

    TR: You recorded part of it at the Bluebird Theater in Denver?

    Yeah. Well no, actually...

    TR: That's what it says on your press release. Are you telling me that the woman who wrote your press release is a liar?

    Total liar.

    TR: You guys also cover a Love as Laughter song on the new record. I met their guitarist Brandon Angle recently. He looks like a derelict because one of his front teeth is broken off, which happened when he got into a wrestling match with the manager of the Murder City Devils. Four months ago. I asked if he was going to get it fixed and Brandon said he was "considering it."

    Brett Netson [Caustic Resin] had one [a broken tooth] for a year and a half.

    LL: I guess my first exposure to Built to Spill was the collaboration with Caustic Resin. Are you a big fan?

    Yeah, totally. That's really the last band from Boise that I was interested in, but they are not really from here anymore.

    Who else are you a big fan of?

    I like Neil Young.

    LL: Okay, bands that you haven't had any association with, nor have you covered?

    Hmm, I Like Blind Willie Johnson.

    LL: What modern music do you listen to?

    I don't know that I'm listening to anything modern right now.

    LL: I guess Boise isn't a hotbed for new music, huh?

    It might be, I don't know. I really don't pay much attention, but I'm sure there's stuff going on here.

    LL: Do you hibernate?

    Yeah, I have a family and work on my own music. Watch basketball. I have one kid who's six.

    TR: Well, you wanna put Junior on the phone and we'll give it a try with him?

    I'm sorry I'm so boring.

    LL: We've had worse.

    TR: What about the kid? Do you play with him a lot?

    I play with him when I have to.

    LL: Are you going to take him on tour with you?

    Actually I am.

    TR: You gonna get him his own beer cozy for the tour?

    We don't really drink much.

    TR: When my brother was young he used to steal beers from the kitchen and drain them. He also drank Robitussin straight. Now he has a drinking problem.

    LL: What about touring? What goes on in the van?

    We're all mellow. Just show up, hang around, play and go to bed.

    LL: Right...and smoke a little weed, huh?

    What's that?

    LL: Smoke a lot of weed?

    [laughs] Ah, nope.

    LL: I've seen Caustic Resin a few times and if I remember correctly the whole place was up in smoke before they played.

    I bet.

    TR: So that Looper guy is a real asshole, huh?


    TR: Are you going to beat him up?

    I don't know, maybe. How big is he?

    LL: He's pretty scrawny, kinda geeky, wears glasses.

    TR: Fucking scrawny Belle and Sebastian type guy. Not a big classic rock guy like you.

    Didn't he play tambourine in Belle and Sebastian?

    TR: No, he's the roadie for the tambourine player in Belle and Sebastian. Big difference.

    Built to Spill plays Wednesday, April 26, at Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Pl. (15th St.), 777-6800.