Doug Martsch on Built to Spill’s 20-Year Career: ‘The Prospect of Getting a Real Job Is Daunting’
Since Doug Martsch split with his first band, the Seattle-based Treepeople, and moved back to Idaho and started making music with Built to Spill in the early ‘90s, he’s become a virtually unwavering luminary in indie rock.
Much has changed between then and now, particularly Martsch’s original vision to have a continually evolving lineup with him as the only constant member. Now, the roster has more or less solidified, with the exception of a newly minted rhythm section featuring Steve Gere and Jason Albertini, who have taken the place of Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson. The personnel changes took place during the five years that have passed since 2009’s There Is No Enemy, and now, Built to Spill are have returned with their seventh album to date, Untethered Moon.
Ahead of Untethered Moon’s arrival, Martsch took time to speak with us about the band’s latest effort, the five-year period since its predecessor, Built to Spill's more than 15-year tenure on Warner Bros. and what lies ahead. Check out our exclusive chat below:
It’s been five years since There Is No Enemy -- how was it regrouping to record Untethered Moon?
We made that record and then we did some touring. Then we wrote some other songs and we went into the studio in 2012 and recorded a bunch of songs. Then we went on tour and a couple of the guys quit the band, so we bagged the record and spent 2013 rehearsing and breaking in our new guys and did a lot of touring to get everyone used to being in the band. Then in 2014, we kind of reworked those songs and wrote a few new ones and made the record. The process was good. It was a fun record to make. We had Sam Coomes producing it; he was really fun to work with. And the new guys in the band were really rad. It was a lot of work; we put in a ton of rehearsals and lots of demoing and jamming.
You mentioned that you bagged the record after There Is No Enemy, and you have previously said that after it came out, you didn’t have any “eureka moments.” What changed between then and Untethered Moon?
I think the songs were written and there were some good ideas for the songs but when I was in the studio recording it with the previous lineup there was just nothing I could get very excited about. It might’ve been okay; it might’ve still been an okay record, but it’s hard to know why something resonates with you and why some things don’t. It could’ve been something in the atmosphere, working with a producer who wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. That might’ve had something to do with it. If he had been more excited about some of my takes, I might’ve been more excited. The other thing is, you know, I kind of discovered some new music that made me pretty excited around the time we would’ve started working with the new band that might’ve inspired me a bit.
What was that?
The band Slam Dunk, they were a big inspiration for me. They made music seem exciting and fun to me again ... not only their music, but it made me feel like I could approach my music in a more playful way.
In addition to the lineup change since There Is No Enemy, Built to Spill have been through a few lineup changes over the years. Have you at all acclimated to those kinds of changes or is there always a transition period?
Over the years there have been different lineups, but Brett [Nelson] and Scott [Plouf], they’ve been in the band [for a while]. Brett has been in the band basically since the beginning; [he] kind of took a year or so off while we had another lineup, but then he was right back in. Scotty had been in the lineup for I think 17 or 18 years, and it became pretty solid. And the two guitar players Jim [Roth] and Brett [Netson]; Jim has been with us for probably about 13 years and Brett was on our first record and he’s kind of been on and off probably 10 years.
So in the early days there was definitely some switching around and that was kind of built into the idea of the band in the first place. I thought it would be fun to have different people on every record. But then the new guys joined the band; it was as smooth as possible, it was unbelievable. They were kind of already part of our crew and they joined the band without even -- I don’t even think I asked them to join the band. I think they just knew. They were in it and decided who was gonna play bass and who was gonna play drums and that was that. And they’ve been nothing but amazing, amazing at playing the old material [and] still capturing the subtleties of the old players’ parts and the things they’ve written for the new songs are really incredible, too, so I couldn’t be happier.
Did having them on board help reinvigorate the recording process at all?
Yeah, I think so, I mean Brett and Scott are amazing and they did a great job on the record in 2012. It was mostly me who was having trouble getting inspiration. But these guys, yeah, I think it is invigorating to play with some new dudes. And they’re both pretty younger; they’re kind of more excited than Brett and Scott had been for a while. And Brett and Scott, again, they’re amazing and even when they’re not excited, they do a good job because they’re just great players, but it was fun to have a couple of guys who were more chomping at the bit, more excited to get some stuff done.
I also kind of felt it was maybe a little easier to communicate with them [and] starting from scratch. It might’ve been easier to push them in certain directions -- not that Brett and Scott, again, those guys were great and I could tell them what to do. Mostly I just play something and I let the rhythm section do what they wanna do and they usually play something rad, but sometimes I have a specific thing in mind and I’ll tell them to do it. I’m sure having some young people in the band never hurts.
“Never Be the Same” kind of sounds like a reflection on your career. At this juncture, with a 20-year career behind you, is that particular song -- or any on the album -- a look back on where you’re at as a band now?
Well, not consciously, but a lot of our lyrics are not conscious. They’re based on subconscious and unconscious ideas. I don’t really have any stories to tell and I need lyrics because I think the songs should have singing on them, so I come up with whatever I can to try to not ruin the song with the words. But it’s all subconscious stuff, but who knows, maybe I was. In my mind, it’s kind of some nonsense that fits the meter and has a little bit of emotional connotation but I don’t quite understand it.
When you enter the studio, do you ever have the feeling that you’re up against your own catalog or tasked with meeting fans’ expectations? Or are you able to tune that out?
When we first made records, I definitely felt that way. When we made the first Built to Spill record right after doing Treepeople, I thought there was no way Treepeople fans were going to like this. Then we made There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, and it was very different from the first record and I thought, "The people who liked the first record aren’t going to like this record." Then the same thing happened again when we made Perfect From Now On. I thought, "Well, this record, there’s no way the people who liked those [albums] are going to like this." And so far everyone’s liked ‘em or, you know, as far as what I get in terms of feedback.
I was pretty confident when we made this record that it was going to go over well with Built to Spill fans and that was really all that I cared about because I feel like the fans have given us the permission to do whatever we want, which is really nice. So I don’t worry a bit about whether or not people are going to like it because I feel like if I like it and I’ve worked on these songs resonating with me, these melodies and these chords resonating with me, they must resonate with some other people because that’s been the case for 20 years now.
You’ve been with Warner Bros. since Perfect From Now On, but you recently said this might be your last album with them. Why is now the time for that change?
Well, because we’ve finished our contractual obligation, so it might be time to move on. It’s mostly a matter of whether or not we can own our masters. I’d like to be in a situation where we completely own our masters, and I don’t even know if Warner Bros. can even negotiate that part of the deal. That might be a deal breaker, so that’s why I’m thinking about moving on.
Do you envision how that could open up more opportunities or affect your creative process in the future?
Well it’s more just a business thing. I don’t know how it would affect us creatively. It’s nice being on that label; it’s nice to be able to spend as much money as we want making the record and Warner Bros. being able to advance us more money than most other labels. I just think that, at this point, to not own the masters would be silly. I’m not really business savvy at all and I’m about to get ready to start researching this whole industry to think about what we can do next, because the one thing I do know is owning the masters is pretty huge because then you have so much more control over what happens with your music and if you do anything with it, you get the money instead of having to split it with the label.
Warner Bros. has been great and supportive to us, and the good thing, too, back at the time was we got a big signing bonus. I was able to quit my job and buy a house. But the deal is not that sweet, you know, they get the lion’s share of everything. We get a lot of money to record the record, but we pay for every cent of that, too, out of our royalties. Business-wise, it was good to start out, but at this point, I think we could maybe do better.
You’re reentering the market for a label and a lot has changed since Perfect From Now On -- especially in terms of technology -- in the music industry. Is that also on your mind as you make these decisions?
Yeah absolutely, I mean when we signed to Warner Bros., I was 25 years old. At that point in my life I never imagined making a living off of music. It just happened, and so at that time, the idea was, yeah, I’ll take the money and do this for a few years see how it goes and then I’ll have to go get a real job. Now I’m 45 years old and the prospect of getting a real job is pretty daunting. I was pretty cavalier about the whole thing for a long time and just felt like everything that was happening I was lucky to get and I tried not to push it. Now I’m kind of like, well, I need to sort of figure out a way to navigate this in order to keep doing it. You know, I’m getting older, starting to think about being too old to work and not having a retirement and real serious adult stuff. It’s kind of strange.
Built to Spill's Untethered Moon is out now via Warner Bros. You can pick up your copy of the record here, and make sure to stay up-to-date with everything happening in the band's world at this location.