Secret Stars

"You Were Right" is particularly memorable, possibly because you can hear half of the song's lyrics on any classic-rock station. It's a melancholy answer to the statements Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd and Jackson Browne (among others) made so long ago: "You were right when you said everything that glitters isn't gold... You were right when you said we are all just bricks in the wall... You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind." They're fitting words for Martsch to sing, because it's always been suspected that his heart lies more with classic rock than indie rock.

"I listen to classic-rock radio a lot when I'm driving," Martsch admits. "I'd way rather listen to it than the modern-rock radio station or NPR. It's been Monica Lewinsky stuff for a while. So, yeah, a lot of that stuff I like. I think Jimi Hendrix is the best human being that ever existed, in just about every way." He laughs. "It was actually kind of hard to come up with that many lines that would fit the meter and that were sort of pessimistic truisms or whatever. I came up with a few of 'em really easy, and I was like, 'Oh this is great,' and then I kind of struggled."

That was one of the few problems Martsch encountered during the recording of Keep It Like a Secret, a much more relaxed process than before. Consequently, unlike Perfect From Now On, Martsch is happy (or happier) with the outcome of the new album, mainly because for the first time since he moved back to Boise from Seattle and began recording as Built to Spill, he wrote it with other people: bassist and long-time friend Brett Nelson and former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf. Until then Built to Spill had been a solo act filled out with various sidemen. Nelson and Plouf both played on Perfect From Now On, but it was a much different situation than the recording of Keep It Like a Secret.

During the Perfect sessions, Martsch brought in Nelson and Plouf after trying and failing to make the album twice before. He taught them the songs, they practiced them, and then the trio went into a studio to record. This time all three were there when the songs happened, and the difference is astonishing. "Carry the Zero" is led by Plouf's propulsive drumming almost as much as it is by Martsch's outsize guitar work, and Nelson's bass is a much more prominent aspect of the songs as well, especially on the stripped-down "Center of the Universe."

"It was easier to swallow, and the songs made more sense to me, because everyone was there from the get-go," says Martsch, taking a break from rehearsals for the band's upcoming tour. "Last time, I had the songs and showed 'em to those guys. They didn't really know what the hell was going on, 'cause the songs were so weird, and all they had was just me telling them what to do and playing crappy rhythm guitar along with them. And I was so much more uncertain about the stuff in the first place. This time everyone knew the feel of the songs a lot better because we jammed for hours and would just record things. I went back and kinda went through them and would find little bits and pieces of things. A lot of the songs are based on that, roughly half of the material is based on that kinda stuff."

Even though Martsch brightens when talk turns to the new album and he genuinely seems to like it, he still fails to include it on the list of albums he's made of which he's proud, dating back to when he first started playing with Treepeople in 1988. At this point it's a list that numbers just two: Treepeople's 1991 Guilt Regret Embarrassment and Halo Bender's 1994 debut God Don't Make No Junk.

He mentions other reasons why only these two made the cut, but for the most part, it's because both of those albums were collaborations, Martsch splitting the songwriting and singing chores with other musicians he respected. He can't include his own records because he's too modest to do so and too much of a perfectionist to admit that they're any good. Martsch still sees himself as a normal guy, Karena's husband and Ben's father, maybe even the high-school kid in the crowd at Boise's only real rock club, definitely not the kind of musician on whom writers heap praise, who fans line up to see, and who other musicians aim to emulate.

"That's what really turned me on to music, was people making music, regular people," Martsch says. "You didn't have to be a good musician. You didn't have to have a record label. You did it yourself. That totally appealed to me, and that's the only reason I ever started making music. I saw from other people that you could. It's flattering to me that people think of us that way.

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