Why Doug Martsch's Downtime Keeps Yielding Indie-Rock Brilliance for Built to Spill
Even though Built to Spill's Doug Martsch sounds proud of his band's newest album, There Is No Enemy, he's aware of its typical critical appraisal. "First good record they've made since the 1990s," he mockingly spits in a dumbass drawl.
That isn't altogether true. Still, there's not much doubt among fans and critics that, following a pair of stunning successes at the end of the past decade, the band Martsch founded in 1992 hit a creative speed bump.
Those late-'90s sets (Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret) provided Built to Spill a template called Building a Better Indie Rock: shitloads of epic sprawl, monumentally affecting melodic passages, and guitar superheroism galore while somehow adhering to an economy of means that kept eight-minute songs from anything approaching tedium.
But on the heels of those near-unstoppable masterpieces, the path led directly down.
Thereafter, the story goes, the sprawl turned less epic, with too much fat replacing tender meatiness. Martsch had a lot of catching up to do if he wanted to revisit his artistic summit.
"You know, that doesn't really bother me," he says. "I know what nonsense it is, so I don't take it seriously." But he admits to panic and frustration in the studio. "I want to do something that's more than just OK, you know? And when I'm in between records, there have been times I don't have a lot of confidence."
That lack of confidence resulted in downtime, helping to create the impression that Martsch was burned out on Built to Spill. True, projects bubbled up from the pipeline, such as a live album in 2000 that Martsch says he was against releasing ("A live album should sound rumbly, distorted and weird," he says, "and that one didn't"). Largely thanks to a 20-minute take on Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," the band earned a reputation for long-winded wankery.
Two years later, Martsch confounded fans with Now You Know, a solo album that would have fit better on a boutique label but was released on Warner Bros., home of Built to Spill since 1995. Heavy on acoustic slide guitar, it took inspiration from the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell and shared none of the stratospherics of his band. That detour, coupled with the indifferent response to 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future (as well as his own quotes in the media), has Martsch more or less admitting that stuff such as kids, basketball, and life got in the band's way for a while.
"A lot of people don't want to hear that. They have this vision that artists are in this world of self-sacrifice, creating art. And it's not like that for me," he says unapologetically. "But I might stretch how positive I am because that's what they expect. I don't want to disillusion people, but I also don't want to blow smoke up their ass."
Martsch does regret statements he has made about his lyrics (always among Built to Spill's best attributes) having little or no meaning.
"I wish I hadn't said that because the lyrics are painstakingly dealt with. If they weren't important, I wouldn't work as hard on them," he says. He then lowers his voice: "I just didn't want to talk about what they meant."
On There Is No Enemy, fragments pop out at listeners like lyrical Whac-A-Moles. On the ballad "Life's a Dream," this line stands up and out: "Finally decided/And by 'decide,' I mean 'accept.' " And is that a mariachi trumpet jumping into the mix?
"Pat," the shortest, angriest song on the record, circles back to the punk roots of Treepeople, Martsch's Boise-based predecessor to Built to Spill. Martsch says he still dreams about his old bandmate, bassist Pat Brown, who committed suicide a decade ago. "Well, that song," he says, "is about missing a dead person — and still having dreams about them."
Martsch sounds like he's taking more musical chances on Enemy. Opener "Aisle 13" starts with a percolating synth, and the soaring seven-minute closing track, "Tomorrow," is buoyed both by strings and optimism: "The more you have to live for/The more you love your life." And only here, in the fading minutes, does Martsch's six-string finally blast forth some rather wanklicious cacophony.
And that's another thing he'd like to clear up. Martsch's reputation as a guitar god frustrates him, he says. "I'm really a mediocre guitar player," he insists. Fortunately for us, there's ample evidence to the contrary.
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