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Interview: Built to Spill - Treefort Fest Pick of the Day

Built to Spill performs at the Main Stage at the Treefort Music Fest in Boise on March 21, 2019.
23 September 2021

Without question, Idaho’s strongest contribution to the America rock music canon to date is Built to Spill. (No offense, Paul Revere & the Raiders.) Formed in 1992, Doug Martsch’s group still stands as one of the few Idaho-bred bands to sign to a major label (Warner Bros. Records). And as indie-rock heavyweights, Built to Spill also helped usher indie-rock into the mainstream with legendary albums like 1997’s Perfect From Now On and 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret.

With that in mind, it only makes sense that Built to Spill serve as the unofficial ambassadors of the Treefort Music Fest. The band has performed at all nine installments of the Boise festival, except in 2017, when Martsch played an intimate solo set in a tiny theater. In recent years, they have bookended Treefort with a Thursday performance on the Main Stage in the early evening, followed by a nighttime concert on the final day of the five-day gala. Think of them as Treefort’s “welcome” and “goodbye” gigs.

In honor of the band continuing its streak with a Main Stage set tonight at 7 p.m., we bring you a 20-year-old interview with Martsch that has never been previously published online. This writer conducted the conversation on July 13, 2001, three days after the release of Built to Spill’s fifth album, Ancient Melodies of the Future — and a week after the then-31-year-old Martsch got married.

Here is an abridged version of the interview:

Hi Doug. So, for starters, what do you like most about Boise?

MARTSCH: I’m not really a city [guy], so I don’t make distinctions between cities as such. I just live here. I don’t know what I like about it. My house is here and my family is here — I guess that’s what I like.

You’ve always lived there, haven’t you?

MARTSCH: No, I grew up in a little town called Twin Falls, here in Idaho, then moved to Boise when I started high school. And I moved to Seattle for a few years. I’ve been here basically for half my life.

You weren’t too crazy about Seattle, then?

MARTSCH: No, I liked Seattle, but I moved back here because my girlfriend wanted to come back here to go to school. It wasn’t a matter of getting out of Seattle, it was a matter of following her. And then she got pregnant, and we decided to stay here because it was easy.

Sorry if this is too personal of a question, but are you still seeing each other?

MARTSCH: Yes. We actually just got married last week!

Oh wow, congratulations!

MARTSCH: Yeah, in September or October, we will have been together for 10 years.

Did you get married in Boise?

MARTSCH: Uh-huh. We just went to the courthouse. It was pretty nice.

Does life feel any different, now that you’re married?

MARTSCH: He laughs. No, not yet.

Do you think growing up in Idaho has impacted your music at all?

MARTSCH: Well, a little bit. Growing up, and the access you had to music … it was sort of harder to find things, and there weren’t many concerts or anything like that. I think, in a way, it was a little more precious than it is to some people growing up in other places. it definitely affects the way you think about [being a musician]. Also, being farther removed [from other cities], I think I had romantic ideas about punk rock that weren’t necessarily true.

You grew up listening to a lot of SST records, right?

MARTSCH: Exactly. I always knew that the people who were making that kind of music were nice and cool people. And then the Descendents came through town one time, and about half of them were nice and half of them were fuckers.

So you probably would’ve had a different idea about punk rock if you had grown up in, say, San Diego.

MARTSCH: Exactly. I might’ve had a more realistic idea about what punkers are, you know? I would’ve known they have some enlightened ideas about social justice but some terrible ideas about women.

Moving on, are you content with Ancient Melodies of the Future?

MARTSCH: I’m glad it’s done. I’m basically happy with it.

I got the EP [Sabonis Tracks] in the mail yesterday. There’s four tracks on it. Is it a postlude or prelude to Ancient Melodies?

MARTSCH: No, I think it’s just a promo thing — for you, I guess! I think it came out a little before this record.

Did you feel rushed at all making this album?

MARTSCH: Not at all. I took a really long time, actually, doing half-ass work on it. I could’ve gotten it done in the same amount of time [as previous Built to Spill releases] if I had just worked on it harder. I wanted to take time and let it all sink in. What I ended up doing was leaving it alone a lot, whereas if I had done it quicker, I would’ve changed more things. I listened to it a lot, trying to come up with parts [to add]. It grew on me, as it was.

Does that happen with all your records?

MARTSCH: Not really. Part of it is when you start to record something, it sounds different than you imagined it sounding, for whatever reason. You then have to give in. You can try redoing it or whatever, but usually the smartest thing is to give in to how it’s sounding and work with whatever direction it’s going. Does that make sense?

Absolutely, especially because your songs have so many layers and tracks.

MARTSCH: I thought I wanted one song, “The Host,” to be mellow, laid-back, Galaxie 500-ish. But the way Scott [Plouf, drummer] plays it wasn’t the laid-back feel I imagined. I just realized that was what it is now — a weird sort of power ballad. Once I understood what it was, I was able to deal with it and enjoy it and make it into at least a decent power ballad.

Isn’t it frustrating to have a vision for an album but realize it’s going to change?

MARTSCH: Not really. I understand that’s the way it is. It doesn’t really frustrate me too much, because I’ve never had that specific of a vision for a song. But I don’t know. Maybe I have been really frustrated, and I just don’t remember it now.

But this record was very easy to make. It’s very mellow. Everything we did was kind of what we had done before — same studio, same people we played with before. It made [recording the album] kind of easy, and I never stressed about it. The way I write things is pretty much intuitive. I just play with stuff for hours until something interesting happens. I never sit down and try to write a certain kind of song. I mess around with the guitar, and if something sounds interesting, I’ll develop it over weeks, months or years.

Are you still trying to create the perfect record?

MARTSCH: I think I wouldn’t recognize the perfect record. That’s what I would hope. Any record I make is not going to be a perfect record, because I don’t care much for my singing style. I’m getting used to the idea that I do a certain thing. All that matters is that I [write songs] the way I do it.

What don’t you like about your singing?

MARTSCH: He laughs. Oh, quite a few things, but basically the quality of my voice. I don’t always hit the notes I want to all the time. I like really good singers but I could never sing like [them].

What’s your favorite song on the record?

MARTSCH: I don’t know. What’s on the record? Maybe “In Your Mind.” We played it every night on tour, and it was fun. But that’s a good example … I’d never sit down and write a song like that. I happened to stumble across it, and I think it turned out really cool in the studio. I was worried it wouldn’t, but at the end it kind of came together. In a way, that’s my favorite song on the record.

You sometimes perform cover songs at Built to Spill concerts. Why don’t many of them appear on your studio albums?

MARTSCH: Again, the quality of my voice … I don’t think I could improve on any song that I like. Live, it’s fine, because it’s so loud, and you don’t hear the nuances all that well. So I don’t mind doing some covers live. But that’s the tricky thing about covers: A song you want to cover is going to be a great song, and the reason it’s great is usually because it’s recorded and performed really great. We have three covers on [2000’s] Live. I was pretty happy with the Neil Young cover [a 20-minute rendition of “Cortez the Killer”]. That’s one of those songs you can’t really go wrong with, because it’s so good. As long as you can play guitar a little bit. Everything sounds good in that E Chord progression behind it.

Was Neil Young one of your favorite musicians growing up?

MARTSCH: Not really. In fact, I never really listened to him until after high school. I liked Dinosaur [Jr., who also covered “Cortez”]. That’s where I got my [interest in] Neil Young. I sing and play guitar like him, sort of, so people think he’s the biggest influence in our music. But I don’t really feel that way.

Do you think there’s a difference in how people perceive your music in concert versus on record?

MARTSCH: I don’t pay attention to that sort of thing. I think sometimes I should, but when we make records, it’s just messing around until it sounds good. There’s never any idea of what it’s going to be like, what kind of band we are, what we’re trying to get across. The same thing happens live. Sometimes I think we suffer because of it. A lot of what we do isn’t thought out well enough. We don’t have a common goal in the band. Everyone sort of plays the music the best they can.

It must be freeing to play loose in the way you described.

MARTSCH: We’re like a bar band, you know? That’s really how it feels to me, and I assume the other guys feel the same way about it. Aesthetically, we’re not trying to create or produce anything other than what naturally happens when we play our songs. We don’t sit around and talk about our music at all. We just play.