You never forget the first time you hear Built to Spill. I was driving through New Jersey (unfortunately) listening to a friend’s mix CD (fortunately) when “Twin Falls” came on (very fortunately). It took four listens to that song to be able to move on to the next track, for whatever came after wouldn’t be able to top it. That much was fact.
The first time I read an interview with the mastermind behind it all, Doug Martsch, I laughed out loud with a pitying frown on my face. Even today, with this year’s jolly Unthethered Moon under his belt, his lethargic sighs catch me off guard. The man’s a master of tearing down his own work, even if it’s a record critics fawn over—though which albums do they not? His self-deprecation is refreshing, especially given the band has every right to be arrogant. Though if it were, maybe it wouldn’t have stuck around for 20 years. It’s Built to Spill’s overextended modesty that helps those essential bummer guitar solos pack their punch.
Looking back at their older records, Martsch don’t like them that much. To him, although he appreciates them, it’s a reminder of how his performances could have been better had he understood what his abilities and limitations were. “Of course, when you re-listen you want to change things,” he says. “In a way, it brings to light how I have to keep going. I’ve never really accomplished anything I felt was really great, so that means it’s still there. There’s potential to go and try and make the greatest possible thing I could do it.”
Perfect From Now On was the hardest record to write. He will tell you that without batting an eye. Built to Spill was on a new label, a dark cloud came over, and in-studio mistakes got to their heads. It ended up working out, though, which meant gaining a lot of confidence for the rest of their career, Martsch specifically.
“When you make your first record, you don’t have an audience,” he explains. “There’s a certain freedom to that. Once you know there’s an audience—when you put a record out and all of a sudden you have fans or you got a review up somewhere—then that changes your opinion. Doing it for a living, having it be your job, getting paid to do it, changes your opinion, too. I try not to let it affect me, but in a way that’s inevitable.”
Dig into the songwriting, and Martsch will be the first to tell you he’s no poet. A guitarist, most definitely. Words however are another beast for him. Though he’s written plenty of tattoo-worthy lines (take “Count your blemishes/ You can’t/ They’re all gone” from “Carry the Zero” or “You’ll get the chance to take the world apart” from “Car”, for example), he credits most lyrics to rare strokes of luck. “I’m not a storyteller; that’s not my personality,” he says. “That stuff, to me, doesn’t roll off the way a melody or chord progression does. It’s so easy to noodle around on guitar for me, but words are tough. I think I’m more interested in how it sounds than the words. But it has to be good! I don’t settle. What usually happens is I’ll write one bit and then things start to fall into place, like a puzzle, and I actually like what I come up with. Then I go to sing it again and all the vowels and consonant sounds are so ugly that it’s disgusting. It’s fucking awful. It’s really clumsy. A lot of times the words don’t work, even if they’re good and I’m proud of them. It’s such a battle. It gets me down.”
It all comes from his journal. “If I hear a phrase that’s remotely interesting, I’ll jot it down—and they’re horrible, too,” he says, biting back laughter through a very straight tone. It’s all philosophical stuff (“But even stupider”) where he thinks he has an insight, only to later realize it’s obvious—or flat-out wrong. Most are puns. Others are simple lines that sink in song form. “95 percent of them are like… Wow. Why did you write those down? It’s so stupid and so obvious. It’s something you think would be great and you revisit it later and actually say, ‘What the fuck?’ It’s unbelievable. A friend of mine looked at it once and thought it was hilarious how bad it was. They’re all like that, but then comes the 5 percent here and there that’s somewhat salvageable. That’s what I have to do.”
Ask him about it when the band plays a three-night residency at Brighton Music Hall. Chances are he may have it on hand—and double the chances he will cackle reading them out loud to you.
BUILT TO SPILL. TUE 9.29-THU 10.1. BRIGHTON MUSIC HALL, 158 BRIGHTON AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$25. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM/BRIGHTON-MUSIC-HALL.