Sometimes I think my love for Built to Spill has dwindled. It’s a funny thought, but when a few months pass without me listening to any of the Idaho indie rock band’s albums, I wonder if I just have a string of phases where their multi-layered, sprite-like guitars capture the ideal sound of the ’90s. But the moment one of their songs comes on, I’m immediately flooded with the strange mix of optimism, happiness, and pining their songs often detail and remember that, of course not, my love for Built to Spill will never die. The same is true for a lot of fans. It’s why Built to Spill has never stopped touring or writing music since forming in 1992.
In February of next year, arguably the band’s most famous album, Keep It Like a Secret, turns 20 years old. It was Built to Spill’s fourth LP and second for a major label. According to frontman Doug Martsch, the reason it sounds so good is because Phil Ek produced it. Martsch says that back then, he added endless wiry guitar layers to the original audio to hide his bad playing. But looking back, every instrument and vocal track sounds like it was supposed to be there from inception. The slide guitars just draw out what makes his distinct guitar style so addictive.
“At the time we went into making it, it was the first time that I felt like Built to Spill had really, as a whole band, collaborated on a bunch on the music,” says Martsch. “A lot of the ideas were things we made up through jamming. We jammed for hours and hours and hours and recorded it all, which was new for us. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing ever, and I don’t think the people I’m playing with have that big of an idea of what they’re doing either. Anytime we’re together, be it practice or making a record, we’re always trying things because making music will always feel new and scary.”
To go even deeper inside the backstory of the album, we interviewed Doug Martsch for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With Keep It Like a Secret as the prompt, his answers are both down to earth and grateful—personality traits he will likely rep when co-headlining the House of Blues this Friday.
1) “The Plan”
DIGBOSTON: What’s included in your general plan for the next 10 years?
MARTSCH: Well, I think I gotta keep doing what I’ve been doing—playing music, especially with this band—which is something I never imagined would be the case when I was young. I want to keep touring, I want to keep making music. I was always unsure of how long this would last. So unless things go really badly for us or for the country in general, it looks like the next 10 years I’ll be able to keep touring and maybe even make another record or two. We have some ideas for songs, but we haven’t had as much time to work on it the last few years. I don’t know when we will actually record them, but the ideas are there.
2) “Center of the Universe”
DIGBOSTON: Which three things do you cherish the most in your life?
MARTSCH: Jeez. I guess my family is the first, along with my friends, and then my music. I have a sweet family and a lot of nice friends [laughs]. I really am so lucky I get to play music for my life. Oh, and my dogs and my cats! I have two of each. The dogs are both malteses. One is eight or nine and the other 17 or 18. You should see her! She’s amazing. She’s a little Pet Sematary. We just got the cats a few months ago. They’re very weird and cool. I love them already. None of them are tense with one another. The pets all get along. The kitten bats everyone as they walk by. Everyone else is old so they don’t give a fuck anymore. I do get worried about our oldest dog, though. I’ll check on her like, “Are you breathing, sweetie? Everything okay?” Then everyday on tour, I’m so afraid she will pass away while I’m gone. I get so worried. She’s a fucking force though. If anyone is going to make it to 20, it will be her.
3) “Carry the Zero”
DIGBOSTON: When is the last time you got stumped on a math problem?
MARTSCH: [laughs] I actually spend one of my jobs doing accounting while out on tour. I am horrible. I have to double and triple check all my counting. So the last time must’ve been as recent as yesterday. I keep track of the books for the band and give it to a real accountant. We don’t have a manager, so we try to divvy up as much work as we can, and I do most of it. I’m really the manager of the band, so to speak, so it brings a little extra money, too. I’m in charge, but not in-charge in charge. I don’t know. I’m not good at it at all.
DIGBOSTON: How often do you go for walks?
MARTSCH: You know what? I kinda go through periods where I go for walks. Lately, I’ve been shooting hoops instead. When I wind up taking walks, I’ll go out with my wife for about an hour. Before that, before I started winding up at the YMCA, I spent a couple years trying to do a half-hour walk every day. I live in a part of Boise where if I walk for half an hour on trails, they will lead you pretty high up. It’s a nice advantage. It’s beautiful. So far on this tour, we have been out for two weeks and I haven’t any farther than the bus to the stage because of shitty weather and our bus broke down. There’s no chance to take a walk. I’m getting a little antsy. I found a YMCA today and tried to go, but they didn’t pick up when I called. Pretty sure it’s not there anymore.
5) “Bad Light”
DIGBOSTON: Do you have a preference for the type of light used to illuminate your house?
MARTSCH: I don’t really, no. We go with mostly the energy efficient ones. There’s a couple places where they make noise, like at our dining room table, so we put regular lightbulbs there. I really appreciate good lighting, but it’s one of those things that I’ve never bothered to get serious about, you know? We would love to get lights on our little deck, but I keep delaying it. That would be nice. But I love a good lighting situation, like at a friend’s house who spent a lot of time on it.
6) “Time Trap”
DIGBOSTON: If you could be transported to any time, which time would you choose and why?
MARTSCH: Jeez, I don’t know. I feel like there were some pretty fun times in the ’90s, maybe when my wife and I first got together. It felt like music was really taking off back then. Everything I wanted to have happen happened then. So maybe ’93 or ’94?
DIGBOSTON: Who is the person in your life that you think is the most similar to you?
MARTSCH: Well, I don’t know if there’s anyone close to me. I automatically think of my wife but she’s completely dissimilar. At the same time, she and I know the most things about one another. We’ve spent almost 25 years together now. We’re about the same age, came from the same place even though we didn’t know one another despite living in the same town, we went to a lot of the same things. There’s nobody that makes more sense to me or makes me laugh more than she can.
8) “You Were Right”
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you had to concede in an argument?
MARTSCH: [laughs] I stay out of most of them. I can’t even think of an argument I was in, nevertheless having to admit defeat. I try to bend as much as possible. When we’re on tour, you get hairy, so I try to avoid arguing with anyone as much as possible. I can’t even think of an example. Morale is so important for me and my band. At home, too, it’s the same. There’s not much worth arguing. When I was younger, I was a bit more feisty, but now I just want to keep the peace. There’s not that many ideas I’m attached enough to to upset anyone over.
9) “Temporarily Blind”
DIGBOSTON: Did you watch the solar eclipse last year?
MARTSCH: Yes and it was awesome! Like I said, the hills are so close to my house. We walked over to them and there were tons of other people there. We got pretty good coverage out in Boise. It was about 95 percent covered, so you could only make out a little thin line of light because the rest was covered. It got cold and dark. We could have driven 100 miles or something to get the total eclipse, but that was nice enough.
10) “Broken Chairs”
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you moved?
MARTSCH: I feel like we moved into our house in 1995. We’ve been here a long time. We never really had any living room furniture. Every once and a while we would have a chair, but not much furniture. We just got a couch about a month ago. One time, my wife bought a bunch of furniture and wound up sending it back because she didn’t like it. Before that, it was the room where boxes ended up. For a couple years, there was a futon in there. It was not a place where anyone hung out. We just got that couch. We just got a TV put in there, too. In the past, it was a room only used for Christmas. We just hang out in our rooms or in the dining room. I have a garage in the back, which is like my studio: I have a place I can sleep and a TV. My wife has an upstairs office, and she watches Netflix on her computer there. My son has his own room but we got the couch to make the living room a place where he could hang out with friends.
11) “Forget Remember When”
DIGBOSTON: What’s an old memory you totally forgot about but were recently reminded of?
MARTSCH: Hm. I can’t think of anything specific, but I’m sure there’s a bunch of them because I recently started playing with my old band Treepeople. We all played together in the late ’80s. Those guys are constantly telling me things I don’t remember. Only half of it sounds familiar. I don’t trust my own memories, but I also don’t want to trust the ones they’ve told me because they’re all embarrassing. Maybe that’s why I forget the moments to begin with.