Melody Maker

Built to Spill's Doug Martsch might claim to be an amateur on the six-string, but don't let him fool you

"There were other music scenes besides the Sub Pop scene, and we became involved in the hard-core, all-ages thing and played a lot of those shows," Martsch recalls. "There were a bunch of straight-edge-ish kids that took us in when we first arrived and had somehow gotten a copy of our first demo tape. We did pretty well playing those kinds of shows. We were really lucky. We started playing right away and played a lot the whole time we were there. But we never did that well. The band was never very popular, until right about the time we broke up."

In 1993, Martsch left Treepeople and moved back to Boise to be with his girlfriend. He quickly formed Built to Spill as a concept that allowed him to work with an ever-shifting group of musical cohorts. Since 1997, however, when the band made its major-label move to Warner Bros. Records, its lineup has centered on Martsch and the rhythm section of drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson.

Because the band's lineup is split between Boise and Seattle, the members face the Pavement-type predicament of being able to play together only when they're recording or touring, but the band's musical cohesion doesn't seem to have been adversely affected by the long-distance relationship, at least based on the evidence of last year's Built to Spill Live collection.

"I'm not doing anything very tricky at all," Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, with beard, says. You're wrong, Doug.
"I'm not doing anything very tricky at all," Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, with beard, says. You're wrong, Doug.

Though long-winded at times (a 20-minute version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" can test anyone's love for this great song), the album proved that, contrary to his own modest denials, Martsch can stretch out on the guitar without repeating himself. Although he's reasonably pleased with the live album, Martsch reveals that the idea took some record-company cajoling and a commitment to perform on the HBO live-music show Reverb.

"For Reverb, they have their own studio and their own people to mix it, and I was trying to get Warner Brothers to fly [Built to Spill producer] Phil [Ek] out to do it, but they didn't want to pay the expense," he says. "And I didn't like the idea of some stranger mixing our show. So it kind of worked out that if we made the live record, then Phil would be able to mix it. So for me it was a matter of getting the Reverb show to sound good.

"I kind of thought it was a bad idea, but I didn't think it was that bad of an idea. The performances were good, and it sounded cool. I just thought the idea of a live record seemed kind of premature. But I figured, 'Whatever.' Some people will enjoy it. I don't really care if it sells a bunch."

With Ancient Melodies marking the final album in the band's contract with Warner Bros., and with none of its records having sold more than 86,000, it seems inevitable that BTS and the label will part ways. Martsch says he has no idea what will happen with Warner Bros., and he sounds unconcerned, convinced that such issues are out of his control.

"I can't do things differently than I do them," he says. "I can't make better music, or more commercial music or anything. To me, my music is pretty commercial anyway--just regular pop-rock music.

"I think I make music a little bit different since I've been on Warner Brothers, but that would have happened even if I was on Up Records at that point. Because that was the point after There's Nothing Wrong With Love, where I knew that a bunch of people were listening. And I think that affected the way I make music more than the label. Just the fact that I knew there was an audience. Up until then, with everything I'd done, there was no audience."

Martsch seems to accept the fact that as a dedicated father in his mid-30s, he no longer finds music the all-consuming passion that it was in his Treepeople days. That's why it doesn't bother him that his bandmates live hundreds of miles away from him, and that's why he sees to it that Built to Spill never stays on the road for more than a month at a time.

"It's different when you're our age than when you're young," he says. "When you're young, you want to be playing all the time. And also, time passes at a different pace. A few months of not being together when you're 18 or 19 would seem like the end of it. But at our age, it's nothing. It just flies by."

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