Now He Knows

Built to Spill's Doug Martsch takes a solo side trip, after waking up with his mind on Jesus

Word on the street has it that the blues never influenced Doug Martsch until a couple of years ago, when he heard an Alan Lomax recording of Fred Macdowell playing "Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)." Whereupon, the rumor goes, the erstwhile Built to Spill front man set about seeing what he could do with some finger picks, open guitar tuning and a bagful of woe, and wound up with Now You Know, his first solo record.

"Well, that's pretty misleading," Martsch points out when asked how he came to make an explicitly blues-inspired record if, indeed, he never much cared for the stuff until recently. "I mean, if you've ever listened to rock music, then you've been listening to the blues, in a way--the blues gave birth to rock; there's just no getting around that."

Well, that makes sense, especially if you consider the equally persuasive, but utterly contradictory hype about Now You Know, which is that it is a Rosetta Stone for the elusive Built to Spill sound Martsch has been cultivating lo these many years, a trickster's haven of confounding metrical shifts, weird melodies and song structures and mind-boggling chord progressions that has dodged even the most adamant rock critics' attempts to pigeonhole Martsch's source material. Aha, they say now, 'twas the blues all along. And the bands who loved the blues: Stones, Zeppelin, Clapton, etc.

With a blues-inspired album in stores and a reggae disc in his head, Doug Martsch is apparently using Willie Nelson as a career counselor.
Karena Youtz
With a blues-inspired album in stores and a reggae disc in his head, Doug Martsch is apparently using Willie Nelson as a career counselor.

Or not.

"Then again," continues the surprisingly chatty Martsch, "it is true that for a long time, the blues, the original blues, never spoke to me--I mean, not in the way, you know, The Pixies spoke to me, or all the bands I was listening to in my 20s."

So why blues, and why now?

"I don't know," Martsch replies, and there's a long pause on the telephone line to his home in Boise, as he considers the question. "I mean, does anyone ever really know why something speaks to them when it does? Obviously, I'd heard the blues before, I'd listened to it--like, the way you listen to something you think you should listen to, either because it seems like some kind of artistic obligation or, hell, because you spent $10 on Bowie's Heroes, and even though you're, like, what the fuck is this, you still feel like you should put in the time.

"But, then, a couple years ago," he goes on, "I heard that Fred Macdowell recording and it was a revelation. I guess these things just come to you with time, at a point in your life when you're ready for it for some reason. It's like, I look at my kids, in public school, and I wish there were some way for education to work that way--you know, let them be into what they're into and save, like, the Shakespeare for later, when they need it."

And what Martsch "needed" from the blues, he hazards, was its simplicity. He explains that after years of the purposeful complexity of Built to Spill's songcraft, he thought he'd reached something of a dead end.

"I had gotten to this stage where I was just kind of done with rock. Like, I could listen to bands like Flaming Lips and Radiohead and think, God, I would have loved this 10 years ago, and on an aesthetic level, completely appreciate what was going on with the music--the arrangements, the mix, whatever." He lets a little bit more oxygen get to his brain, in order to finish the train of thought. "But it just didn't move me. Doesn't move me. Whereas, there was this beautiful, beautiful simplicity to the blues--one guy, a guitar, period. Perfect, simple. Honestly, that just occurred to me right now."

Thus, Martsch explains, he began experimenting with working in the blues method, composing little "exercises" that, he confesses, he never figured would see the light of day.

"I was just playing around," he says. "But then, you know, a couple of songs started to take shape and for about five minutes I thought maybe I would use it for Built to Spill. Because it's not like these songs are totally different from what I do with Built to Spill--it's still me writing the songs after all, and the last thing I wanted to do was some kind of cheap, straight-up blues record. But I decided, ultimately, that this was something different, and I wanted it to be different, more...open-ended, I guess, with this one particular sound at its heart."

That's a pretty fair and sufficient description of Now You Know. Although the album evokes the blues, unlike, say, The White Stripes oeuvre, it's no updated homage; tracks such as "Offer," "Impossible" and "Lift" are melodically and vocally pure Martsch (with help as usual from his wife on the lyrical end of things). The lone exceptions are his cover of, appropriately enough, "Woke Up This Morning (With Jesus on My Mind)" and the plugged-in porch-front stomp-along "Window." And then, of course, there's plenty of noodling on the old guitar, a Martsch trademark.

Moreover, Martsch notes that the process of making Now You Know really just marked a return to his early modus operandi with Built To Spill, i.e., using a rotating cast of backing musicians in order to keep his sound fresh. (That changed when bassist Brett Nelson and percussionist Scott Plouf joined BTS as permanent members after Perfect From Now On.)

"There are some guys around here in Boise who play with me sometimes, at the little studio I've got set up in the back of my house," Martsch says, "and what's on the record grew out of that, them just coming over and, like, jamming with what I'd written. They were totally shocked when I told them the record was actually going to come out."

Insofar as Now You Know did at last hit record shelves only after languishing for more than two years, it's not surprising to hear that his obsessions have moved on in the meantime; namely, to reggae.

"That's another example, right there, of what I was talking about--like, finding things when the time is right," he says, his words picking up speed with his excitement. "If you'd asked me 10 years ago what music I considered the most ridiculous possible, I would have said 'reggae,' without even having to think about it. Whereas, now I think it's, like, the most gorgeous music possible--and it's funny, because I can't even figure it out, how it works, how it manages to seem so amazingly simple and yet there is so much going on. The rhythms...the way you can't tell whether there are four people playing or 12, I mean, it's astonishing."

So, should fans be expecting some reggae-inspired songs in Martsch's set on his current solo acoustic tour?

"Well, yes and no--because I was trying to work some ideas I'd gotten from reggae into the last Built to Spill album, and I'm playing a lot of that stuff on this tour. Actually, most of my set is Built to Spill stuff," he continues. "I've found that a lot of the Now You Know songs don't work solo, because they did end up being multipart compositions. So I'm doing covers and Built to Spill songs. Which is kind of a weird way to promote the record, I guess, but then my whole career has been in some way about finding ways to stay obscure despite my record label's best intentions."

Martsch laughs. And concludes, somehow fittingly, that since Now You Know was the work of a whim now past its sell-by date, he's "kind of over it now."

"I'm lucky," he says. "I've got fans who'll come out and support me no matter what, pretty much. The great privilege of my life is that I get to indulge my tastes as they change."

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