If you're Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, you can have it both ways: Sign with a major label and keep your indie-rock credibility; maintain a successful band and a happy family without disrupting either; live in relative isolation in the cultural hinterland of Boise, Idaho, and still be one of the most revered musicians around. You don't have to make many compromises if the only two things that matter are your family and your music, in that order, and the two are so intertwined that at times they're more like one thing. Everything else is irrelevant, even the music occasionally, because as long as he's a good husband and father, Martsch doesn't need anything else.
Martsch makes it look simple, and to him it is. He lives in Boise because that's where he and his wife, Karena, grew up, and that's where they want to raise their son, Ben. He signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1995 not because he had stars in his eyes, but to allow him to quit his job as a bartender and spend more time at home, a move even the most elitist members of the indie-rock community couldn't find fault with. And he schedules his band's infrequent tours so they take him away from his family only for a couple of weeks at a time, inadvertently making every Built to Spill show an event. (Tripping Daisy, for example, offered to play for free at the band's first-ever performance in Dallas, Sunday night at the Gypsy Tea Room.)
But none of this would be possible if Martsch weren't so talented--if he didn't play guitar like the missing link in the guitar-hero chain between Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Marr, if he didn't write songs as challenging technically as they are emotionally. Martsch's skill with a guitar in his hands and a microphone in his face gives him freedom to do whatever he wants, so he does. Ultimately, it doesn't matter where he lives or what label he records for, because he is so adept at creating majestic guitar-pop--especially on Built to Spill's recently released Keep It Like a Secret--that where it comes from isn't important.
It wasn't always so easy for Martsch, though--at least musically. Everything else took care of itself. Major labels found him after Built to Spill's 1994 album There's Nothing Wrong With Love, starting a major-label bidding war for Martsch's services that led to the sizable contract he signed with Warner Bros. And he kept one foot in the underground by releasing a split EP with fellow Idahoans Caustic Resin on Up Records in 1995 and by putting together a compilation of Built to Spill's early singles (including the excellent Doug-and-a-guitar "Girl") and rarities for Calvin Johnson's K Records in 1996, as well as continuing to record for K with his side project with Johnson, Halo Benders.
Overcoming his insecurities was more of a problem. Two years ago, he was dissatisfied with the direction his music was headed, seriously questioning the songs he was writing, ready to reject them all and start over. And after those songs were released, the ones that made up Built to Spill's debut for Warner Bros.--1997's Perfect From Now On--he did begin anew, badmouthing the disc in interviews and only performing parts of a couple of the songs in concert. Perfect From Now On went through three completely different versions before Martsch was ready to move on, but he was never pleased with the results. Only now has Martsch begun to come around on the record, able to see it for what it is instead of what he wanted it to be.
"It was kind of like I bit off more than I could chew in a lot of ways," Martsch says of Perfect From Now On's sprawling songs, all eight of which clock in at more than five minutes. "When I was done with it, it didn't sound like I imagined it at all. Since then, I've come to terms with it, and I like it. I like it better than what I had in mind for it, probably. I kinda just wanted something that was flowing from thing to thing, you know? I don't really remember what exactly I had in mind."
Martsch's misgivings aside, Perfect From Now On is one of the best albums released this decade, a disc that felt too short, careening wildly between gentle jangle and searing solos, quiet introspective moments and big-rock moves. Splitting the difference between Roger Waters and Lou Barlow, songs such as "Out of Site" and "Randy Described Eternity" are epic in length but small enough to fit in your pocket, guitar symphonies written by a man who's a singer-songwriter at heart--though he insists lyrics are an afterthought. Perfect From Now On is a Saturday-night record that sounds just as beautiful on a Sunday morning. It may not have turned out as Martsch imagined, but you can't think of anything that should be different, that could be different.
And Keep It Like a Secret is even better, Martsch's eloquent guitar voice and little-boy tenor dueling until three minutes feel like forever, and you almost wish they would last that long. In a sense, it's the complete opposite of Perfect From Now On (read: much shorter songs). Yet it's also a continuation of that record, as songs such as "Carry the Zero" retain Perfect's boundless riffs and disjointed arrangements, using both to great effect as a lazy walk through the park becomes a sprint to finish line, paced by a half-dozen separate melodies. The euphoric "Sidewalk" is one of the best bits of psychedelic pop to emerge in a decade, and "Broken Chairs" (featuring Quasi's Sam Coomes on keyboards) slowly disintegrates into beautiful chaos over the course of its eight minutes. It's the kind of record you can hear in your head hours after it's stopped playing.
"You Were Right" is particularly memorable, possibly because you can hear half of the song's lyrics on any classic-rock station. It's a melancholy answer to the statements Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd and, um, Kansas (among others) made so long ago: "You were right when you said everything that glitters isn't gold...You were right when you said we are all just bricks in the wall...You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind." They're fitting words for Martsch to sing, because it's always been suspected that his heart lies more with classic rock than with indie-rock.
"I listen to classic-rock radio a lot when I'm driving," Martsch admits. "I'd way rather listen to it than the modern-rock radio station, or NPR. So, yeah, a lot of that stuff I like. I think Jimi Hendrix is the best human being that ever existed, in just about every way." He laughs. "It was actually kind of hard to come up with that many lines that would fit the meter, and that were sort of pessimistic truisms or whatever. I came up with a few of 'em really easy, and I was like, 'Oh, this is great,' and then I kind of struggled."
That was one of the few problems Martsch encountered during the recording of Keep It Like a Secret, a much more relaxed process than before. Consequently, Martsch is happy (or happier) with the outcome of the new album, mainly because for the first time since he moved back to Boise from Seattle and began recording as Built to Spill, he wrote it with other people: bassist and longtime friend Brett Nelson and former Spinnanes drummer Scott Plouf. Until then, Built to Spill had been a solo act filled out with various sidemen. Nelson and Plouf both played on Perfect From Now On, but it was a much different situation from the recording of Keep it Like a Secret.
Martsch brought in Nelson and Plouf after trying and failing to make Perfect From Now On twice before. He taught them the songs, they practiced them, and then the trio went into a studio to record. This time, all three were there when the songs happened, and the difference is astonishing. "Carry the Zero" is led by Plouf's propulsive drumming almost as much as it is by Martsch's outsized guitar work, and Nelson's bass is a much more prominent aspect of the songs as well, especially on the stripped-down "Center of the Universe."
"It was easier to swallow, and the songs made more sense to me, because everyone was there from the get-go," says Martsch, taking a break from rehearsals for the band's upcoming tour. "Last time, I had the songs and showed 'em to those guys. They didn't really know what the hell was going on, 'cause the songs were so weird and all they had was just me telling them what to do and playing crappy rhythm guitar along with them. And I was so much more uncertain about the stuff in the first place. This time, everyone knew the feel of the songs a lot better, because we jammed for hours and would just record things. I went back and kinda went through them, and would find little bits and pieces of things. A lot of the songs are based on that; roughly half of the material is based on that kind of stuff."
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Even though Martsch brightens when talk turns to the new album, and he genuinely seems to like it, he still fails to include it on the list of albums he's made that he's proud of, dating back to when he first started playing with Treepeople in 1988. At this point, it's a list that numbers just two: Treepeople's 1991 Guilt Regret Embarrassment and Halo Bender's 1994 debut God Dont Make No Junk.
He mentions other reasons why only these two made the cut, but for the most part, it's because both of those albums were collaborations, Martsch splitting the songwriting and singing chores with other musicians he respected. He can't include his own records because he's too modest to do so and too much of a perfectionist to admit that they're any good. Martsch still sees himself as a normal guy, Karena's husband and Ben's father, maybe even the high school kid in the crowd at Boise's only real rock club, definitely not the kind of musician whom writers heap praise on, fans line up to see, and other musicians aim to emulate.
"That's what really turned me on to music, was people making music, regular people," Martsch says. "You didn't have to be a good musician. You didn't have to have a record label. You did it yourself. That totally appealed to me, and that's the only reason I ever started making music. I saw from other people that you could. It's flattering to me that people think of us that way."
Built to Spill performs March 21 at the Gypsy Tea Room. Jack Drag opens.