Despite all Built to Spill's success, it's impossible to deny how down to Earth frontman Doug Martsch is. He remains modest to a fault, going as far to say he wouldn't be a fan of his own band if he wasn't in it. I talked with him over the phone recently about everything from the state of music today to keeping one's artistic freedom while on a major record label to last year's NBA finals. Catch Built to Spill at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 11, as part of 35 Denton.
In an interview with Pitchfork back in '09, you said of the amount of time lapsing between You In Reverse and There Is No Enemy that "no one's in a hurry to hear anything new." How did you come to feel that way? You know, I'm just being honest. Of course I'd like it if people liked my most current thing. If everyone liked the most current me, if people thought that I was better looking now than ever. But in all honesty, the way I feel about other bands, I see people have the same kind of feelings about ours. That's just sort of a natural thing. Especially with rock and roll, you're in your prime in your 20s, maybe into your 30s, but who cares about 40-year-old rock and roll? But it's all I know how to do, and I've got a little opportunity to be doing it, so that's what I'm gonna do.
Your bio mentions you don't like to explain your lyrics to people because you think it would take away from whatever meaning they've derived from the songs. Is that something you've always felt? I don't know. It might be something that was intuitive as a child even. Listening to a song, everyone's hearing something different. Not just the lyrics, but the music, you know, everything about it. How you pay attention to it, and what sort of mood or effect it has on you. It's so completely subjective, more than any other art form, I think. Anything is subjective, whether it's a movie or a book, but music more than anything because it's ethereal. Except for some songs that are telling a story -- "A Boy Named Sue" or something like that, where it's real straightforward. You talk to people, and one person was creeped out by Mr. Rogers and another person thought he was incredible. To me, it's all pretty arbitrary, but it makes sense in my own mind in my own world. I don't expect anyone else to share that, and and if they did, I think that we wouldn't be as successful. I don't know if I'd be a big Built to Spill fan.
You say that about your band often. Well, it's true. I'm not being humble or anything. I feel like I don't quite have the skills to nail down the songs the way I want them to be. And that's part of why I don't want to ever have anyone experience it my way, so that they can enjoy it in a way that I don't know if I ever could.
This year marks two decades that Built to Spill has been a band. Shit. I guess so.
What advice does 2012 Doug have for 1992 Doug? Nothing really. I really don't have any regrets. I feel like I got really super lucky and I feel like, at least in 1992, I worked pretty hard. I might have slacked off a little bit the last decade just because I've been enjoying other aspects of my life and haven't been as driven by music as I wish I had been. But I also don't regret any of it. I've had a blast and feel totally lucky that I've gotten to do what I have.
I'll bet you're one of the few people who can say that. Yeah, I think so too. I think you're totally right. I lucked out as far as getting to make a living off it, and I made a living off it in a way that was exactly how I wanted to do it. It wasn't a pain in the ass at all. Warner Brothers let us do what we wanted to do across the board. We had complete control over every artistic and every career decision that was made. When we signed to Warner Brothers, I was pretty trepidatious about the whole thing. I was wondering what kind of horrible way it was gonna end and how I was gonna get fucked with, but it felt like I couldn't really pass it up either and it's been amazing.
You get the rare perspective of being a popular musician before and after the Internet era. Is one side of the fence better than the other? Well, I have a lot of opinions. One of the main things is that growing up and not having access to a lot of music was a double-edged sword. In a way, it was a drag to not get that much stuff, but then the stuff you got was so much more precious. It was few and far between and that's what made it precious. I don't know how that shakes out though, between having stuff that's really precious to you or having access to a lot of stuff and making up your own mind about how valuable it is. And then with my own career, philosophically, I like the idea of everyone getting music for free, but for a living it's made things more difficult.
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We never really sold a lot of records but other people have sold a lot of records, and they didn't tour because they were selling a lot of records. Now, nobody's selling a lot of records so everyone's out on tour, and that makes it harder for us to go out on tour. You know, like, we'll go to Denton or something like that, and everyone has eight shows that month and they have to decide what they want to go out and see, and they say, "Well, I saw Built to Spill last year so I'm gonna go see something else." So that's my own problem with it. But of course it's amazing that people no longer have to rely on labels to produce and distribute their material. I'm a little concerned about the quality of the product. Not necessarily music-wise, but I don't know about digital downloading. I don't know if it sounds as good. It doesn't, in my opinion. I feel like we've traded quality for convenience. Yeah, but at the same time, I listened to a lot of cassettes, and that was pretty shitty quality.
Sure. And then records can sound even worse, but they have that nostalgic sound about them. Actually, records can sound really good. I think records can be the best sounding thing, but they don't sound good forever. They just get worn out, but they sound amazing at first. There is some digital stuff that's high quality and I think it's fine, but I have this feeling of digital things having an effect on our nervous system, and it's different from analog. Just the fact that it's not a continuous wave. You know what I mean? And you know, I don't hear it, but I just wonder if it's something over time that our nervous system rejects it a little bit.
You're a huge NBA fan. How would you rate the last finals where our Mavs beat the Heat? That was great. You know, I was kind of a Miami fan because I was a big Dwyane Wade fan, and I had the league pass so I watched all of his games for years, and they just got the shit beat out of them all the time. Wade was the only guy who showed up and no one else was any good. I didn't like LeBron, but then I got him in a fantasy league, so then I started to like him because he was my guy. And I also like the Miami Heat's commentators a lot. So I started really liking the Heat, but then the Mavs beat the Lakers so badly that I kind of signed on with them. I mean, I'm a huge Mark Cuban hater and I didn't have much else to like about the Mavs, but when it came time for the finals, I was pretty much neutral. I was glad to see how it ended.
If you weren't a musician, what would your occupation be? I always thought I would draw. I drew until I started enjoying playing guitar more, but I don't know if it would have been an occupation. Chances are I would be a fucking bartender. That was the last job I had before I was able to live off Warner Brothers' money. So I'd probably be doing that because that was the best job I had up until then. I'm unskilled. I have no college degree or anything, so I'd be doing something along those lines.