The Collapse Board Interview: Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)
By Ben Morgan
Boise’s Built to Spill are an interesting example of what it has meant to be an ‘indie rock band’ over three decades. After two early nineties releases on small northwest USA record labels C/Z and Up!, they were one of many rock bands who signed a deal with a major record label (Warner Bros) during the peak of alternative mania. They never had a radio hit or a buzz bin music video, and unlike many of their peers who did enjoy higher-profile moments, they made six albums that barely cracked the Billboard charts, but were never dropped.
While this accomplishment might seem an anomaly in the hits-driven record business, it also embodies the hope many young ‘indie’ fans had in the nineties about their favourite bands – that they would continue to make music and tour and thrive on a small scale, growing up alongside you without outgrowing or forgetting you. It is comforting that their latest LP, When the Wind Forgets Your Name, appears on Sub Pop records. All in all, when it comes to the politics of record labels, Built to Spill have demonstrated that staying ‘indie’ can indeed be seen as a band’s state of mind, distribution strategy and work ethic, rather than whether their record label has public shareholders.
The reason Built to Spill can tour Australia and play a three-night residency (hold on, now four nights) in Melbourne in 2023 isn’t really about record labels, though. Built to Spill have built their fanbase on a combination of introspective songwriting and lengthy guitar-driven sonic explorations that largely revolve around core member Doug Martsch’s writing, but also the musical personalities of various friends and regional peers from which Martsch has assembled and re-assembled the band over the years. The names and faces have changed and each lineup had distinctive sonic characteristics, reflecting a collaborative band concept rather than a frontperson and hired players. The early days of seeing Martsch show up with different band members on each tour was a remarkable experience, especially when it seemed important in rock scene culture that ‘bands’ be the same mates sticking together through thick and thin. The framing of Built to Spill as an evolving band concept rather than a solo project was both fairly simple yet somehow incredibly exciting and novel, especially in the pre-internet days when fans didn’t know who was going to be playing in the band unless it appeared in a magazine (or Rage or MTV news).
We had some time to chat with Doug in advance of the first Australian Built to Spill tour since 2016. We tried to suss out a bit more about the band’s Australian history, their latest lineup identity featuring musicians already different than those on their most recent album, and what its like to see Melanie Lynskey wearing their T-shirt.
I grew up in Portland and I’m curious for the Australian readers of the Collapse Board: Tell me a bit about how you perceive the origin of your fanbase in Australia. I know that there’s a Spunk zine you were featured in from the 90’s. That is how I first realised people were listening to you in Australia, when I had to track that down in the USA. Any idea how people in Australia were hearing about you back then?
Ah, you know what, I’m a little fuzzy on it. But yeah, I remember the guy from Spunk reaching out to me. Like right away, like right when we put out Ultimate Alternative Wavers, or it might not have been until There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. I remember him reaching out, maybe we did an interview. There was a single that he put out with a song of ours. The seven inch is horrible, though. It was a song and I sent it to get mastered. A DAT tape has different frequencies you can do it at and it was mastered at the wrong frequency. It’s slow, it has this weird warbling, it’s the most horrible sounding thing. But anyway, yeah, that’s what I remember. Other than that. I don’t know. After that, Tim from Feel has booked our tours down there.
Today the way music spreads around the world seems so different.
Those first records were on C/Z, and then Up!, how do you feel it like it reached all the way here? Do you have any thoughts on the way music spreads now differently than back then?
I don’t know how people stumble into things nowadays. I listen to Spotify, and sometimes they recommend some interesting things. I’ve definitely found some things through that. Back in those days, you had to know somebody who had good taste in music to find anything interesting. Which was nice, in its own way. Things were kind of precious, because they were so hard to find, you know? But I like the way things are now, too. I have issues with these streaming services, but the idea that we can all hear any music we want is incredible to me. I love it.
Here in Australia, Keep It Like A Secret wasn’t available on streaming services for a long time. And then one day it just appeared. The way I understand rights disputes, usually it’s a label’s catalogue all at once. Your Live album still isn’t available here. Any idea why this happens, why certain albums aren’t available in Australia?
I have no idea. I wonder. I know that with the first couple of Warner Brothers records, Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret, we were able to license them out to other labels in other territories. In Europe, we licensed them out to City Slang, maybe the first three, I think up until You In Reverse they all might have all been licensed. Then maybe in Australia there was something similar. Maybe we licensed it to someone, and then I don’t know, maybe it just fell through the cracks, because it didn’t get picked up by this licensing. I think some of the Warner Brothers overseas people just didn’t know about us or care. I have no idea. I guess the short and long answer is, I don’t know at all.
I had the feeling you might not know. There’s many territories around the world.
I never checked much of anything with the label. I just made music, and we’ve made our money off of touring.
I was curious if it had something to do with Keep It Like A Secret being released in that 1999 period when the internet was new, and maybe the contracts were different.
There’s a lot of talk in Australia about the politics of representation and who you listen to, and separating the artists from the music. I know you’re a big Smiths and Morrissey fan, and he’s a very high-profile, political sort of figure now. Does that bother you? Do you have any thoughts on when you listen to music regarding separating the figure who made it from the music?
I feel like I’ve had mostly pretty good luck. Most of the people I like have been pretty cool. I was never a big Van Morrison fan, so that’s fine. Never that into Eric Clapton. Most of these people, I’m like, aw fuck, I never liked him anyway. And Morrissey, I don’t know, it’s easy for me to separate that stuff. It’s very easy for me. I don’t really even know what Morrissey says. I just know that he says some shitty things. I don’t know that I’ve even really heard any of the actual things he said. He definitely did some great stuff for a little while. I read his book, his memoirs, or whatever. He’s great when he talks about his childhood, and tells his story. It’s really great, and then he just starts complaining about the music industry and the charts and court cases and stuff. He lost me.
When listening to and thinking about Built to Spill over the years, the identity of the musicians or the band has always been on my mind. You were the first group I encountered that transparently played around a bit with the identity or concept of what it means to be a band. I know that you’ve gotten this question many times over the years, but in 2023, how do you answer the question, What is Built to Spill? And why isn’t it a solo project where you’re hiring musicians? What’s the concept of the band today?
I guess it kind of is that, you know, but there’s definitely been periods where it was like, Brett Nelson, Scott Plouf, Brett Netson, and Jim Roth. They were really integral parts of the band. But right now, it’s me and Teresa and Mel. I don’t really know, it’s just me and whoever I end up playing with. That being said, they’re not just hired musicians to me, you know? I feel like whoever I’m playing with collaborates fully.
I picked up on this in very early interviews I was reading with you in Northwest free press like PDXS and Willamette Week. That’s the first time I encountered this idea, that this band is going to evolve, the lineup is going to change on purpose. You were saying, “I’m going to play with different people” right from the start. And I thought, wow, that’s really interesting. That was very outside the concept of what a band was supposed to mean to me, when I was 18. I’ve always been fascinated by that part of Built to Spill. It also gave me an idea, as a fan, that maybe I could play in your band someday.
I knew the Spinanes from growing up in Portland, so I knew Scotty [Plouf] didn’t live in Boise. When you need to find someone to play with, is it people you’ve seen live, or played with? Tell me a little bit about how you pick new people.
Yeah, it’s been different almost every time. Jim Roth joined the band because his band was opening for us, and he had heard our latest recordings and knew how to play one of the songs on slide. So, it was like, “You can play that song with us,” and then it evolved into him playing more songs. Bret Netson, he’s in bands here in Boise, and I always thought he was a great guitar player. He played on a couple of tracks, and then played on a few shows, and then joined the band that way. Jason and Steve, guys that played on Untethered Moon that were in the band a few years ago, they were roadie-type people that also were great musicians, and people that I liked. The Brazilians I just met, I was turned on to their music and met them through a common friend. So, it’s all different kinds of ways. You know?
I’ve always been interested in projects that pushed the boundaries of what we expect from a ‘band’. Does anyone else come to mind that plays with what it means to be a rock group?
Well, to me, the example is David Bowie, someone who made different kinds of records and played with all different people and each record was kind of its own thing. That’s how I think of what I’m doing.
Your latest band lineup, it’s Melanie Radford on bass, and Teresa Esguerra on drums. There’s a lot of interest in gender representation here. We talk a lot about who’s in the band. Did you want to play with women in particular? Tell me a little bit about the gender element and if there’s anything you wish people would ask you about it – or not ask you.
Yeah, I did want to play with women. I really like women’s music a lot. I didn’t so much when I was growing up. And I don’t know when that changed for me. I really enjoy watching and listening to women play music, like more than men. I have for some amount of time, and I don’t really know why. Growing up, I didn’t like very many women musicians. I didn’t like women’s singing voices for some reason. At some point that changed. I had the opportunity because I wasn’t playing with people. I think it started really with Mel. I’d go to see Mel play, and she was just so mesmerizing. I wanted a chance to play with her. And then, Teresa was in another band we were touring with, and after a bunch of shows, I realized that she’d be a great drummer for us. Yeah, it was conscious, for sure, to play with women.
When I’m telling my friends to come see you in October, I wonder about whether to lead with the gender story.
Personally, I would be more inclined to go to a show if I knew that there’s a female rhythm section.
Let’s talk about the shows in October. I know you’re doing Sydney and Brisbane, as well in Melbourne, you’re going to play a three-show residency (note: now four!). I’m so excited! I’ve never gotten to see any band that I love who has a deep enough catalogue that can handle three consecutive shows. Do you have anything planned yet? I know you’ve done stuff in Idaho with all-cover song nights. What’s on the agenda?
Well, we’re not going to have time to learn a night of covers, but we will definitely play three different nights of music. We’ll play different music every night. There’ll be a little bit of overlap, perhaps, but it will be different sets for sure.
I’m going to show you two pictures. Here’s the first one. Does that look familiar? Melanie Lynskey is the actresses name, and that is from the show Yellowjackets.
Photo: Evan Hathaway (via Built to Spillin’ Facebook group)
Yeah, totally. They contacted us and got permission for it. I haven’t seen the show yet. I’ve heard it’s good. That’s cool!
I saw that image posted on your Facebook fan group. And then I saw this next one myself very soon after. Look in the upper right corner.
Oh, wow. Uh huh. I don’t know what it is.
That one’s from like 2001 or 2002 from the show Six Feet Under. You recognised the recent one, but not the first one. Do you think much has changed? Do they ask permission now, but they didn’t earlier?
I think they did. I kind of thought that’s what that might be. They actually used a song too, Six Feet Under did. I think they all ask for permission whenever they stick anything in there. But I don’t know. Beavis and Butthead did a thing and they never asked permission. I don’t know what the laws are and what you have to do, what requires permission. I wouldn’t think putting a t-shirt on one of your characters would require permission.
I don’t know the laws either. I was curious if either made you mad, or happy?
I’m psyched about it all. I’m totally psyched to be on anything.
I saw you in 1994 in the OK Hotel in Seattle. Something really funny about that show, Drew Barrymore and Courney Love were both in the audience. The OK Hotel is a tiny little place, and I wasn’t used to seeing celebrities at small gigs. Do you notice things like that, or remember that?
It rings a bell. I don’t think I saw them. Maybe someone told me. I think we were playing with someone that they might have been there to see, or something. It felt like they were at someone else’s show that we were playing out.
I’ve been trying to find like the record of that night’s lineup, and it’s been really elusive to track down. Julep, for some reason comes to mind as your possible opener. I don’t know. Neither of us can remember details, it seems.
Oh, yeah, totally. I never met any of those people or heard from them or anything. I have no idea if they were fans or were there for something else.
Doug Wallen, who interviewed you a few years ago when you came to Australia, wrote up your story of Brian Posehn and Bob Odenkirk in the audience, and how you ended up collaborating. I was wondering, how often does this happen to you? Not necessarily celebrities, maybe just people you’re excited to work with, that you see them in your audience.
Definitely doesn’t happen often. We’ve been lucky enough to play with and meet Dinosaur (Jr.), Sonic Youth, Pixies, all these bands that I grew up loving. Camper Van Beethoven, Butthole Surfers…
Is there anyone you really want to play with? I think you’ve played with all those bands by now, right?
Yeah, there’s definitely some bands that I would love to open for. I can’t think of any off the top of my head right now. But of course, you know, Beyonce.
How about in Australia? Any Australian groups that you listen to?
Yeah, we did a bunch of shows for a while with The Drones. Do you know them?
Yeah, they toured with us in the US and we did some European shows together – maybe, I can’t remember. But yeah, those guys are great.
BUILT TO SPILL OCTOBER 2023
Fri 20 Manning Bar, Sydney
Sat 21 The Triffid, Brisbane
Sun 22 The Altar, Hobart
Tue 24 (SOLD OUT!), Wed 25 (SOLD OUT!), Thu 26 (SOLD OUT!),
Fri 27 Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Tickets for all available shows are on-sale now