Built to Spill’s Lineup Solid As Ever
By Kyle Eustice
Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch never thought music would take him this far. As a young kid growing up in Boise, Idaho, he was used to hearing his older brother and sister play guitar for a Christian youth group. That was about it…until he met his future bass player, Brett Nelson. Nelson was into all sorts of “cool” music and soon the young Martsch was well-versed in punk, hardcore and just about everything in between. Out of the ashes of one of his first bands, Treepeople, Built to Spill emerged and is now one of indie rock’s biggest success stories.
Formed in 1992, Built to Spill blends Martsch’s grungy guitar sounds with his unmistakably higher voice, one that could never be duplicated. Built to Spill signed with the Seattle-based independent label, Up Records, in the early ‘90s. Up Records, founded by the late Chris Takino in 1994, quickly released Built to Spill’s sophomore album, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love to critical acclaim. However, their business relationship was not meant to be. Built to Spill was offered a deal with Warner Brother Records and hopped on the opportunity. The rest is history. From 1997’s Perfect from Now On to 2015’s Untethered Moon, Warner Brothers has remained Built to Spill’s most loyal supporter. In anticipation of Built to Spill’s Lincoln stop, we talked to Martsch about Up Records, getting his first electric guitar and why he still owes his brother some tires. Check out www.nowomaha.com later in the week for Part 2 of the Doug Martsch interview, where he’ll address his relationship with Warner Brothers, the “northwestern sound” and why his band name is his biggest achievement.
Now! Omaha (Kyle Eustice): What was the musical climate like in Boise in the ‘80s and ‘90s? How did you get your hands on the good stuff?
Dough Martsch: Well, there was a record store here that was ok. I kinda had friends that were into punk rock and stuff that would turn me on to things. Brett Nelson, our old bass player, was in Twin Falls, Idaho. He turned me on to a lot of stuff like Husker Du, The Replacements, lots of great stuff. There’s a hardcore scene here and I became friends with the best hardcore band in town. They were older guys, but their girlfriends were still in high school and they were friends of mine. They were the ones that took me under their wing and showed me you could do all this stuff on your own, as DIY as possible.
What was the name of the band?
State of Confusion
[Laughs] That’s pretty hardcore.
Totally. When I graduated from high school, State of Confusion was kind of petering out. Most of those guys became the Treepeople. We moved up to Seattle and played for a few years then when that died, I started Built to Spill. I credit that to the State of Confusion guys.
Ok, so that makes sense. I was wondering how you ended up on Up Records and why you’re synonymous with the “northwestern sound.” I wondered why Modest Mouse cited you as big influences so what made you decide to go up to Seattle?
When you live in Boise, you just want to get out. Portland, Seattle or San Francisco are some of the main places people go. Basically, our drummer said he was moving and we said we’d go with him, really just to get out of town. When I was there, maybe like a year after I was there, I met Chris Takino while I was working at Kinko’s and we became good friends. He sort of managed Treepeople for a brief moment. When I moved back to Boise, Treepeople broke up and I started Built to Spill, right around that time, Chris Takino was given a record label deal with Sub Pop and started Up Records. That’s how I ended up on Up Records. Chris had been a long time friend of mine.
I like the story about your guitar. I read your first guitar was an acoustic guitar and then your brother decided to sell his car to buy you an electric guitar. Is that how the story goes?
That’s pretty much the story, yeah. I think I’d been playing his acoustic. He wasn’t very serious. It’s embarrassing, but he and my sister, they’re like six and eight years older than me, when I was a kid they were in Young Life. It’s like a Christian youth organization. They would have Young Life gatherings at our house every once in awhile, which was just thrilling to me, having the house full of teenagers. They played guitar enough to play for Young Life. They never really pursued it much beyond that. I learned on his guitar when I was a teenager then we moved to Boise. I had a month before school started and I didn’t have any friends or anything so I sat down with a guitar for that month, and really learned to play. Maybe a year or so later, our neighbor was moving to California and needed a car. He had a beautiful, old Goldtop Les Paul guitar and traded it for my brother’s car.
And he gave it to you?
I bet you thank him a lot for that moment.
Of course, oh my god. Then I was supposed to buy him tires. That was the agreement and I never even did that. I was horrible.
You owe the man some tires!
[Laughs] I know it.
I read when you started Built to Spill you didn’t want consistent members. Is that still true today or is your lineup pretty solid?
Oh no, today it’s real solid. The reason I wanted to change it, well, there’s a few reasons. One, I just came out of the Treepeople with those guys and there’d been a lot of drama. Two of the guys were brothers. There was a little bit of extra drama that I didn’t want to have in a band situation. Two, I wanted complete control over musical ideas and I was also a big David Bowie fan. I liked how he made alternate kinds of records. To make records that different, obviously you have to change up the personnel. That was my idea back in those days. I didn’t imagine I’d tour all the time. I imagined I wouldn’t tour hardly at all. My dream was to have a band where we’d make our money off of selling records.
That is a dream [laughs]
Right. That didn’t happen at all. But yeah, for a live band, you want to keep the same guys and keep getting better and better.
Built to Spill with Clarke and the Himselfs, Universe Contest September 11, at Vega, Lincoln, 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$25. Visit www.vegalincoln.com for more information.