Doug Martsch, Built To Spill's founder and only consistent member since the band's 1993 debut, is often portrayed as an antisocial recluse who hides in the mountains of Idaho, obsessively crafting guitar-rock symphonies while staring out into the backwoods. And it's true that Martsch has consistently avoided jumping through hoops to promote himself, despite having recorded both the band's most recent album, Keep It Like A Secret, and its predecessor, Perfect From Now On, for a giant major label. But his reputation as uncommunicative proved an exaggeration during a recent interview with The Onion—a relief, since Keep It Like A Secret, which takes Martsch's soaring rock epics and tightens them into irresistible bursts of melodic guitar-pop, is worth talking about.
The Onion: You've said that the idea behind Built To Spill was to have a constantly rotating line-up. Why did you originally want to do that?
Doug Martsch: Well, I thought we could make different kinds of records that way, and that there would never be "the Built To Spill sound." Every record would be something new. That was the main reason. Also, it kind of ended up that way, because the people I was playing with on the first record were just people from other bands in town that I brought together. And then I thought I was going to move to another town. Plus, I didn't want to have to worry about all the interpersonal relationships that come with a band.
O: Did some of those ideas grow out of your past experiences in bands, particularly Treepeople?
DM: Yeah, sort of. Everything that I've done before affects all the decisions I make.
O: Why did you decide to change this philosophy recently, with [bassist] Brett Nelson and [drummer] Scott Plouf brought on full-time?
DM: Basically, working on Perfect From Now On, I got really burnt-out on doing stuff on my own, so mostly it was just a matter of wanting to collaborate. And I figured that if I was going to collaborate, the band should have a little more of a stake in it. They're gonna help write songs and stuff. And also, I had rotated lineups quite a few times, and it's just a lot of work getting a new band going again, teaching them songs, and all that stuff. So I figured it was time to settle down and find two people I really liked and who were really good players.
O: What else do you think you gain from having a more stable line-up?
DM: Mostly, we're just getting tighter and tighter. We're starting to understand what's going on better. Mostly that. And those guys… Scotty, the drummer, helps out a lot in running the business side of things. He manages our tours now and does all that kind of stuff, so it's not all on me any more. Which is good, because things have gotten a lot busier. That's really helpful.
O: Has any of the downside of having a stable line-up reared its head? You know, some of the reasons why you didn't want to do it before?
DM: Not yet. I don't think so. These two records have been pretty different because there were totally different approaches to writing the songs and recording them. On Perfect From Now On, those guys didn't really know what was going on with the songs very well at all. They were just trying to keep up. And I think they did an amazing job. But on the new record, they're totally in there. I think those records are pretty different from each other, and I imagine that our next record will be something different, too. Now I kind of have faith that just [in terms of] the songs and the way they're recorded, that will be enough to make the records different. And if they're not, oh well. I'm not that concerned with that any more. I don't really mind if Built To Spill falls into a certain sound. I'm not too worried about that happening, and if it does, that's obviously what we want to be doing.
O: Did you have an idea with this album to just create a more straightforward rock album with shorter, tighter songs?
DM: Definitely. That was kind of the only conscious decision. Whenever I write songs, or we as a band write songs, it's just kind of stumbling across things and keeping the good ideas and getting rid of the bad ones, you know? We never set out to do anything specific other than make the record shorter, make the songs shorter and more concise. On Perfect From Now On, there was obviously a conscious effort to make it long and have lots of parts and stuff, but mostly the songs are things we stumble upon. And then, after you stumble across a song, you start thinking in terms of what you want to do with it, how you want to present it. Most of what we do is kind of unconscious, subconscious kinds of things.
O: Was the decision to make the songs shorter just to make it different from the last album, or were there specific things you were aiming for?
DM: I just didn't want it to be like the last record. That was a lot of work, and I was really burnt out on it. That record is an anomaly in that the songs are that long. I mean, I guess that here and there, we have long songs all the time, but if you look at all of our songs, most of them are pretty reasonable in length.
O: On one of the new songs, "You Were Right," you kind of pump out all these classic-rock clichés. Was that…
DM: Was I making fun of them?
O: Yeah. Was it meant as a sincere tribute, or just to poke fun?
DM: It wasn't anything, really. Basically, it was like, I came up with the chorus, "You were wrong when you said, 'Everything's gonna be all right,'" and then I decided the verse would be, "You were right when you said…" something more pessimistic. And then I knew immediately that it was going to be a bunch of clichés, and I decided to use other people's clichés. So, obviously, it's whatever you think of it. To me, it sounds like I'm kind of making fun of them, but I'm kind of not. I mean, I take the song sort of seriously. I like the song. And there are a couple lines that I appreciate but, yeah, a lot of them I'm definitely making fun of. [Laughs.]
O: Has recording for Warner Bros., in general, put less pressure on you than you had expected when you first signed?
DM: I don't really know. That's something that affects me on a level that I'm not conscious of. They've [applied] a lot less pressure than I expected them to, but at the same time, I didn't expect them to apply much pressure. I felt like that was pretty much understood from the get-go, what I was going to do. And they've lived up to what I expected them to do. They totally leave us alone, and when I make records, I still write for the same people I've always written for, and I have the same sort of standards of what I think music should sound like as I always have. But, you know, there are things going on that I don't really understand that I sometimes try to figure out, but when you make music or any kind of art for money, things come into play that are unavoidable, no matter how you think of it. There are things that go on inside you that you are not aware of.
O: So you're saying, on a subconscious or unconscious level, that you may have put certain pressures on yourself?
DM: Sure. Mostly, I think it's like… It was sort of like, once I knew that there was going to be a big audience for the music I make, it took place. And it's kind of like maybe being a little safer in the way you make music. Just knowing that a lot more people are going to be hearing it, something happens, and I don't really know what.
O: You seem to be a fairly harsh critic of your own stuff, particularly the last album. What do you think of Keep It Like A Secret?
DM: I don't know. I'm basically happy with it. I mean, that's a complex thing, 'cause it's sort of… I'm proud of it in that I accomplished it. I'm proud of what I did to it, but at the same time, I don't really know. As far as my tastes in music go, and what I love about music, I don't know if it's really what I would care to listen to. I like really great singers and really, really great guitar players. I'm more interested in that than song structures and the use of multi-tracking overdubs. The things I'm good at are not necessarily the things I appreciate. [Laughs.] And that's fine. I can come to terms with that. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it's fine. And when we play those songs live and when I do listen to the record, I'm happy with it.
O: Does your opinion of your own stuff change the further you get away from it, time-wise? Like, do you have a different opinion of Perfect From Now On now than you did right after it came out?
DM: Definitely. I have the opposite opinion. I think that record is really good now. The things I didn't like about it are the things I do like about it. I mean, I guess when I was working on it, I wanted it to be more… I don't really listen to any of those British bands like Blur and Radiohead—I think they're all right, but they just don't really do much for me—but I think I kind of had a vision of it being more like that, like The Beatles or something. And it sounds to me still more like "independent-rock." And now I'm glad it's that. I think it's cooler-sounding the way that it is. It sounds more homemade and more personal than I imagined it being, and I like that about it. Because it's kind of both of those things: kind of big and epic, but also kind of crappy and personal.
O: Why do you think your opinion has flip-flopped?
DM: That's just a matter of being familiar with it. Like when you hear the record, you hear it and that's it for you. You have no idea that there were any other ideas or any other visions involved. So for me, it just took a long time to get used to what was there, and giving up on some of the ideas that were in my head. So at first I felt like I had fallen short of what I had planned, and now I feel like it was cooler than what I had planned.
O: Do you think growing up in Idaho, as opposed to Seattle or even L.A., shaped the music that you make?
DM: I don't really know. I think everywhere in America is becoming more and more the same. People can grow up anywhere and kind of have the same ideas as anywhere else because everything's available everywhere. What I always thought was that I didn't have much exposure to live music, so I was more attached to records. But I don't think that's really true. I think people in cities are the same way. It's just an age, in your teens, when you latch on to certain things and they mean a lot to you, and you listen to your favorite records over and over until you know every single aspect of them. So I don't know. I never really thought the place I lived affected the way I made music, but again, there are levels I don't understand that are going on in me.
O: People always point out the classic-rock influences in your music: Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, stuff like that. Is that what you listened to growing up?
DM: Not really, no. That stuff is more via Butthole Surfers and Dinosaur. Those are the things that really meant a lot to me. I've since rediscovered a lot of that stuff—Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix—and I totally love it, but Caustic Resin is a band that was a huge influence on me, and that was basically influenced by those sorts of things.
O: It seems like the way you approach music and touring and promotion is that you aren't willing to give up certain things that are important to you—your family, your privacy—in order to sell more records. How does that sit with Warner Bros.?
DM: I don't really know. I guess all right. They have to be somewhat aware of the way people think these days. A lot of people understand the way PR works, and a lot of people are turned off by it. I think that it pays off for certain bands to do things in a cool way, to do things in a way that's respectful to the people listening to it. It's not a matter of shoving it down people's throats. But I don't know what they think. They're respectful of what I do, and they don't try to make me do things differently. So I guess they understand it to some degree. And that's kind of why I signed to Warner Bros., too, because they kind of had a history of sticking with acts that didn't always sell a lot of records. I don't know that that's true with them today. I don't think there's even a handful of those people left, and the way that business is run in the '90s is completely different. But at the same time, Warner Bros. is also just a bunch of people working there. They answer to someone, but there are still people who work there, at any label, who believe in things and have integrity and believe that it's important for it to be not just about money. I mean, every bit of money doesn't go to them. They have their own integrity and stuff to think about. And I think that people do think about that.
O: Do you think the way you approach things has affected the band's level of success so far?
DM: Oh, definitely. I think that's been one of the keys to our success. I think people relate to us on that level. I mean, I think that if we were still on Up Records, we'd be selling this many records. It's because we've grown that way. We haven't grown through getting played on the radio or being on MTV or anything—any of those things that a major label offers a band. We've done it through word-of-mouth and touring and college radio. But, yeah, I really think people relate to that. I totally do. Like, I don't care if Guns 'N Roses made really great music. I do not like them. I think they're fuckers, and I'm not going to listen to them. I might make some exceptions and listen to some fuckers because I think they might be geniuses or something, but I want to listen to the music of people that I love.
O: Well, if you figure that you could be selling as many records on Up as you are on Warner Bros., what are the advantages of being there as opposed to Up?
DM: A bunch of money. [Laughs.] That's it. I was able to quit my job and also be able to spend a bunch of money on the records. I probably would have stayed on Up if I didn't have a family. Because then, if I didn't have a family, I'd be willing to tour a bunch more and do it that way. Kind of the idea of signing to Warner Bros. was that I can get advances and make records and tour as little as possible. I mean, I feel like we still tour quite a bit, but that's kind of the main reason.
O: Do you envision this lineup staying together for the next record?
DM: Yeah. Definitely.
O: Do you have any idea what direction the music will go from here?
DM: No, not really. I have a few bits of songs, but I don't really know. I mean, on this last record, the idea was to keep it simpler, and that didn't really end up happening. It didn't sound very good simple, so we ended up adding a bunch of guitars to it to make it sound cool to us. So, that's kind of the plan again, and you never know. By the time we get into the studio, the same thing will happen, and we'll overdub the hell out of it. But that's what I'd like to do, and that's the music that I like best: more simple things, straightforward. But that's just a matter of whether we are as good at playing that kind of stuff: You have to be really good players to pull that off.