Doug Martsch – You gotta move
When Doug Martsch, once and future leader of Built To Spill, idiosyncratic guitar hero and full-time resident of Idaho, recorded his debut solo album, Now You Know, in the fall of 1999, he didn’t like it very much. The album, a stripped-down semi-blues, partly country acoustic album recorded in his backyard studio in Boise, didn’t bear much resemblance to the comparatively polished alt-psychedelia of his day band.
To him, it seemed slight. “It was on a different sort of scale than the stuff I normally did,” Martsch remembers. “It sounded crappy, and seemed sort of cheap and stupid. But then I made copies for my friends and they really liked it. Once it got a different reaction, I was no longer ashamed of it.”
Martsch thought he would release the album on tiny Seattle indie Up Records, which had issued Built To Spill’s 1994 masterwork There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. He took the album to his current label, Warner Bros., which shared his grim initial assessment of the record and its commercial prospects but refused to give him leave to release it elsewhere.
“They said they would license it to Up, but I didn’t want to do that,” says Martsch, who could have potentially lost money through a licensing arrangement. “I wanted them to just give me the record. I didn’t want it [to be released on a major label] in the first place.”
Previously, Martsch had enjoyed a pleasant but nonetheless tenuous relationship with Warner Bros. At the time he turned over his solo album, he was beginning to wonder if Built To Spill, whose albums had sold steadily but not impressively, had already made their last record for the label. “Being on Warners has been awesome for us. I have no complaints,” Martsch says. “But I wanted to see if they were going to put out our next record. If they didn’t, I wasn’t going to just give them this record and then get dropped.”
Things remained at an impasse for a good while. Built To Spill toured, released a live disc in 2000, and toured some more. (Up founder Chris Takino died from leukemia in October of 2000.) They released another album, Ancient Melodies Of The Future, that was informed by both the country blues and the exaggerated simplicity of Martsch’s solo album. In the meantime, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a sudden and implausible success; perhaps equally implausibly, executives at Warner Bros. began to see a bridge between the soundtrack’s old-timey Appalachian bluegrass and the lean, meditative and only occasionally countryish strummings of Now You Know.
Their decision to release the album, which will be three years old by the time it finally hits stores September 10, may make the former punk rocker from Boise the unlikeliest recipient yet of O Brother-related beneficence. Martsch himself would prefer not to think too much about the reasons behind his label’s newfound enthusiasm for his solo album. “I’m sure the success of O Brother had something to do with it, but I’m not a fan of that at all,” he says. “That’s exactly what I don’t like doing. I think the versions of the songs in that movie were just bad.”
Before he entered the studio to record Now You Know, Martsch had been listening extensively to old country blues and folk recordings, much of which he had checked out from the Boise library. Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music and the recordings of Delta bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell (in particular, the Alan Lomax-collated First Recordings) left a big impression.
“I had been listening to a lot of people, but I was definitely emulating him,” Martsch says of McDowell. “I took his tools, and his ideals. All I did was put picks on my fingers and use my slide guitar, but play my own thing. It used to be that I never liked people who just played guitar, but now that I’m older I appreciate simplicity more.”
For Martsch, a voracious consumer and practitioner of fuzzy and sprawling alt-rock (this is a man who, with Built To Spill, once recorded a cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” that clocks in at 20-plus minutes), the change was galvanizing. The spare, harmonicas-and-acoustic-guitars-intensive soundscapes of Now You Know are about as far away from Built To Spill’s trippy guitar operatics as it’s possible to get.
Paradoxically, the album’s stark setting serves as a perfect showcase for Martsch’s famously proficient guitar skills in a way that Built To Spill, which often buried his best playing under layers of noise, never could. However, Martsch — who, if he were any more quiet and unassuming, might disappear entirely — downplays such assessments of his musicianship. “Nothing I’m doing is too complex. I know how mediocre I am,” he says. “The way I’m doing things on the record is the only way I know how. If you told me to do something, I couldn’t do it. I’m not versatile at all.”
Raised mostly in Twin Falls, Idaho (the setting of Built To Spill’s classic song of the same name), Martsch grew up in love with the Pixies and the Replacements and all the usual alt-rock suspects. Though it sounds like an obvious homage to Neil Young, Martsch says his distinctive high-pitched voice is actually modeled after that of latter-day Young imitator J. Mascis.
“I liked all of the post-punk stuff that was popular then,” he acknowledges. “That was the stuff that made it possible for me to make music. There was always the idea that regular people making music didn’t have to be good, as long as you had good ideas. If I had been listening to Fred McDowell back then, I couldn’t do [what I’m doing now]. I’d be too intimidated.”
After high school, Martsch joined Treepeople, a grunge-meets-punk-meets-psychedelic-rock quartet, and moved to Seattle. The group issued several moderately well-received albums on indie label C/Z. Martsch, homesick and tired of the road, left Seattle after three years, returning to Boise and then-girlfriend (and now wife) Karena. Once back home, Martsch, who had been the group’s primary singer and guitarist, began working on a series of tracks he thought would eventually become Treepeople songs, though he realized his days in that band were numbered when he heard they were auditioning other guitarists. (They went on to release one album without Martsch before disbanding.)