Doug Martsch – You gotta move
With friend Brett Netson (who played guitar in local space-rock outfit Caustic Resin) on bass and Ralf Youtz on drums, Martsch formed what would be the first incarnation of Built To Spill. Their debut, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, filled with the would-be Treepeople tracks, was released on C/Z in 1993. A year later, the group signed to Up (home of fellow indie heroes the Pastels and Modest Mouse), Martsch’s junior high school friend Brett Nelson replaced Netson, and drummer Andy Capps replaced Youtz (the original lineup having lasted only a few shows). The trio then cut There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, full of gorgeous stoner anthems and lovely lo-fi pop ballads that showcased Martsch’s somewhat oblique, often brilliant lyrics, Built To Spill’s most undervalued currency.
Throughout the mid-’90s, Martsch worked with his side group the Halo Benders, which featured drummer Youtz and Beat Happening singer Calvin Johnson, founder of Olympia independent label K Records. The Halo Benders recorded on and off for years and released three albums (among them the fine God Don’t Make No Junk); Martsch has said he’d like to make another. During the same time period, Built To Spill cut an EP with members of Caustic Resin and released an outtakes record, none of which was enough to pay the rent.
Throughout his trio’s early years, Martsch worked day jobs bartending and mowing lawns. The Martsch family left their trailer for a house with a backyard studio after their first infusion of Warner Bros. cash. By that time, Built To Spill was on their third record label and had gone through three lineup changes. Martsch made it clear when he signed the contract that he was, in essence, Built To Spill; the group’s constantly rotating lineup signaled both a desire to keep things fresh and a wish to avoid the “interpersonal relationships” that had helped wreck Treepeople.
Built To Spill issued their Warner Bros. debut, Perfect From Now On, in 1997, becoming the first band from Boise to release a major-label album since the Fabulous Chancellors signed to Dot Records in 1963. Three albums later, the trio’s current lineup, which features former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf and Nelson remaining on bass, seems to be permanent. (Martsch ultimately figured that, among other things, it was easier to keep the same lineup than to keep teaching new members how to play the old songs.)
After the release of Built To Spill’s 1999 album Keep It Like A Secret, Martsch recorded Now You Know at his home studio, Manhouse, with friends pitching in on bass, drums and cello. It’s easy to think of the occasionally austere album as Martsch’s Nebraska, but there’s nothing on it that’s essentially foreign to the Built To Spill ethos. Lyrically, most of the tracks explore Martsch’s familiar lyrical preoccupations (e.g. alienation and entropy); musically, most would need only a five-minute guitar solo and some feedback to feel at home on the trio’s last record. “A couple songs are pretty Built To Spill, but that’s how I do things,” Martsch says. “I have a way of doing stuff that I can’t get away from.”
That the centerpiece of the album is a reverent cover of Fred McDowell’s “Jesus” gives a pretty accurate depiction of Martsch’s mindset at the time. “I tried to stick to a certain musical theme,” he says. “But this album was more just for myself. There was no intention of doing anything with it, but I was really excited about it.”
After he finished recording, Martsch went on to play several solo shows in Boise, where, in typically perverse fashion, he wound up playing obscure covers, Built To Spill tracks, and just about anything besides songs from the solo album. “I never wanted to do the shows, but I got talked into them,” he says. “But I ended up really liking doing it.”
Martsch went back into the studio in the spring of 2000 to record one last track, “Heart (Things Never Shared)”, which resembles a traditional Built To Spill number more than anything else on the album. He otherwise resisted the urge to tinker: “You have to know when to leave things alone, I guess.”
Encouraged by the success of recent bare-bones shows in Boise, Portland and Seattle, Martsch is planning a fall solo tour; he’d like to go out with only an acoustic guitar. After that, he’ll likely reconvene Built To Spill, whose members are currently scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest. Martsch doesn’t see Nelson and Plouf very often and hasn’t played with them since November 2001. Nelson recently released an album with his New Wave-inspired side project the Suffocation Keep titled John Hughes Was Never So Wrong, and is already recording a follow-up.
Meanwhile, Built To Spill recently renegotiated their contract with Warner Bros., and Martsch hopes to begin recording again next year. “I’m not even thinking about a new Built To Spill album right now, but next spring, we’ll get the Built To Spill people together and see where we are,” he says. “We need to reassess things. We’re going to have to get together and decide what kind of band we are.
“For the last [Built To Spill] record, I’d written the songs over the course of a year. Each time it’s different. We don’t mix things up just to mix things up.” According to Martsch, similar retrenchments happen after every album and don’t necessarily mean a dramatic change in direction. (Still, be warned: he has been listening to a lot of reggae lately.)
Martsch is so polite, so notoriously un-rock-star-like (the members of Built To Spill still serve as their own roadies), it’s almost painful to witness. It may be the beard, it may be the fact that he lives in Idaho and doesn’t get out much, but Martsch’s reputation as a reclusive punk rock mountain man has grown in direct proportion to his group’s fame.
Having a young son at home has made it more difficult to tour extensively, although Martsch claims that “I actually tour quite a bit. I really do like to play live. I kind of like the way we’ve been doing it [over the past few years]. Touring definitely becomes easier as you go on. I’ve been able to surround myself with nice people. And I know where to find the good restaurants now.”
That said, Martsch would rather hang out at the Manhouse with Karena, who doubles as his manager and occasional songwriting partner, and their 8-year-old son, Ben. The Manhouse (named by Ben when he was 2 years old) isn’t just a recording studio, “it’s sort of a family clubhouse,” Martsch says. “It’s where our television is. I don’t drink, and I gave up smoking, so there’s nothing too wild going on back there. I live just sort of a regular life. I hang out with my family. My son and I play a lot of games — video games, board games and card games. Things like that.”
The Martsch family has enough money to send Ben to an alternative private school, enough so that Martsch figures neither he nor Karena would have had to work much ever again, even if Built To Spill hadn’t re-upped with Warner Bros. Ask him and he’ll tell you he’s still surprised to be making music for a living; in high school, he thought and sort of hoped he would become a graphic artist. “My life is really peaceful. I’m so lucky that I don’t have to work and stuff. It doesn’t really get much better than this.”
ND contributing editor Allison Stewart lives in New York City and likes dogs of all varieties, even little ones.