Clip: Built to Spill in Pittsburgh Friday
Indie-rock jam style remains fresh for Built to Spill
Thursday, September 28, 2006
By Ed Masley
With "Perfect From Now On," Doug Martsch of Built to Spill emerged as
one of indie-rock's most sainted figures, a guitar-abusing pop
deconstructionist working the fringes with a voice that creaked like
Neil Young huffing helium on the windswept plains.
But by the time he'd finished laying down the euphoric, guitar-driven
splendor of "Keep It Like a Secret," an album many still consider
Martsch's finest hour, that Built to Spill magic was leaving him cold.
Burnt out on what he'd somehow come to dismiss as "alternative rock,"
he was spending a lot of his listening time with the blues.
"And it was like a paradigm shift for me," he says. "The craftsmanship
and songwriting and cleverness and stuff that had appealed to me in
the past was all of the sudden not that interesting. And things I
didn't like before, like people who were good singers or talented
guitar players, suddenly that became the most important part of music.
So basically, Built to Spill became irrelevant to me."
That didn't stop him from returning to the classic Built to Spill
approach with ever so slightly diminished returns on 2001's "Ancient
Melodies of the Future." But he quickly followed with a solo record,
2002's "Now You Know," that found him drinking deeply of his newfound
interest in the blues. And that's the last new music anyone had heard
from Martsch, not counting live performances, until early 2006 brought
a new Built to Spill album, "You in Reverse," a surprisingly vital
collection of sprawling guitar jams held together by the soulful ache
of Martsch's vocal melodies.
The idea, says Martsch, was not to sound like "Modern Rock."
When pressed, he's willing to concede that "Keep It Like a Secret"
doesn't really sound like "Modern Rock."
But it is more a studio record than he'd care to make at this point.
"This record's a little more live," he says, "On 'Keep it Like a
Secret,' where a lot of things were doubled, it just kind of has a
more bombastic sound that we were trying to avoid, I guess. I don't
know if that's true but that's just sort of my take on it now."
Of course, it's easier to get that live feel now that Built to Spill
is more a band, having added road guitarist Jim Roth to the fold going
into the sessions for "You in Reverse," with founding member/frequent
guest Brett Netson bringing his guitar heroics to the table midway
through the sessions.
"He's totally in the band," says Martsch. "For real this time."
Netson's involvement in "You in Reverse" is kept to four of nine
songs, but there's no mistaking what he added, from the 81/2 -minute
opener "Goin' Against Your Mind" to the 6-minute single "Conventional
"I was interested," says Martsch, "in making it sound like our jams,
because we'd been doing a lot of jamming and recording it, and
sometimes it was sloppy and sometimes it wasn't as rock as it should
have been, but I kind of liked that. In the past, I was always kind of
insecure and wanted to make sure every moment was really exciting.
This time I was more willing to let there be lulls. A lot of times
exciting moments happen because they're juxtaposed against the lulls."
When Martsch says jam, it doesn't mean what someone in a wrinkled
tie-dye might have meant.
"I don't mean just noodling around and trying to squeeze in a bunch of
notes," he says. "Our jamming is more like trying to find a good
groove, and everyone's trying to come up with a part that interlocks
with the other guy's parts, trying to play off each other in ways that
are kind of unconventional. To me, we have a lot more restraint than
what I think of a jam band as having. And when there are solos and
noodling and stuff, it's usually pretty focused."
Fitting three guitars in can be tricky, though.
As Martsch says, "It's a work in progress. It's still something where
we have a few years left to really figure it out -- like, when I'm
playing leads, being able to play things so they'll actually come
through and not be clashing with what someone else is doing. It's all
physics. I don't want to sound like three guys just wanking around.
But it's really exciting and fun. And I'm looking forward to writing
songs as a five-piece."
If it sounds like Martsch has gotten over feeling that his music is
irrelevant, well, let's not jump the gun here.
"I still kind of feel that way," he says. "But now I also understand
the value of it. It's just what we do. Like, I don't know if I would
be a Built to Spill fan if I wasn't in the band. But this is what I
do. And to me, it's beside the point if it's the kind of music I like.
Of course, I'm trying to make songs that sound good to me and doing
the best I can to make music that I would enjoy listening to, but I'm
never gonna be my favorite artist. That's not even an issue. I just
try to play as well as I can, play the notes right, sing them right,
try to write melodies that are interesting and songs that are
interesting and just hope someone likes it. I like it all right. But I
would not listen to Built to Spill."
Built to Spill
Where: Mr. Small's Theatre.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $17-$20; 412-821-4447.