Built to Spill: Outlet for the Imagination

Music Features Built To Spill
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The lyrics are the last thing to be added in the creation of a Built To Spill song; the words are always the result of the music, never the cause. “On the Way,” the third song on Untethered Moon, the band’s first album in six years, is the tale of a spaceship from Earth “on the way to Mars.” But Doug Martsch, the leader and one unchanging element in Built To Spill, created the sci-fi sounds on his guitar before he wrote the explanatory lyrics.

In other words, the guitars create a story that the lyrics then translate into human speech. The bouncy rhythm-guitar part suggests a journey, and the extreme vibrato on the lead guitar, shimmering like a distant radar signal, suggests that the trip is interplanetary. On the first instrumental break, that quivering guitar sound is joined by a second, beeping guitar sound, as if from a satellite. Then the song accelerates into a double-time rhythm, then into a bridge melody, and finally into a guitar solo that sounds like the echoing roar of a ship going into warp-drive.

“This one needed some kind of narrative to get you through the song,” Martsch says. “On some songs you can get away with vaguer lyrics, but this one had to tell a story, because the instruments were taking us on a journey. My idea was, ‘What do you do to keep yourself occupied while you’re on a voyage through space?’ Sure, it’s a great trip, but it’s also a couple of human beings with emotions. You can’t just work on the rocket; you have feelings.”

Unlike a lot of rock songs about outer space, this one doesn’t have the chilly, techno feel of machinery traveling through a vacuum. Martsch’s guitars have the messy warmth of the people inside those machines. That’s because his guitar playing—with its furry tone and slowly unfurling melodies—is more about emotion than technique. Only after his guitar has defined the feeling does he look for words to articulate it.

“Sometimes,” Martsch adds, “I just sing stuff as we’re jamming: all kinds of nonsense, unconscious things that boil up to the surface. It’s all about finding words that match the meter, the mood, the cadence. Do I want to scream, be mellow or slur my words together? We tape that and play it back and only then do we find words that make sense. I work on intuition; for every idea that makes it onto the record there are dozens that don’t make it.”

Martsch comes up with the original guitar parts and vocal melodies in much the same way. He’ll play the guitar for hours—either at home alone or in rehearsal with his bandmates. If he improvises something interesting, he’ll immediately record it. If it inspires a second guitar part, he’ll put the two together; if not, he’ll keep the part on his computer till he finds a use for it. He currently has almost 30 different parts, and he’ll sometimes play them on random shuffle, hoping the juxtapositions will spark his imagination.

“Making up guitar parts and melodies is a lot like making up words,” he continues, “but words are trickier. You don’t want them to be too obvious or too obscure.” He pauses. “Well, now that I think about it, it’s pretty much the same, because you don’t want the parts or melodies to be too obvious or too obscure either.

“I don’t like melodies that are too obvious or ripping somebody else off. I don’t like if you can predict where it’s going. I don’t want it to hearken back to something else; I want the listener to have an experience that’s totally focused on that song. At the same time, I don’t want the melody to be too obscure where the song is all noise and attitude.”

The first thing you notice on Untethered Moon are the exotic guitar sounds that swirl around the vocals and rhythm section like a flock of spaceships, each beeping or buzzing in its own code. As you continue to listen, however, you notice that lurking under the busy six-string surface is often a well-crafted pop tune.

It might be the relaxed country two-step at the heart of “On the Way”; it might be the bouncy, Kinks-like music-hall tune at the core of “Never Be the Same,” or it might be the Beatlesque ballad at the center of “Horizon to Cliff.” It’s this combination of weirdo guitar and solid songcraft that make Built To Spill records different from either your typical psychedelia or typical pop.

“I’m very interested in conventional music,” Martsch acknowledges, “but I’m just as interested in unconventional music, and I like putting the two together. The Beatles are a conventional band in the sense that they created the blueprint for the form of a rock song; they used verses, choruses and bridges, because they get the job done. Whereas Led Zeppelin is less conventional. A lot of our songs don’t have choruses and it drives some people crazy.”

Martsch soaked up all these influences as a youngster listening to the radio in Idaho. For any teenager who feels like a bit of an oddball in high school, the radio can feel like a lifeline to a larger community of oddballs scattered across the continent, but maybe in a town like Twin Falls, that lifeline is even more important.

“When I was a kid,” Martsch recalls, “I had to work a little harder to find interesting things. Maybe in a bigger city, you’d have more access to find cool stuff. If you found a rare record it was a bigger thing; if a band came through town, it meant more, it was more precious. It’s about having an identity, about feeling that something matters. Or that what matters to you matters to someone else. Or that anything matters. It’s so hard to get meaning out of this world sometimes.

“I had grown up on AM radio that played everything: rock, soul and country. I liked older bands like the Beatles and Neil Young, because I’d heard them on the radio. Then, when I started high school, in the mid-‘80s, commercial radio got really bad, and I got into more alternative bands and started playing guitar. I started making aesthetic choices. A lot of my identity was tied up in the people I liked, I bonded with people I met who liked the same things. It was a community across the world that I belonged to. David Bowie was pretty important, R.E.M., the Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven.”

Martsch revisits those days of youthful discovery on the new album’s lead-off track, “All Our Songs.” After an introduction of rumbling tom-toms, Martsch juxtaposes a jangly Peter Buck-like arpeggio against a zooming J. Mascis-like lead. Pretty soon Martsch is evoking an adolescent night any obsessive music fan will recognize: “All night we listened to their second record,” he sings. “It had all these songs, sounded like we’re in this together. And I found a place where I know I’ll always be tethered. And I knew when I woke up rock and roll will be here forever.”

“The Butthole Surfers, Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., especially Dinosaur, were the bands that shaped the kind of music I wanted play,” Martsch says. “They were really punk but they weren’t afraid to play their instruments. They weren’t the Germs, though I liked some of the Germs’ records. But for these other bands, melody was important, not just attitude. They weren’t hot shots either; they were somewhere in between. That’s what I was aiming for: ‘somewhere in between.’”

Over a long career, Martsch has hit that sweet spot again and again. He began in the Twin Falls band Farm Days, joined the Boise band Treepeople and moved with it to Seattle. He returned to Boise to form Built To Spill in 1992 with Brett Netson and Ralf Youtz, and they released a debut album, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, in 1993.

Several releases and personnel changes led to the 1997 major-label debut, Perfect from Now On, featuring Martsch, Netson, the similarly named Brett Nelson and Steve Plouf. A broad audience was introduced to the band by Warner Bros.’s promotional muscle, and that audience found Martsch combining post-punk experimentalism and rich, melodic guitar solos in a way no one had thought possible. It made the band modern-rock heroes.

The touring trio of Martsch, Nelson and Plouf stayed remarkably stable through four more studio albums and a live record for Warner Bros. Unlike most marriages between major labels and indie-rock bands, this one proved unusually stable as well, with the label giving the band enough leeway to experiment and the band making records accessible enough to land in the lower reaches of Billboard’s top-100 album chart. In 2012, the trio went into the studio to make yet another album.

“We recorded a bunch of songs with that rhythm section,” Martsch explains, “and they did a great job, but I wasn’t excited by what I was playing. It was good, but I didn’t feel like I was pushing myself. We left the songs very basic; we were going to come back and do overdubs. We went on tour, and when those guys quit the band, I saw that as an opportunity to bag the record.”

Last year Martsch entered the studio with a new rhythm section (bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere) and a new producer (Quasi’s Sam Coomes). Starting from scratch, they re-recorded five songs from the discarded 2012 sessions (“Living Zoo,” “Never Be the Same,” “When I’m Blind,” “Horizon to Cliff” and “Snow”) and worked up five newer songs. The reconstituted Built To Spill also features guitarists Jim Roth and former member Brett Netson, and they were supposed to add overdubs, but Martsch was so happy with the trio sessions that he left them the way they were.

As he was developing one of the new songs, he kept singing this line, “I never meant to forget you.” Martsch decided it should be a song about memory, and he learned from his research that “Camp Response Element Binding Protein” is the name for the chemical that binds memories to nerve cells. So he called the song “C.R.E.B.” Together with songs about space travel (“On the Way” and “Horizon to Cliff”), the breakdown of human cells (“Another Day”) and the similarity of human and animal DNA (“Living Zoo”), there’s an unmistakably scientific bent to Martsch’s lyrics.

“I like science,” he admits, “because it’s another outlet for the imagination. To think about the sun and what it’s made and what it would be like to be up close to it, that tickles me. I don’t understand any of the math behind it, but I love thinking about the phenomena. I like watching TV shows like Cosmos. It’s amazing that we’ve figured so much of it out, especially recently.”

This sense of wonder about the universe and the science that’s trying to comprehend it is communicated not so much by the lyrics as by the music. The momentum of the bass, drums and rhythm-guitar parts seem to push the listener into the unknown. Once there, the lead-guitar parts, always equal parts curiosity and awe, seem to reflect all the strangeness that the unknown contains.

“I’m always trying to go beyond myself,” he says, “and play something I’ve never done before.”

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