Built to Spill

Rock of the West

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By Gary Graff  

It's been five years since Doug Martsch and company gave us the last Built to Spill album, but they've hardly been sitting at home in Idaho listening to old records. During the interim, Martsch launched a solo career with the more rootsy Now You Know and produced an album for fellow Idahoans Pajama Party in a Haunted House. This year, however he brought back Built to Spill with an exceptional new album, You in Reverse -- though surgery for a detached retina postponed not the album but Martsch's planned activities to promote it.

Q: What led you to take such a long break between Built to Spill albums?

Martsch: I wasn't that interested in making rock music or listening to our band and the kind of music we make. Actually the solo album was recorded before the band's last record (2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future), but that's definitely when I started getting kind of burnt out on alternative rock.

Q: So what was your anticipation for the band when you did bring it back together?

Martsch: We had this guy Jim Roth who had been playing guitar live with us for a couple of years. We wanted to integrate him into the band and have him make the record with us and stuff. The whole idea was just to jam around and see where we went, 'cause I had no ideas at all. I had a few little parts I'd written, a couple of ideas, but mostly the jamming was all about seeing where we were gonna go with it. It was fun to jam with two guitars and play off each other, take turns doing things. There was just more interplay, more things to play off of.

Q: Does this mean that you're more open to others' input into Built to Spill now than you might have been earlier?

Martsch: Oh, absolutely. This is definitely the most collaborative thing that we've ever done. I was never against other people's ideas from the very first thing we did, but before I think I had more ideas. Now I'm less certain of what I want to do. So I not only welcome ideas, but I encourage them. That's what the jamming was all about, for people to come up with their own ideas for the songs. I think it makes for more interesting music when it's coming from a lot of different views instead of one person's.

Q: But you're still the boss, right?

Martsch: Well...(Laughs) I think everyone in the band understands the bottom line is that I'm the one who kind of has to figure out what's really going to happen with the songs. Everyone is fine when I make adjustments to what they're doing or whatever.

Q: A title like You in Reverse implies a kind of retro sensibility. Was that the intent?

Martsch: It was actually just sort of an interesting play on words, kind of ambiguous. But I think the stuff I've been listening to mostly these days is old records, old soul and old reggae and things from the '60s and stuff. And the guy we recorded the record with, Steve Lobdell, he's also into old records. Neither of us listen to anything modern. So that was sort of an idea to have it sound not super hi-fi or anything. We wanted good tones and stuff, but obviously we didn't want to record it with digital things. We recorded onto tape -- we've done all Built to Spill records that way -- and kind of make it sound like an old record in that way.

Q: Is anything going on with your other musical interests outside of Built to Spill?

Martsch: No, but during a little break we took I recorded some stuff just with some friends. It started out with us sort of getting together and jamming around, and I was playing bass. Then we decided to do some covers and started calling it the Boise Cover Band. About seven of them turned out pretty cool -- like "Ashes to Ashes" by David Bowie and an instrumental version of "Back on the Chain Gang" by the Pretenders -- and I'm going to make CDs of it and take them quietly on tour and sell them to people. It's no big thing, but it was a lot of fun.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.