by Rebecca Zaragoza
Making new music is a daunting task for Doug Martsch. This could come as a surprise to Built to Spill’s ever-appreciative fan base, according to the energy at their recent show at the Echoplex in L.A., and people cannot get enough of their artful sound. My favorite thing about Built to Spill’s music is its effortless melody and tone and voice that resonate with many seasoned-ears; it’s nostalgia seems timeless in a season when music seems so easy and available and fashionable. So how is it that such a respected musician can find his creative process to be daunting? This interview took place over the phone one week prior to Built to Spill’s show in L.A. Thanks go to Warner Brothers for cooperating with Country Music Goodness to make this interview happen.
CMG: Hey Doug, how are you doing man?
DM: Good, how are you?
CMG: I’m doing well, thanks. So I was researching past interviews you have done and I have noticed that many writers often use the interview to show how much they know about your music. In this interview, I really want to get to know you as the face behind Built to Spill. So my first question is- Do you enjoy being interviewed or is it something you would rather not have to deal with?
DM: Oh, you know, I think the first few interviews I did were really fun. But then, you know… I think a person can only be interviewed a certain amount of times.
CMG: Definitely! You guys have been around for awhile.
DM: Ya… I think that maybe I have just done too many (interviews). But I think that, in theory, I don’t think it is very fun- But, every time I do it is almost always pretty fun because the people I talk to are usually nice. You get the same questions a lot, but you get some people every once in a while who kind of come at it from another angle…or even if they are asking the same questions you just answer them in different ways to keep things interesting.
CMG: Could you talk about a time in your life when you have been your happiest self?
DM: I don’t really know. I have always been pretty happy. I have always pretty much enjoyed where I am at in life… The last couple of years have been the most difficult for me because of some eye problems. That kind of triggered a lot of anxiety in me. I never really dealt with that when I was younger. But I am kind of starting to come around to some sort of equilibrium. Ya, I don’t think there is really a period of time when- I feel like I have always had things going on that I enjoyed. I guess when I first started dating my wife that was really exciting and fun.
CMG: How long ago was that?
DM: Oh, maybe something like 16, 17 years. That might be my highest point.
CMG: Do you have a religious preference?
DM: No, I’m not a religious person at all.
CMG: Have you at any point in your life ever practiced any sort of religion?
DM: Ya. When I was a kid, well… We didn’t go to church or anything. When I was in junior high, actually before junior high, my brother and sister became Christians. They were older than me and I sort of went to a church youth group for a while. It was really fun. I tried to have faith but I never really quite got it, and then when I got into high school I definitely stopped believing there was any sort of spiritual power. I haven’t really changed my opinion about it. My wife is a very spiritual person, and I’m just not. There are a lot of people who think I am a Christian because of some of my lyrics but I’m not.
CMG: It is pretty humorous that you are saying this because I had a reoccurring conversation in college where a friend and I would argue about whether or not Ben Harper was a Christian because of his lyrics…
DM: I did that too when I was a kid. I actually really liked Christian rock music.
CMG: What are some Christian bands you listened to?
DM: Well, you know, there are actually a couple of things that I still think are really good. There is this guy named Larry Norman that I liked a lot. He was like, Rolling Stones-style music. The Stones and Bob Dylan were his influences, but all of his lyrics were about Jesus. It was pretty good- I found one of his records a couple of years ago and it still sounded really good. So I kind of did the same sort of thing when I was a kid, where I would project my thoughts on music. I think that when you are a Christian, you are really worried that those who aren’t Christians are going to go to hell. That is just really sad. So you really want the people you like to be Christian so they can also go where you are going. And of course the people who think I am a Christian are usually Christians projecting in that way, and then they are really bummed out to find out it is not the case.
CMG: Well, I would like to take an opportunity to say that my two favorite Built to Spill albums would have to be Ultimate Alternative Wavers and You in Reverse. Do you have any particular songs or albums that you tend to favor or feel that they really envelopes the art of Built to Spill?
DM: Not really. I think that it is cool that you like those albums. I guess, in a way, I have always just accepted the fact that most people like our middle three albums which would be: There is Nothing Wrong with Love, Perfect from Now On, and Keep It Like a Secret. They seem to be our most popular records. I don’t really think about what I like. Whenever I am asked what our best stuff is, those are the records I mention because it seems to be what people like. But you know, I think all of our records are so different…each record represents the whole period of my life that I was in. There are a couple of records that I’m not too excited about, but I enjoy most of them.
CMG: Do you do any writing other than lyrics?
DM: No, not at all. Lyrics, I can barely get those going. I’m not a writer at all.
CMG: When do you find yourself most creative? Is it when you’re with the other members of Built to Spill, or is it when you’re with your family?
DM: There are different stages to writing things that take place at different times. Sometimes, you know, when we are jamming together we come up with things and that can be really inspiring. Sometimes it distracts you from what you are trying to get done. Most things come out of jamming with the band or sitting alone with a guitar. Sometimes, if I sit alone with a guitar and a tape recorder, I’ll just strum out a few chords, make up a melody really quickly, and then record it.
CMG: How old are your kids now?
DM: I have a thirteen year-old son.
CMG: Is he into music?
DM: Ya. Sure. I mean, right now he has been listening to his iPod every night before he goes to bed. For a while he really wasn’t into music. He plays the cello in his orchestra. It’s hard to really to tell what he likes about music or how much he is into it.
CMG: Doug, could you share your thoughts on our country’s current presidential campaign?
DM: Well, my personal opinion is that I would like to see the Green nominee (Ralph Nader) go to the White House. Earlier on, I would have liked to see Kucinich take the Democrats. Right now, I guess Obama is the best thing going. Although I have a pretty strong feeling that there is probably not much difference between the two democratic candidates. I am not really excited about any of that stuff. It seems like what it comes down to is, “who you can stomach the most for four years?”
CMG: I read somewhere that you guys agreed to play the Langerado Music Festival… how do you feel about it?
DM: Fine (hahaha). We’ve played a couple of Langerado-type concerts, and they tend to be a sort of a hippyish thing. Is that why you asked?
CMG: (hahaha) Ya.
DM: No. We like stuff like that. We have played a few hippyish things. You know, we’re from the northwest and we have played Eugene (Oregon) quite a bit. No matter where you go there are always a few hippies in the crowd. I love hippies myself. They are a great audience, always receptive, and like to dance a lot.
CMG: Ya! I just went to see Black Mountain last week and there were quite a few hippies there…
DM: Oh yeah! We played with them in Europe but I didn’t get to see them play. I heard they were really good though.
CMG: Black Mountain is awesome live! Or at least the hippies seem to think so. Doug, what can we expect from Built to Spill in the near future?
DM: We have been working on some stuff and we’ll record when this tour is over.
CMG: Will you guys be producing this album on your own?
DM: No, we are working with this guy named Dave Trumfio in LA.
CMG: Are you looking forward to it?
DM: Um, kind of. I don’t know if it’s that I’m getting old, but it is sort of daunting. I like the songs and stuff, but I guess I am looking forward to it and dreading it at the same time. I like the songs when they are still just forming and have a lot of potential. Once you get into the studio and start recording them, you have to start giving up on a lot of your dreams of what the song could have been for a lot of reasons. I am sort of dreading letting go of them in that way.