The Weekly interview: Built to Spill leader Doug Martsch

Martsch (left) and BTS headline the Bunkhouse’s reopening bash on August 25.
Photo: Stephen Gere

After going six years between Vegas performances, Built to Spill is headed back for its second stop here in less than a year. What are your thoughts on Vegas? Vegas is a pretty weird place, but we’ve always had fun shows there. The first time I ever played there was in another band, The Halo Benders, in like ’94 or ’95. We played at a record store, and the locals took us out and took care of us, showed us the sights. This time we’re playing a new club there [the reopened Bunkhouse], and I’m curious to see what it’s like. We’re totally flattered to be invited for the first night.

You guys have been working on a new album, your first since 2009. Where do things stand with that? We’re almost done tracking. I have one more trip to Portland at the beginning of September for about six days of tracking, and then we’ve just gotta mix it. We’re working at Jackpot Studios—Larry Crane’s studio, the editor of Tape Op—and Sam Coomes from Quasi is working on it with us. I’ve always been a big fan of Sam’s music, and when I heard the last Quasi record, Mole City, it really blew my mind. I noticed that he engineered it, mixed it, everything himself. For us he’s kind of in a consultant role, but it’s pretty much producer. He’s in it with us all the way.

Have you going been back and forth between Boise and Portland a lot? We had a week, just to get basic drums and bass stuff, back in May, then I’ve been back three times—two five-day trips for overdub—and then I just had a week-long trip of overdubs. It’s just me and the rhythm section guys working on the record. The other guitar players aren’t involved.

So you’re doing all the guitar parts yourself? I think so. Sam plays a little bit on stuff, but I don’t know that he’s played any guitar on it. He’s done some percussion and keyboard things; he might have played guitar (laughs). There’s some stuff where I’m playing guitar and he’s, like, twiddling knobs on pedals at the same time. But yeah, it’s just a three-piece kind of a record.

Are you recording things with the other two guitarists in mind? Or do you think you’ll end up touring this as a three-piece? We’re not gonna tour it as a three-piece, but I’m not really writing parts for everyone. That’s part of the reason why we’re doing it this way, so that there doesn’t have to be three guitar parts all the time—that’s really limiting. Some of the songs are pretty stripped down; some of them are more complex and have some overdubs and stuff. But I’m not even thinking about how it’s gonna work live right now. I’m just trying to figure out what’ll make the coolest record, and then we’ll deal with that stuff later. Maybe we’ll pick songs that seem to make more sense [for the full band], or even perhaps change the songs a bit live.

Sounds like the new material won’t be in the set when you play here then, right? Exactly. It’ll be old songs.

When do you expect the record to come out, roughly? I’m pretty sure we can get this record finished up in the fall, mixed and mastered by November. And then hopefully turn-around is a few months, so I’m hoping it comes out in the springtime, April, something like that.

Now that you’re so immersed in the new music, is it tough to shift focus to the older songs for these live dates? Kind of, and usually it isn’t. Usually at this point in the recording I’m burnt out and I don’t want to hear these songs ever again. But this time, for some reason, I’m extra excited about this new stuff. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s really any better or if something else is going on inside my mind that makes me more optimistic. But I’m enjoying this more than I have in a while. I’m excited for people to hear this stuff.

How would you describe the new music? We have 16 songs we’re working on, and right now I like them all and I think we’re gonna be able to give versions of all of them that are good enough to make it onto the record, so it might be a long record. The songs are mostly kind of average length, four-minute songs or whatever, and a couple six-minute-ers. And there’ll be one long, 10-minute song or something, that’s gonna be mostly just a big, long jam. And they’re all over the place—there’s some pretty songs, some pop songs, some rockers, a lot of variety.

We’ve been working with these songs a long time. I’ve lived with them a long time, some of them maybe five years. And then there are ones that are newer; one I started writing right before we did our first session. We had a practice a couple weeks before our first session, and I hurried up and wrote another one because we had a little bit from jamming that was exciting. But most of them have just been worked over and over. We recorded them two years ago with Scott [Plouf] and Brett [Nelson], the other rhythm-section guys and basically made the album, but I wasn’t too excited about it. Some of the stuff was sort of half-figured out, and I was gonna kind of make them come to life in the overdubs, and I wasn’t having much luck with that.

We’ve just worked a lot, practiced a ton, did lots of demos and I changed a lot of the parts of the songs. I just worked it really hard until I think we’ve made some stuff that I’m pretty proud of. I mean, the thing that happens inside of a person to make them think that something is good does not necessarily mean that’s the case (laughs), but for some reason this is a good time for me creatively.

I was planning to ask you about the idea of the “scrapped” record and whether that was a completely different batch of songs that were gone forever, but it sounds like some of that material will be heard after all. I think all the songs survived from that session, but they’ve all had a little bit of makeover. And there’s probably five or six or seven more songs that we wrote since then, some based on our jams and some other things I had laying around. And then we also have maybe another five or so songs that aren’t quite there that I sort of bagged a month before we started recording, just to focus on these, so there’s a chance that we’ll get back to work and try to make another record in less than five years.

With the way that previous album attempt ended and the exit of those two band members, was there ever a point where you wondered if Built to Spill had run its course? As an artist you’re always unsure if what you’re doing is worth doing. The way that we feel right now is kind of surprising to me; it feels like I felt when I was young making music. And I really don’t know what it is. I don’t know that if it’s really any better than anything else, but for some reason it just resonates. I don’t know how to account for it or if it’s real. That stuff just seems so arbitrary to me. I can’t really put my finger on it.

Might it have to do with having different people with you on the road or in the studio? That might help a little bit. I think there’s something to playing with the same people, where they become just as tired of you as you are of yourself. Maybe playing with some younger guys … I can think of times were these guys are like, “Oh, that’s cool.” But Scott and Brett were like that, too. Those guys were great. When we recorded the record a couple years ago those guys killed it; they did an awesome job. But for some reason I didn’t really have that many more ideas. I don’t know why I was burnt out, or even if I was burnt out.

You’ve always played covers with BTS—everything from Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police” to Macy Gray’s “I Try”—but I was surprised by how many you did on the latest tour, here and in other cities. Was that just a way to keep the live show fun for you, since you haven’t had new songs to add into the setlist the past few years? It was also a part of us getting this new band together. The other rhythm-section guys quit at the end of a tour in November 2012 and by December or January we were in Portland practicing with these new guys. We had a lot of old songs to learn, and the guitar players—the three of us—we’re all pretty tired of this stuff, or at least practicing it. So introducing some cover songs was just something fun to do. And it was also good exercise—deconstructing people’s songs is helpful for us as musicians.

We did a festival in Boise called Treefort, and we decided, since we had this new band, to do something special. So we played three shows at the festival—we played a regular show, we played our first album in its entirety and we did a night of all covers. So we learned a bunch of covers for that and a lot of them have stuck. And then we did it again this year at Treefort, but this year we did a regular show, we did a show where the three of us played the new album and then we did another show of covers, old covers and then some new covers that we learned.

Part of it’s for the audience, part of it’s for us. Just like everything about the band—we’re making music for us and for the audience, too, trying to keep it enjoyable.

How big is Built to Spill’s live repertoire at this point? If someone went to the Vegas show last year, are they likely to encounter a pretty different show this time? We know maybe 40, 50 songs. And we’re gonna have a few days of practice before this trip, so we’re gonna learn probably three or four more old songs.

There’s a website that catalogs all of our shows, and sometimes you can click on the show and see the setlist, so occasionally I’ll refer to that and mix it up. But usually I’ll just make a random set. So there’s a chance it’ll be a different set, but there’s a chance it’ll be the exact same songs (laughs).

Built to Spill with Slam Dunk, The Warm Hair, Rusty Maples. August 25, 7 p.m., $15-$20. Bunkhouse, 702-854-1414.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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