Alex Graham

Special in other ways – An Interview with Built To Spill

Ahead of the release of new album When The Wind Forgets Your Name, Jasper Willems connects with legendary band leader Doug Martsch about finding new inspiration and working methods in a time of upheaval.

Peculiarly, with a discography that spans three decades, Built To Spill are a band without a clear mythos. They didn’t make avant-garde esoterica hip like Sonic Youth. There was never infighting and drama orbiting around them like with Dinosaur Jr or Hüsker Dü. Their albums never echo the prophetic gravitas that defines a band like Radiohead or even Modest Mouse, who often cite them as their main reference point. And despite Doug Martsch being the only constant member of an ever-shifting lineup, he never quite fit the profile of the Brian Wilson all-encompassing genius; he’s often cripplingly self-effacing when addressing his own musical abilities.

Indeed, if Built To Spill ever had a plan as one of alternative rock’s most beloved bands, that plan turned out to be strange and random at best. Somehow they ended up as one of final acclaimed grunge-era outfits placidly adrift on a major label (Warner Bros to be exact), before releasing their new studio album When The Wind Forgets Your Name on Sub Pop. “I think I’m the first 50 year-old they’ve ever signed,” Martsch joked in the press release. Admittedly, it’s a funny trajectory, especially since in the nineties when Built to Spill became a household name, the inverse indie-to-mainstream jump was the norm. 

“Fool’s gold made me rich for a little while”, Martsch wryly sings on “Fool’s Gold, the album’s second single, which may or may not be a sly nod to his band’s past glories, highlighted by 1997’s critically-acclaimed, panoramic Perfect From Now On. On the Built to Spill records that followed, Martsch never seemed all too worried about trying to  live up to that quote unquote ‘perfection’, coming to terms with the sheer headfuck of having made a record like that on a major label budget. For example, on “Good Ol’ Boredom”, one of the standout tracks on 2009’s (perpetually underrated) There Is No Enemy, he seeks agency in the downward slope: “Most of my dreams have come true.”

After I connect with Martsch on the phone at his current base Portland, Oregon, he is greeted by a murder of crows. The incessant cawing of the black-clad birds is clearly audible through the speakers. It triggers a specific memory from his yonder days in Boise, Idaho. “They’re being so sweet to me, they just totally ignored me,” he deadpans. “It wasn’t always this way, I had some crows chase me a little bit when I was a teenager walking on my way to school. There was this bridge I crossed, and there was always this crow swooping down, I don’t know how long that was going on, for like two months or something? It must have had a baby or something, because it was swooping pretty close to me. It never touched me but it definitely stuck inside my head. So I hated crows, but now I don’t hold it against them anymore.”

In myth, crows are often a symbol of bad omens, but if you compare Built To Spill’s career to some upstart indie outfits signed to Sub Pop today, you could certainly call Martsch’s situation rather fortuitous. Nowadays, pushing through the noise takes a much bigger workload, and much fewer spoils to gain. When The Wind Forgets Your Name does take Martsch to some strange, unfamiliar pastures, to more exotic places than longtime breeding ground Boise.

In 2018, Martsch embarked on his inaugural Built To Spill tour south of the US border. Touring Brazil for the first time, he needed a backing band, so he connected with João Casaes and Le Almeida of the psychedelic rock band Oruã. Despite some language barriers, the three clicked well together, enough to go on a subsequent US tour in 2019 and record some songs in Boise. After Caseas and Almeida dropped the rhythm section they flew back to Brazil. That’s when the pandemic hit, and the new iteration of Built To Spill – a project that thrived on fresh collaborations – also fell into limbo. 

“I decided to record the record on a computer by myself,” Martsch remembers. “Those guys recorded the rhythm section stuff at the end of 2019 and then flew home to Brazil. I was just left alone with it and I wasn’t too inspired but I knew I had to get it done. I just slowly worked on it and I knew the songs pretty well, most of what was important about the song. Just the embellishments, the extra stuff that came on top of it, that all came pretty slowly to me. I didn’t feel super inspired.”

Indeed, if you can attach one genre to the making of When The Wind Forgets Your Name, it might actually be survival horror. For months, Martsch couldn’t rely on the factors that made recording such a fruitful endeavour in the past. He couldn’t cling to the electricity and thrill of playing off the chops and creativity of others. On top of that, his marriage to poet Karena Youtz, whom he credits for unearthing the lyrical pearls of past Built To Spill classics, had ended. Plus, there was the challenge of fleshing out the songs further with a DAW, a method that was still quite novel to Martsch.

“A lot of days, instead of making a record, I was looking on YouTube trying to troubleshoot to do some simple things in the program,” Martsch recalls. “There were a couple of issues that came up, the digital weirdness, trying to find someone to help me figure it out. I kind of forgot about that stuff.” 

Listening to When The Wind Forget Your Name, you can sense it was kind of a discomfiting slog for Martsch to finish, especially the lyrics. “Well, if only I could think of an idea and write a song about it, but I don’t have that skill, for me the lyrics are the last thing and the hardest thing for me to come up with,” he says. “Right now I have a few songs that are pretty much ready to go musically, but don’t have any lyrics. I don’t have anything I wanted to say, I’m not really a good writer or poet or anything like that. It takes a long time for me to come up with anything that’s interesting.”

Musically, When The Wind Forget Your Name takes more of a direct approach as well. His freewheeling soloing on “Spiderweb” feels weary and brisk, reaching deep to find that elusive spark. And though Martsch fails to churn out something crisp, he conveys that struggle candidly through sound, unapologetic about the act of winging it and powering through that echo chamber of resignation. “Fool’s Gold” and “Elements” sound like acute snapshots of Martsch wrestling his inner critic to an unsatisfying stalemate. But in the letting go of that neurotic perfectionism permeates a rare joy. On “Understood”, Martsch exclaims: “I’m doing my best to be unrefined.”

Away from the grindstone of finishing the record, he found a jolt of inspiration through Dog Biscuits, a series of online comics written by Alex Graham during the pandemic. When bringing it up, Martsch’s voice noticeably lights up. “Really. I feel like the writing is fearless, she’d go anywhere with it,” he says. “Things about sex and relationships and drugs. It was during COVID and the comic itself was taking place during the pandemic. And there’s a weird sort of dream symbolism in it too. And every few weeks she’d do a panel. And it was always so exciting to see what she’s going to do next. It looks like she was really exploring comics herself, While she was doing it, and trying different things. It was really grounded, but also limitless.”

Graham wasn’t familiar with Built To Spill’s music when Martsch reached out to her to do the cover art, though allegedly her boyfriend made her a fan of the music. It was important to Martsch however, that she got acquainted with the album a bit deeper before going to work. “Did you ever see that movie Jodorowski’s Dune?”, he prompts. “He’s a great filmmaker and writer, he also did graphic novels. He was gonna make this movie version of Dune back in the 70s, get it together. There are some people he could have worked with who were great but they didn’t seem to like the idea. But to him, he called them spiritual warriors. It’s the same thing, like… people who weren’t just going to do the job for a paycheck but people who believe in the whole project on a deeper level. Have some sort of spiritual connection to the art instead of just the job that they get paid for.”

Those kinds of spiritual connections are ultimately what make Built To Spill an ever-evolving entity that bridges whole generations. Whether Martsch is backed by Casaes and Almeida – and these days Teresa Esguerra and Melanie Radford of Marshall Poole – musicians pouring their own personality and playing instincts into the repertoire strikes more affirming than whatever Martsch can dream up on his own. “I like all the different interpretations,” he says. “I never have a set idea in my mind of what music should be or what Built To Spill should be. There are some parameters I guess, directions I sort of like to go. But for the most part, everyone I’ve ever played with has done their own thing. It always worked out well, I always played with people I like a lot.”

The imperative for Martsch and Built To Spill is to find that next jolt up ahead and forget his heart is haunted by ghosts of the past. Playing wingman and interpreter of the late Daniel Johnston – recording an album’s worth of covers –  offered him another stop in that quest. The two seem polar opposites in their craft: Martsch the kaleidoscopic stickler barely squeezing out what he feels constitutes a song, and Johnston, who wrote songs by the assembly line despite his musical limitations. “I definitely had some insight into the way he was making music,” he muses. “The songs just rolled right out of him. I haven’t been able to make that a part of my own thing, it’s not an easy thing to do. A lot of stuff comes out of improvising, but I wasn’t able to learn anything that I could in any way emulate. I mostly just observe and appreciate “

That certainly goes both ways. In the Jordan Minkoff-directed video for “Fool’s Gold”, Martsch gives himself a light-hearted ribbing. He looks almost unrecognisable clean shaven and sporting a bowl-cut wig, driving in his convertible like some lost member of the Monkees. In the dressing room, the glamorous Doug-in-reverse is pampered into his familiar no-frills, unrefined get up: trucker cap, scraggly beard and sweat-drenched t-shirt, ready to go to work. It definitely looks more apropos of survival horror: no wonder those crows were so happy to see him.

“I always keep thinking about that: what if they had a pretty song?” he jokes. “Maybe we would have a whole different attitude towards crows as birds.”

When The Wind Forgets Your Name is out on September 9 via Sub Pop (pre-order/save).

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