Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch Has No Advice for Anyone
The indie-rock vet talks 'Untethered Moon' and why 99 percent of what he writes is "really stupid"
Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch isn’t an upbeat person. Super-personable, yes, but not very optimistic. “A huge part of any creative process, I think, is being a critic of yourself,” he tells SPIN over the phone while strolling through downtown Boise. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to longtime followers: For the last two decades, the melodic indie-rock stalwarts — which, granted, really haven’t been “indie” since signing to Warner Bros. in 1995 — are beloved for their reams of hook-filled guitar ballads, many of which bear the influence of Neil Young and Dinosaur Jr., and feature lyrics that wax philosophical while remaining approachable (“I don’t like this air / But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop breathing it”).
Despite the Idaho band’s critical standing and devoted fanbase, Martsch still kind of hates his own writing. “Lyrically, I struggle and will always struggle,” he says, before hedging: “But music, that part I enjoy. There are so many things about [music] that I like and that I don’t like.” Ironically, what comes next sounds not all that different from a quintessential BtS lyric: “It’s that way with everything; there is nothing that is just pure enjoyment.”
It’s refreshing that he won’t mince words in casual conversation, and his matter-of-fact outlook has seeped into Built to Spill’s eighth studio album, Untethered Moon, their first since 2009’s There Is No Enemy. Below, Martsch delves into his (sometimes fraught) writing process, what to expect from Untethered Moon, and why you shouldn’t take career advice from him.
What has kept you invested in Built to Spill after all this time?
Well, it’s just what I do. It’s my life and kind of like a family or something. You don’t choose it so much — it’s kind of where you find yourself. I’m the kind of person that goes with the flow of my life, and that is where it’s gone. I’m not a person who has a lot of other interests. This is the best thing that I have going. I don’t think that I would be successful at anything else, and I’m still to this day stunned that I’ve ever had any success. I never intended to.
I grew up with punk rock and stuff and thought it’d be fun to play in a band, and it’d be cool to maybe someday get to the point where we can make a record and somebody else would pay for the recording cost. I never imagined having a career doing this stuff, so I still feel lucky. I want to take advantage of it. It’s fun, too. It’s fun to play shows, it’s fun to be on tour, and it’s fun being the studio making records. It’s fun just jamming with your friends. There’s nothing else I could do that would be as nice as this.
The other thing that keeps me doing it is also I actually make money doing it, and there are still people interested in it. I think that if no one liked it and it was a complete struggle, I’d still probably do it, but not as much as I do.
You’ve said in the past that you have something of a love-hate relationship with Perfect from Now On, a Built to Spill record many people cite as their favorite. How do you feel about the disconnect between the fans’ perception of something and your own?
Well, I assume that nobody is hearing anything the same way. Every time you put anything on, we’re all going to hear something completely different. To me, it is so subjective. Like, when you say you like [Perfect From Now On], I don’t even know what that means. Some people just look into the words or the singing. Myself, I don’t even notice that. I notice the melodies of the singing, but I don’t pay attention to words until way later unless the words are so obvious. There are songs I listen to 100 times, and I couldn’t tell you the words to them. So, I just think everyone has a different thing they listen for.
Have you ever second-guessed a record’s material? Like, initially tossing a song out, then, some time later, looking back and feeling like you were too hard on yourself?
That kind of stuff happens all the time. On Untethered Moon, there’s a song called “Never Be the Same” — it was the song that I made up and toyed with. I got my high-school band, Farm Days, back together to play a fundraiser show. A few Boise bands that had broken up for years got together, so we got together and we had such fun that we decided to keep working and see if we could make up some new songs, and that was one of them. [“Never Be the Same”] was more of a rock song than whatever it is now. It was real heavy sounding. I liked things about it, but I also thought it sounded stupid. Then one day we whipped it out when we were practicing, and I was like, “Let’s do it real mellow.” Sam Coomes — who produced the record — heard it and was like, “That song is great. You’ve got to record that.”
If I have any idea, if it’s horrible or good, if it seems like anything at all, for some reason it hits my mind I will write it down or record it and let myself judge it later on. My notebooks are horrible. They are unbelievably embarrassing. They’re worse than high-school poetry, they’re so bad. One time I showed someone, a friend of mine, just so we could laugh at how stupid the things I wrote down were the worst clichés and plays on clichés. It’s almost like when you write some stuff while you’re on acid and thinking you’ve come up with something brilliant, but then you go back and look at it and it’s like weird shit.
Ira Glass has a quote where he essentially says that every creative person does terrible work in the beginning. Everybody who’s every wanted to make art is terrible at first. But as long as you create a “volume of work” — even if it continues to be terrible — it will get better. That’s kind of reassuring.
Well, I’m going to go one further and say that it doesn’t get better. You will not get to a point where you write good things. I’m saying that even now, 99 percent of what I write is really stupid, and it didn’t get any better.
What keeps you going with it then?
I can’t do anything else; there is nothing else I can do. I don’t know how to do anything else, and I still like it. Mostly what I’m talking about is the lyrics. The music part of it, it doesn’t come easy for me, but it’s more subjective, so you can get away with more. Whereas the lyrics, lyrics are subjective. But if they’re bad, they can really turn a person off to what’s happening in the whole. If the lyrics are bad, it’s impossible to listen.
You’ve have had a relationship with Warner Bros. for a while. How did the band wrangle a contract where you can put out a new record at your own pace, as opposed to, say every two years?
Yeah, we’re kind of in a contract, but most of it’s just Warner Bros., the people working there being cool and just getting our vision for some reason. I mean, we have in our contract that we have creative control, but that’s sort of a vague thing, and I think some people have that and it doesn’t really mean that much. So we basically have done whatever we’ve wanted on every level of our career. There are some bureaucratic things that have to be done, and I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Just small things, like having the FBI warning on our records. I wouldn’t put that on if I didn’t have too, but that’s totally minor shit.
Pick your battles.
Exactly. Well, some of them you don’t even get to pick, but I think as far as… oh, putting out records, according to our contract we are supposed to put out a record within 18 months of the last record. So that is part of our contract, but they kind of look the other way on that stuff.
Got any career advice for younger indie-rock bands?
I don’t at all. I can tell you about my circumstances, but they’re not going to apply. I just feel like people have something in them that they want to just do, and they’ll do it no matter what anyone says. Or if they need to be advised, maybe it’s not for them.
Yeah, the music industry is pretty much the antithesis of practical.
Yeah, exactly. So the thing I always say is that I’ve been really lucky. That’s my secret, that I got lucky. I’m not saying that there aren’t other things involved, but I wouldn’t be where I was if I hadn’t lived in Seattle at a certain time, met certain people. The people that I started a band with, I just happened to hook up with some people who were a little older than me who put out records themselves. That was a big deal back in those days. For me to work with them was amazing, and that made my whole life.
I wouldn’t say, like, put out your own record, because that might not do it. I wouldn’t say tour a bunch, because that might not do it either. The other thing I say is don’t have any expectations. If you want to do it, just do it. But if you want to make it big, you’re on your own. I have no idea how to make it big. No one knows the secret to that. I mean, I can tell you how to book time in a studio, but that’s neither here nor there.
Did anyone try to discourage you in making a career out of music?
Well, I was pretty lucky. My mother wanted me to go to college after high school, and I didn’t really want to, but I did. I ended up dropping out, but she was really supportive. Everyone in my family has been pretty supportive.
I never did have to deal with anyone thinking [music] was a waste of time. I think everyone understood that I wasn’t going for it; I wasn’t trying to make it big. By the time I was 24, we got signed to a major label, so it never got to me being 35 and still doing it while not doing anything else, not having a job. I always had a job, so it was never a big deal or weird or anything. It wasn’t like I was a fuck-up; I was responsible and taking care of myself and playing music for fun.
Right, you were saying just do it to do it.
Yeah, exactly, just follow your heart. If anyone’s serious about music, then that’s it, that’s all you can do. Be serious and hope that the right people hear it and shit goes your way. I don’t think that anything is meant for anyone. I don’t think there’s any kind of music that people are going to like. It’s so arbitrary. Whoever is famous is kind of an arbitrary thing. I don’t think there is some special thing that you’re supposed to do, that music is supposed to do.
That makes me think of this year’s Grammys. Beck looked completely gobsmacked while accepting the award for Best Rock Album. He so wasn’t expecting it. He goes, “I made this album in my house with my kids around and yeah, thank you for that,” and just sort of walked off.
Yeah, like maybe Beyoncé had in mind that she’d win a Grammy when making her record, but Beck just made a record and happened to win a Grammy.
Also, don’t sell yourself short because your music means a great deal to a lot of people, myself included.
That’s rad, I’m glad to hear that. I’m pretty excited about the record, but you never know if people are going to be like, “What the fuck is going on now?”