Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

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Alisa M. Ben | September 25, 2002

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When Stevie Nicks recorded her solo album, it was said to be the death of Fleetwood Mac; this being the legacy of the music business.

Fast-forward 22 years to October 2002; I received a pre-arranged phone call from Built To Spill multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Doug Martsch. After speaking with him, I understood the artistry of the artist and the many outlets one can explore if they are brave enough to seek new identities. Martsch was a laid-back student of music, secure in his artistry and in his ability to pick up a new instrument at any time to explore the sound of music (please do not break out into song the reference was non-musical).

“I think when you pick up a different instrument your approach is so completely different because you look at it and you don’t see where the notes are,” Martsch said. “You don’t fall into your old tricks or habits, and whatever you’re hearing is what you’re dealing with.”

His pseudo-solo album, Now You Know on Warner Brothers Records, quietly and casually hit stores on September 17, 2002 with little marketing and little expectations from the creator.

“It was not my intention to put out a solo record; it was just stuff I recorded and I think to some people it looks like I’m ‘going solo,” but if I were going solo it would be a record that sounded like Built to Spill.”

It was with the band Built to Spill that Doug Martsch made himself a household name among the early 90’s indie movement (though on a major), alongside bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. Not too different than his like-minded contemporary Stephen Malkmus, Martsch saw the opportunity to expand his career beyond the confines of classification. So, with his band on sabbatical, Martsch assembled a do-it-all touring band for his new record.

“The whole entourage was the four of us, and we were all Mike Johnson’s band.”

Ian, Built To Spill’s sound guy opened the show playing alone. Mike Johnson was second on the bill with Ian on drums, Martsch on bass, Martsch’s best friend James on keyboards with Mike Johnson on vocals and guitar. Martsch went on last playing alone.

Touring the East in October and trekking west in November, Martsch surrounded himself with an entourage of friends taking on roles as band members performing in intimate venues to loyal Built To Spill fans.

“I always find an excuse to take my best friend, James, out with me on tour.” He said. “It was the first time he had ever played with me on stage at all, but I would always have him come out on Built To Spill shows and sell something or just come along to be my friend.”

Fans and friends aside, Now You Know is a step forward in Martsch’s career, though it could be argued it shows his age.

“Mostly, we played seated places and if it wasn’t a seated place I would tell people to sit, and they would be psyched.”

Martsch claims he is done with the pseudo-solo album, and Warner Brothers’ advertising department will confirm; they are no longer promoting the Now You Know record.

Built To Spill fans should not be alarmed or begin the maddening message board posts just yet, Martsch and fellow Built To Spill members will gather for a latent songwriting jam session in February of this year.

With Martsch currently influenced by reggae, tiring of slide guitar, paying homage to his favorite songs in an Idaho cover band and touring without his nationally recognized band, it has left him with little time to write new songs.

“This time I have no material, but maybe three or four ideas. The only plan I do have is to make everyone play an instrument they don’t usually play. Maybe Scott our drummer could play some keyboards, maybe our bass player Brett could play the drums and I could play the bass, and Jim our guitar player could play pedal steel.”

Reggae music being the current influence for Martsch, he assures me that it is likely to definitely pour into the next Built To Spill album. As for the slide guitar’s role that held his musically obsessive interest previously, it has run its course and he has tired of it. However, there is one sound that will not seep into the influential cracks of a Doug Martsch album any time soon.

“There are certain things like jazz music that I have no appreciation for at all that I assume maybe in five to 10 years I’ll become obsessed with and then it’ll run it’s course.”

Although he continues to co-produce Built To Spill, Martsch makes it understood that producing is not something that interests him.

“I tried my hand at producing my friends, but I have a hard enough time keeping my enthusiasm at a level that I can actually get some good stuff done for myself,” He said. “It’s hard for me to sit there and just push buttons and be into that; I don’t have the patience to be a producer.”

“It’s hard to strike a balance between making stuff presentable but to also have some spirit to it where it doesn’t sound like a machine is doing it because you’ve done it a thousand times, and by the thousandth time you’ve hit all the notes right but it no longer has any human feel to it.”

Whether he is producing his friends, co-producing Built To Spill albums or simply enjoying what he does that he does so well; songwriting, Martsch makes no mistakes with his role in musical adventures.

“I definitely have always considered myself a songwriter. My musicianship is just barely enough and usually not enough to pull off the song.”

Taking opportunities that appeal to him, surrounding himself with family and friends in every musical circumstance from touring to recording, Martsch is not one to sit around and wait for a chance to make music that he wants to make.

Many years later, Stevie Nicks got her VH-1 Behind the Music in which she said she needed to express more than could be expressed with being in Fleetwood Mac because it did not give her enough of a creative outlet as she needed to survive artistically. And while posterity may not be his first concern, Martsch’s creative intentions do not differ much than those of Nicks’, even if a VH-1 special is not in his horizon.

Whatever title you give him, Doug Martsch is an artist living in the moment without expectations but happy with the outcome; a music industry oxymoron perhaps.

This article appeared in the sixth issue of Impose Magazine in the Spring of 2003.

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