Built to Spill, Deep-Sea Mountain Journeyers
Seeing Built to Spill live is like being lured into the light of a deep-sea anglerfish. Doug Martsch's guitar sounds are oceanic; they pull you in. What's that light? Is it the anglerfish's luminescent growth (called an esca) coming out of its head? Or is it Martsch's wily, agile, lunar-tide-pull playing? You're hundreds of feet down in pitch-black depths—the esca light is a soft, beckoning glow. You swim to it, and surprise, the anglerfish swallows you, just as Built to Spill change keys and modulate the riff. But instead of chewing you up and sending you through its digestive track, it turns out this anglerfish is a state-of-the-art submersible with sleeping compartments, highly receptive sonar, and fluffy sky-blue carpeting. For more than 20 years, Built to Spill have been morphing their music this way, giving their songs new faces and turns. Live, the grand indie concertos begin, as you once knew them, then unexpectedly reroute themselves. It's music with a mind of its own. The Boise-based, mainstay mountain journeyers are no-frills in their approach—Martsch hangs from the mobile of his tunes with hard and earnest head twitches. Regally he sings, gently raking his voice into the music. Watch out for the light of his esca, though—not all glows turn into futuristic submarines. BTS guitar player and original member Brett Netson spoke. We were on land.
You all were doing some recording before, and the material wasn't making Doug so excited. Some of the album in progress was scrapped? What's the status? Doug is really focusing now on writing and arranging with the new rhythm section. No set dates for anything. He seems extremely absorbed and excited about it now. Jim Roth and I will come in later to write and learn parts.
There have been some lineup changes. Just so we're up to date, what's the current lineup? Jim Roth and I on guitar, Steve Gere on drums, and Jason Albertini on bass.
Built to Spill is a touring band, a live band. Has anything ever happened to you in Florida? Seems like things are always happening in Florida. There was a girl in Florida who insisted on doing an aerial performance on a tree in the back of a venue one time. She had a friend drive her back there with a ladder. She had on a costume and there were props. [Laughs] I got the feeling she knew what she was doing, but Doug walked up and was sort of mortified. He was like, "Please no!"
Was there twirling? She got me to help with the ladder, and just as we got it all set up and ready, the Florida police rolled up. We tried to explain, and the cops were somewhat tolerant of the situation. They seemed to appreciate the absurdity of what was happening. The girl got to come down on those big pieces of fabric just one time. She was really good. I was honored to see such a demonstration.
I believe you've worked with the great producer Phil Ek. How does Phil work? He works his ass off, and he is good with jokes and comedy bits. Happy guy, like a masterful doctor from old times.
Built to Spill's "You Are" is one of the all-time great songs. The elongated sounds, the strings, the composition. The way the beat wraps around the melodies. Where the lyrics fall. So great. What do you remember about recording that one? I remember doing lots of tracks at Doug's house late at night.
I thought it would be cool to get you to talk about Doug's guitar sounds. I read things about it, but it's all just objective and opinionated. As someone who plays with him, how do you describe his playing? I'd say his playing is odd, bizarre, funny—sometimes sweet and beautiful. He makes use of what he has, mostly. He does lots of inventive, weird chords and bits. He's benefitted greatly from writing songs first and learning guitar technique second. I've always heard lots of Devo, Talking Heads, and Bowie-era Robert Fripp in his playing. Some Joe Strummer as of late. I guess he hadn't been playing long when I met him. I already had lots of blues and classic-rock baggage when we started BTS, so it's been a great place to try different things. For me, that's what it's all about.
You said Fripp. Can I get a Duane Allman? Maybe some Jerry Garcia? A little Steely Dan, Walter Becker? More Duane than Jerry. I'd say Smiths, Beefheart, Television. Also, something to keep in mind is that there are three distinctly different guitar players on BTS records.
How have you noticed his playing change over the years? He's gotten really good [laughs]. There may have been things that he needed me to do at one time, but at this point, he could probably approximate anything I do. Doug, Jim, and I are all growing and learning things. I hope so at least.
As his playing evolved, have you seen his vocals and lyrics evolve as well? That's not really for me to say. He has his unique thing that he does, and I would never want to fully understand it.
How do you approach playing with each other? Do you all talk about stuff or is it unspoken? There are so many different kinds of communication and ways to play with each other. All of the above. I was afforded almost all liberties in the beginning, but it gets more refined as time goes on. I believe the idea is always to make the most unique, fresh parts, but to always serve the song. That's the challenge. That's what I like about it.
You are Brett Netson. There is a Brett Nelson who used to play with Built to Spill. What are the chances? Doug and Brett Nelson did the Electronic Anthology Project, rerecording BTS songs in the form of a 1980s synth-pop band. "Age I Felt" is the cut, speaking of Devo. Brett loves '80s synth-pop and new wave. He's an expert and a fine person. I support what he does.
When Built to Spill are playing live, you tend to go into longer instrumental sections. How do you work out the prolonged sections of improv? How do sections evolve over the course of a tour? Sometimes sections get set a certain way and it becomes more of a craft situation. I'm always shooting for the best execution of a part.
You all get to places where songs become something other than songs. Where the music goes where it wants to. How does that happen? I see anglerfish. Or Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage. Have you ever seen an anglerfish? I learned to play guitar by jamming my days away with various groups of people. I feel most natural then. I don't know what everyone else thinks, but I know it takes a lot of patience and trust to improv. I like to play supportively. There comes a time when someone has to make a move to guide the thing, and sometimes taking the liberty and getting up above everyone is the supportive thing to do. But usually I try to avoid the Clapton clinic wankfest. I really have no idea what the others think. Sometimes it all makes sense and sometimes it doesn't.