Interview: Built To Spill

by Jo Higgs

Celebrity fans, defying time, and starting from scratch – Doug Martsch peels back the layers of his band’s latest masterpiece

Built to Spill seem immune to the passing of time. It’s confusing, honestly. Unlike the wilting voices and subsumption to lethargy that marks so many bands entering their fourth decade of existence, Doug Martsch and co. have a discography that seems as plausible chronologically reversed as it does running from debut through to new record, When the Wind Forgets Your Name

As per the title, the wind might forget one’s name, but as per the content, the holders of that name won’t forget their qualities. Without wishing to get too tautological, When the Wind… truly is a masterpiece that stands up to, and within, the greatest output of the band from Boise. Martsch puts this consistency down to a universal approach to creation: ‘I feel like every time I work on music, or make a record, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I start from scratch,’ he says. ‘I’m not the most talented singer or guitar player, so I feel like if I was maybe a little better at that stuff I could do something that’s laid back, but what I do have is a bit of hustle – I feel like I’ve got to bring it pretty hard.’

Just like each record that’s come before, lyrics tend to come after the music. ‘I just spew out the words and some of it sticks,’ he tells. ‘Some things recur in songs without necessarily meaning anything. None of it’s ever written down as considered a good lyric – it’s just the shit that comes out of my mouth, and often it sounds alright.’ For example, the album opener, Gonna Lose, borrows its refrain from the band’s 2006 cult single, Going Against Your Mind – which Martsch is enthusiastic to point out CAN mean something, but doesn’t necessarily. He loves the infinite readability of obscure lyrics: ‘With my songs and other people’s songs, whatever’s happening in my life, or my friend’s lives, you can find that in songs and that’s part of the fun of listening to music. Applying lyrics to something, being like “hey – this is this [blank],” when really it obviously isn’t.’

Consistency might be one of the key traits of Built to Spill’s tenure as one of the best-loved indie projects over the last few decades, but it was never intended so. When the band was originally conceived, Martsch intended his presence as frontman would be within a revolving cast of musicians around him: ‘I called it Built to Spill with the plan on to move pretty soon, but keep the name to feel like it was a continued project. It was intended to be just like The Fall – everyone contributed but it was a different group every time.’ Which recalls Mark E. Smith’s famed mis-quote, ‘If it’s me and your granny on the bongos, it’s The Fall.’ 

As it happens, at some point, bonds were fostered and one solid line-up gained a stronghold over a lengthy period of time – but When the Wind… features a Brazilian rhythm-section of Onuã, João Casaes and Lê Almeida. ‘Those guys are amazing,’ Martsch purports enthusiastically. ‘Just incredible.’ He goes on to detail the pandemic disrupted recording and mixing process with the duo, and how they traversed communication issues and different ideas: ‘They sent over their mix and it was vastly different from my idea and so I didn’t jive with it. But then I took one of their mixes and tweaked it a little, so it was closer to my mixes and sent it to them and, at the exact same time, they’d done the same thing with one of my mixes.’ 

Like this, they managed to navigate a process that ensured its end product was neither dominated by heavy bass or entirely skewed in favour of the guitar flourishes and embellishments that characterised the mixes that had come to exist before the back-and-forth process. It leaves the album perfectly balanced and delectably poised to breed obsession in the impassioned fans it’s sure to please. 

One such fan, to Martsch’s surprise, is Bob Odenkirk, who fresh from retiring his role as the much-loved titular protagonist of Better Call Saul, gave one interview (among many others primarily in reference to the show) consisting entirely of singing the praises of Built to Spill. Upon being made aware of this, Martsch responds: ‘I’m constantly stunned by things like that! I very distinctly remember being in my late 20s thinking, “I don’t know how much longer this’ll last – people are gonna get bored of this.” But to this day, fans surprise me. At every show, there’s teenagers at the front of our shows. I didn’t ever dream of making music for a living; it’s the most fun thing to do, but it just never seemed possible. It’s so humbling.’ 

After a cheerful but largely earnest conversation about Martsch’s career, he leans sideways to display the digitally-projected Zoom background that has sat curiously behind him for the prior forty minutes. ‘Meet Randy,’ he laughs, pointing vaguely above his head to a fluffy little dog chowing down on a mangled roll of toilet paper. ‘He’s just a little guy we found one day, and now he’s ours. Looks like he’s got a little something stuck on his face.’ Upon the moving scatters of pixels that digitally present Randy’s scruffy snout, sits a small sheet of tattered toilet roll. Alongside the scuzzy guitars and beaten drums that provide the subject of Martsch’s modesty and the subject of our admiration, is a certain fun and subtle goofiness to which it’s hard to envisage any explanatory justice being done, beyond highlighting this moment of Randy’s introduction. 

When the Wind… might air certain underlying titular insecurities, but it goes a long way to solving them too. The band’s first release on Seattle’s legendary Sub-Pop further cements their status as deities of indie-rock, and if the wind had briefly forgotten Built to Spill’s name, it’s been dealt a robust reminder.

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