Redefining classic rock with Built to Spill

Repeat this question and let it sink into your mind after 30: is Built to overflow classic rock now? From a certain point of view, it is true. The Boise rockers and their laid-back frontman Doug Martsch have left their indelible mark on bands like Modest Mouse, Band of Horses and Death Cab for Cutie, but their classic tunes are far from artifacts stored in the attic – these songs are destined to be taken from road trips every few years, with Martsch and his rotating cast of bandmates serving up mythological riffs that writhe in our hearts like a loose cassette spilling out of a car stereo.

Seattle-based artist Alex Graham has fond memories of listening to the band’s last release as she painted the psychedelic cover for their ninth album. When the wind forgets your name using acrylic paint and tempera on canvas. She was inspired as she fell asleep after a “vision of a dumb guy riding a pegasus” appeared – a perfect visual representation of the LP, which blends the ordinary with the extraordinary. Graham’s favorite song by the band is the soaring “You Were Right” from their 1999 album. Keep it like a secret“It references a bunch of my other favorite songs. I’m a sucker for classic rock. There’s that word again.

Martsch’s best tracks tend to deal with very personal issues in the most epic way, and his most recent album tackles the foothills of those mountains once you’ve sat at their altitude for a while. True classic rockers like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen really don’t conform to trends – and when they do, it’s usually in revolt against a certain establishment. Martsch follows in the footsteps of these giants, painting himself as a companion beating the clock above the stereo.

Here, he talks about his new bandmates, why he doesn’t like some of his old work, and some favorite moments from the new record.

I enjoyed the new disc. Did you connect with Oruã, the Brazilian band you worked with, when you needed a touring band in Brazil?

We had the gigs booked in Brazil and then I split up with my band members and kind of tried to get some people together here in America and just couldn’t find the right people in a hurry. I had met this woman Iza on Instagram because she had asked about us coming to Brazil, so she and I had a conversation for about a year about possibly getting us there. In the meantime, she referred me to Lê Almeida, who is the vocalist and guitarist, so I just asked if they would be available to play in the band. They knew the Built to Spill music, so they rehearsed a bit, and then I went over there. We all loved doing it enough to decide to do it for 2019 and tour Europe and America together and then for most of that tour we learned this batch of songs that I was working on with the other guys for the past few years.

“I thought it was a bit serious and pretentious album title, although I liked it. I thought it would be nice to have artwork that juxtaposes them with a bit more color and stupidity.

Does it feel like touring is kind of a strong connection point to create and maintain a network of bandmates, always kind of having that revolving door for the band?

Yeah, part of it is trying to make different types of music and not getting into a creative rut. Part of it is just having different people around us – something where we enjoy each other’s company, we’re not exhausted against each other. There are also other reasons, such as the simple availability of people. Circumstances are always different, but I love everyone I’ve played with. I was proud of all the bands, very proud of the band on the album and really proud of the band I’m playing with today.

Speaking of pride, you mentioned that one of your favorite parts of the new record was the Alex Graham cover. Explain to me how you first heard about his art and how it worked.

I started following his comic called dog biscuits on Instagram in 2020. She started it maybe a month or two into the pandemic, and it kind of happened during the pandemic. I really got attached to it and thought it was beautiful and well written. It turns out that she was also a painter. It kind of seemed like an obvious choice. I already had the title of the disc. I thought it was a bit serious and pretentious, although I liked it. I thought it would be nice to have illustrations that juxtapose them with a bit more color and silliness.

portrait by Alex Graham

I really enjoyed the lyrics of “Understood”. They were almost like a mantra in the way they were chanted. Did you compose these lyrics during the pandemic?

No, this song was written a few years ago. It’s like almost all the songs on Built to Spill where the lyrics touch on different topics. There are lines that go together and mean something together, and then the next thing could be a whole different topic. For me, lyrics are hard to write. They take a lot of time and a lot of trying to find things that I think are good. By the time I’m done, I’m almost always pretty happy with it. It’s kind of like a weird puzzle that I put together. For some reason it just seems right at one point. But until I get there, it seems impossible.

Obviously you’ve been nudging certain song elements for years. What songs on this record spark this inspiration and joy for you?

I think for me it was just different and subtle things. Like on “Gonna Lose”, there’s a part where it breaks down, and there’s this silent vocal, and when it comes back into the main part of the song at the very end, I added a few little things from whammy-bar guitar that make the tone go down. On “Fool’s Gold” I like the way the lead guitar solo sounds – I feel like it comes out in a really nice way. There’s stuff that Lê did just before going into the last chorus, those cymbals that swell.

“For me, lyrics are hard to write. It’s kind of like a weird puzzle that I put together. For some reason it just seems right at one point. But until I get there, it seems impossible.

I noticed a trend where you mention your old songs and you don’t really see them in their best light now. Were there any songs or albums in particular where you were really down initially, but then you got there?

We were driving the other day and a few songs from Built to Spill came along that I hadn’t heard in a long time, and they seemed pretty disappointing to me. I was disappointed with their overall production and the quality of my voice. I realized that I liked them when I made them because at the time I had just finished mixing them, so I had taken all those elements of the song and worked hard and had them organized the way I wanted them to be, where I could hear everything as clearly as possible. I just felt like I had done them as well as I could at the time, and they were satisfying because everything was in place. But now, listening, that’s not really how I think music should sound.

I like most of our songs, and I like to play them live. I like being able to do whatever I want with them today. I feel like a lot of songs I like, the live versions are better than the recordings for some reason. I just feel like I have better energy. I feel like I can sing better. I’m still not a good singer, but I feel like I have a little more emotion in my voice than on the records.

Speaking of old songs, one of my favorites has always been “Twin Falls”. Looking back, what are some of your favorite memories of growing up there?

I feel like I had a good time growing up. I had a beautiful family who really loved each other. I had many good friends there. I felt like I always had fun, had a good imagination and did a lot of sports. I felt like a really normal kid and felt like almost everything about me was perfectly average in my life, but I thought I was okay.

You’ve said in the past that your mom stands out as a strong supporting figure for your music.

Well, she was from a small town in Idaho—Rupert—and she got married very young and had my brother and my sister, and they’re six and eight years older than me. When I was born, she and my dad got divorced before I was a year old, and she moved to Twin Falls, and that was pretty bold for a Rupert person. She started working on health and wellness and she actually started learning about people’s struggles and became kind of a liberal democrat. She wasn’t really raised that way, but learned that stuff. She’s a real woman of the party life kind. She always made jokes. She just has a really sweet attitude, and she’s always taken really good care of me. I’m also the baby, so I’ve always been treated very special.

“I feel like a lot of [our old] songs that I like, the live versions are better than the recordings for some reason. I just feel like I have better energy. I feel like I can sing better.

I think it was in an interview a few years ago that mentioned during the pandemic that you played a lot of The Legend of Zelda– Is it recent, or is it old?

Yeah. I’ve had The breath of nature for my son’s Christmas in 2019. I started playing it and thought, “I don’t have time for this video game, it’s too complex, there’s too much to do and I have there’s too much going on. Then all of a sudden I had months and months and months of alone time, and low and lo and behold, I was able to finish it.

It’s cool. It reminded me a bit of the original games, as they didn’t really hold your hand. You can kind of just explore it and take it in any direction.

I played a few, but absolutely had to have a guide to figure it all out. In this one, I couldn’t find a guide, and I was like, “Well, I’ll just see what I can do”, and I was able to finish almost everything without the guide. Guess I didn’t get all the Korok seeds or something. I know there is something I didn’t understand. It was definitely the best game I have ever played. I love him so much. Florida

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