Built to Spill: Perfection Is The Enemy

By: Mike Bookey

Doug Martsch – Built to Spill
Just recently, Doug Martsch has become a DJ. Never mind the fact that he’s regarded as indie rock royalty and a bonafide guitar hero, or that his band, Built to Spill, just released its seventh full-length record, There Is No Enemy (released October 6 on Warner Bros.), which showcases the Boise, Idaho outfit at its best – Martsch wants to get people dancing.

The 40-year-old, heavily bearded Martsch has taken to DJing because, well, he was looking for something to do. Maybe it was the three years he spent obsessing over the recording of There Is No Enemy that’s driven him to find a new pursuit or perhaps his other hobby, basketball, hasn’t been keeping him busy enough. But more likely, it’s the fact that he just wants to serve up some dance tunes, as he did after a late September Built to Spill show in Madison, Wisconsin.

“I’m not a DJ at all; I don’t know what I’m doing. All I do is play songs I like. I don’t do anything DJ-ish,” says Martsch, in a humble tone that he carries through the interview. “I’m kind of picky, so it’s gotta be stuff I want to listen to loud, as well as something people will want to dance to.”

Martsch began the DJ hobby at a bar in Boise, where he’d spin one Sunday each month. He says his typical sets are wide open but oftentimes gravitate toward soul and reggae from the ’60s and ’70s with a few hits from the likes of The Cure, The Smiths and the Bee Gees thrown in because, as Martsch says, “Part of the fun of dancing is dancing to songs that you know and like.” Write-ups of his DJ work call his sets upbeat and fun and, for the most part, not what you’d expect from the man who since 1992 has been at the helm of one of the most influential acts in indie rock. But for a guy who spent a year fine-tuning his band’s album, perhaps playing some loud records in loud rooms is a sort of release – even if his band has been playing plenty of loud music in crowded theaters lately.

Built to Spill
The Doug Martsch behind the ones and twos at a bar seems worlds apart from the Doug Martsch who may be haunted by the gap that exists between his musical ideas and his musical products. The man is endlessly genuine and honest and cares deeply about his fans, but a 25-minute discussion about There Is No Enemy reveals a musician who seems to be fighting a war in the recording studio that he knows he can’t win. What he calls “failures” in his recordings probably wouldn’t be noticed by even the most hardcore of fans, but Martsch hears them.

“Someone might not agree with me that some instrument is too loud or too quiet, or that it matters much, but I think there’s something inside of all of us that when something is done right we really respond to it,” says Martsch. “It’s not a matter of it being bad the way it is, it’s just that things can always be a little better.”

One can’t help but find these remarks slightly frustrating after giving There Is No Enemy a thorough listen. The album is as good as any Built to Spill album and feels tighter and more focused than 2006’s You in Reverse. Martsch’s guitar is as surging and winding as ever, blending nicely into the sort of heavily complex yet weirdly poppy sonic tapestry that has become the battle flag of Built to Spill since they caught the ear of the alt-rock world with the single “Dystopian Dream Girl” in 1994. There Is No Enemy opens up with a cut called “Aisle 13” that kicks the record into motion with Martsch interacting beautifully with the guitars of band members Jim Roth and Brett Netson. The rest of the album features cuts that, in BTS fashion, dance near or over the six-minute mark yet never seem long or without purpose. It’s not as jammy as You In Reverse, but that works fine on this record, as we get to see more songs built out of a writing process rather than the band’s jam sessions.

“We did jam on the songs a lot, but the germ of the songs didn’t come out of a jam, it came out of me fucking around by myself, but it’s still plenty collaborative,” he says.

Continue reading for more on Built to Spill…

It’s not a matter of it being bad the way it is, it’s just that things can always be a little better.

Doug Martsch on his new album, life in general

Built to Spill illustration by Graham

Again, it’s not easy to understand exactly why Martsch isn’t fully satisfied with this record, or any of his records, for that matter. His wife wrote a bio on the band’s website in advance of the album’s release detailing how Martsch more or less lived in the studio during the recording process, which was only part of the three-year journey to complete There Is No Enemy. In it, she openly wonders if this would be the last album her husband would ever make. Martsch himself doesn’t seem as hyperbolic about the rigors of the recording process, but does explain it as a new avenue for a band that has a solidly cemented stature in the rock & roll hierarchy.

Doug Martsch – Built to Spill by Scott Galbraith
For the first time in Built to Spill history, Martsch stepped away from recording strictly on analog tape, opting to experiment with digital Pro Tools software. For a purist like Martsch, the change was a big shift and the call of the old analog tape was too strong to fully avoid, which is why some of the tracks were actually recorded on tape and the entirety of the record was run from the digital version to analog tape in the end. After a lengthy reflection on the final product in the form of There Is No Enemy, most of which focuses on the “failures” he notices on the recordings, Martsch seems to change his attitude. He maintains his original stance, but it seems he realizes that while he might find “failures” in his work, the album itself is not a failure.

“I actually enjoyed working on the record the whole time. There were some tough times, but for the most part I was pretty psyched about it even after working on it for a year. I wasn’t burned out on it. I was just done with it,” says Martsch. “This is going to be around forever, so I just want to make sure it’s something I can live with.”

Yes, Martsch is indeed a poster child for the Society of Self-Tortured Rock Stars, but that’s where the rock star clichés end. He’s not a dour sort of guy. He’s largely upbeat in conversation and is satiated with his life in the seemingly less-than-exciting city of Boise, Idaho, and has high hopes for the next campaign of his NBA team of choice, the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s a proud father and endlessly complimentary about his bandmates, but it’s his role as indie rock godfather that he doesn’t seem to accept. Bands ranging from Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse, as well as much of the latest crop of indie rock bands, gladly cite Built to Spill as an influence. Nevertheless, Martsch admits that he doesn’t pay particularly close attention to modern music.

Built to Spill
“When I was a teenager and in my twenties I paid attention a little bit, but I don’t know what it is,” he explains, “I’m not against hearing things because there’s a lot of modern stuff I really like, but I just don’t feel a need to go out after things.”

Recently, he’s been digging on the sounds of Toronto experimental hardcore rockers Fucked Up and thoroughly enjoyed MGMT‘s Oracular Spectacular, but beyond a few of his friends’ bands and local up-and-comers from his hometown like Finn Riggins, which will open a string of dates for BTS, Martsch isn’t all that curious about the musical landscape. This isn’t out of arrogance but rather Martsch’s acceptance of the fact that there’s plenty of great art out there that he’s not going to be able to see.

“I have no problem [knowing] I may never get to hear the greatest song in the world. I’m totally fine with what I get to hear,” says Martsch. “It’s hard to give yourself up to new music and you don’t know what kind of goofballs are doing it.”

Still, as one might expect from a perceived perfectionist like Martsch, he still does become infatuated with certain music when he hears it, like old reggae and soul – the perfect fodder for his DJ sets. It’s in that music that he finds the sincerity, purity and perfection that he’s always looking for in his own studio.

“Most alternative rock bands that I see, there’s something – I don’t know – there’s a soul missing to it. There’s something that really resonates with me that’s missing. It’s almost too clever or sounds too much like other things. It’s almost like they’re trying too hard to sound like other things. Maybe that’s what I like about the old stuff. They aren’t so obsessed with having an original sound, so they just play their asses off and play beautiful music.”

Built to Spill are on tour now; dates available here.

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