“I don’t know what I’m doing at all. I don’t understand music at all,” Doug Martsch told City Paper on the phone last month.
Martsch is the lead singer of beloved indie-rock band Built to Spill. He’s the guy who wrote the immeasurably addictive hook in “Big Dipper” and the no-less-than inspiring guitar crescendo in “Broken Chairs.” And he’s spent the better part of a decade putting out increasingly virtuosic psych-rock.
Martsch is the dude who inspired a generation’s worth of indie rockers to pick up a guitar, pen that wonky lyric, or create that weird, conventionally improper melody. But the guy who made a song as shimmering and soundtrack-ready as “Strange” claims he’s as misguided as the rest of us, and that’s one of the most reassuring things this writer has ever heard.
“I never imagined that we would be an influential band, and even today, I don’t think of us in those terms at all,” he says. “I still think of us as a band who’s still trying to figure out what we sound like, trying to prove ourselves.”
Twenty-five years and eight records in, and Built to Spill still feel like newcomers. The band has been one of the most critically lauded rock acts of the last two decades and, in some circles, holds a near-divine status. Somehow — and this says a lot about the actual impact of press narratives and the effect of what’s become known colloquially as “stanning” — Martsch has avoided any inkling of self-importance, and openly views his career as a mere fluke.
Last month, Martsch spoke to CP over the phone about other people’s perceived importance of his music, writing songs, and how he feels about Built to Spill 20-something years into its career. Spoiler: He still loves it.
So you’ve been doing BTS for well over 20 years now, and I’m wondering what it feels like at this point to have a generation of young bands citing your music as a reference? More flattering or weird?
It’s flattering. It’s nice; we’re lucky that we got to stick around this long and make some records that people have cared about. I just feel like we’re just another band. For whatever reason, our stuff kind of got out there enough that a lot of people were able to discover it. It’s kind of arbitrary to me. They could’ve just as easily ended up getting into something else. Maybe something else would’ve made more sense, but they were never exposed to it for whatever reason. I don’t take [our legacy] too seriously, but I’ve been very lucky to have gotten to do this for so long.
So a lot of people — critics, musicians, fans — would describe your music as influential. What specific elements of your music do you personally want to be known for at this point?
I don’t even know. When I’m working on a song, or making a song, I don’t really know what the best course to take with it is. I don’t really feel that I’m really communicating to people all of the time through music. Sometimes it feels like I’m just trying random things. … I think the way that I live, and I assume a lot of other people live, [is] where some of what you do and think comes from your own self, and some of it reflects what people around you think. When I’m writing songs, I do the same thing. “So, what would so-and-so think of this? What would David Bowie think of this?” But there’s some people who I think really do have a better grasp of what they’re up to, and are maybe more purposeful and create the thing that they hear in their head. I can’t even come close to creating the thing in my head. I just try to come as close as possible.
What’re the most flattering compliments you can receive at this point?
I guess I always kind of like the idea of someone saying Built to Spill [was] the first alternative music they ever listened to. I always liked that story ’cause it’s cool to be something different. To be recognized as something different. Sometimes I think our music is pretty mainstream, so it’s nice to hear that it’s pretty weird to some people.
You’ve played so many shows in your lifetime. Do you still have fun playing live?
Yeah, definitely. I have fun practicing. I like it better than ever. I think I just have played so much that I’ve gotten better. More comfortable. The better you get at something, the funner it is, I think. Some nights you kind of have it, some nights you kind of don’t. It all comes together in some arbitrary way, and then it’s really fun.
What’s the least enjoyable part of your career at this point?
Maybe just that it is a career. That we kind of have to think about that side of it as well. Now I don’t really know how to do anything else — I wouldn’t want to try and do anything else. It’s something that’s kind of a fluke that I ever made a living off of music. I never thought I would at all when I was younger, and I just stumbled into this. And I was making music that I didn’t think anyone could ever make money off of. Now I just gotta run it like a business and think about those issues. I’m not good at it at all, so [that aspect] will never be any fun.
What makes a piece of music interesting to you today? How do you think that compares to what you thought made music interesting 20 years ago?
I think it’s any number of things, and I think over the years I’ve become more open-minded about music. But usually I’m kinda drawn in by a production value. I tend to kind of like more of a rougher style of sound, older recordings and stuff. So that’ll draw me in. If it’s reggae, then I’m there. If it’s soul music, I’m sold as well. Any old reggae from the ’60s and ’70s is all killer.