Basement Ax

Built to Spill's Doug Martsch is a guitar hero for a generation not interested in 'em

Pop culture historians like to pontificate that punk killed the guitar hero. Though anyone who's seen Doug Martsch's Stratocaster lead Built to Spill to a kind of Hendrixian Valhalla knows that nothing could be further from the truth.

Punk simply reeled in the absurdity of that hero's myth, sterilizing the concept of judging guitarists by the size of their chops that was propagated by classic rock and metal loyalists, and upheld by small penis- and three chord-wielding Beethovens who still practice the coda to "Layla" in their dens.

Great guitar players with heroic verve never went away. During the (post-) punk era they continued to be born (all hail Verlaine, Mascis, Shields) and die off (R.I.P. Honeyman-Scott, Stinson, Ronson) in classic rock 'n' roll fashion. Indie rock's over-ground insurgence in the '90s was, in fact, a boom time for them. The new guitar gods simply haven't gotten the ink in guides like Guitar World and Rolling Stone that built a readership on the myth. They also don't reach out to a fan base that gives a shit about hammer-ons -- and vice versa.

"Hey, that's a great trick": Martsch and band dust off old favorites for new kicks.
"Hey, that's a great trick": Martsch and band dust off old favorites for new kicks.

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Which is one reason your average Lynyrd Skynyrd fan probably doesn't have a clue that in the days following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Martsch would regularly lead Built to Spill (drummer Scott Plouf, guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth, bassist Brett Nelson) plus guests through a classic three-guitar reading of "Freebird." These encores didn't just encapsulate Martsch's status as one of the past decade's most inventive guitarists; they rejuvenated that old wave-your-lighter cliché into a cry for loss. And if that ain't a heroic feat, tell me what is.

Shy and soft-spoken to begin with, the 35-year-old Martsch is especially reserved in discussing his guitar playing and where it came from. It's the familiar suburban tale, this one taking place in early-to-mid-'80s Boise, Idaho. A 14-year-old Def Leppard and Rush fan has an older brother show him some chords, then hears Ziggy Stardust and R.E.M., starts practicing real hard, discovers punk rock, Butthole Surfers and whatnot. But his playing doesn't end up the sum of the records that've been spinning on his turntable. It's more about the scene outside his window, and in the local shithole where jukebox heroes are knocking it out best they can.

"With guitar playing, there is an infinite amount of ways to do it," he says when I ask him what captivated his youthful pull toward the instrument. "I could be influenced by things like Dinosaur [Jr.] -- and J. Mascis is a huge influence on my playing. But I'd also just go see some weird little local band, or some weird punk rock band that was coming through [town], and be just as absorbed and impressed by the guitarist in that band. I'd notice what somebody was doing, and think, Hey, that's a great trick.'"

Even though the heartbroken Crazy Horse music Built to Spill creates is a rare combination of focused romanticism and indie diffusion, Doug Martsch is a punk rock egalitarian, pointedly holding on to the belief that anyone with the proper moral code could do it. (He once famously said he would "never listen to fuckers" but only to "the music of people I love.") And you could hear how this worldview would be a turn-on to a young kid in the sticks; what's better than seeing his friends rip it up, and soaking it in?

One of those longtime friends is Netson, also the leader of fellow Boise residents and frequent touring partners Caustic Resin, who create a more traditional if spacier take on the B2S's jams. Martsch cites him as "a huge influence. He gave me a mindset with which to play. He was the one who told me that if you make a mistake, just repeat it two or three times, and then it's a part. And within the last few years, he's affected me again, with how careful and deliberate a guitar player he is."

Yet ultimately, Martsch's sound and style is all his. The grand, distorted wail he picked up from Neil Young (by way of Mascis) and the fury of '80s punk's more psychedelically manic side (Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, Sonic Youth's Moore-Ranaldo axis) is levied by his supreme melodicism and the gentleness of his lyrical view. It has been obvious in his evolution and maturity.

"When I was younger, I was a little crazier," he says, looking back on his playing with Treepeople, the grunge-era quartet he cut his teeth with. "We were more punk rock, but also more about set note parts. It had a level of complexity I thought was necessary, which made it interesting to me. Back then I was a lot more technically proficient, actually, because the parts demanded a lot more skill. With Built to Spill, that complexity fell to the wayside. It became about improvising a little bit more."

Improvisation has been a staple of Built to Spill shows since 1997's Perfect From Now On unveiled an octet of guitar-centric anthems -- on record they averaged almost seven minutes a pop -- and have been headed Furthur ever since. (Jam-heads should seek 2000's Live, which also features a volcanic take on Young's "Cortez the Killer.") Yet Martsch tends to understate even these endeavors.

"The depth of the improvisation is not something I'm conscious of," he says when I bring up moments of ecstasy like the aforementioned "Freebird." "I never really think about the feeling of music. I think that's simply the nature of music -- it just comes. To me it's always about the technical aspects of it, because those are things I have some sort of control over. Whereas the listener has more to do with the feeling of it than I do. The audience picks up on things, and the fact that they're moved says more about them than about my guitar playing." He smiles. "It's all just kind of a whim."

Taking no responsibility, and leaving it all open to translation; spoken like a true punk-rock-era guitar hero.


More hot indie ax-tion: Martsch is only one of a handful of guitar heroes to emerge from the indie netherworld in the wake of the alt-rock revolution. Now, I like Josh Homme and Dave Pajo as much as the next cat, but they both have platinum under their belts and don't need the column inches, like perhaps these guys do.

As leader of the Jicks, Stephen Malkmus is stepping out from behind the lo-fi fuzz-bubble he helped create in Pavement and getting all trippy on the slacker faithful, pretending he's in Pentangle or Gentle Giant or something. All fine and dandy, except that this wastes the voluminous, fierce half of his former guitar-playing stratagem, the dissonant Sturm that, when combined with the melodic noodling, made up one of the finest roars the underground's ever produced. Guitar geek recommendation: Pavement's Wowee Zowee (1995).

Before he joined Sonic Youth and engineered Wilco's magnificent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jim O'Rourke's name hardly ever made it outside of avant-garde circles. (Among his numerous collaborative credits are stints with guitar improvisers Derek Bailey and Henry Kaiser, soundtracking Merce Cunningham's choreography, and making difficult electro-acoustic music with Gastr Del Sol.) Yet O'Rourke's a Deep Purple fan, too, and has a fixation with John Fahey's finger-picked folk-blues ragas, and when he gets going live, he's hard to slow down. Guitar geek recommendation: Loose Fur (2003), featuring members of Wilco, or his own acoustic Bad Timing (1997).

Now that most people have stopped laughing at Ween -- or, more likely, forgotten of their very existence -- it's time to unleash a dirty secret their fan base has always known: That band rocks like a mutha-trucker. One significant reason is guitarist Dean Ween, who's equally adept at wearing his Eddie Van Halen, his Eddie Hazel or his James Burton hat, and switching them at an eight-bar notice. The live quartet he and singing partner Gene fronted in the mid-'90s, also starring the mighty bass-osaurus Andrew Weiss (Rollins Band, Pigface) and drummer Claude Coleman, was one of the heaviest pop bands this side of Kyuss. Guitar geek recommendation: Paintin' the Town Brown: Ween Live (1999).

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