That Built to Spill's Doug Martsch is the most unlikely of rock stars is obvious from the minute he picks up the phone at his Boise, Idaho, home and explains that he's watching his 5-year-old son, Ben. Politely he asks, "Could you call back in a half-hour?"
Thirty-five minutes later, the soft-spoken voice that takes on a cartoonish timbre in song is still wondering where Ben's mom is, and politely asks for a minute to set his son up in front of an episode of The Simpsons before he can continue.
Actually, even after the driving force behind Boise's best-known commodity after the potato is free to talk, he doesn't say much. And he doesn't have to. Among people making original music in 1999, Martsch is one of the few who deserves the weighty moniker of "artist" at all (save The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, but, then, he gave that name to himself). Martsch is that kind of cliche, a creative visionary who speaks through his art so clearly that to elaborate in conversation would be as superfluous as painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
That's not to say he doesn't gamely try to explain Built to Spill's latest record, Keep It Like a Secret, the band's second since making the jump to major-label status on Warner Bros. Built to Spill is usually comprised of Martsch and whomever he decides to play with, but Secret marks the first time that Built to Spill has kept the same lineup for two albums in a row: Martsch, drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson.
The band's previous album, 1997's Perfect From Now On, marked a rather extreme departure from 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love, its last full-length release on indie label Up Records. While Love was loose, rangy pop marked by Martsch's childlike vocals and funny, whammy-bar guitar entanglements, reacquainting wit with the three-minute pop song, Perfect was, simply, a study in self-indulgent guitar excess. The hooks were still there, but they were buried under swirling layers of guitars and dreamy jams that were compellingly trancelike, but not particularly easy for the average listener to digest.
Keep It Like a Secret fills the stylistic chasm between the two--in fact, it could've fallen between Love and Perfect, and no one would have noticed the difference. One imagines executives at Warner Bros. breathing a sigh of relief when they first heard Secret and, though Martsch says he tries to avoid business considerations, he probably wouldn't blame them.
"I kind of think of it that way, too--kind of a cross between those [Love and Perfect]," Martsch says of the new album. "There wasn't much they [Warner Bros.] could do with the last record, and I didn't expect them to. I don't expect them to do anything with this record, but there's obviously more you can do with it. It catches people a little easier than the other one."
In fact, songs like "Center of the Universe" and "Sidewalk" are downright cute, much reminiscent of Love's "Big Dipper" and "In the Morning." Of course, Martsch still can't resist letting his imagination get the best of him, and even potential radio hits are augmented with languid guitar solos that veer as far away from a song's melody as possible. But some of the old Built to Spill playfulness is there, and whatever dark place Martsch occupied during Perfect seems, if not a distant memory, at least far enough out of sight to be out of mind.
Perhaps most brilliant is that through all his metamorphoses, Martsch's trademark sound remains unmistakable. And, though he says his lyrics are "just something to fit the meter and the melody," it's arguable that that's where the real gravy is: in Martsch's intuitive ability to convey truths about human nature. Lyrics like, "I want to see it when you find out what comets, stars and moons are all about," juxtaposed with, "You can't trust anyone, 'cause you're untrustable," strike just the right balance between romantic folly and the general frustration that life and the people living it won't ever meet their promise.
"They're about me as much as about humanity," Martsch says of his lyrics. "They're about human stupidity in general, myself included, and the difficulties of being a human being. Especially in this cultureless society."
He trails off, and there's that silence again, the silence he uses so deftly in his music, letting the guitar shimmer away before blasting out a wall-shaking solo. But as gifted and calculating a songwriter as he is, Martsch insists he has no idea how this stuff comes out. And though he is, and always has been, the brains of the operation, he never uses "I" when discussing Built to Spill.
"It's just the way we happen to sound," he says, the shrug almost audible through the phone. "When we make records and write songs and stuff, it's just messing around with things, and if something sounds good to us, we use it. We don't do very much intentionally until we start recording, and then it becomes a little more intentional, because it becomes more the craft of making the songs in the studio. I have no idea what any of our records are about, or what our next record will be about. It's just sort of what comes naturally to us."
What's nonchalant for Martsch is almost religious for the cult following he's amassed. The modest family man from Twin Falls, Idaho, inspires hero worship from a following that so distinctly bridges the gap between snobbish indie rockers and ebullient hippies that it's almost amusing to watch the crowd at a Built to Spill show.
The dynamic was especially volatile on the tour following the release of Perfect, when Martsch and Co. would play a set comprised almost entirely of new songs, and finish the night with a 40-minute jam not unlike something heard at a Phish concert. It was almost enough to incite a riot between grumbling indie rockers muttering, "What's this hippie shit?" and neo-Deadheads who noodle-danced next to them.
"Basically we were burnt out on that record when we went on that tour," Martsch explains, attempting to dispel rumors that swirled during that period that the "jams" were orchestrated to show Warner Bros. how much he hated touring. "We were really tired, and we didn't want to play any of those songs at all. And we were just sort of getting together as a band and trying to figure out what we were going to be like, so we wrote a bunch of new songs, and we wanted to play those and play just a few old ones. We just did the jam because it was fun for us.
"Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't," he adds wryly.
Don't expect the same shenanigans on the current tour, in which the band is joined by second guitarist Jim Roth of The Delusions, who are also touring with Built to Spill.
Roth's addition has made the band all the more potent live, which was evident at Built to Spill's South by Southwest showcase three weeks ago. The deadly combination of Roth's and Martsch's guitars produced an uncanny replication of the complex latticework on Keep It Like a Secret. While in Austin, Martsch experienced what's fairly typical for anyone with such an eclectic and large body of work to choose from: audience members who shouted requests that he humbly deflected without honoring. He explains why.
"When we get together and go do a tour, we don't have time to learn any other songs," he says. "We don't know any of our own songs. We just know the songs we learn to tour with. We can't play any songs that we've played before because everyone would have to practice them to pull them off at all."
It's this that he says inspires some of the most scorn from longtime fans, who Martsch says generally "are pretty nice people, pretty respectful."
"A lot of people argue with us [when we can't play the songs]--they get really pissed off," he says, then feigns an exchange between himself and a disgruntled fan. "'You know it. You wrote it!' 'Well, then, I'm lying. We're just not playing it.' You'd be surprised [how mad people can get]."
It's an occupational hazard for any gifted songwriter, but Martsch certainly isn't complaining. In typically modest fashion, he replies to a question about the notoriety he's already received and the can of worms that playing such a commercial orgy like SXSW (Built to Spill also played two other gigs at the festival, including a Spin magazine private party) can open. His answer says much about his mindset, that of a self-effacing family man simply happy to be able to play music for a living.
"It seems to me that's there's more than enough people that know about us and listen to us," he says. "We're already doing way better than I ever expected. I'm not interested in pushing it any farther. But at the same time, I'm not going to stop them [Warner Bros.] from doing that."
Built to Spill is scheduled to perform on Sunday, April 11 and Monday, April 12, at Boston's, in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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