Interview with Built to Spill: ‘I have no affection for 90s culture at all’
Ah, if I had been told, one day in March 2010, that the creation of Still in Rock would lead me to have a long phone conversation with Doug Martsch, the leader of Built to Spill, a band that has been so important in my construction, one day in May 2020, while we would be locked-down, talking about his high school years, the band albums, the 1990s, the current scene, Daniel Johnston, the death of jazz, soul music, algorithms and more… I probably would have thought of that lyric from Beck: “you’re just the girl of my dreams, but it seems… my dreams never come true”. The analogy is no longer true. Doug, thank you so much!
How are you doing these days?
I am doing good. I mean… of course, I would prefer to live my life the way I want to, but you know…. I’m staying in lockdown. I’m going with the doctors, not with the governors. Of course, we got a bunch of touring that got canceled, pushed back to next year, but as far as my sanity goes, I am playing a lot of Zelda, a little bit of guitar… I’m doing well.
Well, last time I saw you were in Amsterdam, in 2019, you were doing the “Keep It Like A Secret” tour. To me, that album brings back so many memories, and I can only imagine that it must be the same for you. So, yeah, is this album bringing the past back at you? How was the touring experience?
Yeah, well, for me, it is not nostalgic! I’ve been playing those songs year after year, so they don’t really remind me of the past. And I am also playing those songs with a brand-new band, so… it’s always a new experience.
I see… this album isn’t about the nineties to you.
Exactly! And you know, anyway, the idea wasn’t to perfectly imitate the album, I didn’t want these new musicians to sound like Brett and Scott on drums. I mean, there are so many different layers of guitar in this album, you can’t hear Brett playing chords and all of those different melodies. The new bass player is more straight to the point. And generally speaking, I think it’s cool when you see a band and it sounds like the record; I like that. It gives you a sense of how the record was made. At the same time, taking the songs and playing them in a different manner can also be great, you know.
Well… I have a theory regarding that. If you go to a show and it sounds exactly like the album, you’re going to be very pleased, but next time, you won’t return to see the band because you know exactly what to expect. On the contrary, if the band is playing the album is in a totally different way, it’s a band you want to see every time you can.
I hear you. Yeah, you don’t want to solve the mystery, I guess.
In any case, are you still in touch with them?
We are not very tight, no. I’ve only seen Scott once since he left the band a few years ago, and he hadn’t played the drum at all for those years. He works in a bakery shop. He’s sweet, I like him, and hopefully, he likes me, but we don’t have any relationship. And I’m still friend with Brett, but we are not tight… I’m not really tight with anybody, to be frank. He has a new band called Sick Wish that is really great. His sons play drums; he’s an incredible drummer.
And what about pop culture from the nineties? Are you still into it? The movies, the music…
Well, it’s like anything. Some stuff I think is good, and some stuff I think is horrible. At the time, I mostly thought that everything sucked back then. Most of the bands that I liked were my friends, and I liked Nirvana OK, although they are not really my thing, Dinosaur Jr. was great, Sonic Youth was great, but for the rest, I was not into my contemporary’s music. I didn’t give a shit about Empire Records. Sub Pop I wasn’t into, I never got into Pearl Jam…
And the same thing with the movies. Of course, they were some exciting things happening. The Simpsons came out in the 90s, that was really great. Twin Peaks and David Lynch’s movies were also really incredible. But overall, I don’t think that it means anything, it’s just arbitrary, it happened to happen at that time, that’s all. I have no affection for the 90s culture at all.
I do, but that’s a different topic [laughter].So… moving onto the present, you recently announced a new album of Daniel Johnston’s covers. Did you ever meet him? Why did you choose to actually cover his music?
In 2018, we were offered an opportunity to be his backup band for a few shows. That was quite exciting; we said yeah. I don’t think he really knew us, I think his booking agent was a fan of ours. So, we did that, we rehearsed a bunch, he set up a list of 100 songs that we could learn, we picked up 40 songs and eventually worked on 25 of them. We played four shows with him.
One of our friends was at the rehearsals, and she told us that she would love to have a copy of those songs. So we had the idea to record these rehearsals to give her a copy. A year later, we never did record the songs, and we had a few days off between gigs in the northwest, so instead of going home, we decided to spend three or four days going to the studio to record the demos of our new material. We went to Jim Roth’s place, who played guitar for Built to Spill. He had a little studio in his basement. Once there, I decided that I didn’t feel like working on these new songs, so we tried to do those Daniel Johnston songs instead. We finished the recording in January 2019. People are Ernest Jenning are putting them out. That’s pretty much the story.
Wow, so it’s been a long time actually that those songs are ready.
Generally speaking, when I listen to your music, I feel something very nostalgic. I relate your music to Paris’ Spleen, written by Baudelaire back in 1869. It’s happiness about the past. In any case, when you are creating music, are you doing it with the intention of generating a certain feeling?
Well… I don’t know anymore. I’m not really trying to do anything rather than music that sounds good to me. That’s kind of it, although I am not even sure how to achieve that. I simply know that it’s better if there is a human voice singing for some reason. As for the lyrics, it has to mean something, it cannot be complete nonsense or bullshit cliché, but for the rest, the lyrics are about filling in melodies for me.
So, if you have no intention of creating albums so people will feel a certain way, it must be that what’s happening in the world, your environment, is a strong influence on your music, right?
I’m not sure. I guess…? I don’t know if it’s what’s going on in the world, or if it’s just something very basic in the back of my mind. The older I get, the less complicated I want my music to be. I grew up listening to the radio all the time, and some songs I was happy to hear, some I wasn’t. I’m just trying to create the first kind, which often are songs with three chords. I don’t wanna hear that complex stuff where people are trying to create some new things, and new sounds, or putting those cords together in a way that makes you uncomfortable. I’m not into that anymore.
Uncomfortable music is really nineties, in fact.
Oh yeah. I mean again, I loved Sonic Youth, but my favorite songs of them are the simplest ones.
Early Sonic Youth, then.
Totally. And that’s what I like about Daniel Johnston’s songs. He is playing the same three chords in almost every one of them. That is why I have been mostly listening to reggae and soul music for the last 20 years. I also go back to classic rock, but reggae and soul are my favorites, always simple, beautifully done.
So, if you are not focusing too much on a theory of what is good music, are you following what’s happening right now despite the fact that you may have no incentive to see if it fits within your ideas?
I pay attention just because I have a lot of friends in bands. For me, the bands are just better than ever. So, yeah, I don’t properly follow specific bands, but if I stumble upon a good one several times, someone like Ty Segall, for instance, I’d listen to the record. But also, I am totally fine with the idea of listening to an amazing song one time, and never hear it again.
When I was younger, my identity and personality were really wrapped up in music. The culture was really all I was about. The things I loved, the ones I hated… And then it was actually a joke of mine in 1977 when I graduated from high school. I was saying “I’m a nineties man” all the time; it sounded futuristic. It turned out that I really became kind of a nineties man [laughter].
Do you think that it would be the same today if you were graduating from high school right now? With all social media and stuff…
Yeah, it’s a matter of being young. As you grow older, you become less attached, you don’t need to figure yourself out anymore. And I have been disillusioned in some ways, so now the food I eat is more important than the music I listen to.
Were you disillusioned by all the changes in the music industry? Probably until ten years ago, it was easy to identify a few scenes, and now, with the Internet, because everything is so available all at once, it does become very complex to identify tendencies and movements. I am not sure that if I was a teenager right now, I could still identify with one particular scene. Do we even have such a thing anymore?
Yeah, that’s a big part of it too. The thing that was exciting about music to me in the 90s was that you had to find the stuff, you had to stumble upon it. Take Daniel Johnston’s music again, I’m sure that if you had his cassettes back then, you were becoming a big fan of his. You would have felt very lucky. I mean, of course, I’ve heard all his music later, but it wasn’t the same as having those actual cassettes. And generally speaking, you didn’t have any control, you couldn’t type the name of a band and listen to its music. You had to lock up on some local radio show where you’d catch some weird things, so… that made it more special.
But I also think that’s being able to type a name and not having to wait through all this bullshit, not having to listen to all this horrible thing… is great! And you know, even today, you can still listen to some local radio shows. I do. There are lots of great DJs out there, playing lots of different styles. I don’t think that Pandora, or Spotify, can really recommend cool things. They have no idea what they are talking about. They can only do it based on style, lyrics, where the bands are from, the labels, the release date, but there’s no way an algorithm can understand “soul”. You cannot quantify that.
Indeed, it will be complicated for any type of algorithm to be able to get it right.
It is impossible. You’d need to have at least 50 people sitting in a room, listening to some music, and saying: “OK, this one has soul”. And still, an algorithm couldn’t get why certain chords go well together.
Well, I don’t know if you have heard some of the music that is composed by algorithms and AI, but it sounds terrible.
I don’t think I have [laughter].
I’ll send you one. But so… regarding today’s bands, you mentioned Ty Segall already. What do you think about King Gizzard and Oh Sees? They are, to me, three of the most important rock bands of the 2010s.
I love all those bands! King Gizzard I heard because my niece played it for me. I thought it was incredible. I didn’t listen to them for months, I then I got Spotify, and I spent a week listening to them. I also watched a video of them playing in a record store, and that’s it, that has been my all experience with this band.
Oh Sees… first time I heard them was on the radio, and then they played in a little coffee shop here in Idaho, I thought they were great. We also played a couple of the same festivals, and the Brazilian guys I just toured with are big fans of them, so they played their songs when we were driving. Every time I hear Oh Sees, I think they are unbelievably good. And Ty Segall, same thing. I hear his songs every now and then, I think they sound cool. We went and saw them last year after one of our shows, in New-York. But yeah, they’re all killers, especially Oh Sees, they’re genius to me.
Agreed! And hopefully, they have a long way to go, still. Speaking about which, in Keep It Like a Secret, you have a song called “The Plan”. Did you have any plans at the time? Did you have any desire regarding how you wanted your career to be?
My plan… when I started making music, was to get to a point where someone else would pay for us to record another album. All I wanted, really, was to make albums with that having to spend my own money. That was my goal. I didn’t have any expectations beyond that. No expectation of being paid for playing shows, no expectation to quit my day job; all I wanted was to be able to make records.
That happened pretty quickly, right?
Yeah, well… it didn’t seem quick to me, but I was probably 21 or something when I made the first record that I didn’t have to pay for. And then, that kind of fall apart until one person came and shown interest in signing us for another album. After that, the Majors became interested. At that point, my career plans changed to “I would like not to have to work anymore”.
At the time, I also wanted not to be part of the major label scene. You know, when I was growing up in the 80s when a bunch of bands that I loved signed to major labels, and every time they did it, I thought they sucked. When the Replacements or Hüsker Dü went on to Major labels, I thought that their music became really water down. Now, I go back to that stuff, and I like it better than I did at the time; I think it they have some cool stuff going on. But yeah, it became important to me just to not totally suck, and to do things our own way, to remain as free as independent bands, simply with better-produced records. We spend every bit of the big-budget that we had on the records, the idea was to keep on making music until we got dropped, and people got tired of us.
You have said here and there that’s your relationship with Warner Records was quite good actually, right?
Yeah! As far as creative control goes, I had total freedom, about the music, about who I worked with, about how often I wanted to tour… everything was completely up to me. That was great. The downside of working with them was that maybe they didn’t promote us as much as they could have. Maybe, if we have decided to go with a smaller label, we could’ve sold a little bit more records. Still, overall, working with Warner was very cool. No regrets!
It’s good to hear. And today, are you still paying attention to labels when buying records?
Well, you know what, Bandcamp just waived their fees, so I bought a record last night. This album may have been recorded ten years ago, but it just came out. It’s from Bimsclix Atrolla. This is my favorite record that came out in the last three months. It’s incredible, I hope you’ll like it.
So… here we are, my last question, very cliché: “is rock’n’roll dead”?
Of course not. Rock ‘n’ roll will never be dead, rock ‘n’ roll is too incredible, people will always love it, it’s so great!
That is good to hear.
There is a song where I say, “rock’n’roll will be here forever” [on “All Our Songs”]. Actually, I wanted to write “rock’n’roll won’t live forever”, I showed it to my wife, and she said: “no, no, it’s the other way around”. I was simply trying to make a joke, I thought it was funny, and she told me that it wasn’t. She was so right.
There is a Pavement song, “Fillmore Jive”, on which they sing, “goodnight to the rock and roll era, ’cause they don’t need you anymore”. So… they made the “joke”.
Yeah, well, rock ‘n’ roll will live. And it’s so many things, too. Elvis Presley, the first famous rock’n’roller, will be loved forever. It might not be very popular, it might not be the thing that most people love, but there will always be people with “soul”, people who gonna love it if it’s available. It’s like old blues or weirdo folk music.
But you know, I think that you could make the point, for instance, that jazz music is dead. Of course, some people keep on loving jazz, but it never creates a societal impact anymore. It’s happening within the field, but it doesn’t create something outside the circle, and I fear that rock ‘n’ roll could become that one day. But I hope I’m wrong.
Sure, but to me that maybe a different point, whether or not it is influential, whether or not it grows. But as far as existing, people loving it, and people loving to do it, that will happen forever. It might just be five people, but to me, as long as five people are doing it, it’s not dead.