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Spill Factor

Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch is more homebody than ass-kicking indie-rock god.



Sometimes fans get a little too fanatical. That’s the case with this guy I used to work with. Let’s call him Aaron—for legal purposes, of course. Whenever he got about five beers in him, his arms would start flailing like a puppet with half its strings cut. Inevitably, he’d start recounting the time he almost got in a fistfight with Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch.

Sound AffectsRADIOHEAD Amnesiac (Capitol)

In the secret clubhouse of right-thinkers who firmly believe Radiohead haven’t released a full-on great album since The Bends in ’94, Amnesiac is considered just another steaming pile of shrug-inducing critic-hype no better than last year’s tuneless Kid A—is “underindulgent” a word? After watching VH1’s Bands on the Run, the club votes for Ft. Worth guitar-and-liver abusers Flickerstick (who are shamelessly good at invoking old-school Radiohead rock shimmer) to relieve these Limey mope-dopes. One more album of this numb bullshit and we’re goin’ to Texas, Thom.

WHISKEYTOWN Pneumonia (Lost Highway)

Alt-country contenders Whiskeytown recorded Pneumonia in 1999, but lost it in label-merger limbo. It would have been the blue hangover to ’97 debut Stranger’s Almanac, which wasn’t exactly a party record itself. In 2001, it’s the classic “lost album” from a now-defunct band obviously too bummed to have taken the brass ring anyway. The upbeat numbers are few (“Mirror Mirror” and “Crazy About You” are pretty much it), but all 14 tracks are so sadly gorgeous that it hardly matters—the unsettling “What the Devil Wanted” could be one of the best deathbed lullabies ever recorded, for future reference.

HI-TEK Hi-Teknology (Rawkus)

Most hip-hop albums deliver thumping beats, but rarely hum-able tunes—Hi-Teknology, the name-on-the-front debut from Cincinnati sonic bricklayer Hi-Tek (Talib Kweli, Black Star) drops plenty of both and doesn’t skimp on the atmosphere and funk. Common, Mos Def and a dozen other rappers handle the rhymes while Hi-Tek lays down inventive and sophisticated musical beds far beyond the jeep-beats norm with jazzy verve underneath. Too bad it’s so short.

JUDAS PRIEST The Re-masters (Legacy)

A quad of re-mastered flashbacks-plus-outtakes from Judas Priest’s early-’80s heyday prove these leathered-up Brits absolutely embodied heavy metal thunder, no matter how idiotic they looked (and did they ever). British Steel (’80) marked JP’s American breakthrough, abandoning 10 years of thinky prog-rock for punk brevity. Point of Entry (’81) proved pointless, but Screaming for Vengeance (’82) is easily one of the greatest metal albums of all time, the perfect combo of twin-guitar grind and clobbering hooks. Defenders of the Faith (’84), dense in every sense, came out the same year as This is Spinal Tap. Both featured songs called “Heavy Duty.” Priest’s was funnier.—Bill Frost

See, my friend was a big fan—a Seattle transplant raised on grunge who thought Martsch was one of the last guys stoking the indie fires. And when Built to Spill was supposed to play a small Las Vegas record store before the release of the band’s last album, 1999’s Keep it Like a Secret, Aaron was more than a bit excited. That is, until a week before the gig. Built to Spill cancelled. No real reason. There were rumors, of course: better-paying show, sickness in the band, or maybe Spill was too good for a little Vegas record store. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter now. Aaron was pissed. He wanted Martsch to know.

It just happened that he was going back to Seattle a week after the band was supposed to be in Vegas. Spill was going to be playing a bar there. Aaron had his shot. He went to the show. Between songs he’d shout out, “Why’d you screw Vegas?” Martsch tried to explain to him that the band had something else it needed to do. That just made Aaron angrier. After the show he somehow managed to not be herded out of the bar with the rest of the crowd. Needless to say, a few minutes later security guards were dragging him out. “I almost got that fucker,” Aaron used to say.

Of course, Martsch doesn’t really remember much of this. “I probably said something like, ‘Fuck you,’ and thought it was over,” Martsch speculates. “I think people have the right to bitch at me for things and I have the right not to deal with them. Sounds like I didn’t want to deal with anything that night.”

Martsch doesn’t want to deal with much right now either. He’s stuck, though. Built to Spill has a new album, Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.), out July 10. He’s gearing up for the mandatory tour, dealing with the glut of pre-release press that he’s required to do. “I don’t really like doing interviews too much,” he says up front. “A few years ago it was fun to talk about myself. But now I’m not interested in it anymore. The questions never change.” (Here’s the standard rundown: Are you a guitar god? “No.” Have you sold out? “No.” Why live in Idaho? “Because it’s pretty.” Now on with the rest of the show.)

But perhaps the real reason Martsch doesn’t like talking up his new album is that he simply doesn’t like it. He’s never really liked any of his albums—at least for the first year or so after they’re in the can. A few grow on him over time. But it’s not like Martsch is ever going to grab a case of beer, sit on the coach and listen to his records for comfort.

“The way I feel about my records doesn’t always have anything to do with how good they are,” Martsch insists. “It’s easier to focus on the mistakes. The whole time while you’re making a record you’re troubleshooting. And when you’re done, you’re still in that mode of trying to figure out what’s wrong.”

Realistically, though, there’s not that much wrong with Ancient Melodies. More laid-back and rambling than Secret, the record drifts by like a raft on a river—methodical, yet still controlled by some greater force. It fits Martsch’s new approach: “I tried not to let it get to me this time,” he says. Normally meticulous in the studio, Martsch decided to let things stroll by on Ancient Melodies. And while it’s had an effect on the record—looser textures, a set-up-and-jam vibe—it didn’t have any impact on Martsch’s songs. There are still the detail-heavy melodies, the trademark tantric guitar lines, and the voice that sounds like it was inspired by a 7-year-old. “Trimmed and Burning” has enough distortion to make Neil Young feel like a proud father. “Strange” could almost be Martsch’s response to the first song off of Secret, “The Plan”: “This strange plan is random at best/It’s strange, how much more can I take?” And “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss”—well, slowed down and twanged up it could be a hit for Tim McGraw, but instead Martsch squeezes the countrified riffs into pure indie pop. In the end, there’s enough punch on the record to make even Martsch like it. “I’ll probably think this one is OK in the end,” he admits.

For now, Martsch is focusing on the next few months. Built to Spill has shows booked through the end of the year. And while Martsch likes getting up in front of a crowd and noodling around for a couple hours, he’s always reluctant to leave home. “Touring is all right,” he says less than enthusiastically. “I’d rather stay at home. But the group of people we have is fun to travel with and the shows are always nice and full of good people.” Except maybe the occasional malcontent looking to kick your ass.

Built to Spill with The Delusions. DV8, 115 S. West Temple (539-8400), Thursday June 7, 8 p.m.