Modest Martsch

Built to Spill's Doug Martsch on the difference between being a guitar god and a guitar guy

Built to Spill
You in Reverse
Warner Bros.

Doug Martsch is full of shit—in a nice way. "I'm not a very good guitar player," Built to Spill's founder and frontman claims by phone from the house in Idaho that he shares with spouse, offspring, dog, and cat. "I'm very mediocre. I've never been very good about practicing at all; I wish that I was. I think that, because we play guitar solos, people think I'm good at it, when I'm really just sort of messing around. There're a couple little things I can do, but put me next to anyone who actually practices and it's clear that I don't have any idea of what I'm doing. Honestly. I'm not being modest. I like the way I play, but I'm really very, very mediocre."

In other words, don't expect to hear Martsch using his beard as a plectrum at any point in the near future. His self-effacing gush is hardly surprising, coming from a guy whose regularity is the stuff of legend. (He's rumored to sometimes haunt the streets of Boise, searching for a pickup basketball game with a fervor usually found only among seekers of sex and pharmaceuticals.) Luckily, the guitarist's humility hasn't affected his playing. Built to Spill's seventh studio album, You in Reverse, is a veritable orgy of guitar-generated color and texture.

Beards will not be used as plectrums: Built to Spill
Warner Bros. Records
Beards will not be used as plectrums: Built to Spill

Granted, it doesn't all come from a single pair of paws; the onetime trio is now a full-fledged, three-guitar quintet. Martsch, Jim Roth, and Brett Netson glide and weave throughout the ultra-bouncy, nine-minute opener, "Goin' Against Your Mind," not so much trading licks as constructing an elaborate latticework that never obscures Martsch's fragile vocals or slightly cryptic lyrics. But not too cryptic; he hints at politics during one verse, with "If you're not sure who not to believe/Who has better reasons to deceive/Then they'll be gladder/That's all they do."

The singer was a little more overt at Lollapalooza last month, pausing at one point to tell the crowd, "Budweiser doesn't care about us." (Built to Spill played on the Bud Lite stage at the heavily branded event.) "That kind of stuff is depressing," he says, "that you can't have a show without Budweiser, AT&T, and all the corporations being involved. I just don't understand why people let them put their fingers into everything we do. The worse thing is that people don't give a shit. If you try to discuss it, they think there's something wrong with you, that you're being hysterical or alarmist or something."

While stopping short at outright accusations, New York Times pop music critic John Pareles waxed more than a little supercilious about Martsch's comment and a related one by Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer in the August 7 installment of his festival journal, observing: "A handful of big-time musicians still tour without corporate tie-ins, but even those diehards end up working in arenas and theaters that have been branded.... Does all the corporate presence make any difference to music that's rarely nonprofit by intention?"

Mr. Pareles's smug swipe isn't only slick as dookie: He fails to note (notice?) that neither of the bands he calls out perform at corporate-branded venues or tour behind logos—and not because they're holding out for Halliburton. Sure, Built to Spill are on Warner Bros. But even Time-Warner smells like Devendra Banhart compared to the likes of AT&T. Plus, multinational corporations and little rock cottage industries are hardly comparable. Led by a lefty who's both adamant and savvy, Built to Spill almost always play multiple club nights in markets where their draw warrants it. They're doing two nights here, at the resolutely indie First Avenue—as they have since 1997.

"The corporate thing didn't ruin my day or anything," says Martsch, "but I didn't stick around for any of Lollapalooza. My family lives in Chicago. They showed up. We hung out. The band played. We left right away. Sonic Youth played right after us, and I even didn't stick around for them. But we went to see 'em that night. It was weird; I hardly even recognized any of their songs. I was under the impression that I had all their records, but then I realized that I hadn't bought one of their records in 15 years, meaning I have maybe half their records, if that."

Collection gaps or no, the 38-year-old guitarist—who also acknowledges Jimi Hendrix, J. Mascis, and Steven Malkmus as onetime sources of inspiration—has nothing but praise for the band who headlined Lollapalooza in 1995, back when Built to Spill were only two years old. "At the time, I was a huge fan of theirs," he says. "Right after our set, in the dinner lounge or whatever, I overheard somebody right around the corner saying really nice things about us. I looked around the corner and it was Thurston. That was one of the high points of my musical career. He was a great inspiration to me when I was young, not a virtuoso, but somebody who did really interesting things with guitars. You don't have to be Eddie Van Halen to make music that sounds nice. You don't have to be that great a guitar player to create an interesting guitar solo. If the context is right, you can play one note and make it sound great. I'm pretty good at that sort of thing, I think."

 
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