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Q&A: Built to Spill's Doug Martsch

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Three years after their well-received You in Reverse, Built to Spill and bearded bandleader Doug Martsch are back. The 11-track There Is No Enemy picks up where Reverse--an album many consider among the band's best--left off.

The band's fifth studio album for Warner Bros. finds Built to Spill content and stretching out with new recording techniques and a host of guest musicians. Their ever-revolving lineup has solidified around Martsch and familiar faces Brett Nelson, Jim Roth, Scott Plouf, and (oddly enough) Brett Netson, all of whom are present on Enemy.

Nearly 20 years on, Martsch's quirky indie rock vision lives. While the act never truly reached mainstream status, its ability to sustain a rabid fan base with consistently genuine and compelling material has provided staying power. This approach would appear to have benefits over the hit-and-fizzle of overhyped one-hit wonders.

A mold for contemporary artists like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse, Built to Spill's fetal vocals, loud-soft dynamic, and dirty guitars are too timeless to grow stale. Martsch's tunes are just plain good, a fact that keeps the music sounding fresh and the band outlasting lesser peers. In anticipation of their show tonight at First Ave, Gimme Noise tracked down the Idahoans in a van somewhere in California.

How much of the new record are you working into your shows?

The record won't be out until October 6, so we'll likely wait until it is before we play new songs. We have to relearn them, so early on in the tour we play them at soundcheck. Sometimes we don't play new stuff at all. Most people like to hear songs they're familiar with. The new songs are ok, but if you've heard the record first they sound better.

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Apparently you aren't one of those bands resentful of fans there to hear the oldies.

People like stuff that's familiar. That's a great aspect of music, part of its power. The stuff that brings you to tears is stuff you've heard before. Music is about more things than sound.

Do you still enjoy touring?

I've liked it for a long time. It's just really fun to play every night. That's the best part of making music. I don't mind the travel. I can kick back and read or work on other things.

How has the process of making records changed for you since the beginning?

This record was the first time we recorded digitally; everything else was onto tape. That was different. It's a lot more fun being able to do lots of overdubs, choose stuff later, do a lot of stuff at home. We did stuff at home two records ago but it didn't sound very good. In a lot of ways you never really learn. There came a point ten years ago when I gave up on trying to make what was in my head. Sometimes you can take the best song on the record and it comes out a little flat, and a song you don't think you should bother with is magic.

Do you prefer bringing songs to the band or jamming? How does the approach affect the result?

To me the things we've written out of jams were out of necessity, either like creative necessity or we didn't have anything to start with we or felt that was how music should be made at that time. In other cases, we've had songs laying around; that's the way the germs of the songs come about. They become the same thing. The process doesn't affect the outcome.

What is it like seeing the success of new bands influenced by Built to Spill and artists that came up with you?

I don't pay too much attention to modern music. There are some friends' bands that I like still, but for the most part I don't follow music at all. For me, being a modern musician, there's some sort of mystery and romance attached to things done before I was born. I'm a 40-year-old man and what 20-year-olds are doing doesn't interest me as much.

Any chance Built to Spill will join established artists operating without a label?

For this last record we renegotiated with Warner Bros. and decided we'd still like to be on the label. I don't know. I don't regret any of the decisions we've made as of now. Making a record is expensive and I wouldn't feel too confident doing it without support.

What about the There is No Enemy gives you the most pride?

There are a lot of guests I'm psyched about. Paul Leary from Butthole Surfers, Sam Coomes plays on a song, John McMahon plays on a song.

You joked to Pitchfork that you personally have lots of enemies. Who or what are they?

The record title [There Is No Enemy] is something I don't really want to talk about. Having done years of interviews, I knew some people were going to be weird or confrontational, but I like it. I think some people think it is a naive political statement, but it's just a record title. They sort of missed the point of the whole thing. I said I have lots of enemies just to change the subject. It was definitely sarcasm.

BUILT TO SPILL will play TONIGHT at FIRST AVENUE. 18+. $18/$20 at the door. 5:30 p.m. 701 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.332.1775.