Doug Martsch of Built To Spill on the Freedom (and Traps) of Music

Jake Uitti
Built to Spill at Treefort Music Fest 2016 // photo by Alex Crick

For years, the Northwest-based indie rock band, Built To Spill, has inspired and entertained music lovers of all kinds with the group’s signature circusy melodies and curious, endearing lyricism. Fronted, of course, by the sonic wizard, Doug Martsch, Built To Spill will play two consecutive sold-out shows March 26th and 27th at the Columbia City Theater. To preview the back-to-back events, we reached out to the songwriter to ask him about being one of the region’s most beloved rockers, what he’s learned about the business of music after achieving so much success, how he fell in love with the game of basketball, and what he finds freeing about song composition.

KEXP: Do you remember when you decided to embrace singing for people?

Doug Martsch: I don’t know, I always kinda sang. I would sing when I was a kid in school. I was never embarrassed to do it. I never really sang in front of people or anything. But I was always fine singing along. I like music a lot. I was in choir when I was in junior high school. I’ve always felt pretty comfortable singing. It took me a little while to get used to singing in front of people and all that. But it wasn’t too big of a hurdle for me. 

How has the Northwest informed your creative output?

Just growing up here and the connections that I’ve made with Northwest musicians and other people in the business and stuff has completely made my whole life what it is. But that’s sort of arbitrary and happens wherever it’s to happen. 

Has the music or topography of the area influenced your songwriting?

I don’t know. I don’t feel that. I feel like it’s influenced by other music. Music from all over the place. I think it was more about just the people that I met. I think, musically, I was more influenced by things from other places. I don’t think there was too much in the Northwest that had an influence on my songwriting. I mean, here and there, just because you’re around people but I felt like my biggest influences were, like, David Bowie and the Butthole Surfers and Camper Van Beethoven, The Replacements. Things from all over other places. There wasn’t a whole lot in the Northwest. Like, I wasn’t into the Grunge stuff. I liked it okay. But I wasn’t into Sub Pop or anything. 

Doug Martsch, playing the 2017 SMooCH Benefit Show // photo by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)


What happens internally when you step on stage?

Oh, well, it’s pretty routine for me at this point. When I first step on stage, I step on stage to set up my gear. Part of the reason I do that — well, first of all, we don’t have roadies, that’s not an expense we want to incur. I get acclimated to the stage and the club and the crowd and everything when I go out there and set my stuff up. So by the time we’re playing, I’m more comfortable instead of having a curtain open up and all of a sudden you’re performing. 

What is it like for you to be in a band today compared to a decade ago?

A decade ago, I was playing with the same people I’d been playing with for a long time and thought I’d keep playing with them forever. Now, I don’t really know who I’m going to be playing with. It’s all kind of up in the air. So, that’s by far the main difference. Otherwise, Built To Spill is just kind of chugging along. We haven’t gotten any more or less — our career has not gotten any better or worse since 10 years have passed. It’s just sort of the same level of being a band. 

Is there anything, in particular, you don’t like about your job?

There’s a lot of bookkeeping and accounting and management and email responding and that sort of stuff that I have to do that I don’t like to do. A lot of it. More and more as time goes on. 

What did you learn about your orientation to the business of music after the success of Keep It Like A Secret?

Well, that’s the thing. I was a little bit... it kind of took a while. The business side of it, I did very little. When you first do it, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, so you don’t do any of it. Then you realize all these things you’re actually supposed to be doing and you start doing them and years go by and they just keep piling up. The more you do it right, the more time it takes to do it and the more stuff you have to do. Back at that time, we did what we had to. I don’t even remember keeping a ledger on tour at that time. I don’t think we were doing anything back then. 

I hear you’re a basketball fan. As an artist, what do you learn from watching the game?

I don’t know how much it informs me as an artist. I guess every now and then I make some metaphor. There are similarities between sports and art just in creativity and stuff and some moments of beauty and surprise and all that kind of stuff. I grew up liking sports and playing sports when I could as a little kid. And then when I was a teenager, I just rejected all sports and everything about it. Then when I was about 30, I quit smoking cigarettes and started going out to shoot hoops. Then I became obsessed with playing and I started watching it. I never gave a shit about it at all and then it became one of the main focuses of my life for the last 20 years. 

What do you find yourself exploring thematically in your work these days?

Right now, I’m not really even working too hard on writing songs. As far as themes go and lyrics, that’s the very hardest thing for me to do and the last thing to come and the thing I spend the least amount of time doing. So, I’ll jot down some phrases or ideas and keep them in notebooks but they’re just not fun to look at. They’re never very impressive. But eventually, I come up with something to put words on the songs. But, thematically, I don’t have any things I’m working on right now.

Do you ever consider how your music has influenced so many younger songwriters?

Well, I guess I mostly will consider it when I’m doing an interview and somebody asks me about it. Otherwise, I don’t. I guess here and there. I’ll meet someone and they’ll say something. Of course, it’s flattering. But also — it’s just kind of arbitrary, you know? I guess it depends on who it is. If I like their music, I’m flattered. If I don’t, I’m sorry!

Live on KEXP in 2015 // photo by Dave Lichterman (view set)


Does making music feel freeing?

I think sometimes. But sometimes it’s like you’re completely unfree. You’re completely trapped by it when you’re playing it. Because you’re just doing the exact thing you’re supposed to do. There is no freedom. But some parts of music, there’s lots of freedom. When you’re creating it, you can go anywhere. I just got done practicing. When you just go through the songs, there’s a little bit of freedom, but you’re pretty much stuck there. I remember playing on the radio one time doing this acoustic show. And I just hadn’t practiced very much and I was nervous about it. I was live on the radio and I felt so trapped. I’m here, you know, I have to do this! For once, I can’t just get up from my guitar and go do something else. With the band, though, it’s different. With the band, I’m pretty comfortable and confident about it. But with the solo stuff, I’m still really nervous about it. All of a sudden it was like, Woah, I’m just totally stuck here!

Built to Spill play two sold-out shows, March 26th and 27th, at the Columbia City Theater. They also play Thursday, March 21st at the Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho, as well as Doug's other project Treepeople who play the fest on Friday, March 22nd. This Spring, they kick off the Keep It Like A Secret 20th anniversary tour in the UK. Dates here.

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