Doug Martsch had the tone control and pickup selector removed from his Strat Plus. “The in-between settings were completely useless to me,” he says. Photo by Rene Gomez.
Most guitarists profiled here are afflicted with some form of G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome). They secure an instrument and then immediately set sights on their next purchase. But Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch displays no signs of the disease.
Martsch has played the same guitar—a Fender Strat Plus—for more than 20 years. Furthermore, its electronics were modified long ago for only a single pickup setting and a volume control. Yet Martsch achieves great sonic diversity despite this “limitation.”
Born in 1969, Martsch is known to fans as “Uncle Doug” due to his avuncular appearance. He grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho, and then lived briefly in Seattle while playing in the band Treepeople. After returning to Idaho—Boise this time—he formed Built to Spill in 1992. The band recorded two full-length albums, 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers and 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, before signing with Warner Brothers.
Despite being on a major, Built to Spill continued to explore their signature unconventional song structures and odd guitar solos. Albums like 1997’s Perfect from Now On and 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret (featuring “You Were Right,” one of the group’s most popular songs), were great critical successes.
In 2002, Martsch released Now You Know, a solo album more indebted to Delta blues than any of his previous work. More recently, he reconfigured Built to Spill with a fresh rhythm section: Steve Gere on drums and Jason Albertini on bass. Both players (and Martsch’s longtime co-guitarists, Brett Netson and Jim Roth) appear on the band’s excellent new album, Untethered Moon.
We spoke with Martsch about the new album, the virtues of being on a major label, his approach to soloing, and his faithful old Strat.
It’s been six years since your last album. Why did Untethered Moon take so long?
We actually wrote and recorded a whole record in the summer of 2012. We went out on the road, but our rhythm-section guys quit before the end of the tour. Everyone played awesomely on that album, but I wasn’t happy with the songs—maybe they weren’t developed enough. So I bagged the record and started over. I got a new band together, and we spent the next year practicing and touring, getting everyone used to playing together before we recorded in 2014.
Doug Martsch on soloing: “I don’t really have any process. I play completely viscerally and just go for it.” Photo by Rene Gomez.
Where did the title come from?
I’m not sure. For some reason I wanted the word moon to be in it—the concept of the moon in orbit. I messed around with a bunch of phrases and suddenly this one popped up. I liked it and went with it.
What has it been like to record for a major label, as opposed to a small indie?
The main difference is that we get to spend as much as needed to make a record, pretty much. It’s great to be able to go into a nice studio for a week and totally throw yourself into making the album, and to pay everyone a decent amount of money for working on it. It’s possible to do that on a smaller label, but much less common.
We have a lucky relationship with Warner Brothers. They let us do things with absolute creative control. In the past, they sometimes wanted to try things, like remixing Keep It Like a Secret with some big-name producer, or putting out a single of “You Were Right” with an edit that A&R did. I listened to it and wasn’t open to it at all. Every once in a while they try to hint at a direction, but if I say no, they’re totally fine. Of course, I’m not saying no just to say no. I always try to be reasonable.
Talk a little bit about the songwriting process for Untethered Moon.
Most things I brought in to play with the band started with me walking around my house with an acoustic guitar, strumming and trying to come up with something interesting. I record everything on tape, and once in a while I listen back to see if there’s anything that would make for good songs. I put parts together and try them out with different progressions, changing the time signatures and key signatures. The songs usually start to gel once the band has jammed with them for a half hour. When we jam like that, we’re playing in the moment, but thinking about the future at the same time.
How do you decide which material to develop?
When I make music, things are completely subjective. I could play the greatest line in the world, but if for some reason it doesn’t jibe with me, then it’s gone. I could play something really stupid, but if it resonates with me, I use it. This goes for every guitar progression and every melody. It must not be completely arbitrary, but I usually have no idea why I like something. Maybe it’s as simple as I like the shape of my fingers on the guitar when I’m making a certain sound.