Doug Martsch has played the same ’87 Fender Strat Plus almost exclusively for decades. Photo by Rene Gomez.
When do lyrics enter the mix?
The words almost always come last. Right now I’m sitting on about 10 songs with no lyrics whatsoever. The hardest thing by far for me is coming up with words. I have so many melodic and rhythmic ideas, but when it comes to lyrics, it so often starts with just some babbling nonsense—songs in search of real words.
Why do you find lyrics difficult?
I’m not really a writer, storyteller, or verbal person. But I wouldn’t want to do just instrumental music—to me, rock and pop need singing every now and then to keep things interesting.
Who are some of your songwriting benchmarks?
I would have to say J Mascis, a big influence in terms of writing as well as guitar playing. Growing up, R.E.M. was a big deal to me, as were the Smiths. But David Bowie was probably the biggest deal of all when I was a teenager.
I just started listening again to Larry Norman, a Christian rocker I listened to a lot in junior high school. He was a bigger influence than I had realized. He’s a great songwriter, with such excellent melodies. He was kind of a renegade Christian. Many Christians tended not to like the music because it was too rock, and rock fans tended not to like it because he was a Jesus freak. If you can kind of ignore some of the fucked-up things he said in his music, or place your own passion whenever you hear the word Jesus, there’s a lot of cool stuff there. He certainly worked his way into my psyche. People like Frank Black and Bob Dylan are really into him, too. And some of the lyrics are great, for example, “They say to cut my hair—they’re driving me insane/I grew it out long to make room for my brain.” [From the song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.”]
What was it like working with your new lineup?
It was really fortunate. When the other two guys quit, these two were on the tour bus with us, playing with the opening band. I’d always admired their music and wanted to work with them. Both are multi-instrumentalists, so we decided that Jason would be the bassist and Steve the drummer. Right away these guys learned a bunch of [Built to Spill’s] old tunes, and we played our first show within a month of getting together.
I knew they were great players, but at first I worried that they wouldn’t capture the right vibe of the music, with its subtle qualities. But they nailed it perfectly—they’re rad. Making a record with them was rad, too. It’s probably the first record Steve ever made. He’s a little younger and is the anxious and nervous type. I was a little worried about what it might be like for him, but [producer] Sam Coomes gave him a little pep talk, and Steve killed it in the studio. And of course it was awesome to have the other guitar players, Jim and Brett, who are so great, but aren’t really on the other records.
Why did the other guys quit?
It was all pretty mellow—no drama. They just got burned out because they’d been doing it a long time. I talked to Scott [Plouf] a few months ago, and he hasn’t touched the drum set since he left the band—touring was apparently tough on his body. For [bassist] Brett [Nelson] it was mostly about touring—he didn’t want to be gone from home so much. Also, he’d been playing my songs for such a long time, and he wanted to do his own thing. I totally understood. Being in Built to Spill is such a serious commitment, and you’ve got to be available all the time for this band.
What guitars did you play on the record?
I mostly used my Strat—an ’87 [Strat Plus] that I’ve used on all my records and have always played live.
Have you kept it stock or modded it?
At one point I had the pickup switch and tone knob removed, so all it has is the volume control. I took the tone knob off because I always had it turned all the way up and never touched it—I dialed in the tone on my amp instead. As for the selector switch, I’m pretty sure that the middle position is the only setting I can use now. The in-between settings were completely useless to me.
I do all the sound-shaping stuff with pedals. I’m not a tone junkie. I don’t even know if a Strat is the best guitar for me. I just got it because someone at the guitar store where I bought it recommended it. To get the best sound, I always have to jack it up with a preamp. At first I didn’t understand that stuff, but once I started using a preamp, I got a much bigger and more satisfying sound.
Which preamp do you use these days?
Recently I’ve been using the [Dunlop] Echoplex EP—three of them. I’ve got one on all the time for a little grit. The other two I use for distortion—one for heavy rhythm, and the other dialed all the way up for thick fuzz.