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Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch: The Lure of Limitations

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

The first album in six years from Idaho’s greatest export since the potato.

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.

“Sometimes the simplest approaches result in the coolest sounds.”

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.

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 could play the greatest line in the world, but if for some reason it doesn’t jibe with me, then it’s gone.”

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.

Doug Martsch's Gear

1987 Fender Strat Plus

Blackface Fender Bassman

Dunlop Echoplex EP101
Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay
Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL110 (.010-.046)
Fender Medium

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[101]—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.

Doug Martsch on exploring the guitar: “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.” Photo by Rene Gomez.

What about amps and effects?
I don’t use much—a couple of delays, one for tap-tempo and the other for slapback echo and the weird sound here and there. I once got an off-brand vibrato pedal for one song, and I now step on it for the occasional odd sound. The delays are a Memory Boy and a 16 Second [both by Electro-Harmonix].

I’ve pretty much always used Fender Bassman amps. I started out with a Twin Reverb, but it died, and after I got it fixed it never sounded the same. I’ve had many Bassmans over the years—that’s the one for me.

Why is that?
It’s pretty simple. It’s loud enough to play live. It breaks up in a nice way. I find that Deluxes are just a little too quiet to play live. I’m sure something like a Bandmaster would also make a great amp for me, but I’ve stuck with the Bassman out of habit. I’ve been getting vintage blackface ones, though I don’t know if that really matters—some silverface ones would probably work fine.

Who are some of your biggest guitar influences?
My chief influence is Scott Schmaljohn of Treepeople. He taught me a lot. Brent Mason and Bill Frisell—both guys are amazing, and are always coming up with the best ideas ever. J Mascis, Thurston Moore—people who play viscerally. And that guy from the Pixies [Joey Santiago]. I like his stuff a lot—such a distinctive sound, simple, sweet, and smart.I also love Neil Young.

“Sometimes the less you know, the better off you are.”

I love how both he and J Mascis experiment with traditional styles, sometimes using the whammy bar to make everything sound a little fucked-up. Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—I love their soloing and parts, and how incredibly creative they are. But in my own playing I lean more toward J and Neil, mainly because their styles are more reachable, and I can cop them a little.

On “When I’m Blind” you build a long solo with subtle variations in pitch and rhythm. What do you think about when you solo?
I don’t really have any process. I play completely viscerally and just go for it. It’s one of the things I feel most insecure about. Live, it can sometimes be horrible, playing a solo that ends up in a place with nowhere to go, and feeling like I don’t have the mind or chops to stop the train wreck. But sometimes things go incredibly well. For “When I’m Blind”I did a bunch of takes and pieced things together.

So the solo was made up on the spot?
It was totally improvised, as are pretty much all of my solos. The only thing I had in mind was picking super-fast and hovering around notes, sliding back and forth around them with my fret hand.

How did you get the animal-like tones on “Living Zoo?”
There wasn’t much to it. I just hit the chord of the key the song is in and ran it through a wah, probably a Dunlop. Sometimes the simplest approaches result in the coolest sounds.

YouTube It

Get an up-close look at Doug Martsch in soloing mode in this live performance of “Carry the Zero.”

You’ve expressed misgivings about your guitar abilities. What things exceed your grasp?
That’s an interesting question, and I don’t really know the answer. Maybe I wish I could do things a little more quickly. I might spend hours between takes trying to refine a part, and it takes a while because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s willful, though. I know a lot of people who grew up playing classical and feel that their creativity got stymied in the process. I have a little of that fear in me. But I’m not like Isaac [Brock] of Modest Mouse, who doesn’t even know the names of chords. I wouldn’t go that far.

How much theory do you know?
I took some music theory in high school, so I know a little about keys. I know that for every major key there’s a minor. I know how to noodle around a bit in the different keys, and that’s about it. Sometimes the less you know, the better off you are.