The Chinese Segments of You in Reverse:A Conversation with Built to Spills Brett Netson
The Vegoose Festival hosts bands from a wide range of backgroundsjambands, indie rockers, classic radioheads, garage hounds, alt punkers and a delightful few but distinguished that appear to inhabit all of those genres at any given time. Built to Spill occupies the latter category. Their new release, You in Reverse is an absorbing blend of improvisational jam music that was sliced, diced, chopped, edited and mixed into ten new melodic songs of BTS ragged grandeur. The band went into the studio with three members and jammed without purpose for what was a series of attempts at a new method.
The jam sessions worked and, along the way, the group formalized their roster with the addition of two longstanding freelance musicians. In the words of Brett Netsonone of the longtime BTS guitarists but never an active member of the band“they took the jams and sliced them into Chinese segments.” Jambands.com catches up with Netson on the eve of the band’s appearance at Vegoose over Halloween weekend to discuss the band’s recording methodology, jamming discipline and the beauty of a homemade set of amps.
RR: Looking forward to Built to Spill’s Vegoose gig?
BN: Yes, we are. We just played that Lollapalooza thing and it was really stupid. In all fairness, the bands were really good but it was kind of a Wal-Mart festival. I try not to be too much of a bitch but it was fucking ridiculous. (laughs) It was so homogenized that the toilet paper might as well have had a little advertisement logo on itevery single little thingthe Budweiser Stagebut like I said, the bands were all good.
RR: After all of these years, you’ve officially become a member of Built to Spill.
BN: Yeahfor real, on the payroll. When we were doing the last record, You in Reverse I was passing through on my way to California. They were jamming a lot on that record, hours on end at the studio of a friend of ours, Steven Wray Lobdell [Audible Alchemy]. It was a real casual atmosphere so I ended up playing on some stuff on the record, went on tour and at some point (laughs), I don’t know, Doug [Martsch, group founder and frontman] just figured it would be a good time to ask and it wasa perfect time for me.
I’m pretty disgusted with the club scene, right now. I have no interest in playing in any of those clubs as Clear Channel keeps taking them over one by one. The last Caustic Resin tour [his other banda “staunch, raunchy jamband,” according to Netson] was dismal and disgustinga real bummer. The whole beloved 90s club scene is absolutely in shambles. (laughs) It’s pretty much been shut down. It’s still kind of happening but not much as a circuit. So Doug asked me if I wanted to [join BTS]. I had never considered it; I just figured, yeahI’m not really into hard-timing it in the clubs, anymore. Musicwisethe corporations have taken over so much that a band like Built to Spill was about the coolest thing I could imagine doing, right now based on the quality of the outfit.
RR: You go back at least ten years with the band, right? You played on various albums and tours but you weren’t an official member. I would assume that the amount of rehearsal required for Doug Martsch’s revolving door of members required someone like you to finally come aboard full-time. Is that correct?
BN: Yeah. That’sthat’svery insightful of you. (laughs) Sure. I think that gets to be a pain in the ass for Doug. Alsofor me, every time I’d get in on a tour, it was fun for me because I kind of didn’t know what was going on. I was sort of a wild card. I think, maybe, that was part of the fun of it for me and [Doug], which wasn’t necessarily easy. But things get old and things aren’t funny, anymore. (laughs) I think, of course, the time was right to settle into this situation with Jim [Roth, another new official member and longtime BTS touring guitarist] and me and everybody and really see what we could come up with and I think that the last year or two, Doug has had a renewed interest in playing music in this capacity.
Around the time of _Ancient Melodies of the Future_it’s bound to happen to anybody at some point, you just get fed up with the whole thing; self doubt, maybe, I don’t know [Doug] was not really into it. Things have changed so much in the music scene that we are very grateful to be established where we are right nowto have the opportunity to make music the way we want to make it. I think that we’re really lucky compared to a lot of peopleall those Calvin Klein cocaine rock kids. (laughs) I think there’s a little bit of pressure to look good and to use the right producers. It’s kind of like the 80s all over again except in the alternative rock scene. It’s the alternative rock scene’s version of the 80sheavy metal, you know. Built to Spill should really enjoy this while it’s still around because it’s a really cool opportunity.
RR: How has your relationship with Jim Roththe other longtime touring BTS guitaristevolved over the years?
BN: Great, you knowJim’s sort of like a place and a person at the same time. (laughs) Jim moved out to Seattle from Ohio and, over the years, he was the guy who always had all of the vintage amps. I have no idea how he ended up getting so many; he was renting them and getting all of these kinds of things so he had a good selection.
I would always go see him first thing when it came time to record. I love that stuff; I just could never afford it. “There’s good ole Jim.” He’s more than willing to let you use them for free. We were in bands that were on the same label in the early days. He’s just been around the Northwest scene always ready to help; he’s like a farmer; he’s always ready to help, ready to get to work on something. (laughs)
He’s got his own house too so, you can always go there and hang out. He was one of the few people that I knew that actually had their own house. It was a great scene. We’ve started building our dream amps together after he went off the deep end into electronics. He started off with amps and the next thing you know, he’s making distortion pedals.
RR: What is interesting about You in Reverse is the mix of alternative, indie, jam
BN: And good ole classic rock.
RR: and yes, classic rock, too. Also, like Dylan with the Band when they jammed during The Basement Tape sessions, Built to Spill appeared to return to a jam or a song fragment and sift through the music for the melodies. I’m especially curious about the four songs you worked onthere’s a lot of tension and release.
BN: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. I think that’s probably my fort
RR: Tension and release? (laughter)
BN: I think so, yeah. I exploit that, if nothing else. (laughs) Yeah, sure. That’s cool. That’s kind of how they made the record. They pulled out hours and hours of jam time in the studio and Doug would take it home and spend a little more time with parts and work on the melodies. That’s definitely his thing; he gets those melodies and, musicwise, it was way more of collaboration; it was great. It’s fun for me to walk right into that stuff. I came in and said, “Whoawhat are you guys doing? WOW.”
RR: That’s what I was going to ask you next. What were the sessions like?
BN: (laughs) It was kind of loopy. In the past, Built to Spill has been kind ofummm task-oriented. They were just sitting in the main room and jamming with no apparent direction. I thought, “That’s cool.” It’s fun and a very, very markedly different thing for the Built to Spill outfit.
RR: So it’s a liberating process and not a sign of burn out with this method as a last ditch effort to find inspiration?
BN: No. No. (pauses) I don’t know. I wouldn’t think it would be anything like that. It wasn’t liberating, either. (pauses) It’s a summation of all the things that have ever gone on with Doug, me, Brett [Nelson] and everybody else. (pauses) It was what it was.
RR: Organized chaos?
BN: (laughs) Yeah. It was kind of like why bother being so hard on ourselves trying to be all rigid, task-oriented and trying to get this record donewhy bother doing that shit again? More likelet’s just do this. (laughs) The one thing that I noticed was that Scott’s drumming [Plouf]wowfrom being a really competent drummer to really having his own thing going on. He’s just amazing. He was always goodmake sure to put that down. (laughs) There’s just more of a vitality to it. I really have no idea what would have spurred Doug or any of the others to focus more on jamming and interplay.
As far as the drums and the rhythm section go, to me, they’ve developed an immense amount so the live shows are so much more fun. It’s all together whereas before, that was part of its charm but straight up, this was about songs and guitar parts. Make no mistake; it was about making a sculpture, Doug sculpting his recordsfor lack of a better word. That was kind of more what it was like and the hook for the whole thing with all of these different parts that he would put together. He was really talented and good at it. Now, it’s to the point where it’s more of an organic vital thing. I don’t think it’s either better or worse but that’s just kind of what it is now.
RR: What’s surprising is that the band was able to get these melodies, different sounds and lo-fi textures while, initially, Doug went into the studio without knowing what was going to come out of the sessions. The band was able to craft the songs without the old anal-retentive attention-to-detail methodology. How will this method translate to the stage? Are songs more open-ended, now?
BN: Well, you know, with Built to Spill there’s always certain songs that will be designated as open-ended. (pauses) That’s not any different, really. What is different isummmwhat was the question? (laughter)
RR: Non-long winded version? How will this new approach translate to the stage?
BN: I gotcha. I don’t think it’s changed much. (pauses) I think it gets more concise is what happens. It gets simpler, everybody plays simpler and cooperates more; it gets more focused this way, instead of “here’s this song, and there’s these parts and this part and here’s the end and everybody go off at the end,” which on a good night is really cool but the way things are now, people are way more aware of what each other are doing and trying to keep their bit minimal in hopes that it becomes something bigger overall.
That’s kind of where’s it at right nowfor everybody to see how simple they can play, how much they can not play and taking things out. That’s always been a big part of what Doug does, toothe charm of what Doug does is putting things in and taking things out. That’s always been the charm of a lot of the stuff that Built to Spill does. It’s not altogether easy to do in a live situation because you get so hyped up and into it that you want to keep playing every second. (pauses)
You know, it’s weird. When you’re jamming, putting more restrictions on the situation can give you more freedom. My band, Caustic Resin, was more of a jamband, by a rule. We came from jamming into writing songsthe opposite direction. (laughs) For me this is really neat because it’s sort of meeting in the middle between those two extremes. What I know from Caustic Resin is that if you put limitations on the situations like a discipline of some kind, a minimalist sort of discipline, you’ve got so much more freedom in so many different ways. Like I said before where “everybody goes off at the end”it’ll be like free-for-all, a jumbled mess, nothing will really grab you because you can’t differentiate anything from anything else. We’ve been playing long enough now that what interests us is the refinement and minimalism of finding out what really. really needs to be there as opposed to putting as many things in as possible. That is what I am really enjoying about Built to Spill these days.
RR: Let’s take a look at “Just a Habit” from _You in Reverse_a slow build from waltz to dirge which segues into a sweet melody melting into a heavy wah wah solo. I really love all of the chapters in that song. Did you play that guitar solo at the end?
BN: (laughs) Yeah. I didn’t think it was going to make it, either. (laughs) That was one of my favorites, of course. You see that’s what I’m more used toa song like that, for me personally. It’s nice that Built to Spill is such that there’s always a little bit of everything. That’s a good example. You have athere’s some restraint in that song, which is nice. For me, that’s what I enjoyit doesn’t just build right away; it takes a while, you know, until you get to the end and it kind of gets crazy.
RR: Why did you feel that your solo on “Just a Habit” was not going to make it?
BN: My idea was to do three guitar parts and jump back and forth between all three. To do the composite thing to make that happen, I didn’t really have time for that particular song to work it out and it ended up being not so developed. (laughter) I wasn’t there to mix it and I wasn’t quite able to explain what my plan was with it. They kind of just put it all in and there’s the guitarsboom! (laughter)
RR: Do you like how it came out?
BN: I kind of do because it’s kind of fucked up.
RR: Yepthat’s why I was hooked in a positive way and singled it out.
BN: It’s a bold move. It’s nice when, you know, we’re just going to let it ride. We have to remember where we came from. (laughs)
RR: That’s an astute comment because the fact that you didn’t have a producer helped this particular type of albumelements that predominately would have been tossed were kept in the final mix.
BN: Sure. You see the thing is with Phil Ek [longtime BTS producer]he did many of the records. And you can see how the first [self-produced] record is totally insane [1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers. We had a sixteen-track studio and had no idea what the hell we were doing. Then we had all of the Phil Ek records and he’s mostly an engineer but he’s a friend so you’re righthe has a tremendous influence over the situation.
RR: Which normally would have worked but not for an album like You in Reverse.
BN: With someone like [Ek], he’s not so much a producer, per se but everybody tries to play to their strengths and that’s how the project ends up so you’re rightthis situation was a pretty big deal, for those guys especially, for Doug to have a different person at the controls. That’s cool, you know. Steven [Wray] Lobdell was pretty influential, as well. He’s a notable guy; he’s a really amazing musician in his own right. He helped make some decisions, too. It was kind of a passive aggressive standoff, most of the time. That was a shocker going in therewhat’s going on? Whose in charge here? There was nobody in charge; it was a little bit crazy. [Lobdell] was a wonderful influence because he does these kind of improvhave you ever heard his stuff?
RR: Yeah, he’s coolFaust and a few other bands, too.
BN: It’s great. He’s not a hack, at all. He’s a very jam-oriented, live performance guy. You definitely have that influence [on You in Reversewhen I found that a bunch of those guitars were overdubbed, I was amazed because it sounds live to me and it’s not. They did those guitars in a room with some room mics for that live approach. There are little bits of tuning problems, bits are out of tune here and there that are cool. I love it.
RR: Basic tracks were broken down and overdubbed onto existing jams?
BN: I don’t think they used any of the tracks from any of the jams.
RR: They just used the ideas from jams and built from there?
BN: Yeah. They took them and edited them into Chinese segments. They would take a part that they liked and chop and edit it with other parts as if it were a song; then, put it onto a CD and listen to it. (laughs) That’s crazy; it’s pretty cool. I wasn’t so much involved with thata lot of that happened early on.
RR: The table was set when you arrived to work on the guitar parts on four tracks?
BN: They were tracking and were almost done. That’s usually when I come in which is cool because [the track is] almost done but maybe it needs a little something else.
RR: You don’t have to deal with the twelve Tylenol bottles during pre-production.
BN: Nowhat’s that? 12 bottles?! Sure. I miss a lot of those decisions.
- _Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com