Built To Spill: Ultimate Again
At 20 years old, Doug Martsch began writing the first Built To Spill record, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, launching the career of one of the finest bands to ever grace this earth. The songs were initially intended for his at-the-time band Treepeople, but when the group disbanded, the orphan material found a home in Doug’s newest venture. He enlisted some friends to play on the magnum opus and slapped on the moniker Built To Spill – a band name that would serve as a revolving door of hand-picked friends, tailored to help actualize Doug’s sound in the recording studio. UAW was Released in 1993 and despite its claim to ultimacy, (and a dorky cover shot of the band that doesn’t quite align with its title) the album did not necessarily set the world ablaze Still, the release managed to garner a devout local following.
It wasn’t until 94’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love that the world noticed the singular voice of Doug Martsch. His intricate song structures work in conjunction with lyrics so brilliantly basic (at times) that one marvels at the sheer brevity. These elements are brought home with a guitar sound that mirrors Doug’s delayed, sustained vocal expressions to perfection. While there are certainly influences to speak of, Martsch is a genius in his own right. His work oozes with character, be it through his voice or picking style or the note-economy of his guitar parts. He has the ability to shred up and down the neck but knows far better. All these factors contribute to an impressive twenty-year body of work fueled by wisdom and lucid perspective.
With Pavement also in mind, it seems to me that there is only so much the truly significant bands can penetrate the mainstream music industry. Both BTS and Pavement, though dressed for success, never reached the mega-stardom of grunge’s gate-openers. But they’re appreciated all the more for it. To their devout, long-time appreciators, they are as personally significant as the bands that inspired Doug to pick up a guitar in the first place.
BTS’s hometown of Boise, Idaho recently held its second annual Treefort Music Fest. The weekend, jam packed with bands playing around the small downtown’s various kickass venues, was initially set to be curated by Doug, but when a Built To Spill line-up change saw a switch-up in the drum and bass section, the band decided to take the opportunity to flex their new wings in a colorful three-night run. Friday they played UAW in full. Normally at a BTS show, to hear any track off this debut is a small blessing, so to hear the album in its entirety, to use a familiar word, was just perfect. Saturday was a typically epic BTS show, featuring songs from their remaining catalog. Then the weekend came to a bittersweet close on Sunday in a rare covers night where the band performed a variety of shout outs to influences and peers. The set-list – which featured Dylan, New Order, Beefheart, Pavement, Dinosaur, and Smiths, to name a few – was just wonderful. With these three hometown shows, venturing into more personal territory, fraught with joyful respects paid to predecessors, beginnings (new & old) seemed very much in mind. At one point, Doug’s former band Treepeople even reunited for their first show in over 20 years during a performance by The Hand.
Leading up to the fest I wasn’t sure if I’d ever been so excited. When Built To Spill kicked off the weekend with their career’s track 1, “The First Song,” in Boise’s El Korah Shrine – yes, a real shrine – I found myself in BTS heaven. It was a casual affair, as late nights saw Doug and others of the family band doing Karaoke with Portland’s Karaoke From Hell. On Friday night, barely 20 minutes after the BTS show, Doug and his wife did a duet on “Heaven” by The Talking Heads. When they sang the lyrics, “The band in heaven plays my favorite song”, I pinched myself, thinking I’d never thought I’d know it to be true.
How did the notion to do Ultimate Alternative Wavers come about?
Doug Martsch: Well when we started jamming with the new dudes, we kind of were like “Well, what should we do? How about we start with the first song on the first record?” So it was kind of a joke but then we were sort of like, “Well, it’s coming up on the 20 year anniversary of it . . .” We kind of thought of doing There’s Nothing Wrong with Love actually. Just cause that’s kind of a popular record. And we thought maybe we could do that whole record. It would be kind of fun. And then we thought we’d do (UAW) instead since it’s got an anniversary coming up. It becomes 20 years. And you know, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love – maybe it will get rereleased on vinyl next year.
So how’s the process of relearning the songs?
A few of them we had been playing pretty regularly so we knew them pretty well – the guitar chords – and then some of it was pretty easy. The only thing that was tough was “Built Too Long,” the instrumental. And that’s something that when we recorded it the bass and drums were kind of improvised and then I went home and messed with it a long time by myself. And it was back before you could go home with files, y’know? It was listening to a cassette of everything. Trying to figure out what to do. So it was kind of like you know this song has like a structure and it has some kind of – what’s the word I’m looking for – composition or whatever and so we kind of jammed a little bit and we don’t want to do a fuckin’ long free jam on these chords – we gotta kind of learn it. We kept putting it off and we started learning it the last time we had a rehearsal a couple weeks ago. We kind of started at the beginning and we learned a couple of minutes of it and tried to match it as closely as possible, and just over time we figured it out. We played this thing 50 times at least, and worked on little parts we missed. So that was the big challenge – but it was also super fun. I love doing that – I love just playing all day – running over the same thing over and over again till I can do it.
Let’s go back even earlier. Before people even find their taste in music there are the embarrassing/confused years and there’s music that you prefer not to admit that you one time loved. What kind of bands in your early years were you arbitrarily into?
Well I grew up with the radio in the ‘70’s and the radio was pretty good back then – early ‘80’s – and it was like, everything was there. The top 40 had soul music and rock music, country music.
You didn’t have to find stuff necessarily…
No. You couldn’t even. I mean in a way it was probably horrible. You listen to the radio all day and it’s shit and then you finally hear something good. All day, everyday. But yeah, I was just always into music. At the end of the year it would be Casey Kasem’s top 100 of the year and I’d listen to that all day long, recording it on my little tape recorder.