Built To Spill: Ultimate Again
Do you care about The Dead?
I… um- I like The Dead. Not a big fan but I grew up in a time when it was annoying. Not them. More the fans. More like jocks turning into Deadheads. That kinda thing. But I never held them responsible. But I also had my own thing going. But we cover a Dead song [“Ripple”].
And I guess while we’re on the topic, and in the spirit of your covers set on Sunday night, how do you go about selecting covers?
Just the way, you probably would, y’know? “Ripple” is an example of something to just get through a sound check. Y’know, something to sing besides my own shit. It’s just fun to sing at sound check. And then the band starts playing along, and it’s like “oh, yeah! Maybe we could do something with that. We did a bunch of stuff with that song too, we didn’t want to play it straight, we did like a punk version of it, did all this stuff and then finally we thought we’ll just do our version straight. Just strum the chords out. And just turn it into straight BTS Dead song.
It’s really interesting when you do covers like MIA’s “Paper Planes,” because not that it is not a phenomenal song but it’s fascinating to see what it might’ve sounded like if it were written by a different voice.
Well, I’m really excited about our covers show because those guys are good – our band is good. The rhythm section is good, the guitar players are good, it’s gonna be really fun. Our main objective is to do the songs pretty true. Like we don’t wanna put our spin on it. For one thing I don’t even know what our spin is. Other than via my voice. Otherwise we don’t really have a sound I think. We just delve into different things and I don’t use the same amp all the time. I don’t have a vision. So we try to do those covers pretty straight. Cause it’s fun. We want to hear all that shit. We wanna hear what we love about it. Every little nuance.
But even playing it straight is still Built To Spill playing these covers, so…
Exactly. And live it’s a whole thing. I would never record it. If we were doing shit real straight I would never record it. I’d be like, hey check this out! Why even bother? (Considering) Except a fan might appreciate it. But at a show, live, it’s a whole other thing. You can play it super straight and it’s killer I think.
Is that how “Cortez The Killer” wound up on the live album?
Exactly. I felt like with Cortez, I felt like we did do something with it a little bit. Whatever, just cause it was us doing it… And noodling over it.
But that’s the whole nature of the song. Exploration.
Yeah, that’s what the song’s about. Totally.
In the ‘90’s did you expect you ‘d one day wind up with this cult status?
Oh, no, never. I didn’t expect to do anything. Our dream, like everyone else’s at that time, was to have someone else pay for us to record. That was the goal. So we wouldn’t have to pay out of our own pocket for the record. And now everyone can record on their computers and stuff so it’s a different sort of feeling and stuff. But, no, never ever in my wildest dreams imagined I’d make any kind of living for even a moment, let alone a career.
If you didn’t make it as a band what could have made you happy professionally?
Nothing. I just would’ve had a shit job, y’know, try to work as little as possible.
But not necessarily have been happy?
Yeah, I mean I would’ve been like everyone else… (laughter) I mean I wouldn’t say that I’m any happier than anyone else as is, but I do appreciate my unique position. But no, I would just work like everyone else and deal with it. And I’m not gonna say this isn’t work but I’m not gonna say it’s work either. (Laughter) I mean, people say that, like, “oh, you work!” and it’s like no. I’m not gonna go that far with it.
Do you ever lose sight of the fact that what you do is special?
Yeah, I mean you do a little bit. Especially if you’re on the road a long time. We don’t go out for very long. We go for a month or whatever. Yeah, by the end of it you do feel like… but also, you can look at people y’know? I mean, this person just showed up. This person’s never seen us. These records mean something to this person. And you get that every night and run with it and it totally charges you every night. That’s another thing, I was thinking when I was 30 or so, I’m thinking, oh, not only are people not gonna wanna come but am I even gonna wanna play these fucking songs? Play a song I wrote when I was 20 years old when I’m 40?! It just seems retarded. But I love it.
It’s fun! I can play those songs over and over again. Part of it is I’m not super confident about my abilities so I feel like I could still play them better. I haven’t played them right yet. It’s always like a new challenge trying to get it right and sing it right, y’know the acoustics are different every night. A lot of times it’s just a battle all night long. And you can enjoy it still, but you’re up there just like, everything you’re doing is just trying to project. Like half the time I can’t even hear my voice. And it’s not the sound guy’s fault or even the room’s fault, it’s our loud amps. We’ve tried smaller amps and it didn’t seem rocking enough to us. It was hard to get into it.
I know that it’s different out there, I know that you can hear my voice out there. I can’t hear it on stage right in front of the live audience but I know that they can hear it so I’m just struggling to keep the notes sounding good and all that stuff. So a lot of the times it’s just that but at the same time it’s also really fun, you can still, y’know… you learn to do it, singing without hearing yourself. But yeah, I mean, playing live is the funnest. I like recording okay and writing the songs and stuff. Playing live is the greatest cause all your work’s done.
*Can you talk about how the songwriting process evolves? *
Well, they’re all totally different but I think for the most part its goofing around on the guitar, coming up with a couple of notes that sound cool together, maybe hit record on a little tape recorder and then put that away until later. You get a bunch of those and you go back and listen to them and go, “oh, that one’s cool” and you figure it out and then you take all those little pieces and start trying them out with each other. Change their tempos or time signatures or keys in order to fit them together.
Lyrics are the very last and very hardest thing for me, and my wife helps out a lot. She writes lyrics or she’ll give me phrases or sometimes she’ll give me a sheet of stuff and I’ll kinda find things here and there. Yeah, that’s the toughest part for me. If I could write lyrics more seriously, (laughing) I could make a lot more records.
Is there any chance of a Halo Benders thing in the foreseeable future [his side project with Calvin Johnson]?
Um, I don’t think so but you never know. We tried to get together a couple times to do stuff and we did it a long time ago, Calvin and I, and we ended up splitting up and each making solo records. It didn’t seem like what we were doing together was really doing much. I felt like we weren’t informing each other’s stuff so we just made our own records. And then maybe like 4-5 years ago we did like a reunion show in Boise, I can’t remember why, we did a couple of shows. Calvin was like, “I don’t wanna do anything unless we make a new record. So, we tried to make a record. We got together and wrote some songs and stuff and Brett Netson, our guitar player, played bass. Steve Gear, our drummer, played keyboards, but that was years before he was our drummer. And we jammed for a few days, maybe a week and recorded a bunch of stuff and it was like, “Well, this isn’t really going anywhere.” And I since listened to it, like half a year ago or something, I listened to some of it. A couple of things turned into Built To Spill things. And I was actually kind of impressed by it. I thought we should’ve kept going and done it. There’s some really cool stuff. But at the time I didn’t feel that it was very cool. I think I might over-think music too much. I don’t do it as much as some people. I hope I don’t kill my stuff by over-thinking it. But I think I do over-think more than I should.
How would you say that your aesthetic drive to make music and art has evolved over the last 20 years?
I don’t even know. I think the moment that I signed a record deal things changed and I did everything I could to not have them change, but that’s just the nature of it. Once you’re doing something, and you’re doing it for a living instead of doing it for yourself, something changes. And I struggle to not let that interfere with my mind at all because I think that the best stuff is done…
*So, it loses a bit of its purity when you’re doing it for commerce? *
Yeah, I mean it doesn’t have to, but yeah it gets into your head. You know that there’s an audience. And even knowing there’s an audience, I try to make stuff that I think is good or close. It’s a real subtle thing. I don’t know how it plays on- I mean, it plays on everyone differently. It plays on me more than I’d like it to or understand.
Do you have a favorite city?
I don’t think I do have a favorite city. I love a lot of cities but… nope, I don’t.
Do you have a favorite myth of a city? Or favorite music scene to spring from somewhere?
Growing up I was really into Minneapolis. Husker Du and Replacements and that scene. That was when I was in high school. Soul Asylum were really great when they started. Actually, Slam Dunk reminds me a lot of Soul Asylum’s early stuff. And they’re a band that I think are, y’know, the worst band ever… but at a time they were really good.
Did you ever see The Replacements?
(Sighs) No… Did you?! (Laughter)
No Doug, we both know I did not. I am, however, grateful as hell to have found myself here…