Built to Spill leader Doug Martsch was a hard man to find during the band’s May/June tour, the group’s first serious string of national dates in nearly three years. He developed a pattern: Roll into town, do soundcheck, then disappear. Saunter offstage after ninety minutes of blazing guitar jams, then disappear. But it’s not that the 35-year-old singer-guitarist was trying to avoid fans peppering him with questions: “Why haven’t you toured in so long?” “When’s the new album coming out?” “Are you breaking up?”
Nah, Martsch was actually busy scouring the neighborhood for a sports bar so he could indulge in his current major obsession: basketball.
“I think these days I like basketball even more than music,” he says over the phone from his home in Boise, Idaho, lamenting that his beloved Detroit Pistons just lost the championship to the San Antonio Spurs (Martsch used to be a Portland Trailblazers fan, but transferred his allegiances to Detroit when Rasheed Wallace got traded there). “That was a bummer, but it was cool because I was able to watch almost every playoff game. Even if I missed one while we were playing, they were rerunning them later that night, so right after the set I could go catch it.”
And as much as he likes to watch basketball, he enjoys playing it even more, which is why you’d be far more likely to find the tall, rangy Martsch — with beard and receding hairline further rendering him the Vlade Divac of indie-rock — attacking rims on local courts than holed up in his studio working on the long-awaited follow-up to Built to Spill’s last album, 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future. He’s got game to polish. “There’s days when you’re just like, ‘I’m never gonna play basketball again, I’m the worst in the world,’ and then there’s days where it’s like, ‘Dude, I swear, I’m trying out for the NBA — I might be old but I’m gonna do it.'”
But what of Built to Spill’s four-year hiatus? Burnout was certainly no small factor: Between 1997 and 2001, BTS was as prolific and busy as a band can get, releasing four albums, beginning with breakthrough Perfect from Now On (the band’s third album, and first for Warner Bros.), followed by 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret, a live disc in 2000, and then Ancient Melodies. Furthermore, the band toured nonstop throughout that prolific period. The outstanding output solidified Built to Spill’s place at the top of the indie-rock heap — its expansive compositions filled with prodigious guitar labyrinths, feedback explosions, and Martsch’s reedy, ruminative vocals found favor among anyone who ever loved Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., or Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But the hard work took its toll on Martsch, bassist Brett Nelson, and drummer Scott Plouf. A break was certainly in order.
But, as Martsch admits, his insanely high standards and in-studio insecurity have hamstrung the band throughout Built to Spill’s twelve-year history. “I guess that’s what pushes you to do good things, that you’re always concentrating on the weakest parts, but sometimes I find myself getting really fucked up by that kinda thing,” he says. “Like the last record, when I was writing it I thought a few of the songs were turning out great, but I set them aside and spent all of my time and energy stressing about the songs that weren’t going well, and that made the whole experience frustrating.”
Although Ancient Melodies was hardly ripped by critics and fans, it was probably the least well-received of Built to Spill’s six albums, and Martsch concedes that his attitude in making the disc may have subliminally provoked that response. “I wasn’t real into making a rock record, I was only listening to old blues and folk at the time, so in a way it was like I was making a record because I was supposed to,” he says. “I was kinda going through the motions. I think the songs on the record are mostly good, that’s not my problem, but the fact that I didn’t really hunker down and work on it too hard. … I dunno, it wasn’t as good as it could have been.”
It’s understandable for an artist with a fairly deep catalogue to have his disappointments, but even when pressed, it’s hard for Martsch to pick one of his favorites. Rather matter-of-factly, he says the live album “sucks,” his 1993 debut Ultimate Alternative Wavers “sucks,” and it has taken him until very recently to begrudgingly accept the fact that Perfect from Now On is simply a damn great album. “That one took forever to do, and it was just painful to make,” he recalls. “I remember one time in the studio it was just [producer Phil Ek] and I, and we were having a horrible time. Things weren’t sounding any good to us, so we took a break and went out to dinner. It was a Friday night, and I was really envious of all the businesspeople there who were done for the week and on their way to the weekend with nothing to worry about. They had shitty jobs — or what I considered shitty jobs — but at least they had jobs they knew they could do, while I felt like I was in way over my head. So we finished that record, went on tour, and didn’t play any songs from it. It took many years until I was able to go back and appreciate it, and I guess now I’ve kinda come around to being sorta proud of it.”
Despite Martsch’s artistic misgivings, Warner Bros. remains solidly behind Built to Spill — a minor miracle given the group’s relatively modest sales and lengthy current break. Martsch says the label hasn’t hassled the band at all about the new album’s delay, but he promises that the band’s seventh disc — which he’d intended to deliver this fall — will arrive next spring. He adds that the entire lineup currently out on the road — a five-piece outfit including longtime tour guitarist Jim Roth and guitarist Brett Netson (the Caustic Resin leader and past BTS member recently brought back into the fold) — is working on new songs together, although they’re only playing one or two on this tour.
“It goes back and forth — some days I wake up bummed out about what we’re doing, and other days I’m really excited,” he says. “I’m not at all worried about falling flat on my face; I’m more concerned about raising things higher. I know that we can pass, that I can do stuff that will work, but I wanna do stuff that will make someone cry or something, you know? It’s all so complicated — maybe you’re right there touching at the heart of things, but you’ve lost all perspective about your own work and have no idea if you’re getting it right. It’s not like basketball where it’s cut and dry, and you know whether you’ve won or lost. It’s like, maybe we’ve sold a million records, but does that mean it’s a success?”