Doug Martsch and Built to Spill -- his high-decibel, highly influential rock troupe -- have been at this a while. Indie-rock standbys for almost 25 years, they've collaborated and shared bills with everyone from the band's principal forerunner, Dinosaur Jr., to a number of well-known northwestern guitar acts the group has helped inspire, including Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie.
Despite seismic shifts in the music industry over the course of a long career, Martsch says his methodology remains largely unchanged. At age 45, his knee no longer tolerates any pre-show hooping at the local YMCA, but otherwise, he's still doing most of the advance work for his own tours and hustling around the country in a van, year after year.
"The process is pretty much the same," Martsch says from his home in Boise, Idaho. "As far as touring and playing places, I enjoy the kind of routine, playing everywhere we already played -- in St. Louis and everywhere else, you know? Playing live is definitely the more immediately fun thing to do. The relationship with the audience -- seeing their reactions to what you're doing immediately -- is very satisfying."
He contrasts the fast feedback and pace of tour life with the slow, punctuated equilibrium of studio recording.
"The studio is pretty tedious, and it can be pretty stressful. But when something cool happens, it's pretty exciting because it's there forever," he says. "That's kind of what got me into music in the first place -- recorded music, listening to the radio, these permanent records."
In those terms, Built to Spill's newest permanent record is Untethered Moon, released on April 22. It's the band's eighth full-length -- its first in six years, and its first without the long-reigning rhythm section of Brett Nelson (bass) and Scott Plouf (drums), who had been with the group since its early days in the mid-'90s. The two left in 2012, citing tour burnout, though not before recording a handful of tracks that would eventually be incorporated into the new album.
"We actually had recorded half the songs on this record in 2012, right before those guys quit. I bagged it and kind of reworked that stuff," Martsch says. Plouf and Nelson retired mid-tour, but within weeks a new live lineup was back on the road, re-Built to Spill. Old friends of the band Jason Albertini and Steve Gere were no-brainer picks as replacements, Martsch says.
"These guys have been part of our crew for a long time. They know what we're all about," he explains. "They understand what my music is as much as I do -- and I don't know how much that is, but it was really easy. Kind of a dream fit. If there are only two people that could replace Scott and Brett, it's these guys.
"They're both multi-instrumentalists," he adds, "so we decided Steve would play drums and Jason would play bass, and that was that."
The group took its time writing and rehearsing the new songs, methodically working through Martsch's chord progressions and instrumental demos over months on the road and in the practice space.
"We had tons and tons of rehearsing," Martsch says. "I brought a lot of things into rehearsal, lots of demos, lots of recordings, lots of trying out different parts with other parts. Sometimes I just bring a part and we just jam on this chord progression for twenty minutes until maybe something interesting happens. Or nothing happens, and we get it out of our system."
They eventually holed up in the Portland, Oregon, studio of frequent producer and collaborator Sam Coomes for the better part of a year, editing and re-editing tracks. By this time Martsch and his new bandmates had become a well-oiled machine.
"They were completely confident and knocked the stuff out, and played with a lot of passion," Martsch says. "The rhythm section knew exactly what to do. I knew pretty much what to do with all the rhythm guitars and some of the leads. Then there was a little bit of messing around in the studio to kind of put the finishing touches on."
Martsch and Co. would ultimately produce ten songs that build upon the group's signature sound without straying too far from it. Gere's acrobatic drum fills stand out on every tune while Albertini's effortless low end holds tight to the pocket. Martsch's vocals, nasal in timbre as ever, are more upfront in the mix and more full-throated -- an impressive feat, given the potential wear inflicted on those pipes over the years.
There are meta, self-referential lyrics throughout. "Living Zoo" sounds like a musical metaphor for band life, and on "All Our Songs," Martsch reaffirms his commitment to and faith in his craft: "All night we listened to their second record/It had all these songs, sounded like we're in this together/And I found a place where I know I'll always be tethered/And I knew when I woke up/Rock & roll will be here forever."
It's a nice sentiment, but after a long career in a notoriously difficult industry, Martsch insists he's no idealist.
"Oh, I'm cynical," he laughs. "I talk shit about a lot of stuff."
And he expresses some wariness toward the media.
"Well, I have mixed feelings. The first few times you do interviews, it's super fun. You get to talk about yourself and all that. But you do it for a lot of years -- it's something I don't look forward to. I often get off the phone and I'm like, 'I can't believe I just said that; that is so stupid.' It's a little bit difficult," he explains.
"I often try to make up something new to answer the same questions and I find myself thinking, 'That's not even true! I don't know why I even said that!'"
And even for veterans of the live circuit, he says, things don't come together perfectly each and every night.
"Playing live is really fun, but sometimes playing live can be kind of a drag," he says. "It doesn't sound very good onstage and you just have to use your imagination -- like, it probably sounds good out there, even though up here I can only hear my guitar and I can't really hear my vocals at all."
As its members set out upon yet another touring cycle, what's next for a band that has already accomplished so much?
"Maybe I have my heart set on trying to make a couple more records. But I feel like I don't really have my heart set on anything," he says. "I feel like we've always been a band that had the freedom to do what we wanted. The record label let us do whatever we wanted; the fans let us do whatever we wanted. Whatever we can come up with, we've been able to do it, as far as music goes. It's been really nice -- a lucky experience."
Built to Spill 8 p.m. Friday, May 22. The Ready Room, 4195 Manchester Avenue. 314-833-3929. $22 to $25.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.