Like a Free Moon: A Q&A with Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch

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Built To Spill returns April 21 with Untethered Moon, the band’s first record since 2009’s There Is No Enemy. During that time the band lost its rhythm section, ditched a half-finished album and dodged (false) rumors that we’d heard the last from the 90s alt-rock visionaries. Yesterday the band released the album’s first single, “Living Zoo,” a preview of what might be the band’s most consistently energetic offering since 1999’s groundbreaking Keep It Like A Secret. Singer-songwriter Doug Martsch sat down with American Songwriter to discuss the album, the departure of his former bandmates, the future of The Halo Benders and more.

Where does the album get its title?

I just made it up. For some reason I had it in my head that I wanted the word “moon” in it. And I sort of had the concept of the untethered moon, like a moon that’s not revolving around something. It’s like a free moon. I don’t know why, but for some reason I became attached to that image and then eventually found the right, um, describing word for it. But there’s no special meaning or reason, just an artistic choice.

I’ve read that you don’t like to talk about the meaning of your songs with people. Why is that?

Well, because a lot already don’t have any meaning, or the meanings they do have are often more subconscious connections than actual meanings. I’m not really a storyteller and I’m not really a lyricist. If I could get out of the lyrics game I would. To me, it’s important that music has singing, and that the singing is actual words, and that the words, they have to be at least okay. They can’t be horrible.

When people describe your lyrics they use words like “breezy” and “brooding” like they’re synonyms. Which assessment do you agree with more? Is Built To Spill hopelessly morbid or playfully rambunctious? 

Hmm, that’s interesting. I don’t think of us as anything, really. I guess just as being human beings and being alive and whatnot, a lot of us fit into both of those categories. To me those descriptions bring The Smiths to mind. Their music was so upbeat and uplifting and poppy, and the lyrics are pretty depressing, but also the lyrics are also uplifting and hilarious too, because they were so over the top. And also reveling in the sadness of life and sharing it, sort of for some reason makes me happy or gives me hope or something. And part of the territory of being alive on earth is that most of what you do is going to be misunderstood.

A lot of people were speculating that There Is No Enemy might be your last record. Was there any foundation to those rumors?

No. I think a lot of that actually came from the bio on the press release we put out for that record that my wife wrote. She kind of wrote about how by the end of the process of making a record I became pretty burnt out on everything about myself. I always feel like, “I just want to not do this anymore.” The idea of making a record sounds so fun and great a freeing and stuff, but the further you get into it the more limiting it becomes. You realize there’s a point where it tips from what you can imagine the thing being to “Okay, well this is what we’ve got now. It’s time to turn this here into something that’s not at all what you had in your mind.” And some times that reality can be kind of harsh. I find that I regret that I don’t play guitar better than I do, or sing better than I do, or that I couldn’t find the right hook or feel for something. That happens, and it can be frustrating, and my wife commented on that in the bio, and that’s the way most press works, they look over your bio and run with that. So that’s where that came from, but I had no real intention of stopping making records, I don’t think.

Why did Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson leave the band?

In summer of 2012 we recorded. We got stuff ready during the summer and we recorded just as a three piece, me, Brett and Scott. Those guys did a killer job, sounded great. But the songs were a little simple, and I was going to flesh them out during the overdub process so I kept them simple. I started doing overdubs and it started getting done but it wasn’t really exciting to me. I don’t know how much of it was because it wasn’t that good or … I was kind of working with an engineer who wasn’t very excited about it. It was hard to tell if him not liking it was making me not like it or if it was just not that good. Anyway, I was just not very excited about it. Then coincidentally, we hit a tour right after our sessions, and at the end of the tour those guys quit the band because they were just burnt out. They were not having a lot of fun. Mostly touring.

Of course it was a bummer, really sad to see them go, but luckily there were a couple of other dudes traveling with us that were friends, one was a roadie and another was recording us, they were just guys we always had around. And they just filled in right away. So I decided to bag the record and start over with these guys and revisit all the songs. I tried to craft them more so they had more movement written into the song rather than keeping the song simple and doing lots of tricks with overdubs. So yeah, we bagged the record and jammed a bunch. It turns out those guys were incredible and were able to pick up on all of the old songs and new songs. Subtle things like drums and bass can really affect things, and it’s rare someone can just step in and make it sound like it should, but they totally did. So we did some touring and started working on new songs. About half of the songs are from the shelved record and half of them are other songs that were either newer or hadn’t tried with the old lineup.

What gear did you use on the record?

I have an old Fender Deluxe Reverb that I use quite a bit. And also Sam Coomes, who produced the record, he brought in some amps. We ended up using his amps a lot actually, and he had … shit, I think it was a Bandmaster? And I mostly just used my guitar which is a Fender Strat. And you know, all kinds of pedals and stuff, mostly just what I use live. A few Echolplex preamps, I use three of them for distortion. Each one gets a little more distortion. It’s kind of a gain-y pre-amp sort of thing.

Random thought: I like the tiger noise you make with your guitar on “Living Zoo,” that’s a rad tone. 

Thanks! It’s just my guitar through a wah pedal shaping the chord. It was a little bit of a mountain lion sound more than tiger. It was one of those things that I went back and forth on because it seemed so silly. But y’know, yeah, in the end it was just, “oh that’s rad, who cares if it’s silly.”

Yeah man! [laughs] I’m almost out of questions…

I’m almost out of answers.

Well, here’s one question that I have to ask. Are we ever going to get another Halo Benders record?

Hmm, I don’t think so. You never know. We tried doing stuff a couple of times six or seven years ago or something. Actually, a lot of those songs ended up turning into Built To Spill songs. It’s hard when you get together and … y’know, forget I said anything. I’m just making shit up. I don’t know.