Let Built to Spill's Video for "Living Zoo" Take You on the Weirdest Camping Trip of Your Life

Plus, we talked to frontman Doug Martsch about the band's 20 years on a major label.

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Mar 25 2015, 2:30pm


Photo by Travis Shinn

When I call Doug Martsch on a Friday afternoon in early March, he is taking a walk with his wife around Boise, which is exactly what one would expect Doug Martsch to be doing on a Friday afternoon in early March. “I didn’t know about this interview, but I’m totally fine to do it,” he says, graciously, as he continues on his walk, trailing a bit behind his wife as I proceed to ask him annoying questions about Built to Spill’s new album, Untethered Moon, for the next 20 minutes.

The album is Martsch’s first record in almost six years, and his first with the group’s brand new rhythm section. Built to Spill’s longtime bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf quit the band in 2012, only to be replaced, effortlessly, by Jason Albertini and Stephen Gere, who had been touring with the band as crew members. It’s as if Doug Martsch only surrounds himself with potential future members of Built to Spill. “It’s nice to have some younger guys who maybe have a little more enthusiasm,” he says of the group’s new lineup.

Built to Spill’s latest album sounds, well, like a Built to Spill album. There are several dreamy, melodic, mid-tempo pop tunes, a few up-tempo rockers that ponder offbeat, quasi-philosophical subject matter (in this case, zoos and DNA proteins), and there’s of course a requisite eight-minute guitar freakout. Perhaps because Doug Martsch is his own harshest critic and refuses to realize anything unless he’s totally satisfied with it (Built to Spill scrapped a fully completed album a few years back), Built to Spill doesn't really release sub-par records, and Untethered Moon is as good as anything the band’s done in the past decade.

Over the past couple of years, Martsch has spoken regularly about drifting in and out of feeling inspired by music, but he’s currently in the midst of a period of creativity. His newly configured band will start rehearsing material from Untethered Moon (due April 21) in a few weeks, and Martsch is already in the early stages of writing new material for what may eventually turn into the next record with his band, which has been improbably, and miraculously, releasing no-nonsense indie rock on a major label for the past 20 years. Doug and I talked about some of the highlights from his new record, his group’s relationship with Warner Brothers, and why he currently (but not always) thinks music is “good.”

Watch Built to Spill's new video for "Living Zoo" below.

Noisey: I love that your new band members were just dudes that were basically touring with you as roadies beforehand.
Doug Martsch:
Yeah it worked out really nicely, it was kind of magical. I don’t think they were actually verbally invited to join the band, they just kind of knew that that’s what they were going to do. They’re both multi-instrumentalists, so it was just a matter of deciding who was going to play the bass and who was going to play the drums. They’re a couple of musicians I’ve always wanted to play music with. The transition was really nice.

Are people ever surprised to hear that you’re still on a major label, and have been on one for 20 years?
Yeah, it sort of surprises me that it’s been for that long, but it’s also kind of routine. I couldn’t have imagined when we signed with Warner Brothers that we’d last this long. I guess I expected it to be a lot more difficult or that it’d be a harsher relationship. They’ve let us do what we want to do. At the same time, they maybe don’t promote us as much. So it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. I don’t really know. I don’t have any ideas about the music industry. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m going to try to get my head into the music industry this next year and figure out what we’re going to do next.

Why do you want to get back into the music industry this year? Just with the new release and all?
You know what, I think for our next record we might do something different. This was our last record with Warner Brothers that we’re obligated to do. So we might look around and see what our other options will be.

Your band seems like the exception to the rule: this alternative group having a pretty healthy relationship with a major label for two decades. It kind of flies in the face of everything you’d expect to hear about these types of relationships.
Yeah, you’re right. And you know, it’s one of those things too where it’s complex. Warner Brothers is a whole company with a lot of different people. I don’t really understand what Warner Brothers’ true motives or what Warner Brothers' attitude towards Built to Spill really is, you know? I just know that the people I talk to and the people I work with I like a lot, and are really supportive and cool. It’s hard to know what you really mean to the whole corporation

You’ve spoken about having a hard time writing new material and staying inspired over the years. Does it go in and out? You said you’re writing a lot of new material right now.
How can I put this? Sometimes, I’m not very inspired by other music I hear. So I’ve been into more soul music and more reggae music, and I haven’t really cared too much for much modern music. Every now and then something comes along that I like. I got a little bit disillusioned by music, and when I pick up the guitar and started playing something , it sounded stupid to me. It sounded like those things that other people were doing. Then I heard [obscure Canadian indie-rock group] Slam Dunk and Slam Dunk was so great everything they did was just wonderful and I kind of felt like I had to have that attitude about music. Music is good, not bad. I’ve just been inspired by Slam Dunk to work a lot. Right now I’m kind of doing a lot, I don’t know how good the stuff is and it’ll take me a while to sift through it and to come up with some more things, but right now I’m in a place where I kind of feel like music is good.

Catch Built to Spill on tour:

3/27 Boise, ID Treefort Music Fest
4/10 Visalia, CA Cellar Door
4/11 San Luis Obispo, CA SLO Brew
4/12 Indio, CA Coachella Festival
4/13 Santa Barbara, CA SOhO
4/14 San Diego, CA Irenic
4/15 Los Angeles, CA Shrine Expo Hall (w/ Brand New)
4/16 Tucson, AZ Rialto Theatre
4/17 Phoenix, AZ Crescent Ballroom
4/18 Flagstaff, AZ Orpheum Theater
4/19 Indio, CA Coachella Festival
4/20 Las Vegas, NV The Bunkhouse
5/07 Nashville, TN Exit / In
5/09 Atlanta, GA Shaky Knees Music Fest
5/10 Carrboro, NC Cat’s Cradle
5/11 Charleston, SC Music Farm
5/12 Jacksonville, FL Jack Rabbits
5/13 Ft. Lauderdale, FL Culture Room
5/14 St. Petersburg, FL The State Theatre
5/15 Orlando, FL The Social
5/16 Tallahassee, FL Sidebar Theater
5/17 New Orleans, LA Howlin’ Wolf
5/18 Houston, TX Warehouse Live
5/19 Austin, TX Stubbs BBQ
5/20 Dallas, TX Granada Theater
5/21 Oklahoma City, OK ACM Performance Lab @ UCO
5/22 St. Louis, MO The Ready Room
5/23 Omaha, NE Slowdown
5/24 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Theater
5/26 Madison, WI High Noon Saloon
5/27 Indianapolis, IN The Vogue
5/28 Detroit, MI St. Andrews Hall
5/29 Nelsonville Music Festival Nelsonville, Ohio
5/30 Chicago, IL Metro
5/31 Grand Rapids, MI Founders Brewing Co.
6/13 Northside Festival Brooklyn, NY

Supporting Death Cab For Cutie:

7/08 Troutdale, OR Edgefield Amphitheater
7/09 Bend, OR Les Schwab Amphitheatre
7/11 Berkeley, CA Greek Theatre Berkeley