Doug Martsch said during our recent interview that he'd heard of Free Press Summer Fest, but admitted he doesn't know a whole lot about it. His band Built to Spill will be making their FPSF debut this weekend after more than two decades as one of indie-rock’s most admired groups, so he can be forgiven a little tunnel vision.
"There 's clubs I don't remember that I've played before,” Martsch says. “Days blend together like any day job. It all starts piling up. You kind of think you will. You'll think it was such a fun, cool night, and nice people. But then it all disappears and all blends together.”
Patched through by a Warner Bros. rep from somewhere in the Mountain Time Zone, Martsch is cheerful, polite and engaging. For a guy who has already been out touring and has five weeks remaining on a bus, he seemed upbeat. Life on the bus sounds easier than I've always imagined; Martsch says you can sleep wherever. The band has been together for 26 years, and the guys long ago staked out a favorite bunk, but you really just sleep where you fall, Martsch offers. Built to Spill doesn't seem to have a diva who claims the rear lounge.
After hearing the band's records for years, I’ve come to appreciate their similarities to Neil Young, the Meat Puppets and especially Dinosaur Jr. But here, I first asked Built to Spill’s label rep if we could exchange favors — I’d write about the band bringing their tour for terrific new album Untethered Moon to FPSF on Saturday if she'd put me in touch with Perry Farrell or David Lee Roth. "That's a possibility, if any of those artists have an event in your area, sure,” she said, which later Doug enjoyed as much as I did.
"But did she really hook you up with David Lee Roth?" he laughed. I had to admit I'd been joking with her to begin with, but I guess I'm not funny because all I got was an email confirming my interview with Doug and stating that nobody in her office worked directly with any of those other artists. "OH," he said, "so she kinda just told you to fuck off!" We thought it was great.
Built to Spill is actually at the end of their contract with Warner, their label home since 1997’s Perfect From Now On. Martsch says this go-round he wanted to “savor the time” when the songs exist only in his head. Does he have trouble letting go once he's turned in his songs to the record company?
"Actually, I think if I hold onto it too long, I can kind of ruin things by getting too precious with them,” he says. I had to admit that I wasn't really ready to go there with him — I don't see anywhere across his discography, even after a day spent reading his lyrics, that he'd tinkered with a piece until it seemed labored over and shiny to the point of ruin.
Martsch will admit that he writes serious, heavy lyrics, but doesn't act out the stories onstage. "No. I'm thinking about getting the chords right and playing the right notes,” he says. “So the listeners can take that emotional journey that I've written into each piece. At least I hope so!
“And if something is going down in my own life, like our song ‘Pat,’ which is about a friend of ours who died, even as I'm a 45-year-old man [who has] been playing the song for seven years, I can still get caught up,” he continues. “Not every time, but he was a guy who taught me how to have a career. He really gave me something, so even though it can be painful, I like to think about him when we sing that song."
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He perks up when we start talking about Dinosaur Jr., though. "Dinosaur was a huge, big-time influence for me,” Martsch says. “They were the template really for taking punk rock and classic rock, two things that I love, and putting them together in a way that made sense.”
On the phone, Martsch comes across as a really lovely guy, sweet and gentle. He thanked me for my time and made me promise to come say hello if I were able to catch his show. (The last guy to say that was Kris Kristofferson, dig?) I still asked him the obligatory question about road stories — groupies or drugs or stalkers or some kind of chaos that let readers live vicariously.
"No. Nope. Nothing comes to mind," Martsch says, laughing the entire time. "That's a bad question for me. Doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Built to Spill performs 3 p.m. Saturday, June 4 on FPSF's Saturn Stage. See fpsf.com for ticket information and other details.