Famous Potatoes

With his signature laid-back style, soft-spoken Doug Martsch, front man for Boise, Idaho's Built to Spill (yes, Boise), ruminates over his seven-year-old son Ben's taste in music. "He likes the Backstreet Boys, but I don't care about that," says the 31-year-old. "I want to trust him. I don't want to shape him."

Martsch also applies this see-what-happens attitude to his spontaneous songwriting habits and his legendarily hit-or-miss live shows -- Martsch is not a planner, nor does he want to be. Yet despite his own admission that he often has "no idea what is going to happen next," Martsch has managed to produce a stack of albums, each one of which his passionate fan base anticipates with quasi-religious fervor.

And why not? Combine Martsch's endearingly tinny voice (don't ask him how many times it's been compared to Neil Young's) with the band's delicious if not unusual hooks, and listening to Built to Spill is often the equivalent of spending a Sunday afternoon dozing on your Salvation Army couch, smoking stale cigarettes and sipping good whiskey. It's warm, comfortable and probably more enjoyable than most things you've got going on at the moment.

Growing up in Idaho, Martsch started his musical journey with the right influences: primarily cassette tapes of German hard rockers the Scorpions, plus whatever else he could divine from Boise's barren airwaves. As he grew older, his tastes widened to include David Bowie, R.E.M. and the Smiths as well as "all kinds of punk rock." (Truth be told, as much as Martsch says he doesn't mind his son's love for the boy-band set, he admits to turning his seven-year-old onto the masterful D.C. hardcore band the Bad Brains.)

After a brief stint in Seattle where he released three albums with the well-loved Treepeople, Martsch returned to Boise in the early '90s to form Built to Spill, first releasing Ultimate Alternative Wavers on the C/Z label. But it was Built to Spill's 1994 effort, There's Nothing Wrong with Love, that focused all bespectacled indie rock eyes on Idaho. With its dreamy melodies and Martsch's warped/sweet lyrics ("If it came down to your life or mine / I'd do the stupid thing / And let you keep on living"), the album was an El Dorado for the hipster set. Built to Spill made the move to the big leagues in 1997 when Martsch, drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson released Perfect from Now On on Warner Bros. Keep It Like a Secret and this summer's Ancient Melodies of the Future soon followed. But Martsch doesn't think his band's big-label status has changed things much.

"I was more worried that they would try to make us famous, and they haven't done that at all," says Martsch. "We're doing things the way we've always done things."

And for Martsch, the "way we've always done things" means spending lots of time in the Boise home he shares with his longtime girlfriend and their son, Ben. He says he likes the midsize feel of Boise. Plus, the house has its own studio where he can enjoy quilting together his music using a tape recorder and the same Fender Strat he's ripened with. In typical Martsch style, he has no formula for songwriting -- he simply fools around until "something interesting happens." Once he's left with what he calls "a bunch of little pieces," he decides what to toss and what to keep.

As Martsch talks about his music, his lackadaisical, rhetorical tone of voice is often peppered with "I don't know" and "totally" until he sounds like an Idahoan surf bum. He claims the tunes on Ancient Melodies are the "simplest" he's written in a long time, and despite his laid-back style, he says he did make a semiconscious effort to keep them shorter than songs on his other albums. Not to be more radio-friendly, he says, but just because they kept turning out that way.

The songs on Ancient Melodies -- from the opening track, "Strange" (which features Sam Coomes of Quasi on Roxichord organ), to the whimsical "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" -- are each tiny individual nuggets of joy. But Martsch makes no promises that fans on the current tour will hear just what they purchased this summer. Not that he has ever cared about that.

Martsch doesn't even seem surprised when he's asked about Built to Spill's reputation for unusual live shows. When the threesome first hit the road, they occasionally earned the proverbial criticism that they suck live. Disgruntled fans were perplexed when Martsch would shun a playlist of current favorites and instead perform brief 40-minute sets or meander into a 25-minute guitar solo that left the crowd aching for something more familiar.

When his motives are questioned, Martsch shrugs off the idea that bands are supposed to remanufacture their albums on stage. For one thing, he says, he doesn't always remember the exact studio arrangements, so he couldn't regurgitate them if he tried. On stage, he prefers to play for himself in the hope that something more interesting will be generated live -- for the enjoyment of all.

"I don't set out to do over the record," says Martsch. "It's not up to me to try to re-create the music the way it is on the record. I think sometimes we make improvements live."

And when that happens, it's magic, as demonstrated on the 2000 release Live, a record that proves Martsch's onstage experimentation can and does work. In addition to old favorites, the album contains a cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," perhaps as a wink and a nod to those critics who think Martsch and Young are vocal twins.

Martsch says he's been asked about Young "320 times."

"It doesn't mean anything to me," he adds with a laugh. "Sometimes I'll answer that I like Neil Young, but he's not one of my main influences."

Repetitive interview questions are just one of the things Martsch has adjusted to as the buzz around Built to Spill continues to intensify. The question that bugs him the most (aside from the Neil Young inquiry) is "What's it like to be famous?" -- an ideal Martsch shuns with the vehemence one would expect from an indie rock icon.

"Some people have a fascination with celebrity," he explains. "But I don't want to be in anyone's life that doesn't want me in their life. If you're a celebrity, you're in peoples' lives whether they like it or not."

And while Martsch's idiosyncratic music probably won't place him in the Backstreet Boys stratosphere anytime soon (and that's a very good thing), it's safe to say that with the way Built to Spill is going, the number of voluntary Doug Martsch fans is sure to grow.

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Jennifer Mathieu
Contact: Jennifer Mathieu