Listen Between the Lines

If Built to Spill's Doug Martsch ever wrote his life story...

So you're on the phone with the lead singer of Built to Spill, a band you've been listening to since you were 16, and he's not nearly as excited to talk about his records as you are. You sang along with him in your first car—windows open, tape deck crackling, your best friend manning the passenger seat. You got the chills the first time you heard the line "I want to see movies of my dreams," and maybe you even mentioned it when you wrote the essay that got you into film school. You feel an instant camaraderie with anyone wearing a Built to Spill T-shirt, and your 16-year-old self is very proud of you today, as you confidently dial Doug Martsch's number and straighten a sheet of paper with a long list of questions. But Martsch—kindly, dad-like Doug Martsch—doesn't seem to have a long list of answers. So you live in Boise, Idaho, you ask? Hmmm. Is it a college town? Are there a lot of cultural things going on? Is the weather good?

"Actually, no," he says, politely, over and over. "No, not really."

These days, Martsch is a family man with much more to say about his wife and kid than his music, a man as iconoclastic and confusing as the band he's fronted—the band he's almost become synonymous with—for more than a decade. He didn't marry the mother of his child until their son was already eight years old, he's saying now—doesn't claim to have any issues with the institution of marriage, but doing something just because you're supposed to do it? Not much attraction for him there. He and wife Karena just went down the courthouse and did it quietly—no reception, no party, just the two of them and a special song they'd picked out together. Which Martsch can't remember right now.

"I had a dream, and I heard this song that I never really had any attachment to," he's saying. "It really struck me, though, and it's, like . . . Shit, I can't remember the name of the song. I went and bought the CD, and we listened to it, and now I don't even remember what it is. It's by Gladys Knight and the Pips."

"Is it, like, a hit?" you ask.

"No," he says. "Not really."

"Well, how does it go?"

"'If I ever wrote my life story . . .'"

He's saying the lyrics, not singing them. You wish he'd sing them. You'd do just about anything to have Doug Martsch singing Gladys Knight on your interview tape. But no.

"Oh, goddamn it," he says. "I'm thinking of a different song now."

Of course he'd forget the title.Martsch's famously vague lyrics, you find, are just a shade away from his regular speech, the foggy Doppler echo of a song called "Joyride" he wrote a long, long time ago: "You've heard it all before/It's the same old shit, so I won't bore you with all the details/I'm sure you can listen between the lines."

Flattered? Yeah, and frustrated a little: the Built to Spill sound—fuzzy-weird like Pavement, yet sort of classic like Neil Young—coils like a comforter around Martsch's vocals, and you'd better save your obsessive analysis—the kind you'd fire up when you were 16—for the fans-only sites on the Internet.

In conversation, you can only ask, "But what do you mean?" so many times. What's he really saying when he claims music doesn't play a big role in his relationship with Karena anymore? You can't tell. And why, when he says, "When you're young, music kind of brings people together," can you hear him underlining the "young" part? Want to romanticize things? Mention your friends have chosen Built to Spill's "The Weather" as their wedding song, and even though it's going to be a big wedding with bridesmaids and priests and aunts and uncles and cousins, he'll sound genuinely thrilled. But as he talks about songwriting, he's about as excited as a sleepy sheriff explaining the day-to-day procedures at the jail. He sounds tired but stays polite, explaining—as he has before—how his wife helps out with lyrics on most of the records.

"Sometimes I'll just use something she said in a line. Sometimes she'll just jot down a bunch of crap, and I'll look it over when I'm writing," he says. "Sometimes I'll record the song and I'll kind of mumble out the meter and the melody, and she'll go back and either interpret what it sounds like I'm saying—or what I should be saying."

And that sounds so romantic, too—except it's coming out of Martsch's cordial monotone. You almost wish he'd just put Karena on the phone. But he's so nice, and you're not ready to say goodbye.

So Built to Spill is not breaking up. This much we know. They haven't put anything out as a band since Ancient Melodies of the Future in 2001, but Martsch's solo album, Now You Know, released in 2002, was not announcing his departure from the band. In fact, it was recorded five years ago—he just didn't get around to putting it out right away.
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