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.

His musical taste? Not what you think. If he's not going on about Lee Perry (he had a band in Boise that covered reggae standards as straight-forward pop songs at one point), then he's singing the praises of Portland, Oregon's elder punk band, Dead Moon. And the things you expect him to be excited about—like playing a set in a movie theater with J Mascis in LA during this upcoming tour—are the things he's looking forward to the least.

"I called J, and I was like, 'I thought we might get together and rehearse or something,' and he was just like, 'Yeah, I can't really do anything,'" Martsch says, laughing, a little nervous. "We might just be sitting in, improvising and no one providing any real music. I have no idea what any of that is going to be like."

And even though that 16-year-old indie-rock nerd inside of you wants to say, "Dude, you're jamming with J Mascis? Don't you realize how rad that is?" you've got to play it cool, just like Martsch had to play it cool when Mascis blew off his rehearsal request. Playing it cool is the essence of rock & roll.

And in Boise, Martsch doesn't have to play it cool much. Instead, he can play a little music everyday, but not have to talk about what's cool to anyone. Half his band still lives in Seattle, and he's not pushing anything on his son, Ben. So we talk about his son, and that's where Martsch finally starts to use declarative sentences. "Music is his life's work," you'll write later. "His kid is his life."

"He's started to have his own tastes," Martsch is saying happily. "He likes D-12. That's his favorite thing—he's got a clean version of their record. He likes Outkast and the White Stripes. He'll pick up a guitar and play his one White Stripes riff, but then, that's it. He's not real absorbed by it or anything. But he likes good stuff at least."

But, um, what would you do if he grows up to have bad taste, you ask? Ha, ha?

"Aww, nothing. I'm sure he will like terrible stuff at some point. It doesn't matter to me. That stuff's not important," he says, pausing, clinking ice in a glass.

"I'm proud of him for liking good stuff," he says, laughing easily. "But if he didn't, would I care? No. Not really."

BUILT TO SPILL PLAYS WITH ON THE SPEAKERS AND MATT COSTA AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 778-BLUE. FRI., 8 P.M. $16-$17. ALL AGES.

Building to Spill: For our next record . . .

Doug Martsch is well-aware of the suffering he's caused his fans by putting off his band's next album. But does this mural-painting, hoop-shooting, child-rearing, beard-wearing Idahoan have any interest in relieving the pangs of indie-rock longing? No, not really. Either he's mastered the art of answering pressing questions without owning up to anything at all, or he's as unsure as we are about what comes next. Here's what to expect—sorta--after Built to Spill hits the studio in September:

ISLAND RHYTHMS: "There are a couple of things that are sort of reggae/ska-ish, kind of. And we have one full-on reggae song that I don't know if we'll use or anything, but we'll record it at least. Our band actually sounds really good playing reggae." (Remember the dub jam that ended each set on their previous tour?)

SPACE JAMS: "You know, it's a little more, oh, some of the songs are a little longer and have longer instrumental passages, I guess. It's not as succinct as the last couple of records. I have a little idea that the songs are less poppy. And there are a lot of slow, minor-key songs, but I have no idea how we'll treat them in the studio."

BLUES HAMMERING: Listen up for a Skip James cover, says Martsch: 1920s blues done up hard-rock style . . . eh?

LOTS OF NONSENSE: "Oh, I don't know. I think every once in a while, things have political meaning to me--you know, lyrics and stuff. But it's all real vague, and the lyrics are just real vague in general for us."

--Kara Zuaro
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