This year, guitar-shredding indie-rock noisemakers Built to Spill turn lucky 21, and, as it looks right now, it is already a year of change. Frontman Doug Martsch and his Boise-based bandmates have lined up a few months’ worth of tour dates, including three performances at their hometown’s Treefort Music Fest, where they will perform their 1993 debut Ultimate Alternative Wavers in its entirety. But even though they’re revisiting their past, their interests are firmly in the present. Late last year the group announced the departure of its longtime rhythm section (don’t worry, everyone is still friends) so the additions of bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere have found the group approaching things molecularly, beginning with its live show. And while Built to Spill had recorded the basic tracks for a new album last year, they’ve scrapped them and are waiting to start over with their new members. Martsch was kind enough to let Hive interrupt a post-tour grocery-shopping trip to tell us about reappraising the state of the band.
How did you pick Steve and Jason?
I don’t think I picked ‘em. They just sort of were in the band next thing I knew. Jason has traveled with us, doing merch and monitors for 10 years or so. He’s an amazing musician. I’ve always wanted to play with him. Steve’s a little younger. I saw him play piano with someone and just thought he was amazing. Then he became part of our crew and did some recording for us on a tour. Also, the band they were in together was opening up for us.
When the other guys quit, it was real sweet. They kind of knew they were going to quit all along but didn’t say anything until the last couple shows. I was going to wait until we were back to Boise to see if those two wanted to play with us, but before we got home, somehow they knew that was going to happen. It was just a super smooth transition. To get ready for the current tour, we learned 35 Built to Spill songs and a bunch of covers.
Did you revisit many songs you hadn’t played in a while?
Yeah, there’s a few. We haven’t played “The Source” in years. We’re doing some songs off our first record. We decided early on that it’s coming up on the 20th anniversary of the first album, and the fact that we’re kind of getting started again, it seemed to make sense to learn the whole first record, which we’re playing at Treefort.
Was relearning any of the songs on the record hard?
Most of the songs are pretty easy to figure out. A lot of [Built to Spill guitarist] Brett Netson’s stuff was hard, because when we recorded it, he just kind of played stuff, and I would just choose what to use. There’s just a lot of weird noodling he does that’s hard to figure out. The only thing we haven’t figured out is the instrumental at the end of the record, “Built Too Long.” It’s this pieced-together, weird, long instrumental. I’m kind of nervous about that. We’re going to start working on that at our next session.
Have you enjoyed revisiting Ultimate Alternative Wavers?
I was actually pretty impressed when I listened to it. I assumed it was horrible because we recorded and engineered it ourselves at a local, pretty crummy studio. And we’d never done anything like that before. It was a time when you just made music for yourself and your friends, so the expectations and what we’re trying to do, what we thought was cool sounding and fun and some sounded shitty. It wasn’t that big of a deal. We sounded better than a 4-track. So I thought it was kind of horrible-sounding and really kind of cobbled together. But when I listened back to it I was actually pretty impressed by how much sense it made. Another thing is our drummer at the time, Ralf [Youtz] — I didn’t think he was a very good drummer — but he really killed it. It was actually surprising. It was a lot better than I thought it was.
You’ve been working on a new album. Did revisiting Ultimate Alternative Wavers influence your creative process?
We started recording a record last spring, and then when those guys quit, I decided to bag it and start all over again with the new guys. All we’ve done so far is do some shows. We haven’t really had a chance to delve in to new stuff. We kind of worked on one new song. Steve has played drums since he was a kid, but I don’t think he ever played very seriously. He started playing with Brett Netson’s band, and I heard some stuff he recorded and I was like, Yeah, he’s doing pretty good. So he’s just kind of becoming a drummer. So all of our practices are pointed towards him getting really confident and comfortable with all of the live material.
When do you think you’ll be ready to start working on a new album again?
We’ll start to a little bit now that we have this trip under our belt. But we have a lot of work to do for that Treefort festival. We’re playing three shows and we have different sets for each show. After Treefort, things will mellow out a little bit and we’ll be able to start messing around with new songs. I don’t really see us getting into the studio until next fall or maybe longer than that. I’m not really sure what we’re going to do. We might try to do two or three songs at a time, rather than tackle a whole album at a time. It’s all kind of up in the air right now.
“We did the basic tracks and I’d worked on it a bunch, and I just never got excited, no matter what I did. And I was getting shit done. It was all fine. It was working. It wasn’t bad. But I was not excited about any of it …ever. And I just kind of chalked it up to getting older. Maybe I’ve run out of excitement.”
How many songs had you prepared before you decided to scrap them?
A full album, 10 songs maybe. Maybe more. Brett [Nelson, former BTS bassist] and Scott [Plouf, their former drummer] played really great on it, and I was just working on it alone. I hadn’t involved the other two guitar players, because on the record before [2009’s There Is No Enemy] I felt there was too much shit going on. So I wanted it to be more focused and do overdubs myself and bring them in at the very end to put the finishing touches on it. So we did the basic tracks and I’d worked on it a bunch, and I just never got excited, no matter what I did. And I was getting shit done. It was all fine. It was working. It wasn’t bad. But I was not excited about any of it …ever. And I just kind of chalked it up to getting older. Maybe I’ve run out of excitement.
And that might still be the case. I don’t know if I’ll do any better with these new guys. But I’m hoping that somehow there’s something happens in me. Those “eureka” moments, they just weren’t happening. And they don’t happen a lot anyway ever. They’re very rare. But you’ve got to have a few of them. You’ve got to have something that makes you think this is worth something, rather than just, I’m just doing this work and it will pay off in the end. I think that attitude is not a good one to have. It’s got to be something that moves me.
You have your quality control in check.
Yeah. That’s a big problem, too. It might be good, it might be bad. But it stops artists from making music, I think. These super-high standards. I’m just so picky. And I just don’t like very much music. But the music I like, I love. So once you start getting that into something and becoming that much of a critic, it’s almost impossible to do something great for me.
So what music have you been listening to lately?
I mostly listen to a lot of old soul music, mostly. Some reggae. I was a DJ at a local community radio station for the last year. And I just found myself going back to the same songs. Things like Dinosaur Jr. and the Butthole Surfers, things from the ’80s that I grew up with. And I still love all that stuff. And I’m not that interested in finding new things. But that really made me aware of how limited my musical scope is, DJing, coming up with a two-hour show every week. And it didn’t take long before I was repeating stuff. And I was excited at first, but then you realize that you’ve played a song twice already.
To end this on a song you like, Built to Spill have been playing Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” at your recent live shows. What makes that song good?
Oh, that’s maybe the greatest song ever. Over the years, we’ve covered maybe 20 to 25 songs. With “The Reaper,” the more we learned it, the more we were just in awe of it. We got really obsessed with it. We’d go, “We have to do two more of our old songs then we can work on ‘The Reaper’ again.” We were just super excited about it. It’s just such a perfect song. It’s so beautiful, it’s so harsh and haunting. I don’t know any other songs like that on the radio that are just, like, how awesome it is that this woman killed herself. It’s great. And I discovered a line in it when I was learning the words: “Redefine happiness.” I love that line. And we do it with and without cowbell. If we have someone in the round that can play the cowbell, that’s cool, and if not, it sounds great without the cowbell, too.
Well you could always have more cowbell.
That’s what I hear.