Guitarist and vocalist Doug Martsch founded Built to Spill on the principle that he’d be the leader and find the appropriate group of players for each album. As such, the band’s lineup has never been fixed, but they settled into a five- piece, three-guitar formation on 2006’s You In Reverse and 2009’s There Is No Enemy, with Martsch joined by Brett Netson and Jim Roth. However, for last year’s Untethered Moon – Built to Spill’s tenth LP – the band stripped back to a three-piece featuring Martsch, drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini. Before their return to Australia this month, Mixdown speaks to Martsch about the current status of the band and the recording of Untethered Moon.
You made Untethered Moon as a three-piece. Is that what we’ll see on the forthcoming tour?
We’re actually doing a little bit of switching it up. We just got back from a two-week tour down the west coast [of the USA] as a three-piece, but we’ll be coming over to Australia as a five-piece. We’re going to do a bunch of stuff around the States as a three-piece for a while and then at some point be able to go back and forth. I think the five-piece is great and those two guys are amazing, so it’ll definitely happen. But we’re trying a three-piece out for a little bit as well.
The three-piece lineup means it’s just yourself on guitar, backed up by a bassist and drummer. Was it something you wanted to try in order to encourage yourself to think and play differently?
It’s complex. It mostly arose out of financial stuff, but there’s other reasons too. Making a record as a three-piece was a creative decision. Well, it was more a logistical thing. It just went a lot faster. You get a lot more work done as a three-piece and I kind of knew what I wanted to do; I was pretty focused on what I wanted it to be like. And then that stirred up some feelings about playing as a three-piece and the kinds of music we could make.
I imagine it’s both fun and challenging to be playing without the security provided by another couple of guitarists. It forces you to work harder and do things that you probably haven’t done in songs you’ve been playing for many years.
Absolutely. Oh yeah I have to work hard. I practiced a tonne to get ready for this tour. It was a challenge, but it was also fun and rewarding. You don’t really know, when you’re playing, what it sounds like out in the audience. But with three guitar players you have no idea what it sounds like out there – you have no idea when you’re playing a guitar solo if it can even be heard by half the people. So the three-piece is so much more focused where you feel like what you’re doing matters and is being heard. With the five-piece sometimes I would get lazy and let the other guys hold down the fort. I think the whole band was a little lazy. You guys will get pretty good shows because I feel like me and the rhythm section have gotten a lot tighter playing as a three-piece.
In some ways the guitar playing on Untethered Moon is very playful. In each song there’s a root track – a riff or a chord progression – but then washes of guitar or rushes of volume come in through the left or right hand speaker, and lead parts echo or pre-empt vocal melodies. Adding these guitars parts sounds like a lot of fun, but it’s pretty precisely managed. Is there a lot of fine-tuning?
The main thing with this record is we wanted to keep it stripped down as much as possible. We’ve actually had the intention of doing that for the last few records. Definitely the last two records we wanted to make pretty much live, and then over the course of things just end up overdubbing a lot of stuff. Sometimes because the stuff needs it, sometimes because of insecurity – thinking “Is that even good enough?” or even trying to bury my voice under guitars. So this time I wasn’t going to let any insecurities lead me to make those sorts of decisions.
Sam Coomes [producer] was also helpful because he embraced the whole idea of keeping it simple, so he could keep us on task. This time it was just more about, “This is what we are. I’m not going to try to do something a million times to try to get it perfect or try to layer tonnes of stuff because I can.” We wanted it to be more visceral, more of an urgent sounding punkish record. I wanted it to sound like some kind of punk record from the ’70s.
It’s not completely raw. There is a fair amount of additional guitar work – new lines or sounds that pop up through each song – but the vocals are just as important to the songs. In the past did you prioritise the guitar playing and think of the vocals as a sidenote?
For me the past was all a struggle. I think up until the last record before this one, There Is No Enemy, it felt to me like that was the first record where I actually felt any con dence in the studio at all. Everything up until then was really a lot of work. Maybe the first couple records I felt pretty good, but once we signed to Warner Brothers I felt like there was a level of expectation that I don’t feel like we were ever able to reach. I’d have guitar ideas and singing ideas that were beyond what I would be able to pull off. So there was a lot of work and a lot of self-doubt. Somewhere along the line with tonnes of touring I gained a lot of con dence in my guitar playing and my singing. Through other people too, through fans and friends encouraging me I was able to look at myself a little better. I had a good time making this record. I say that with a grain of salt. I had some kind of confidence, but when it came down to it I didn’t have the absolute con dence.
Untethered Moon co-producer Sam Coomes has been involved with Built to Spill for many years, playing keyboards on just about every album. He’s also the co-vocalist and keyboardist in Quasi. How did he come to co-produce Untethered Moon?
I think what it was is that [Quasi’s] Mole City came out and I just loved it and listened to it all the time. I didn’t necessarily love the way it sounded, although some stuff on it sounded great, it was just the spirit of the whole thing. So it was that and just the fact that I’ve always wanted to work with Sam or be around him any chance I ever got. And the other guys felt the same way too.