Maybe he’s humble, maybe it’s his rock ‘n roll attitude, the punk environment he grew up in, but Doug Martsch will never admit he’s an amazing artist. When The NY Times compared the lead singer and guitarist of Built To Spill to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page, Martsch “went out of his way to deflect such praise,” a journalist from the Boston Phoenix said.
While Martsch cites he was influenced by J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, he certainly never took on the ego. “I think if I were a better musician or singer, it probably wouldn’t have worked out for me,” Martsch stated to us when we asked if he was talented. As one of the first indie artists to sign with a major label (Warner Bros) and retain all creative freedom, he proclaims, “I got lucky.” We spoke with Martsch before his show at the Fillmore for Noise Pop 2012.
Thrillcall: I recently spoke with Lou Barlow (of Dinosaur Jr) who told me J Mascis was a bully. I read that you worked with J for a Record Store Day release. So give me the inside scoop, is J a bully?
Doug Martsch: [laughs] I didn’t work with J. People get me mixed up with Brett Nelson from Built to Spill. The Electronic Anthology Project, I didn’t have anything to do with it. All I had to do with them is he did a bunch of Built to Spill songs, I just sang them. He did all the music, his ideas and his production. The same thing with J Mascis, I had absolutely zero to do with it.
Thrillcall: Oh ok, I got my facts mixed up. My apologies.
Doug Martsch: I think it’s Pitchfork’s fault. They wrote a review of the record that I sang on, and said I made it. Once they say something, it becomes history. We tried to get it fixed and stuff. We couldn’t even go on Wikipedia and fix it because somehow they were stronger on Wikipedia than us.
Thrillcall: That doesn’t really make much sense.
Doug Martsch: That’s how information works. Well, I dealt with J. We toured with them. He wouldn’t bully me. If you’re in a band with them, and you grew up with them, and all that stuff: I think that we all have bullies in us, and we all have victims in us, just depends on which relationship fosters the parts of us.
Thrillcall: I think you’re being awfully fair to J. You as group, as Built to Spill, have been together for ages and there hasn’t been nearly the drama that J and Lou got into.
Doug Martsch: Yeah, it’s just a relationship. We happen to be in relationship that’s not like that, but I’m pretty sure we all have relationships in our lives that might be more like that. J might have really nice relationships in his life.
Thrillcall: What is your trick as a band that keeps the karma so good?
Doug Martsch: I think that J and Lou just from the get-go had a chemistry that didn’t work. We don’t have that kind of chemistry. It’s more my project, this band. The band struggles less for their voices to be heard. Both of them are song writers. There are other song writers in the band, but it’s all been pretty much understood that I’m the main song writer and vision maker.
Thrillcall: Speaking of another interview I did back in the day, Chikita Violenta, they referenced you in an almost fraternal way as a mentor and friend. Are you still in touch with those guys?
Doug Martsch: I haven’t been in a while, but they invited us to play in Mexico last year. We had a hiatus, and couldn’t do it. We had a great time touring with them. They were really sweet guys.
Thrillcall: Have you worked with any younger groups recently?
Doug Martsch: Well most of the groups we seemed to work with [laughs] are younger than us at this point. There are some good local bands that are younger than us.
Thrillcall: Do you find yourself creating these fraternal, mentor relationships when you’re touring with these bands, or was Chikita Violenta an oddity in the bunch?
Doug Martsch: Well I am actually a little surprised to hear that. I didn’t feel like we were mentoring them at all. That’s nice to hear. I guess they grew up with our music and have that sort of feeling. I didn’t feel paternal at all to them. I don’t feel paternal to anyone. I barely feel paternal to my own son. I feel like a kid still.
Thrillcall: That’s strange to hear from you, since at such a young age you decided to sign with Warner Bros because of your son.
Doug Martsch: Sure, I feel that way with him of course. I still have the brain of a teenager that’s for sure.
Thrillcall: How does that manifest itself?
Doug Martsch: [laugh] How does it manifest itself? I wear t-shirts all the time. I don’t know how it manifests itself. I play basketball. I have responsibilities, but I uh, I don’t know–I think that my basic philosophy about life hasn’t changed. It’s not like it hit some point where I was like, “it’s time to grow up.” Even teenagers understand it’s important to take care of yourself. I’m sure I’ve changed. I know I’ve changed from a teenager, but it’s been so gradual. How old are you?
Thrillcall: Me? I’m twenty-seven.
Doug Martsch: When you’re forty-two like me you’ll feel the same way. I don’t feel too much different than I did when I was twenty-seven. You’ll feel different, but you’ll find that your state of mind hasn’t changed drastically. Unless it does, but for most people around my age it’s pretty much the same as its always been.
“You know, I have a slight amount of talent. I mean, hearing this voice, there’s a probably few thousand musicians that are better than me. That can sing better, hit their notes better and play their guitars better. I just stumbled across something that makes sense to people. I don’t know why or how. I think if I were a better musician or singer, it probably wouldn’t have worked out for me.”
Thrillcall: You’re getting into a very interesting dynamic. I just interviewed the lead singer from Geographer, and whereas you at forty-two seem to embrace the fact that you haven’t changed in anyway – which I hardly believe – he seems almost remorseful that he doesn’t seem to know or understand the world anymore. Or that he hasn’t come to this epiphany on what the meaning of life is now that he’s older – like his family told him, “When you get older everything will make sense.”
Doug Martsch: When people say “you get older,” you’ll understand that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find meaning, but more like an acceptance or understanding.
Thrillcall: Is there a point where you came to that acceptance?
Doug Martsch: Well you have to. There is a point when you’re forty years old, you’re the person that when you were young you thought was just a gross old person and then you become that. It’s not like now you get it. It’s more like, oh god, now I get it, now I understand that world. There is nothing that you can do. You can’t go back in time.
I guess you could kill yourself. Nothing happens. Maybe for someone, but I think if you see a forty year old man walking down the road that man still dreams of himself as a twenty year old man. It just sneaks up on you.
Thrillcall: Is that what keeps you driven as a musician, remembering what it was like to be a younger musician?
Doug Martsch: I don’t know. I do it because it’s all I know how to do. I barely know how to do it. Oh my god.
Thrillcall: You know, you say that a lot. I wanted to ask you about it. Do you consider yourself a talented musician?
Doug Martsch: No, I’m someone that just likes music so much. I grew up in a time when punk rock was happening, whatever it happened to be. I just got super lucky. I met the right people. A series of people in my younger life that lead me to stumble into a record contract. I worked hard, but no harder than anyone else. I never dreamed of making a living off of music, until it happened. I just wanted to do it because it’s something fun to do. No, I’m not a talented musician at all.
Thrillcall: So, no reason for me to argue with you about that, though I know that’s definitely not the case.
Doug Martsch: You know, I have a slight amount of talent. I mean, hearing this voice, there’s a probably few thousand musicians that are better than me. That can sing better, hit their notes better and play their guitars better. I just stumbled across something that makes sense to people. I don’t know why or how. I think if I were a better musician or singer, it probably wouldn’t have worked out for me. It probably would have hit some area that wouldn’t have appealed to people. It’s probably because I am not that good that people liked it. There is something that people can relate to in a voice that doesn’t sound like a professional singer.
Thrillcall: I’ve read in multiple interviews, you say you just picked up the guitar, you got lucky, and you don’t even practice.
Doug Martsch: I practice. I don’t practice like a real guitar player practices. I don’t sit there and play scales. I play guitar a decent amount. We practice as a band when we’re going on tour.
Thrillcall: Okay, because the bio on your website that your wife wrote make it sound like you’re constantly practicing and playing. Well, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in between those two. Do you ever regret signing to a major label?
Doug Martsch: No. I’m glad we did. They’ve been really awesome. We got to make whatever record we wanted, spend a decent amount of money, had complete creative control, and basically manage every aspect of our career exactly as we wanted to. They supported us or left us alone to do what we wanted.
Thrillcall: You were one of the first crossover bands from indie to a major label. What advice would you give to bands that continue to struggle with that transition?
Doug Martsch: I don’t think there is too much danger. I grew up with punk rock and there were some bands I loved that finally made it to major labels and started making crappy music. It was really obvious they were doing it because someone at the record label told them that if you do it this way you’ll make it big and make a lot of money.
There were too many things that weren’t quite right about, and I think the record label understood that too. If you want to make it big, go for it, be Justin Timberlake – then maybe you should listen to those people and roll the dice. If you just want to make your own kind of music, or don’t want to, or don’t stand a chance to be a huge star than you just make your music your own way and stick to your guns.
Built to Spill play tonight at The Fillmore in San Francisco as part of Noise Pop 2012.