Siren Festival 2009: Q&A With Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch


Now in their 17th year of existence, Siren headliners Built to Spill have currently been working on their seventh studio album, There Is No Enemy, the follow-up to 2006’s You In Reverse. While Built to Spill probably won’t be premiering any new material this weekend, you can expect Martsch’s nasally voice and the group’s sweet, sweet jams. Perfect for just watching the sunset and getting really high.

When was the last time you were at Coney Island?

Never been!

What have you heard about it?

[laughs]. I’ve heard that there’s a really old rollercoaster, maybe that’s it.

There is indeed an old rollercoaster. It will be making noise while you are tuning your guitar. Do you have a favorite carnival game?

[laughs]. I don’t think so. I haven’t been to the carnival since I’ve had a kid.

How’s the summer been going?

It’s been really busy. The weather has been really nice here in Idaho, the time that I’ve been here.

You’ve been splitting your time between there and…?

Los Angeles.

Have you been listening to anything good this summer?

I have been, but mostly things from the ’60s and ’70s. A lot of reggae and soul stuff. I like old things.

The new record is called There Is No Enemy. What can you tell me about it?

I can tell you that I hope it comes out in October. And that there are 11 songs on it. I don’t know what else. It’s the same line-up we’ve had for awhile, since the last record at least. And it’s got some guest musicians on it, like Sam Coomes, John McMahon, and [Scott] Schmaljohn who I used to play in Treepeople with, and Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers has a guitar solo on it. Roger Manning plays some keyboards.

On the last record, opener “Goin’ Against Your Mind” was such a beast out of the gate. Is there anything like that this time?

Hmm. I don’t know if there’s anything like that song. There’s something kind of like it, but not as rocking. It’s called “Good Old Boredom.” It’s also similar in that it’s kind of long–like seven or eight minutes–and it just plays one chord progression basically through the whole song. Like “Goin’ Against Your Mind.” There are basically these passages and movements and different guitar melodies going throughout it. I don’t think it’s as good as “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” but it has something like it.

Is it more challenging to write in those long, windy ways?

No, it’s all born out of jams. With both of these songs–especially “Good Old Boredom”– there were lots of attempts to shorten it and make it a succinct pop song. There’s just too many ideas that came up from hours of jamming on it, too many ideas that we felt needed to be included. We tried to chop them out, but at least to our ears, it sounded like it was missing some stuff. You know, it gets a life of its own: I never set out to write “Goin’ Against Your Mind” as a long song. In fact, “Goin’ Against Your Mind” and “Good Old Boredom” both started out at about half the tempo. Somewhere along the way, we decided to kick them up.

2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future had this nice pop quality to it, but 2006’s You In Reverse had a shift into these more longer, intricate type tunes. Is there any shifts this time around?

To me, this falls somewhere in between those two. When we made Ancient Melodies of the Future, I was really burnt out. Just was kind of done with alternative rock music, when I started getting into blues and other types of music. I didn’t really have an appreciation for what we were doing; I wasn’t really a fan of our band or our kind of music. I liked the songs but I wasn’t really into playing the guitar, I wasn’t really into jamming, we learned them pretty quickly and the band didn’t spend too much time with them before we recorded them. I ended up playing a lot of keyboards and stuff on the record; I didn’t feel inspired to do a lot of stuff. I like that record, and in a way, I’ve complained about it not being one of our better records. At the time I felt like I wasn’t really psyched about it. But I do like the songs.

But the next record, we got the band back together. I’d taken a year or so off. I came to some sort of equilibrium of not hating the music I did so much. Discovering the blues and settling down a bit. When we got back together, it was really refreshing and exciting to be playing together again. So we did lots of jamming, and a lot of the material on that record was based on these jams. The new material falls somewhere in between that. Most of the songs, I wrote myself, alone. But the band had a lot of time to jam on them. Four of the songs–at least four, maybe five of them–were songs we recorded for You In Reverse, but we felt they were too slow. These songs have been milling around for a while. This record has a lot of slow songs, but I don’t know, you’ll make up your own mind if you hear it. But to me, even though there is a lot of mellow material on it, I don’t think it comes across as mellow.

Writing and recording these days, what are you all most concerned with?

It changes as you go through the process. At first you’re just concerned with coming up with an original–or not even original–just a chord progression that sounds nice. And then you’re worry about fitting it with some other part, and then you’re concerned with writing a melody that ties it together, then the words that convey the melody together. Just one step at a time. A week ago, all I was thinking about was whether or not the kick drum was too loud in the mastering. So it’s one thing after another, until it’s all done.

There’s not any overriding thing that we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to make music that sounds good. We’re not trying to do anything revolutionary but we’re not trying to rip anything off.

The last time you were in New York, you were on the Perfect From Now On tour. Was that a good tour?

Yeah, it was really fun. It was fun not to write setlists. I always write setlists and put a lot of thought into it. Especially if we’re playing multiple shows somewhere. It was fun to listen to the record again and try to get to the versions we did.

Have you been working “Strange” into the set recently?

[Laughs]. Yeah, “Strange” will probably be played.

That would be most excellent for me.

Well, if I remember, I’ll put it in.