Ever stood at a gig, nodding along to the band, and thought to yourself, “Wow, they look like they’re having the best time ever!”? Well, if that band was Built to Spill, you’d have been totally right. “Playing live is so much fun,” confirms Built to Spill’s founder, frontman, and creative ringleader, Doug Martsch. “Writing songs, there are great moments, but that stuff is a lot of work and a lot of self-doubt and uncertainty of what you’re doing. You have an idea and then you realize you don’t really have quite what it takes to pull it off. That’s the worst thing for me about being in the studio.”
Few BTS fans could imagine a scenario where Martsch lacks what it takes to pull something off. Built to Spill’s eighth album, Untethered Moon, came out this spring on Warner Bros. Records, and proves the Boise, Idaho, native can still stun with his soaring, reedy voice — this time applied to simply spun lyrics about everyday quibbles and pleasures, or existential and ecological themes — and layers of guitar rooted in psychedelic boogie, spiced with dub and prettied up with indie pop.
“You have a real specific idea…and you get in there and realize, ‘That’s a little out of my range as a guitar player or singer or whatever,’ ” Martsch continues of his studio woes. “Then you have to settle for something less than what it was in your head. Playing live, you’re not dealing with that. You don’t experience it the same way. You don’t feel like you’re under a microscope. If you fuck up, you fuck up. When you do make a mistake, it almost frees you a little bit. ‘OK, I fucked up, now I’m free to cut loose.’ ”
Untethered Moon is the first BTS album recorded with new band members Steve Gere (drums) and Jason Albertini (bass), who replace longtime members drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson. Because Martsch is the creative nucleus, it takes a finely tuned ear to note differences on the record, but there’s a certain compelling new energy there. “It doesn’t get into the lyrics and stuff because they don’t have any input with that,” Bartsch says. “Energy-wise, they do make an impact. The change doesn’t always have to be drastic; it can be a subtle change. We played a show with Camper Van Beethoven and they’d changed their drummer, and we couldn’t tell a thing. People who come to our shows and hear our old songs won’t be able to tell the difference: I can’t tell it’s not Scott then. But on the new ones, you can tell there’s a different style.”
Before Built to Spill, Martsch led a band called Treepeople, which recorded for Seattle’s C/Z Records in the Eighties. But it was BTS’s second album, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, that ignited wider interest outside the Pacific Northwest and caught the ears of the majors. Originally released in 1994 on Up Records, which operated out of Sub Pop’s Seattle office, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love will be rereleased on vinyl October 30. The lineup for the album was Martsch, Nelson, and drummer Andy Capps, with Phil Ek producing. Martsch recalls his younger days through an appropriate rose-colored lens, especially when it comes to making music. “When I was younger…first of all, you have a lot more energy and more focus and the right kind of brain to deal with that kind of stuff. You have a lot better memory and can keep track of all your ideas. I was more focused because I had a better idea, or I had a more specific idea of what I thought music should be about. Now [that] I’m older, maybe having too open of a mind where so many things sound good to me, it’s hard to find a direction for a lot of the material and decide what is the right thing to do.”
Martsch is a little hard on his creative self. After all, it takes two additional guitarists to realize what he puts together on record, and Built to Spill’s live band expands to a three-guitar army with longtime tour players Jim Roth and Brett Netson. (Netson also recently released his own record, Scavenger Cult, credited to Brett Netson and SNAKES.) But there is one thing band and audience would agree on when it comes to blisteringly brilliant shows: What the musicians are doing, mistakes or not, has to translate sonically. So, rather than play often earache-inducing enormodomes, BTS’s fall tour includes several multi-night stays in midsize venues in various cities. Their four New York shows are split between the Bowery Ballroom and Brooklyn Bowl this week. “It’s a blast when the band sounds good and the sound onstage is good,” Martsch says. “Sometimes it’s horrible when the sound isn’t good. But when it sounds good onstage, it’s the best thing in the world.”