Built To Spill Promise To ‘Change It Up Each Night’ On Upcoming Australian Tour
“I want to just keep playing music, to keep touring and playing live until I can’t do it anymore.”
Despite now being more than 30 years deep into their storied career, Boise indie rock legends Built To Spill remain something of an enigmatic concern.
The brainchild of frontman and songwriter Doug Martsch – who originally designed the band so that it would be different for each album, only for it to experience a dozen years of stability with one five-piece line-up before beginning to shape-shift again in more recent times – it’s his singular vision which has kept the band fresh and relevant over this lengthy timespan.
Originally at the vanguard of the fertile mid-‘90s US indie rock boom – alongside peers and contemporaries like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, Superchunk and Archers Of Loaf – when that style inevitably fell out of fashion Built To Spill stayed the course, releasing a string of beautiful albums overflowing with dreamy melodies, intricate guitar webs plus Martsch’s reflective lyrics and distinctive, fragile vocals.
For 22 years they even belonged on the roster of a major label, Warner Bros., despite this being virtually unheard of for an indie rock band. Nor did they sell the truckloads of records usually associated with membership to those vaunted realms – the relationship seemingly existing to bring prestige to the label as much as anything – although their most recent album When The Wind Forgets Your Name (2022) came out on another bastion of the Pacific Northwest, legendary Seattle indie label Sub Pop Records.
And while When The Wind Forgets Your Name sounds for all intents and purposes like a typically strong collection of Built To Spill songs, Martsch explains that due to the pandemic lockdowns that were ravaging the States while the album was coming together he had to lay the bulk of this one down all on his own, a new and unique challenge for the veteran songsmith.
“It was kinda weird making a record all alone,” he reflects. “I did all of the overdubs and mixes and stuff during the pandemic while I was working alone and living by myself, so the work seemed… I dunno; a little bit joyless compared to going into the studio with other people and the whole atmosphere that comes with that. But I’m happy with the way I turned out, I’m proud of it for sure.”
The singer explains that one of the hardest aspects of the solitary quest was not having anybody around to bounce ideas off.
“Yeah, it was tough,” he concedes. “I knew all of the songs really well – all of the songs were kinda old, a few years old – but just coming up with new, special things to do to them to lift them above the ordinary was not as easy to do when there wasn’t other people around. It’s just like working in a vacuum.
“Also I’m not really much of an engineer, so I wasn’t really sure if it was going to sound like crap – if I was EQing things right and stuff like that – so it was stressful in those ways, but it was fun a lot of the times as well.
“In a lot of ways it was fun being able to just mess around by myself for an hour or something if I felt like it, and not having to work like eight hours on it because there’s a bunch of people also involved in the studio. So that was nice, just being able to be a little bit more casual with it.”
A couple of the tracks on the new album such as All Right and Elements even stretch right back to the sessions for albums like There Is No Enemy (2009) and Untethered Moon (2015), with versions even recorded all those years ago only to not make the cut. Martsch admits that despite Built To Spill not being particularly prolific of late, new songs haven’t exactly been pouring out of him in the interim.
“Exactly, I haven’t been writing much,” he shrugs. “I’m just writing less and less, I don’t know how much I have left in me. I have a few older things lying around, but in the last few years, I haven’t written much. I wrote a song last summer, but I haven’t really written anything since then.
“I’ve just been so busy touring and just living other parts of my life. And also for whatever reason when I have sat down to write something I haven’t been coming up with things that I’m excited about.
“It’s neither here nor there; maybe at some point, I’ll get excited and write something – stumble into some things that are interesting – or maybe that part of me’s done. I can do other things with my life, and I still love performing live.”
While always a pretty laidback and unflappable character, Martsch still seems incredibly nonchalant about the spectre of his songwriting well potentially drying up.
“I’m not bothered too much,” he smiles. “You know, if it happens it happens, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. I feel like I’ve gotten to put a lot of stuff out there. Sometimes it’s fun working on music, and sometimes I think it would be nice to never have to make a record again and not have to do that work and push yourself that hard again.
“I don’t know, I always have this fantasy of just not really making any real songs – recording, but just recording noises and experimental things – taking a break from songs and seeing how freeing that would be. But I never really get around to doing that either, so I don’t know.”
In the meantime Martsch has got Built To Spill’s impending Australian tour to look forward to, his fourth foray Down Under. With his band now stripped down to a trio – the singer currently joined by Melanie Radford (bass) and Teresa Esguerra (drums) – it means that he’s now carrying the formerly three-pronged guitar attack on his lonesome.
While that quandary was fixed by lots of practice and some Echoplex delay (which makes the sound, in his words, “a little bit more psychedelic”), he’s also excited by the relatively uncommon prospect of playing four consecutive nights in Melbourne.
“We’re really looking forward to that, and we’ll change it up each night,” he assures. “We know maybe 40 songs or something, and maybe by then, we’ll have learned a couple more. And out of that batch of songs, there’s maybe 15 or 20 that we play pretty heavily in rotation, and the rest of them kinda come and go depending on how we feel.
“It’s just kind of arbitrarily what I think are the strongest songs, but sometimes we can pull out one of the weird ones and kill it for some reason. It’s really fun being able to change it up every night, or maybe sometimes maybe we’ll play a song that’s one of our stronger ones, and maybe it starts to get a little stale after a couple of weeks, so we’ll put it away and bring it back later.”
Martsch recently got to reacquaint himself intimately with a particularly revered section of his canon when Built To Spill toured the States celebrating the 20th anniversary of their classic 1999 fourth album Keep It Like A Secret, discovering in the process that his relationship with some staples had changed over time.
“Yeah, definitely listening to the record again it’s clear that the songs changed a lot over time just through playing them live,” he tells. “Sometimes I’d forgotten how they even end properly – I’d just forgotten some guitar part that was in the original song – so it’s interesting to be able to go back and discover that stuff.
“But the main difference to me between now and back then is that these days I sing a lot differently. I feel like on the last few records I’ve been singing more the way that I want to sing, but I feel like on the earlier records I have a thing with my voice where it’s… I just have a style of singing now with my voice that I like a lot better. So I sing all the songs now the way that I sang on the last record, I don’t sing them how I used to back in the day.”
And as for plans after Australia? Martsch reckons it will be more of the same, whether those pesky songs start flowing again or not.
“We’ve been touring a lot,” he ponders. “We toured a ton – more than we ever have – in 2019, then there was the pandemic, and then in 2022 we toured even more than that, and this year it’s similar or maybe even more again. So each year we’ve been touring more and more and next year it might be time to take a little bit of a break, just for our mental health and stuff.
“Otherwise I want to just keep playing music, to keep touring and playing live until I can’t do it anymore, and if I write any songs and make any new recordings along the way, then that’d be nice too.
“We make our living off of the touring, and I love doing it, and we’re still able to do it – we’re able to book shows and people come out to see us – so I want to keep doing that until for some reason I have to stop. It makes me happy, so I feel no need to change.”
BUILT TO SPILL
AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Friday 20 October – Manning Bar, Sydney
Saturday 21 October – The Triffid, Brisbane
Sunday 22 October – The Altar, Hobart
The Eighty-Six dates:
Tuesday 24 October 2023 – Northcote Social Club – SOLD OUT
Wednesday 25 October 2023 – Northcote Social Club – SOLD OUT
Thursday 26 October 2023 – Northcote Social Club – SOLD OUT
Friday 27 October – Northcote Social Club – SOLD OUT
Harvest Rock Festival
Sunday 29 October – Murlawirrapurka & Ityamai-Itpina / Rymill & King Rodney Parks, Adelaide