Ancient familiar

Sep 5, 2001 at 12:00 am

Laziness and distraction have a bad rap. Especially since they often fuel the most inventive inspiration. Now, no one’s calling Doug Martsch, singer-guitarist of Built To Spill, apathetic. Since the very late-’80s he’s been multitasking, early on with Treepeople, then Built To Spill and the Halo Benders (a project with Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System).

But Ancient Melodies of the Future, his band’s latest (and third with Warner Bros., which wraps up the contract), hints at a newfound appreciation for the art of tangled relaxation. Ships of slightly progressive quirk and chaos toss and glide over a hazy stream of melted, after-rock consciousness. The CD’s title couldn’t be more appropriate — the opening track “The Plan” soundchecks a time when the Pixies, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins reigned (not necessarily ancient, I know), but the song lays these paths out newly weird, something you won’t begin to comprehend until a few hours later.

The instant anthems don’t always poke out like they did in Keep it Like a Secret or There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, but they’re still there, each readily familiar and memorable song folding neatly into the next. They sound so familiar that, at times, the trio has been called “the most popular unknown band in the world.” But that same familiarity might be what’s making Martsch itch to try something new:

“Part of it is that when we made this last record, it really felt kind of routine. Which was sort of nice, because it wasn’t very stressful. That kind of made it fun, but it also made me think I should try doing something differently. Doing a different project. Or approaching music in a different way, because I think if you’re that comfortable with what you’re doing, it’s probably starting to get crappy. I don’t want to break up Built To Spill or anything like that, because I think it’ll be fun to do again sometime. I’m looking forward to the tour and everything. And I’m happy with our record. I just feel it coming on.”

If you need proof of Martsch’s ability to multitask, relax — he spent a large portion of our interview playing “Crazy Taxi” on his new Sega Dreamcast system at his Boise, Idaho, home.

Metro Times: What were you listening to when you wrote Ancient Melodies of the Future?
Martsch: It was mostly written last year. I was listening to a lot of soul music and reggae music. A lot of country blues too.

Metro Times: You had such a history with indie labels, Up!, C/Z and K. Did you struggle over the decision to sign with a major label?
Martsch: I kind of knew right away that I was going to sign some sort of record deal because I wanted to not work. I wanted to not have to tour a bunch. I wanted to be supplemented in some other way. It was just a matter of deciding which label to go to. The people I talked to at Warner Bros. were the easiest to get along with. The label itself kind of had a history of being friendly to bands and developing artists. I don’t think that’s really true anymore, but the guy who signed us, I really liked him a lot. Within a month or two after signing to that label, all the A&R people that I had talked to at these other labels had been fired. He was the only one who had any kind of job security and, about a year ago, he quit. That’s the way it goes. But he lasted long enough to get us basically through most of our time there. And everyone else I’ve dealt with there has been really nice, so I’ve been pretty lucky.

Metro Times: Do you like potatoes?
Martsch: Yes. Don’t you? We don’t grow them here at our house.

Metro Times: Do you have a potato festival?
Martsch: No.

Metro Times: Shoot, your lyrics have a bit of a stream-of-consciousness, playing-with-words feel to them.
Martsch: Yeah, if I could, I would tell stories in my songs. I don’t really have that ability, so I just kind of try to not write anything that’s too stupid.

Metro Times: Like your song, “Not Being Stupid’s Not Enough.”
Martsch: Exactly, but what are you going to do?

Metro Times: Do you have a hard time writing lyrics?
Martsch: Yeah, I do.

Metro Times: A lot of people, that’s what they obsess over, the words.
Martsch: Sure, like I said, if I could write good words, I would.

Metro Times: No, I’m saying people obsess over your words.
Martsch: That’s cause they’re not too stupid. I’ve narrowly avoided it. You can’t help but make sense out of things. That’s just the way our brains work. Everyone has those lyrics that they misunderstand, but they still make sense even though they’re this weird sentence fragment. There’s this Bob Dylan song that Karena [Martsch’s longtime partner] and I both made the same mistake on when we were young. That says something like, “fall asleep beneath the stars with a small dog licking your face.” And we both thought it was “with a small dark look in your face.” And that doesn’t mean anything, but of course it meant something. If someone says something, you assume they mean something by it.

Melissa Giannini is Metro Times’ music writer. E-mail her at [email protected]