Doug Martsch doesn't give himself enough credit. The guitarist, vocalist and songwriter who has fronted Built to Spill since 1992, has a tendency to talk about songwriting as a phenomenon that just kind of happens, as opposed to something he actually controls. Speaking over the phone from his home in Boise, Idaho, Martsch has a tendency to use phrases like "it sort of presents itself" when discussing how a piece of music takes shape, or "if it works out it works out." It's not necessarily the language you'd expect to hear from someone who has written and performed on some of indie rock's most celebrated albums.
Yet with new album Untethered Moon, released in April via Warner Bros., it took a long time before Martsch reached the point of being satisfied with the material he was working on. The band had neared completion on an entirely different album before ultimately shelving it and starting from scratch. But as Martsch explains, it wasn't so much the songs themselves, but how the band approached them.
"I wasn't super psyched with how the record was coming along, so I used that as an opportunity to just bag the record," he says. "We were falling into our old pattern of doing lots of overdubs. I didn't spend a lot of time writing the songs—they were pretty simple. I decided to go back to those songs later, and make them a little more interesting and complex in their structure, rather than try to add complexity with overdubs. Half of the songs on the record are songs from those sessions."
It wasn't just the songs that underwent a transformation between the scrapped first record and the release of Untethered Moon. The band itself looks very different now than it did just a couple years ago. Before the group headed back into the studio, Built to Spill's longtime rhythm section—drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson—left the band. Without much delay, Jason Albertini and Steve Gere took over on bass and drums, respectively, joining Martsch and guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth for a new phase of the band.
This particular phase finds Built to Spill sounding more energetic and commanding than they have in years. There's an immediacy to Untethered Moon that recalls classic albums like 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love and 1999's Keep It Like a Secret, yet with a scrappy, noisy rock n' roll sound that at times draws parallels to Dinosaur Jr. or Neil Young's albums with Crazy Horse. "On the Way" is a catchy, bouncy slice of folk-tinged pop, while "So" is a fuzzy, psychedelic rock freak out.
One song on the album, "Never Be the Same," stands out for being a bit simpler than the other nine tracks on Untethered Moon. But it's also unique in a different way: It's the oldest song on the album by a couple decades. Martsch wrote one version of the song before he started Built to Spill, and a chance performance of it in the group's rehearsal space convinced producer Sam Coomes that this artifact from Martsch's punk rock youth was worthy of reprisal.
"I always liked things about it, but it had a really different feel. It was more of a rock song," he says. "One day I just brought it out and played it really stripped down and slow and mellow. We jammed it out, and Sam, who... would just come to our rehearsals and hang out and chit chat with us, he was outside when he heard it—he was locked out—and he was really into it. And his enthusiasm rubbed off on us, so we kept it.
"Now it's one of my favorites," he continues. "I kind of love it now."
Martsch, who is two years shy of marking 30 years as a professional musician (he fronted Treepeople for five years before starting Built to Spill), has amassed an impressive amount of Built to Spill material in 23 years, much of it standing up to the best guitar-based music that indie rock has to offer. Still, Martsch hasn't changed his approach to songwriting all that much over the last few decades, nor does the process of making music become any easier over time. He says that he's "editing and revising constantly," and that the moment where an album feels finished takes a little bit longer to get to each time the band enters the studio.
That doesn't mean it's lost any of its appeal, however. Nor does Martsch find the elusiveness of his muse, or the complicated nature of creating art any more of an obstacle toward making something that he's happy to put out into the world. Once it's out there, though, the music that Built to Spill makes undergoes another transformation. It's no longer Built to Spill's—it's up to listeners to process, interpret and consume on their own terms.
"If I ever did have specific things in mind I wanted people to understand, I learned that that was impossible and gave up on it a long time ago," he says. "If people find some other thing in there that connects with them in some way I didn't intend at all, that's fine too. Every record is made a different way, every record every band makes.
"It's really a magical thing."