I've decided that everything I write from this point forward will be about me, in honor of my ex-girlfriend, who said I am my best subject.
When I made this decision, Built to Spill's new release, You in Reverse, had exclusive rotation in my iPod in preparation for my interview with frontman Doug Martsch. I reached the conclusion that Martsch's art and his personal life must be intertwined. I knew we would have much to talk about: I would uncoil the meaning of Built to Spill's music.
The Seattle four-piece is often dubiously labeled a jam-band, but is more suitably twinned with the region's grit-and-metal, whammy-bar alt-rock brought to the mainstream by Modest Mouse. Instrumentally and vocally, You in Reverse is a step up from the last album, Ancient Melodies of the Future. That album, although inventive in its use of vocal-instrumental harmonies, didn't reach its potential until halfway through.
But what matters about music, anyway? Rhythm, melody, harmony? The musicians? The instruments?
I don't know enough to deconstruct it, but intuition-instinctively combining elements to achieve what I consider the voice of inarticulate and stubborn emotions-has something to do with music's appeal. Emotions, let's say, such as the guilt and shame, grief and despair of a man like myself who broke up with the only girl I've ever been in love with because I didn't think it was working. Martsch seems to summon this in the song "Saturday," when his straining, ghostly voice pleads, "You waited for Saturday; You waited for my birthday," over a stark and steady rhythm.
Beautiful. Vulnerable. Personal.
But I needed questions. So while waiting for Martsch's call, I went back through my notes. I reminded myself to be cool, remain professional, go with questions. Then, I got the call. Soft, unassuming Doug Martsch on a Tuesday morning-sitting, I imagined by the sound of the wind and the distant rustle, on his porch staring at the mountains-answered my questions patiently.
"So," I began, "I listened to You in Reverse, and wondered how much or to what extent your music reflects on where you are emotionally and personally?"
"Well, I think both musically and lyrically it's not at all conscious," he replied. "To me it's all about making things that sound good. It's about, um, taking ideas from other music I've heard and using that...."
My theory fell apart. But I wouldn't give up.
"Yeah, but I think there are some instances, such as in "Liar' or "Saturday,' in which lyrics sound personal. Instances exist that, although not specific, have an intimate effect-you know, they make the listener empathize."
"Again, I can only speak from what I do consciously," Martsch said. "But, yeah, I definitely think those things work: subconscious and conscious."
It's possible. He admitted it, but the annoyance showed in his voice, and being the insecure journalist I am. I switched gears:
"So you're more concerned with the sound of words."
"Yeah, totally. The lyrics are made to go with the music, and the music gives them meaning they wouldn't have otherwise."
There, he said it: "meaning"-words find meaning with music. So, damn it, I don't care if it was conscious or not, Doug. Your music gave me insight when I broke up with my girlfriend. Reminded me to follow my instincts, my heart, even when I can't decipher either.
Built To Spill plays at House of Blues on June 27. Doors open at 7 p.m $18-$20. 619-299-BLUE.