Icons Of Rock: Doug Martsch

Doug Martsch is a staple for modern indie rock, and the poster child for the reluctant rock hero. When asked about his found fame and notoriety, he doesn’t have much of an answer, mostly confusion as to why it happened in the first place, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem to bother him, as he has only been doing what has come natural to him since his adolescence. This feeling of bewilderment has been with him for some time now, stretching back to his first break out band Treepeople. For him it was all coincidence that he happened to be in Seattle at the end of the ’80s, just in time for rock ‘n’ roll to be sidelined, but who really could have planned that? He was merely there to do what he loved, but what resulted was something that would shape the course of underground music into the new century.

Born in small town Idaho, Martsch wouldn’t discover his knack for guitar until he moved to the big city before starting high school. As the new kid in town, he spent the first few lonely months behind his guitar and enveloped himself in the aggressive sounds that he loved. Like all of the obsessed, to him music defined who he was. The bands he listened to shaped his persona turning music into his life. It was the discovery of David Bowie that would alter his style forever, moving him from isolated metal head to popular Boise punk rock scenester.

It was also around this time that he was discovering the new alternative sound that were breaking out; R.E.M, Pavement, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. would all weigh heavily on influencing the music he chose to play. This would lead him right into the Boise underground rock scene and into playing with a few bands. One of which, State of Confusion, would be the catalyst for the rest of his career.

Treepeople would be the next move Martsch would make, taking along many members of State of Confusion. By this point in their lives, they had reached the maximum amount of time you can stay in Boise before you head northwest, and that they did, moving to Seattle in the late ’80s. Treepeople had already become a staple in their hometown, but once in Seattle, their following exploded. Martsch had managed to take his influences, mixing the pop sensibilities of Hüsker Dü with the power of Dinosaur Jr., and coming out with something completely unheard of. What resulted was exciting and genuine that would stand apart from the rumblings of grunge.

Three albums and two E.P.’s later, Martsch found himself at a crossroads with his band. It was the early nineties and Martsch had already shown his need to move on with a new side project, The Halo Breeders, but it would be his then girlfriend who would call him back to Boise giving him time to settle himself while she finished school. It was during this down time that he began finalizing songs that would eventually start Built to Spill.

The songs had been originally written during his time in Seattle. He never thought they would go anywhere, maybe record them with friends at some point, but it was never intended to start a new band with them. In fact, his plan had more to do with his girlfriend’s scholarly goals in Montana than his own musical aspirations that he was still working out. He would end up staying in Idaho and in 1992 he started a revolving collective of old friends with Ralf Youtz and Brett Netson as anchors.

His idea was not to have a concrete band but instead leave the door open for whomever wanted to play with him as the only permanent member. He would be Built to Spill, and every album would feature new musicians. His first record Ultimate Alternative Wavers was released in 1993 and was a more thought out (yet a less cohesive) version of the music he had been making before. It was all done on purpose though as he experimented with new sonic styles, bends, and other guitar work that would become his signature. It’s this sound that would later go on to heavily influence the music of Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and other post-2000 indie heavyweights.

In retrospect, it is startling at times the similarities between BTS and Modest Mouse, especially with early material such as the song “Three Years Ago Today” off that first record, just to name one. The reminiscence of his pre-grunge work appeared here and there, but his need to move on from that form kept those moments few and far between. Unknown to him at the time, the farther he moved from grunge, the more his influence took hold.

In 1995, Built to Spill signed to Warner Brothers. The band line-up was becoming more cohesive out of necessity for the live performances — and for Martsch’s sanity. No one would want to have to reteach the same songs over and over again for every new member. With Warner paying the tab, Martsch now had the time to create what would be his most ambitious effort for that time, and some would argue is still his (and the band’s) best record.

1997’s Perfect From Now On continued what Martsch had already started but was more polished and practiced. The style of long alt-rock jams that kicked aside the then conventional wisdom of song structure translated very well. Tracks like “Stop The Show” showed the creative movement that was possible within a song and that such movement negated the need for old-fashioned necessities such as a chorus or hook. With that, he proved that alternative rock could be heady, heavy, and catchy as hell.

The records that followed, most notably 1999’s Keep it Like a Secret, saw another move for the band. Long multi-layered tracks were focused down further for catchier moments and the structure that Martsch had avoided. 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future would continue this style further but end up taking a toll on Martsch’s creatively — in spite of Secret and Melodies being excellent records.

Back in 1998, Martsch had become bored with the alternative rock scene that had taken over around him. He had been playing for so long now that he was in search of a diversion, something to clear his mind while at the same time spark his creativity once more. It would be slide guitar legend Fred McDowell and a rediscovery of the blues that would be his muse. It is important to note that these feelings of contempt were kept close to Martsch. It was deeply personal as all his music had been for him, and so when he began his blues practice sessions, his feelings of vulnerability kept the recordings locked up.

His sessions were based straight from the McDowell’s 1959 slide handbook. Those songs would later become his first and only solo record Now You Know.  They wouldn’t see the light of day until 2002 (He demanded it be released under the independent label of his choosing, Warner Wanted it, they compromised). The resulting record is a complete departure from everything Martsch had done musically his entire career, and remains so to this day. They were simple songs with just him and steel slide playing very traditional Delta blues and country. It was a way for him to return to his center and expand his sound. You can hear hints of it in the music he was making with Built to Spill at that time and especially as the records led to 2006’s You In Reverse.

For a perfectionist, Martsch still remains very modest. Now with a family and an income (Martsch never made any money off his music until Warner Brothers stepped in), he has been able to relax a little. The band he started has moved on from its original hodgepodge to a solid group that could play and write music together. It’s a far cry from the beginning in which Martsch was the sole proprietor, but his influences can still be heard all over college radio today. Broken Social Scene, Spoon, the list goes on, but the point is that it was Martsch that helped pioneer the sound that we now generalize as alternative or indie. So much happened during the late eighties and early nineties for rock ‘n’ roll that it’s easy to forget some of the movers and shakers. While what happened in Seattle is responsible for modern rock today, it was a man from Boise that gave it the sound that modern hipsters can’t live without.

Check Out:


Follow Consequence