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Exclusive Q&A: Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch

This week, indie-rock heroes Built to Spill release their seventh full-length album, There Is No Enemy. The new album captures the full spectrum of the band’s sound, showcasing frontman Doug Martsch’s knack for writing catchy pop songs, while also delving into the jam-centric, dual-guitar-driven rock attack that Built to Spill is known for. It’s a somber yet hopeful album that tackles major philosophical issues while enveloping them in multi-layered guitar riffs, polished off with a twinkling pop sensibility.

We caught up with Martsch to learn about the album’s recording process, talk about his love for performing cover songs, and get the inside scoop about the band’s two-month US tour.

Flavorpill: Tell us a little about how the production of There Is No Enemy went.

Doug Martsch: Well, a lot of the songs, including “Oh Yeah,” “Life’s a Dream” and “Nowhere Lullaby” were left over from the last record, You in Reverse. The rest were songs that I wrote and compiled over the past few years. I would generally write the songs beforehand and then bring them into the studio with the band and we would work on them together and flesh them out. The recording of the album took over a year because we were touring and doing other things while we were working on it. We were working in LA and we would record to tape, and then dump them into Pro Tools, where it was mixed. I have to say the tape situation is not quite hammered out yet in the world. They stopped making them a few years ago and it all went under. Supposedly they didn’t have the technique down quite yet. You know, it’s kind of a delicate operation; supposedly tapes that people are getting nowadays are just shredding. You can record some stuff with them, but if you are doing tons of overdubs or mixing over and over again, the tape shreds and you start losing quality.

FP: Is that why you decided to use Pro Tools with this album?

DM: That was part of the reason, and also, I was looking forward to having the capabilities to bring the project home and work on it. It also allows you to do lots of overdubs and then go back to them later on. In the past, when you recorded onto tapes, you’d run out of tracks pretty quickly, and you’d get to the point where you have to nail things and immediately decide right there and then if it’s really good. Sometimes when you’re doing that, you’re so worn down by the process that you can’t tell what’s good, and start to lose track of what’s going on. You become so deeply focused on one aspect of the process that you’re unable to concentrate fully on another. With the playlist function on Pro Tools, you can do a bunch of different takes of the same part, and then you can go back at a later point after you have given your mind a little bit of rest and decide what’s best.

FP: What were you listening to while recording this album? Was there anything that influenced you enough to incorporate it?

DM: Well, mostly I listen to a lot of old soul and reggae from the ’60s, but I listen to all kinds of music. I definitely have a respect for the music, but mostly what we do is kind of play what naturally comes to us. So although we are influenced in subtle ways by the music we listen to, we tend to go about our business and not really make a conscious effort to incorporate the influences. For the most part, the way a song comes out is the way we just happen to play it. I might take some ideas from other music, but mostly it’s just what we feel works for the song.

FP: Would you consider this new record a pop album like Perfect From Now On or an intricately-produced guitar-driven album like You in Reverse?

DM: Well, I guess I consider this more of a poppy one, but it’s also got some weird long songs too. You know, all these records are just a collection of the latest bunch of songs. For the most part, there isn’t really a style or aesthetic that we really have changed with each song. Ideally, I feel like it does change, but I don’t know if it comes across that way. We like to record each song like it’s an individual entity. This record is kind of a song-driven album, which is why the songs are recorded a little more conventionally than our others. Actually, in that case, I guess they are quite similar to the soul songs I’ve been listening to, because their production style is pretty simple and not overdone. The focus is more on the lyrics than the overall production style.

FP: I heard you also recorded all the new songs on the album in an old theater. Why didn’t you use these versions for the album?

DM: We recorded all the songs in the studio, and then again in this theater outside of Los Angeles. We actually invited some small crowds out and performed the new songs live for them. We were trying to capture that live-band feel for the album, but we decided those versions just weren’t that interesting and decided to go with the mixed studio versions instead. The drums and bass for one song made it on to the final mix, but other than that there was really nothing else used from those sessions.

FP: Do you think you’ll ever release those versions of the songs?

DM: No, they’re basically the same as the ones you hear on the album. They have been scrapped and probably will never be released anytime in the near future.

FP: Who did the album art? And what about the piece made you put it on the front cover of the album?

DM: A Boise-based artist named Mike Sheer did the album artwork. We met 20 years ago, when he did the album artwork for another band I was in called Treepeople. He also did the artwork for You in Reverse, and when we were picking out the pieces to be used for that album, we also chose the ones for this album. He’s a really talented artist and I love his work. We’ve actually taken slide shows of his work on tour that we would project during our performances.

FP: What songs do you look forward to playing live with the band on this tour?

DM: Well, right now we’re only performing “Hindsight” live, but we are actually rehearsing a bunch of the new songs during our sound checks, including “Oh Yeah,” “Life’s a Dream” and some others. So when the album is actually released, we can incorporate more of the new songs into our performance.

FP: I noticed you’ll be playing a few shows with Dinosaur Jr. Will you guys be jamming out together on any songs?

DM: I hope so. We played together last year for a few shows and got to rock out together. So hopefully we will be doing it again.

FP: You guys are pretty well known for performing some awesome cover songs during your shows. Will there be any new covers you’ll be performing this tour?

DM: We don’t have any new ones as of now, but you never know. We tend to try out some different covers when we’re messing around, and who knows if one or two will end up on our set list later in the tour. We have kind of covered all the songs that we wanted to already, but we shall see. I really like performing cover songs during our shows; there’s something so exciting about playing a song that you really love. There’s this limiting nature to the song that allows you to give it your best shot and just see what your fans think about your version. It’s cool.