Interview of Built To Spill - 19 May 2007

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Built To Spill in ConcertI discovered Built to Spill with their debut album ‘There’s nothing wrong with love’ back in 1994. The songs moved me one after the next, particularly ‘Big Dipper’, ‘Car’ and ‘Twins Falls/Some’. To me, this is a perfect album. The guitar lines are sublime and subtle and the melodies charming. The music draws on rage and softness; the informality of the production makes it an instantly accessible US indie record. Yet, listening to it fourteen years later, it still surprises me.

Doug Marsh’s lyrics work in a similar way to drugs. They conduce to imagery and reverie: “I wanna see it when you find out what comets, stars, and moons are all about, I wanna see their faces turn to backs of heads and slowly get smaller or more”.

Sometimes they make you think: “You'll get the chance to take the world apart and figure out how it works, don't let me know what you find out”; and sometimes they bring you back to reality: “You still hope Hitler will blow up and that Kennedy will duck”.

I met with Doug Marsh front man of Built To Spill in 2007, during their ‘You In Reverse’ tour which came to Reading. I admitted straight away to Doug that I had not paid too much attention to what Built To Spill had produced between 1994 and 2007 and I think that he appreciated my honesty. So, we started by reflecting on ‘There’s nothing wrong with love’.

“When I listen to ‘There’s nothing wrong with love’ I just cringe the whole time!” Doug admits. When asked why, he replies in a very laid back way: “Oh you know… just the quality of my voice”. Doug is resolute: “I really don’t know why I’m not comfortable with my voice. I wish I was”, and he explains a little further: “I think I might have an idea in my head of what I want things to sound like and it doesn’t come up as I expect them to. It’s really subtle things. It’s hard for me to explain”.

If you listen to either ‘There’s nothing wrong with love’ or ‘You in Reverse’ you will find the same consciousness to produce genuine music carefully constructed with layers of beautiful guitars and vocal melodies, with the former being more spontaneous and poppy and the latter heavier in sound.

I ask Doug if he believes that the songs from ‘You in Reverse’ are more mature and better than those from their first album: “I hope we get better over time. I don’t really think of them that way. They’re just different. They are what they are for their time. I don’t really think of them as one better than the other. I’ve probably matured to some degree. But you know sometimes that’s for the worse too. Sometimes some of your best stuff comes out of whatever you do when you are young, when you are less self-conscious in a way because you don’t really know what you’re capable of doing or what you’re best at doing”.

In terms of melodies, they are less obvious in ‘You in Reverse’ but just as prominent. Melodies are, after-all, quintessential to Built to Spill’s music. But for us on the receiving end, some melodies will be accessible more quickly than others. So how do these charming melodies make their way onto a Built To Spill song? Doug explains: “You just stumble across things, and then over time you have a bunch of little pieces. And then you just decide. You make these decisions, what you think is going to work, and which ones aren’t. They are kind of silly things but, you know, I just become attached to them! Sometimes I like them so much that even though they might not be what I want Built To Spill to be like, they’re good enough that I just want to use them. Like super poppy songs like ‘Big Dipper’, which I would never be associated with… [laughs!], but it just works out so nicely that it would be stupid not making it into a song”.

It’s true that ‘Big Dipper’ has a discernibly catchy and upbeat tune, and I wish all super poppy songs were as good as ‘Big Dipper’. Is there a conscious decision by the band not to go the super poppy way? “Not really conscious but the things that I stumble across or the band stumbles across, are just never in our veins, because no one really plays that way. To stumble across something like that you’ve got to go outside of what you usually do.”

‘Big Dipper’ may not be representative of Built To Spill’s music, yet it is probably the song that made them, alongside ‘Car’, a song that Doug finds “embarrassing in a lot of ways”. And yet certainly a lot of people’s favourite song of theirs! But the song, however embarrassing it may be to Doug, is getting played regularly live as he himself explains: “The drummer who played on that record passed away last year. So we did the song as a tribute and we liked how it sounded. We play it without drums. We play it very minimal.” Doug is then quick to add: “But I hate the way my voice sounds on it! I heard it the other day on the video we made for it, and the quality of my voice is driving me crazy”.

Let’s get this clear. Personally I think Doug’s voice works extremely well with Built to Spill’s music. It can compliment the subtle guitar melodies as well as bring softness to the music when the guitars become harsher and more distorted. Yes, it is a distinctive voice, but there’s nothing wrong with that (there’s nothing wrong with love either…). I try to reason Doug by mentioning that Billy Corgan (from the Smashing Pumpkins) also has a distinctive voice and suggest that he probably does not like his voice either. To which Doug chuckles and retorts: “He probably loves his voice!” Now we both chuckle!

For more details, visit… Built To Spill's website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2007