From the Jet Black Archives:
An Interview with Built to Spill,
from The Bomb #5, April 1994
Back in March of 1993, I caught a show at The Crazy Horse which had a profound, permanent sway with me. It was the 3rd (or 5th?), if memory serves, and I believe it was the very first full-on live performance by a band called Built to Spill.
I still have a set list from this show. As strange as it might sound, there were only maybe 50-60 people in the room. And that’s counting the three-piece band. Which says a bit about Boise at the time.
Things were much more insular, musically, back then. There were forgotten bands. Unsung types, groups who were either too ahead-of-their-time or too-unfashionably-retro, who fell by the wayside. But, if you lived in Idaho in early 90s, you most assuredly knew about Treepeople. I mean, even the goddamned Idaho Statesman occasionally made reference to them. Which is a perfect little emblem of clout; because the Statesman never mentioned ANYTHING back then, when it came to art or music or culture, unless IT ABSOLUTELY HAD TO.
Well, by late ‘92, Treepeople had split up. Or reassembled, depending on how you look at it. Nevertheless, singer/guitarist Doug Martsch slowly trotted out a fledgling little band, playing scaled-down versions of his newest stuff. Stuff which, according to a blog entry by Treepeople drummer Wayne R. Flower, saw Doug “stopped by just after I quit the band and he told me he had songs that didn’t fit with what Treepeople had been doing and he told me that he might do a side project. This became the band Built to Spill, who formed for a recording right after Doug left Treepeople.”
Flash forward to January 10th, 1994. I was a 17-year-old kid, editor of The Bomb (a literary and arts zine published under the Jet Black imprint) and I had stayed up all night with two friends after eating a few tabs of “Black Pyramid” acid, but I had an appointment in Boise that afternoon. Specifically, I was going to interview (and snap a few photos of) Built to Spill. So I coaxed my parents into driving me from our home in Nampa to 1012 S. Vermont Avenue, just south of University Drive–a house which is no longer there, having been bulldozed to make room for the ever-expanding campus of Boise State University.
The following is a verbatim copy of the article I wrote about this interview, reprinted here for its 25th Anniversary. As much as I am tempted to edit the many badly-written segments, I will leave it untouched. We’ve included some scans of the original printing, from The Bomb, No. 5, April 1994. The cover art was done by James and Tennille Marcum, with photos by yours truly.
–B. Baxter, 15 February 2019
New Vinyl by the Belstrom Nordburger Ensemble!
3 new songs by the notorious BNE.
One Man Laser Light Show b/w Cute Cute Girls and I'm Just A fish
After a sleepless night, I showed up at 3pm sharp on the doorstep of a white house in Boise. Andy, drummer of Built to Spill, pulled up. I explained I was scheduled to interview the band then. “Right on time,” he said. We watched the Denver-Los Angeles game (I think) for awhile, waiting for Dug–singer, guitarist and I guess leader of Built to Spill–to show. I heard Brett Nelson (bassist) somewhere in one of the back rooms and saw him when he answered the ringing phone. When Dug arrived, the band proceeded to make my jaw drop with what they called “practice”. After five or six songs, we sat on the floor for the ensuing interview.
Naturally, I was thrilled and horrified. After the release of what is for many people the best album of 1993–BTS’s ‘Ultimate Alternative Wavers’–a wad of usually pointless and/or derogative articles bloomed in every newsstand from here to, um, Seattle. Everything from the band’s supposedly camera-shy appearance at one venue, to, as John O’Neil put it, a writer’s “own misogyny” has been covered in previous articles. I, for one, hadn’t heard enough from the band itself, but was a bit wary to step into a journalist’s shoes and heap more bullshit atop the already teetering Built to Spill Information Archives.
So, to get on with it, I asked how well the album was doing in sales.
“Just look at the top of the Billboard charts,” Dug smiles. When prodded about getting any money from C/Z, the label which released ‘Ultimate Alternative Wavers,’ Dug speculates. “There should be a little money to be made off of it.” But, since the band plans to split with C/Z, no one is sure. “I don’t know how good [Daniel House] is about paying people that are no longer on his label.”
Business aside (for now), I asked about the history of the band–much of which has already been documented in other magazines. “It originally wasn’t supposed to be a live band….then [I] got antsy and decided to be cool and play with these guys.” These guys? What about Ralf and Brett Netson, the drummer and bassist/guitarist on ‘Ultimate Alternative Wavers’? “Well, Ralf lived out of town… The other Brett?… Brett Netson was hard to get to do things. He’s sort of off in too many directions at once. This [line-up] is just something that would be easier to deal with,” Dug explains.
And the press so far? “[The Rocket’s August ‘93 article] was pretty stupid,” Dug says. And then there was that write-up in the liner of the album’s advance cassette. Dug again: “I guess at the time it was sort of true, but I think it’s sort of bad publicity, too, though–you know–to say we’re not ever going to tour.”
“It was kind of more open, and then [C/Z] just kind of made the decision for you,” agrees Andy, who had been since he recited his social security number when the conversation started.
“Yeah, that, and I just don’t like the way they write things at C/Z…like their use of language–”
“‘Snide rock’,” Andy smiles, quoting from a line in the C/Z write-up that goes: “Instead of being your average wry indie-rock dream come true BTS is snide rock…” Pretty cool, eh?
“Yeah, things like that that don’t really make any sense at all,” Dug continued, explaining that he wanted to write the thing himself, but couldn’t think of anything to write. “That’s no reason to leave it to C/Z to do it, but…”
I should probably mention that Andy and Brett are in other bands which continue to play and put out music. Andy, a drummer and singer in Splinter, says that whether or not friction exists between bands and rivals “depends on who you ask. Everybody knows each other and everybody’s unhappy with the situation.”
Brett, a bassist and the singer of Butterfly Train–a two-bass-and-no-guitar band, if you weren’t sure–deadpans, “Except for Andy and I.”
Dug, who I’m informed has another band, says this other band “doesn’t care” about his activity in Built to Spill.
“In my particular case, Trent [McNair, guitarist and singer for Splinter] thinks that I’m devoting all my energy to this, and that’s not all true…and also, I’d be crazy to quit, because in the other band I get a chance to do all the other stuff,” Andy says, meaning his songwriting and singing.
Dug ruminates, “This band, these guys just play in, play around. The other bands have a lot of control and say. In this band, they have a lot of freedom, of course. I don’t have the energy to tell them what to do all the time. (Brett and Andy laugh.) But as far as this band goes,”–and here he seems to hesitate–”I get to say what happens. It’s kind of understood.”
Is Dug happy with his new material? “Yeah,” he admits. Things have been said about a previous lack in productivity and Dug’s complaint that “I used to write good lyrics. I don’t anymore.”
“Treepeople lyrics I thought were a lot better; now lyrics are just filler. I guess they always sort of were.” Just something to go with the music? “Right.”
As far as perhaps influences go, Andy says, “I listen to a lot of Butterfly Train, Splinter and Built to Spill.” Everyone smiles and laughs. Brett says, “Ride.” Dug: “Thinking Fellers are the best band in the world… The Smiths. The Smiths are the best band in the world, best band ever.”
“Except for Kiss,” Andy says with a straight face, to everyone’s (mock?) agreement.
What about the upcoming Built to Spill records? Dug explains: “I met Calvin [Johnson, member of Beat Happening and big cheese at K Records] when we were on tour–Treepeople were on tour. We played a show with [Beat Happening] in Texas and exchanged tapes, and I thought they were the best–the best thing in the world at that time. And then I hooked up with him and asked if he wanted to do a record, just making up songs, he and I. And then this summer he moved out of an apartment he’d lived in for about 10 years or something, moved into a house and got a little 8-track studio. So I spent a week up there and we made a record together.
“There were a couple people there in Olympia that had labels that wanted to do singles, and we were sitting around talking about it and Calvin said, ‘Well, you can come up and record for free at my place and do those singles.’ And he said he’d want to do one also, on K.
“That was before we were even together, so we practiced for a couple of weeks, learned a few songs and went up there and recorded six songs, seven songs, for three singles. One’s on K, one’s on Face the Music, and one’s on Saturnine.” (“Which is one word, one ‘n’,” he adds.) When will we be able to see these records? Dug and the band aren’t sure yet.
Hmm. So what do the three do outside their music? “We’re all employed,” Dug tells me, then turns to Brett. “Do you want to say if you’re married or not?”
“I’m not married. (Dug and Andy laugh) I have no interests,” Brett only halfheatedly laments.
Dug picks up the story–”Brett’s busy. He works 10 hours a day and then comes home and practices with two bands, and then he goes out drinking.” We had to laugh.
“Interest,” says Andy.
“Yeah, interest,” smiles Brett.
So this leaves us wondering about the future of Built to Spill. Are they moving? “Out of town? No,” Dug quickly answers. Is BTS sticking to this line-up? “Right,” Dug answers without pause.
“Until we piss Dug off,” laughs Brett.
“Right. Until I get a reason to kick ‘em out, (everyone’s laughing at this point) find better players, move on… No,” he says, “this is the awesome line-up.”
And a label? “We’re going to Up Records.” Nods all around. “Shit yeah. We’re gonna be labelmates with Butterfly Train.” Sounds like a future to me.