Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie recently told a story about Doug Martsch on Damian Abraham’s podcast Turned Out A Punk. I can’t confirm if the events of this story actually took place, but it’s worth telling anyways.
Before Martsch became the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Built To Spill, he played in the influential Boise-based band Treepeople, sharing guitar and vocal duties with Scott Schmaljohn. Treepeople got their start in 1988, right as Sub Pop was codifying the “Seattle sound” that became the grunge explosion. However, Treepeople’s urgent indie rock, strewn with wailing guitar solos, had more in common with punk and East Coast college rock like Dinosaur Jr. than the intense, brooding grunge that flooded the post-Mudhoney PNW.
According to Gibbard, Treepeople had a show a few hours away from Boise, but when they showed up at Doug’s house to pick him up, he told them he simply he didn’t feel like going. As the story goes: the band left Doug at his house, played the show without him, and he never played with Treepeople again.
Whether or not it actually happened, the story communicates something undeniable about Martsch’s essence. Picture him: lying in a hammock in the backyard as his band drives away without him, peering up into the heavens through a cloud of weed smoke, humming a little tune that he would later bang out on guitar by himself. Robert Christgau once superbly described Martsch as “not a loner, just a small-town kind of guy.” He’s the archetypal Pacific Northwest flannel-clad guitar god, packaged as an unassuming composite sketch of a slacker.
For the vast majority of Built To Spill’s existence, Martsch has been the sole songwriter, and it’s a mode that seems to suit him. For almost three decades, he has wheedled cryptic observations about the cosmos and Boise, Idaho over illuminated tapestries of guitar heroics. Most releases have – intentionally – featured a rotating cast of musicians on drums, bass, and additional guitars with Martsch as the only constant. Over eight albums, he has etched a legacy of clever, inventive indie rock and a trove of truly bitchin’ riffs.
I love that Gibbard carries that story around with him, folded up in his wallet to break out at a moment’s notice. Gibbard is one of the card-carrying members of a PNW club who would start their own bands with one goal in mind: doing their best to write Built To Spill songs. Martsch’s soft-spoken demeanor and gentle, reedy singing voice belie the seismic impact of his particular blend of melodic sensibility and scorching solos. Both Treepeople and Built To Spill played regularly in Boise, Seattle, and everywhere in between. Wherever Martsch plugged his amp in, it seems, he birthed a new band.
In Bellingham: Death Cab For Cutie’s first two albums (one as a solo project, the next with a band) are pure Built To Spill worship. In an interview with Vice, Gibbard noted that the only thing he was listening to while working on 1998’s Something About Airplanes was Perfect From Now On. “There’s some flagrant Built To Spill ripoffs on that record,” he admitted.
In Issaquah: Isaac Brock formed Modest Mouse a year after Built To Spill came into existence, but his guitar playing style had already been shaped by seeing Martsch play. “It was all really like Treepeople influence and whatnot,” Brock said to the LA Times about Modest Mouse’s initial run of releases.
In Olympia: Occasional Built To Spill bassist James Bertram joined the short-lived but influential post-hardcore band Lync. Their sole album, the stone-cold PNW classic These Are Not Fall Colors, pulls influence from fellow Olympians Unwound, as well as Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu, but Lync take a more tuneful approach. You can hear echoes of Martsch’s skewed pop sensibilities in both the riffs and the vocals.
In Seattle: Pedro The Lion and, later, Band of Horses, both bands whose early records have Marstch’s fingerprints all over their fretboards.
And so on.
Built To Spill have become a titan, an indie-rock tentpole holding up a major corner of the Pacific Northwest sound. Martsch has slowed the pace of releases, stretching the gap between records to five or six years without ever going away completely. Writing the template for so many aspiring acolytes must get exhausting after while.
And on When The Wind Forgets Your Name, Built To Spill’s first album of new material since 2015’s Untethered Moon, Martsch sounds exhausted.
When The Wind Forgets Your Name is the band’s first album for Sub Pop after spending over two decades on Warner. The shift away from a major label has not resulted in a massive shift in sound: The album largely follows the lead of Untethered Moon standout “Living Zoo.” “Being a human/ Being an animal too,” Martsch quavers over jangly, minor key acoustic guitars, the figure of Neil Young looming massive and shimmering on the horizon like that meme of the singing cowboy.
Neil Young has always been an obvious, if understated touchpoint for Martsch, partly because of their love for a statement guitar solo that isn’t wanky, partly because of the similarities in their vocal timbre. It’s telling that, of the many famous covers of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” – Dave Matthews, Slint, Matthew Sweet, Grace Potter and Joe Satriani – Built To Spill’s is the one that became iconic. On Young and Crazy Horse’s 1975 album, Zuma, the song is a shaggy rambler that clocks in around seven and a half minutes. Built To Spill’s cover, immortalized on their 2000 live album titled simply Live, clears the 20-minute mark. Young’s version has been praised by various rock pubs for having one of the greatest guitar solos of all time; Built To Spill’s version has nearly a half dozen solos that are better.
The Neil Young influence is more present than ever on When The Moon Forgets Your Name. The album is warm and hooky, if a little sleepy. The solos are economical by Built To Spill standards, not the triple-stacked interlocking riffs of Keep It Like A Secret or the unrestrained, eyes-on-the-sky instrumental sections of Perfect From Now On. The guitars jangle; there’s a real folkiness to it.
Built To Spill’s rotating lineup has rotated once again, although you’d be forgiven for not being able to tell by just listening. On When The Wind Forgets Your Name, Martsch is accompanied by Lê Almeida and João Cases, two members of the Brazilian jazz-rock band Oruã. “I was big fan of the production they had done on Oruã, [singer Lê Almeida’s] solo stuff, and other bands that they’ve produced,” Martsch told Inlander, “weird lo-fi stuff, but doing things with filters or speeding up/slowing down tape — experimental, almost like collage kind of productions.” Whatever textures Martsch heard in his new bandmates’ music, they don’t seem to have translated to his own songs. This album, like many Built To Spill albums before, was largely the product of Martsch working alone, and it sounds like it. The echoing reverb on Martsch’s vocals is new: the rest will be familiar to anyone who has heard the band in the last two decades.
The album has several moments of cozy, off-kilter pop that would feel at home on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. On album centerpiece “Spiderweb,” Martsch strikes the perfect balance of jangly Americana and squealing guitar histrionics. “Spiderweb” feels like a bridge between TNWWL and PFNO, both inviting and ambitious. Opener “Gonna Lose” occupies this same space. Its two-and-a-half minute runtime and goofy, stadium-sized riffs feels like a cousin to the one-two punch of “Twin Falls” into “Some” on TNWWL. Both songs are immediate classics.
However, the rolicking energy of “Gonna Lose” feels like a feint when followed by “Fools Gold,” a song that sounds tired enough to tip right over. “I’m gonna keep trying,” Martsch sings feebly, but he sounds like someone who has absolutely stopped trying.
Upon the 20th anniversary of Ancient Melodies Of The Future, Stereogum’s own Chris DeVille wrote, “As someone who fell in love with Built To Spill when Ancient Melodies was their newest album, I remember feeling like a fog hung over these songs, like it was the sound of a great band on autopilot.” The rollout of When The Wind Forgets Your Name has felt eerily reminiscent of that era.
Marstch, in 2001, speaking to the Detroit Times: “Part of it is that when we made this last record, it really felt kind of routine. Which was sort of nice, because it wasn’t very stressful. That kind of made it fun, but it also made me think I should try doing something differently…I think if you’re that comfortable with what you’re doing, it’s probably starting to get crappy.”
Martsch, last month, speaking to Inlander: “Well, creatively, I didn’t feel inspired at all; I felt a little bit shut down and didn’t really have much creative juices flowing… I didn’t have a lot of fun making the record. It wasn’t fun being in a vacuum working on it by myself. I didn’t feel a ton of inspiration, but did the work and got it done.”
Did the work and got it done.
There’s a direct, weary simplicity to these songs. Martsch has never been more plainspoken, or more focused on a single theme: trying to find inspiration, and failing. The songs generally clock in at a trim (by Built To Spill standards) four to five minutes; only the album closer “Comes A Day,” destined to become a live staple, makes any time for a lengthy jam.
The album pulls its title from a lyric in “Elements,” a song of cool-sounding nothings that culminates in almost frustratingly tossed-off conclusion: “Up in the stars/ Up in the sky/ Another world abounds/ And I don’t know/ Just what it means/ But i like the way it sounds.” The song literally fades out into the sound of waves rolling in, washing away anything the band was attempting to build. There’s a beautiful, strange world out there, but there’s no way to know what any of it means. Castles in the sand, disappearing with the rising tide.
In a 2015 interview with GQ, Martsch described his writing process as melody first and lyrical content last: “[T]he lyrics are the very last thing I write. I pretty much have the song ready to go, I know all the notes and the meter, and then I just sing out some words… It’s not my favorite part of doing this stuff. But I take it seriously. I keep trying to plug words into the melody until something clicks. Bad words can ruin a good song… There are maybe a couple songs in our career that are like, ‘This is what this is about.’ Most of them are up for interpretation.”
Martsch has always been adamant about this: With his lyrics, his only goal is to make sure they’re “not too stupid.” This feels like a deflection from the guy who penned lines like “You’ll get the chance/ To take the world apart/ Figure out how it works/ Don’t let me know what you find out,” or the six-minute opus “Randy Described Eternity,” where the narrator does his best to express the incomprehensible enormity of eternity and does a shockingly good job.
The lyrics on When The Wind Forgets Your Name are more straightforward than Martsch has been in years – maybe ever. He seems consumed with the frustrating unknowability of the universe, that after decades of living, life has still not begun to form a coherent picture. It’s laid out most clearly on “Comes A Day”: “You’ll never know cause you’ll never know what’s real/ We’re all paralyzed with life.” That’s the chorus.
“Rocksteady” is a bouncy homage to Martsch’s love for ska and reggae. The song has a little bit of actual rocksteady and a lot of woozy, childlike musings about the cosmos that come crashing abruptly back to earth. “God don’t ever help anyone/ He’s too busy working in mysterious ways,” Martsch intones, “Geometry, trigonometry/ I don’t know what they mean/ But i know none of that’s/ gonna help with all this pain.”
“Never Alright” is a song about how it’s never alright. The song that follows, “Alright,” is ostensibly the hopeful rejoinder, but Martsch can’t even make it through one song without the weariness creeping back in: “Life goes on and on year after year/ Don’t recommend it but I’m glad I’m still here.”
It’s an emotional gut punch, a bleak resignation. Martsch has always been telling us what he thinks the universe is. This time, he seems to be saying, “It is what it is.”
Despite the foreboding that darkens the corners of these tunes, When The Wind Forgets Your Name is the best thing Built To Spill have released in a decade.
I’ve thought a great deal about where this album ranks in the Built To Spill catalog. Maybe I’m getting older and more stodgy and predictable, or maybe years of loving and listening to Built To Spill have just solidified my opinion, but it seems inescapable that the run from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love through Keep It Like A Secret is untouchable, a peak for the band that – understandably – won’t be reached again.
The narrative about the band’s post-Y2K material has calcified through album reviews and retrospectives: Ancient Melodies Of The Future is slight, a pleasant but insubstantial offering from a band running out of gas. You In Reverse is a loose and rangy left turn, hailed at the time as a return to form, kicking some major ass despite sagging under the weight of its aimless extended jams. There Is No Enemy is the real return to form where the band sounds genuinely revitalized, and Untethered Moon is the charming pop surprise released with little fanfare after a six-year gap.
Of these four, I think only You In Reverse and There Is No Enemy are clearly better than When The Wind Forgets Your Name.
It’s funny: I love the pared-down quirky pop of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, and I enjoy the parts of this album that recall that style. Despite this, the thing that excites me most about the album is imagining what the band does with “Comes A Day” live. I’m already envisioning this song stretched out to 12 or 13 minutes, overstuffed with extended jams and winding solos.
I can’t tell yet if that’s because I’ve finally gotten old enough where my fond memories of a band are more important to me than what the band is actually doing now (a fate worse than death), or if it’s because Martsch sounds revitalized on “Comes A Day.” It’s long but energetic, lyrically somber but musically ecstatic. It’s a reminder that, whether the mystery of the night skies holds wonder or dread for Martsch, the light that imbues Built To Spill’s music comes out of the process, not the conclusions.
The album, much like Martsch, is a little shaggy and unassuming, but that’s the way he wants it. He’s not trying to impress you; he’s trying to make something that he loves, because he loves music. The rest of us who love music are just lucky enough to reap the bounty.
When The Wind Forgets Your Name is out 9/9 on Sub Pop.