- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

Indie rock guitar hero Doug Martsch leads Built to Spill into the 9:30 Club tonight for the second of consecutive weekend evening shows for the oft-praised but publicly underappreciated band as it tours in support of its latest album, the cleverly titled "Ancient Melodies of the Future." And while his richly textured guitar stylings are at the core of what little mainstream notice the band receives, for the man who builds the amazing songs that make up the Built to Spill catalog, it all starts with a simple melody.
"That's definitely where, if I have any talent, that's where it lies — putting melodies together," Mr. Martsch says in a telephone interview. "And that's just a matter of sitting down with the guitar and randomly playing chords and singing notes until something interesting pops up."
"Ancient Melodies" follows the blueprint of the previous two Built to Spill albums, with multiple guitar sounds woven together and accentuated with sudden chord and tempo changes. But unlike the previous two albums, especially 1997's sprawling "Perfect From Now On," Mr. Martsch has tried to rein in the complexities a bit more this time around.
"I think on most of these songs, I'd come up with one or two parts for a song and leave it alone, whereas in the past I almost kind of felt an obligation to make the songs more complex," Mr. Martsch says.
That's true to a point. Songs like the bluesy "Happiness" and the punchy "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" evoke comparisons to earlier Built to Spill albums like 1994's "There's Nothing Wrong With Love," which was filled with tunes loose enough to be categorized as jangle pop, a description Mr. Martsch doesn't quibble with. With "Perfect From Now On," however, Mr. Martsch made a profound move toward a more-layered sound that continues with the new album, even as he holds back a bit. He explains:
"Each time, the last couple of records especially, I really wanted to go in and make a really simple kind of stripped-down record, with not a lot of overdubs. And it never sounds that good to me. I end up adding overdubs just to make the whole thing sound full and nice. Just to make it sound pleasing at first listen.
"I think the melodies and stuff are always strong enough that they can sustain the song, but I think it takes a while for the melodies to make sense to you and you kind of need some ear candy or whatever to draw you into that point."
Though he works much harder than most bands in the studio working and reworking songs, Mr. Martsch denies he is a perfectionist, and seems to see his songs as almost self-directional. "Part of it is you have a vision and you try to get it going and then, as you're recording it, you start to hear the songs the way that they actually are rather than the way they are in your head and you make some adjustments," he says.
While many longtime fans express a deep fondness for the more simple songs on "There's Nothing Wrong With Love," perhaps the band's most beloved album, the fact remains that simple or spread out, Built to Spill produces great songs. And that doesn't change on "Ancient Melodies," which again features hypnotic guitar bliss at every turn and mood-altering gems like "You Are" and "The Weather" that are every bit as good as the band's previous works.
A staple of Built to Spill's songs are the devilishly witty phrasings that are the backbone of the lyrics. For devoted fans, these often-obscure but always intelligent lyrics are the source of intense identification. Though Mr. Martsch says he does not purposely design his lyrics to be murky, he loves the fact that they can be taken so many ways and, in fact, refuses to even consider any authorized interpretation.
"I love to hear what weird things people think the songs mean. I like it when people get a lot out of the lyrics, I like it when people read too much into it and are really moved by them. It has nothing to do with the words really, it's what people bring to it. I think that's a huge part of music, and art in general, that people kind of seem to overlook: How much the audience brings to it. They create their own lines."
With the critical acclaim and a loyal fan base with high expectations, you'd think there would be pressure on Mr. Martsch to live up to the hype with each new release. He acknowledges the pressure is there, but it doesn't come from others' expectations. While saying he had more fun on the earlier Built to Spill albums than he does these days, Mr. Martsch feels that is a result of the changed vantage point from which he views his music.
"I think I had a different set of expectations," he says. "When I was younger, it was like, 'Whoa, I got my song on tape, that's great.' And now I'm thinking my music has to be as good as the music that I love, whereas when I was younger I never even imagined approaching that level. Whatever I was capable of, it was, 'Oh, well, that's really good for me.'
"And I feel like I can't do that anymore, I can't say 'Oh, yeah, that record's pretty good for me.' It's almost like I have to bring it up to the level of success that I have or something.
"It's a kind of pressure, but it's a self-pressure. It's my own ideas about how I think my music should be and how good I should be by this time of my life."

WHAT: Built to Spill, with the Delusions and Brett Netson
WHERE: 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW
WHEN: Tonight
PHONE: 202/393-0930

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