You may not know the reason you sport a beard, but his name is Doug Martsch. The beard has become a pervasive accessory for the indie sub-culture, and if you go to a show where fixed gears are parked outside the venue and PBR is the drink of choice, you will assuredly see twentysomething men with scruffy beards. It’s not quite the hippie look, but it’s distinctly unshorn. It’s there on the face of Sam Beam and David Bazan, but long before the scruff of Iron & Wine and Pedro the Lion, there was the beard of Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch.
Doug Martsch, lead singer and guitarist for indie icons Built to Spill, is perhaps as close to an indie hero as possible. Though Built to Spill may never have had widespread fame, they’ve inspired bands from Nirvana to Modest Mouse to Death Cab for Cutie. And although Martsch has a quirky voice and that groundbreaking beard, he’s reached a kind of heroic status and become an inspiration to young bands everywhere (whether they realize it or not). In fact, Built to Spill may be the most influential band no one is listening to. And they’ve managed to keep their indie idol status while being signed to a major label.
“Signing to a major label didn’t change much of the way we do music,” Martsch says. “Lots of bands go to a major label, and they just start to tour in a big bus, but I guess some change their style of music a little for a wider audience, too. Either someone tells them to change it or not, I guess.”
However, Martsch’s experience with a major label hasn’t had this effect on Built to Spill. “I think people think of us as an indie band because we made the same music on Warner that we made before we signed with them,” he says. And if anyone understands the workings of a major label, it’s Martsch, the mastermind and chief architect of the Idaho-based outfit that has maintained a floating lineup since they first formed in 1992. And he’s right. Since the early ’90s, BTS has consistently released albums that have been critically favored and immeasurably influential. It may be a stretch to say that bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse wouldn’t have been around if it weren’t for BTS, but it’s safe to say they might not sound the same. And since the band signed with Warner more than 10 years ago (a seemingly strange fit), the group continues to push the loosely classified genre of “indie rock” forward.
“I assume when people say ‘indie’ that they’re talking about a certain sound—a certain production value,” Martsch says. Signing to a major label in the mid-90s (which was a rare phenomenon at the time) didn’t deteriorate BTS’s “indie” status; they’ve kept up just as much “indie cred” over the years simply by avoiding major-label altercations. The band has been happy at Warner, and Warner has never had to push change on them. And Martsch has seen damage done to art when major labels hijack a prominent indie band.
“When I was growing up, bands I liked, like Husker Du and the Replacements, signed to major labels, and then, in my opinion, put out watered-down versions of their music,” he says. “I don’t know if labels were telling them to do that. Maybe it was just a natural progression for those bands, I don’t know, but Built to Spill didn’t have that pressure with Warner, for better or for worse.”
Putting the far-reachings of beard-marketable indie bands aside, Martsch’s heroism is seen in his attitude—in true rock style, he stays true to himself regardless of labels, a characteristic that separates garage-band one-offs and true icons. If Doug Martsch were letting a major label, a scene or anything else take control of his art, he would not be the hero he has become to so many younger musicians.
I confront Martsch on a rumor I had heard regarding his flightiness during interviews. His response may or may not be genuine: “Actually, I’m almost too honest,” he says. “But I lie on accident when trying to mix it up. You get tired of hearing yourself say the same thing over and over again. You know, there are almost multiple-choice answers to these esoteric things I’m asked. I’ve tried to B.S., but can’t. Especially when you’re sincere, usually people are nice, but I don’t have what it takes to [mess] with someone.” Martsch seems sincere, not at all caught up in his “indie hero” status.
Martsch’s good nature becomes even more apparent when I ask him about the meaning of some of the lyrics on BTS’s breakout album, Perfect from Now On. On “Untrustable Part 2” he sings, Why can’t you empathize with Jesus’ point of view? / What are you gonna do? / Can you feel the darkness shining through?
“Those lyrics were sort of about my life, or people who are too sensitive for this world, who can’t just accept how horrible and rough the world is, and how it gets to them on a regular basis,” he explains. “A lot of people are able to shout, but some people are more sensitive and can’t, and it’s harder for them to exist on a daily basis.” As he speaks, Martsch’s hero becomes humble and quiet. “Compassion is hard,” he says.
Even the band’s name, “Built to Spill,” recalls a sense of broken humility. “It’s about the way this world works,” Martsch says. “There are going to be disappointments and failures. We’re designed to fail. We’re very limited. But this isn’t a horrible thing; it’s more about the idea of what our potential is and how exaggerated we’ve become. I think we’re built to try to be bigger than ourselves.”
This year Martsch is working on multiple projects. A new Built to Spill record is in production, one that is turning out to sound “a little less prog and little more Petty.” One thing to be sure of is that whatever happens in the studio will be just fine with one of indie rock’s most worthy veterans.
The “indie hero” is not so much an underdog who has found unlikely success in a major market, but rather one seeking out the good that regardless of the difficulties life sends. Martsch admits things have been good for Built to Spill, but he’s aware of the real darkness in the world. To have the power and status to be able to shout violent words, and yet subdue your actions in hopes of something greater—this is the hero of Doug Martsch. He’s not bent on being indie or proving anything to anyone; he’s simply an individual, committed to creating the best music his admittedly limited potential will allow.