The sun finally arrived in Seattle. On Friday, May 29th, I was laying on my couch, most likely in my drawls, and staring, head tilted, at my computer screen. Neck sweat was accumulating under my beard; grimy and thick, like it was mixed with fruit pectin. Nothing was happening, and it was the nicest day of the year. I was still procrastinating about filling out my unemployment paper work when I received an email from our writer, Onsen, telling me about a free show at UW, only a few hours later. Generally, I wouldn’t be too interested, however, the headliners were supposed to be Built To Spill.
I was skeptical at first, but it seemed to look legit. The lineup would start with a local band, Smile Brigade, who would be followed by Ra Ra Riot and then, BTS. I sent a text about the show to anyone that I thought would be interested, jumped in the shower, charged up my camera, and headed out with my girlfriend. The bus never showed up and, about 45 minutes later, we finally reached Seattle’s University District. After eating a giant gyro, I headed in to the Upper Playground to talk to the manager, Jen, and let her know about the free event. No one that I informed about the show had heard anything about it and I was beginning to to wonder if this thing was even really going down. If it was, I didn’t have any idea about what the set up would be. There was a possibility that the performance was solely open to UW students and faculty. If that was true, it also meant that there would be a very likely possibility that I was going to be jumping a fence and/or being chased by security. I smoke too much and can’t run as fast, but I was set on getting in. I saw MOS DEF at the UW‘s HUB building 10 years ago and got into to that one by transferring a UV stamp off of some random girls wrist.
We walked, somewhat aimlessly, through the parking lots, across streets, and down sidewalks on the campus. It appeared that most students were walking against us in the opposite direction. Every time we’d hear any sound and get excited, it would turn out to be something like a practicing trumpeter in the music building. Eventually, we came to an open grass field in front of the HUB building. There were a few food stands (fallafel, etc) and a large stage set up at the far end. No fences, no official entrance, no unmanageable crowd, basically…no problems. We had missed the opener and Ra Ra Riot was already on stage. The makeshift venue worked out nicely and provided plenty of room for the crowd, which sat in groups and relaxed on the grass. Back in the 90s, Seattle Center used to hold a weekly summer event known as “Pain in the Grass“. Local bands like Modest Mouse and Mudhoney would come out and perform, while families and music fans sat in front of the stage on picnic blankets and watched for free. With local events like Bumbershoot becoming more and more expensive and corporate, it was nice to have a throw back to the free outdoor events that I used to attend when I was much younger.
Ra Ra Riot
I’ve heard about Ra Ra Riot a lot, but have never actually listened to them or seen them live before. They are a 6-piece group made up of 4 men and 2 women. Overall, they were fairly solid musicians and had a good amount of energy. The great thing about a band this large is their potential for versatility. Member, Alexandra Lawn, moved back and forth between playing an electric cello and an Alesis Micron synthesizer. Wesley Miles, the lead vocalist, would also take turns manning the Micron and, at one point, the bassist (Mathieu Santos) and guitarist (Milo Bonacci) put down their instruments to contribute percussion, while seated on the drum riser. Gabriel Duquette‘s personal Myspace page states that he is “the touring drummer for Ra Ra Riot“. It also says, “Hey! Do you want me to play some drums for you??? I might. Write me a message!” Their original drummer John Pike died in 2007, and Duquette‘s statements make me wonder about what his role and level of investment in the group actually is. Regardless of what they may be, his contributions to the live performance stood out the most to me. Duquette is very adept at his craft and a noticeable component, without overpowering the songs. He adds a necessary punch to the tracks, not unlike Scott Plouf from Built to Spill.
Some folks were singing along to the words and they seemed to have an adequate number of fans in attendance. I, personally, could never see myself buying a release from them or listening to their music on my own, intentionally. They have a very accessible sound, especially in the current pop-heavy musical climate. They sound similar to Death Cab For Cutie, whom they are currently on tour with, and the incorporation of strings from Lawn and Rebecca Zeller (violin) provided brief moments of Sufjan Stevens. Miles‘ vocals often sounded like they were stripped directly from Strangeways Here We Come. One song in particular, “Can You Tell“, prompted me to want to answer with, “Yes, I can tell. You really like the Smiths…a lot.” I wasn’t sure if I should stop him and tell him that I think that I’ve heard that one before. James Mercer has also been blatantly guilty of sampling from the Morrissey vocal well, so it’s not surprising that Ra Ra Riot‘s tunes were also tinged with a bit of The Shins. Like I stated before, they were not a “bad” band. They are proficient musicians and have a high energy performance so, if you are already a fan of their music, you will not be disappointed with their live show. Also, if you are John Hughes and thinking of coming out with a new film in the same vein as your earlier productions, like “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink“, these guys could easily provide that new Simple Minds-style teen love song that you’re looking for. The name Ra Ra Riot makes complete sense to me because they often sounded peppy and amped up like cheerleaders on a pillage. That whole Death Cab pop scene just doesn’t really do shit for me but, the live show in that sunny grass field was actually quite fitting and I didn’t mind it at all.
Built to Spill
After the Ra Ra Riot set, my lady (Kim) had to head to work, ensuring that she would miss yet another Built to Spill performance. We walked towards the closest designated smoking area on campus to have a cigarette before she left. On our way there we walked right past security and behind the stage. Nobody seemed to be stopping anyone. Ra Ra Riot were loading their equipment and BTS guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth were sitting in fold out chairs as we passed by. We smoked, Kim left, and I decided to try to see if I could get into the photo pit. I should have just called the school for a pass but, since I fucked that up, I tried to fast talk my way past a couple of men in yellow security windbreakers. I think that they believed me but, when they told me to go talk to another man with the list, I decided that I didn’t want to deal with the drama. By now, the front was a little more crowded, but I found a fairly good spot up close and got my camera ready as the band members entered the stage.
Built to Spill‘s lineup is 5-strong these days. In the early years, front man Doug Martsch intended to rotate the line up with different backing musicians for each album. For the first few releases he did just that. Caustic Resin‘s Brett Netson played bass on the debut release, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, only to be replaced with the similarly named Brett Nelson on the sophomore release, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. Eventually Martsch settled with a standard lineup, but continued with the 3-piece format and provided additional guitar work for the albums through overdubs. Jim Roth began playing with the group for live shows, helping to alleviate some of the weight from Martsch‘s shoulders, until he became a full-fledged member. A few years back, Netson returned to round out the roster and add a third guitar into the mix.
The crowd was awkward and surprisingly small. Built to Spill regularly sell out a 3-night run at The Showbox every time that they come to Seattle but, now that they were doing a free show, the turnout was astonishingly weak. The poster did state that the show was “for students, faculty, and staff” so, they probably went out of their way to keep it like a secret. It was great for me, though, I could see extremely well and didn’t have to deal with getting drenched with the arm sweat of strangers packed too closely around me. Capt. OG, another one of our writers, showed up on his Redline and was able to roll the bike right up to the front next to me. I had to wonder how many people were even there for Built to Spill and how many showed up just because they had nothing better to do. I saw a good amount of attendees leave after Ra Ra Riot and there were two particular rambling douchebags behind me who wouldn’t shut the fuck up. “Is this the whole band? He’s got a cool guitar. Ha! Ha! He just said ‘thanks’.” Blah blah blah. Something about their friend that’s cooler than them, but not there.. some other inside joke that’s not funny… another reference to how they have no knowledge about the show that they’ve moved up front to view. They were extra loud too, as if some talent scout for dipshits was going to over hear them and give them their big break. “Hey, I really like the cut of you guys’ jibs. Here’s my card; we’re casting for a Fallout Boy crowd and we’re looking for a couple of socially inept goons who communicate through XBOX headsets and that women refuse to interact with romantically. I think you two would be perfect.” A short Asian girl,who was friends with them, turned around and reminded them that, since this was one of her favorite bands and, since she wanted to hear them play, they didn’t have to stay and could leave at any minute if they weren’t enjoying themselves. I was imagining myself cracking them in the face when the music came in and drowned out the squawking. Built to Spill was playing “In Your Mind” from Ancient Melodies of the Future [2001 Warner Bros.].
The band sounded great and, although I’ve been going to Built to Spill shows for half of my life, I haven’t caught one in a few years. It was beautiful outside and the same old feeling that I used to have when I was 15 came rushing back. The next song that they played was “Stab” [There’s Nothing Wrong With Love], before going into “Three Years Ago Today” [Ultimate Alternative Wavers]. Doug was utilizing his normal spastic movements, singing with his entire body, and tossing his head back while opening his Muppet-like jaw as if it were resting on a felt hinge. The present triple-guitar incarnation is pleasantly cohesive, most likely due to its organic growth. Although Netson wasn’t considered an official member again until years after Ultimate Alternative Wavers, he has still appeared on many of the releases. I had never really focused too intently on the specific parts played by each individual member, but Netson‘s warbling guitar work meshes perfectly. It’s as if Martsch was playing them himself. The group has sacrificed nothing through its growth. If anything, the sound has only been enhanced. That being said, this show did not exactly go off without a hitch.
My first sign that something might go awry came before any music had even began. Doug had taken a moment with Brett Nelson to reteach him a bassline to one of their songs. After one song in the performance, Nelson even made a comment, away from the mic, about how rough they had done. After “Three years Ago Today“, the next song that came in the set-list was “You Were Right” [Keep it Like a Secret], in which Martsch noticeably fumbled with the lyrics repeatedly. BTS then played “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain” by The Halo Benders, Martsch‘s side-project with K-Records founder Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, etc). By now they had already played 5 different tracks and not one of them was from the same album. Next came “Else” and then “Conventional Wisdom” from You in Reverse. That one was a fucking disaster. If you know this song, then you probably know that there is a really strange part through out it where it changes up and sounds almost as if the bottom is dropping out. That effect stretched a little too long at points and the transition was none too smooth. Martsch continuously tried to retune his guitar in the middle of it. I actually expected them to stop a few times at the beginning and start over, but they trucked through it. The lyrics weren’t working out so the singer stopped trying . Eventually, they just went into the extensive ending jam instead.
For the next song they went back to basics and played “Big Dipper“. This one came through pretty solid. It was still hot as fuck out and someone brought them some towels to wipe the sweat off. Martsch had been wearing sunglasses and a black cap to block out the sun and it made him look like a sniper. The young Asian girl, who helped quiet her friends earlier, was still standing next to me. I was surprised to hear her say, “He’s so sweaty! I wanna fuck the shit out of him!” in a gruff voice. My friend Amanda showed up with her daughter and I finally ran into Onsen by the end of the show, as well.
The last few songs included “Sidewalk“, “Car“, and “Goin’ Against Your Mind“. They finished the show off with an extended pedal-heavy version of “Carry the Zero“. A few tours back, BTS were ending many of their shows with a crazy 2o minute jammed-out dub version of Neil Young‘s clasic “Cortez the Killer“. This shows finale wasn’t as intense or drawn out but it was still packed with effects, including what sounded like a reverse delay. The show was over and the crowd dispersed. Although the performance was wrought with mistakes, I still really enjoyed myself. Even when Built to Spill fucks up, they still sound better than most bands and it was great to see the show with old friends and a limited crowd. I went to some of my first Built to Spill shows ever with Amanda and I’ve been seeing them since back when they still had openers like Heatmiser, Elliot Smith and Sam Coomes‘ (Quasi) old band.
I’ve met and spoken with Doug Martsch countless times over the last decade and a half. He has always been extremely nice and beyond accommodating with his time. The band was handing down set lists and signing posters for the few honest fans and stragglers that were left behind. They did all of this in the middle of breaking down their set. Amanda wanted to say hi to him and get one of the posters signed for her daughter but, since we’ve both met him in the past and know that he would have been completely gracious about it, we still didn’t want to bother him. It was clear that he was busy. We were about to leave but Onsen asked us to wait for him and said that he would be right back. As we were waiting, Martsch stepped past the security who had, apparently, decided to step up their game. I walked over to the songwriter while he was signing some posters for a waiting fan. He was using a pencil, so I asked the guy if he wanted to use the Sharpie that I had in my camera bag. “No thanks. Pencil lasts longer. Markers fade.” “Oh…really?” I asked. “Oh wait, that’s right. Pencils are forever. Isn’t that what they say?” He ignored me but Martsch chuckled. Still signing the posters he responded with, “They’ll start saying it now.”
Once that was done, he signed a poster for Amanda‘s daughter Stella, who is only 1 1/2 years old, and posed for a picture with her. Amanda told him how Stella had a look of surprise throughout the show as if to say, “How does he know these songs? These are our car songs.” Doug laughed and added, “And he’s playing them all wrong.”
Like I stated before, I’ve met him quite a few times. The two of us even sat together and had a conversation on a sidewalk on 5th St. in Olympia once, but that was a long time ago. I’ve mentioned venues to him that he’s played at and he didn’t even remember them so, I assumed that there was a huge chance that he wouldn’t remember me, throughout all of the places he’s been and all of the people that he’s met. While he was signing the poster, Amanda casually mentioned how I used to randomly give him Homies figurines way back in the day and I could see a light go on in his head. “Oh yeah! What was your name again?” I reminded him about the time that he gave me his phone number in the green room at the Crystal Ballroom, about 5 or 6 years ago, but that I wasn’t sure if it was still the right one. “It probably is. Not much changes.” I told him that I still wanted to do an interview, but that I didn’t have a method that I trusted for recording cell phone conversations yet. He wrote down his email for me but warned that his typing skills aren’t very good and, consequently, his answers were probably going to have to be fairly short. I had heard that he would be “DJ-ing” a show at a small local bar the following day, so I asked him about it. It was true but he didn’t seem to know many details himself. In fact, he asked me where it was located. He explained, “I’m not really DJ-ing” and made table scratching movements with his hands. “I’m just playing some songs.” I told him that I would plan on going anyway and we parted ways.
Doug Martsch’s “DJ” Show
The event was held at a place called SOLO in Queen Anne and was scheduled to run from 9pm until one in the morning. It was a small but swanky joint. Not too swanky, but nice and clean. It had a hip little vintage vibe to it. Not many people were there when my girlfriend and I arrived. Martsch was quietly sitting in the back on a couch near the bar. The area that he was located in was like a small living room. There was a coffee table and two other couches squaring it off. Other people were seated around him and he had a little digital set up next to him on a table. It was just as he had told me, he was just “playing some songs“. No fancy transformer or chirp scratches, beat juggling, or mixes, but good music nonetheless.
It’s widely known that Doug Martsch is a huge fan of reggae music and there was a lot of it being played that night. He stuck to a lot of old school sultrier material. Over the course of the night, he played “Simmer Down” and “Corner Stone” by The Wailers, as well as Desmond Dekker‘s “oo7 (Shanty Town)”. The playlist wasn’t solely Reggae-influenced, however, as a variety of other genres were interspersed throughout. I heard stuff that night by musicians that ranged from Curtis Mayfield to Ice Cube. There were songs like “Angie” (Rolling Stones), KC and the Sunshine Band‘s “Please Don’t Go“, and, at one point, he even played “Jive Talking” (The Bee Gees) before going into a The Meters‘ “Sissy Strut“.
It was a weird night because there was no attention put on Martsch or any advertisement in the bar about him being there at all. If you weren’t already aware that he was scheduled to be there and play this music, he could have easily been overlooked. In fact, I would bet that he was by most of the patrons that night. It, ultimately, got a lot busier but, most of the people just looked like regulars and there was even a mother ordering food and drinks with her daughters. I figured that, since I was already there and liked the bar, I might as well stay for a while and drink some IPAs. My friend Brad showed up and sat with us on a couch. We simply hung out and talked. It was just a night at a bar but it was a night at a really relaxed and pretty cool bar with a great juke box. I can’t remember the last time that I went out for a drink and wasn’t bombarded with a bunch of noise and terrible music blasting, so this was nice. I mentioned to Brad how, the last time that I tried to play a song on a juke box, I ate all of my food, drank a few beers and left two hours later without ever even hearing it. That song was “Gabrielle” by WEEN and, coincidentally, Martsch actually played it later that night. He also played their song “Baby Bitch” and “Mongoloid” by DEVO. Before we knew it, we had stayed for the whole night and were leaving to the staff screaming “Last Call“.
Later on, I began to wonder why Doug Martsch was even in town at all. None of his bandmates were at SOLO that night, he pretty much kept to himself, and there wasn’t much of a production behind the “event”. The show at UW appeared to be, somewhat, thrown together and Built to Spill isn’t even currently on tour. “Perhaps, he’s in town for some other project“, I thought. I decided to send him an email and find out. I figured that, if he was going to be around for a while, we may be able to set something up in person. It wouldn’t necessarily provide me with as much research time as I would normally prefer for interviews, but it would remedy the possible email/phone issues. I also proposed doing the interview via SKYPE, since that might work out best. Two days later I received the following response:
Whether he’s referring to the new Built to Spill album or the rumored Halo Benders release, I don’t know. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that it will be at the top of my list of questions to ask when this interview finally goes down.
[If you have any questions that you would like to us to ask Doug, please follow this link to leave them in our SOAPBOX forum.]