In 2002, Built To Spill frontman, Doug Martsch, released his only solo album to little fanfare. With material originally intended for The Halo Benders — his collaboration with K Records founder, Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Soundsystem) — and a desire to teach himself slide guitar and experiment with different tuning, Now You Know was a stripped down (mostly) acoustic affair that delved into territories of delta blues and folk, abandoning the expansive overdub-heavy sonic landscapes that have become standard in the studio work with his full band. Self recorded at home and shelved for 2 years before its eventual release, I’m not sure what if anything Doug expected for the project other than a simple venture toward a slightly different direction. At it’s core, it wasn’t too far of a jaunt away from what makes anything else that the indie rock pioneer does work so well. His incredibly solid song craft and lyricism remained, and his trademark vocal delivery definitely wasn’t going anywhere. His impressive guitar work also continued to shine, but in a manner where the acoustic approach, with its inclusion of finger-picking and slide work, provided a more raw presentation for the listener to witness the bones of what makes Martsch such a brilliant and enduring figure. And the album itself has endured for so many of us in a way that I assume that even Doug likely never expected.
If you look back at particular reviews surrounding its release, you’ll find select reviewers criticizing Martsch for both drifting away from a sound that works, as well as for not wandering far enough; quite often, simultaneously. They recognize the project as an opportunity for him to toy with new ideas and offer up something more straightforward, simple, and honest without the burden of needing to present the next big statement with his primary project, while still nitpicking the fact that he wasn’t attempting to make some big new statement. For the endless number of us who appreciated the album for what it was, it signified a beautiful glimpse into the heart of one of the most under recognized musical figures of his generation; a man who has pumped out a tremendous catalog that continues to influence so many — a number of which have gone on to seek and achieve more widespread visibility — while continuing to operate modestly, remaining accessible to his fanbase, and, last I remember, still loading his own gear. Doug offers the same thing in person and he does on record, a genuine character with a refreshing amount of depth and sincerity. Now You Know is still a lesser known album, but it’s also one that has stood the test of time.
I was fortunate enough to catch Martsch on 3 separate occasions during his brief original solo tour(s) supporting the effort. Prior to that, he had begun working a couple of Now You Know album tracks into the end of Built To Spill concerts, in preparation, but this was a completely different context with incredibly intimate shows in much smaller venues. I remember catching one of the very first performances that he did this way, which took place at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, and how immediately clear it was that Doug was just as unfamiliar with operating in that format as we were with him in it. Along with the new cuts and a couple of covers, like “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” by The Smiths, he was adapting Built To Spill material to work in this acoustic format. In doing so, welcomed selections like “To Hurt A Fly,” from Perfect For Now On, would have its swirling instrumental breakout, that wouldn’t translate quite as well, removed from the tail end of it. And the fact that not everything translates over only emphasized what a uniquely different experience we were being treated to, and what a privilege it was to witness a alternate angle and dimension to Martsch and what he does. When he finished and the crowd kept the pressure on, he responded apologetically that he didn’t have anything left, before agreeing to attempt the Clash‘s “Straight To Hell.” The 2 solo shows that I saw from him later on were slightly more flushed out, yet similar, and over the last 15 years, I’ve often wished that I might have an opportunity to catch him in that setup again.
My biggest disappointment with not being able to make it back to Treefort Festival in Boise this year was that I would be missing Doug finally doing a rare solo set. Fortunately, I still live in the Northwest, so on top of being spoiled by the fact that Built To Spill will be both backing and opening for Daniel Johnston on the NW leg of his upcoming “final tour,” Martsch also announced a pair of solo dates in Portland and Seattle with 2 performance each night — early shows were added to each after the first ones sold out. The amazing thing is that, all of these years later, the venues have actually gotten even smaller and more intimate, with him scheduled at the aptly titled Old Church in PDX, and the similar Fremont Abbey Arts Center in Seattle. Adding to the excitement was Sam Coomes (Quasi, Heat Miser, Blues Goblin, Pink Mountain), who produced the last Built To Spill album and has appeared on several others, opening the shows with a truly terrific solo piano set of his own.
A lot has changed for Doug and Built To Spill over the last handful of years; something that has bred a certain level of uncertainty among many within their fanbase. I believe that it was their 2009 effort, There Is No Enemy, that, due to a misinterpretation, was surrounded by a widely circulated rumor that it would be the final album for the group. Then, in 2012, the longtime rhythm section of Brett Nelson (bass) and Scott Plouf (drums) quit, but were quickly replaced by Jason Albertini and Steve Gere, respectively. It took six years for the followup, Untethered Moon to hit shelves in 2015 and, within that time, a completely different album was recorded and ultimately scrapped. Guitarists, Brett Netson and Jim Roth were both absent from Untethered Moon and the promotional images began to reflect that, with the band being presented simply as a trio of Martsch and his two latest band members, Albertini, and Gere. But while we did catch them performing as a 3-piece, we later also saw them as a full band again, so they appear to be alternating fluidly between the formations, at this point. Just last month, they broke ties with Warner Bros, after a 22 year working relationship, but they also created a brand new website and booked those Daniel Johnston shows. Sometimes, it’s hard to read where they might be headed. Fortunately, we’ve gotten one of the most promising signs that one could hope for that Built To Spill is still alive and breathing in that Doug has been performing new material.
The show at the Abbey was just as good as we could have expected. Doug played songs like “Window,” “Offer,” “Dream,” and “Heart (Things Never Shared)” from Now You Know, and it was really great to hear those tunes again. He also pulled liberally from his pre-Now You Know catalog, doing tracks like “Car” and “Fling” [There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, 1994], “When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough” [Built To Spill Caustic Resin EP, 1995], “Made Up Dreams,” and “Kicked It in the Sun,” [Perfect From Now On, 1996], “Else” [Keep It Like A Secret, 1998], and “The Weather” [Ancient Melodies Of The Future, 2001]. During the encore, he brought out his friend Maggie Morris from the Portland band, Sunbathe, for a cover of Wye Oak‘s “Civilian,” but beyond that, there were also a pair of other songs that I was completely unfamiliar with. At first, I wasn’t sure if these were songs that I just simply didn’t know, or maybe even covers, but at this point, it’s fairly evident that these are new Martsch-written tunes. Not only that, but they’re both pretty good and, if there’s more stuff like this on the way, I’m excited about the prospect of hearing it.
Another thing that I had absolutely no awareness of was that my friend John had been recording audio of the show on the sly, and came away with recordings of both of the new songs. I didn’t discover this until he uploaded them to youtube and, from there, I’ve tried to see if there was anything further that I could dig up about them.
The first “unknown” track that was captured comes in right after “Fling” at around the 2:08 mark in the video below, and it seems to be confusing most people online who have heard it. With little information, it appears that these Seattle and Portland shows really may have marked its debut. I was hoping that I could locate the name for this one, so I could stop referring to it as, “that new song that sounds like a cross between Neil Young and Oasis,” but no such luck. Plus, that’s on me, I guess, since I very easily could have just snapped a photo of the setlist, from where we were seating up front, but it honestly never crossed my mind until much later. My guess is that it’s either called something like “Fool’s Gold” or, possibly, “Just A Dream,” although Doug does already have quite a few songs with “dream” in the title, if not the lyrics. Check it out below and let us know if you have the inside scoop on any additional details or info.
I found a video of Doug‘s full Treefort Fest set from March on Youtube, and, although the above track wasn’t included, this following song was. In fact, it’s believed to have premiered there. From what I’m gathering, this is a song that he’s gone on to perform with the Built To Spill trio, at least during Riot Fest Chicago, as well as last month, at Music Tastes Good fest. and when they opened for Modest Mouse in Bend Oregon. At this point, the consensus is that the title for this song is “Rock Steady” and, based on the live recordings I’ve heard of it performed by the band, it sounds as if they are still working out the kinks a bit. But that’s the nice thing with the 3-piece lineup, that they have more room to work these things out live than they might with 3 guitar wizards going off at once and weaving throughout each other.
One more thing worth noting is that there has been another song floating around since last year that, apparently, originated from the original Untethered Moon sessions. That one is believed to be titled “Alright.” If they’ve exhumed that live from those sessions, I have to wonder if it will wind up on any future recordings. If it’s going to be combined with the two songs above for a new album, then we might have something worth waiting for. It’s definitely a promising start.