Track-by-Track: Built to Spill on “Untethered Moon” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Track-by-Track: Built to Spill on “Untethered Moon”

Doug Martsch Discusses the New Record and the Challenges With Writing Lyrics

Apr 22, 2015 Built to Spill Bookmark and Share

If you hadn’t heard anything new from Built to Spill in the last 20 years and then picked up their eighth LP Untethered Moon, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they have not aged a day. Untethered Moon is full of the same charming guitarheavy ‘90s rock that flooded their early altrock staples like Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret. Even lead singer and guitarist Doug Martsch’s sweetly pitched vocals sound undisturbed by the passing of time or aging.

When I bring up the possibility that Built to Spill is caught in a perpetual time loop of good old—fashioned rock and roll, Martsch says he has never put much thought into it. But it makes perfect sense.

“I think that maybe a lot of people try to mature as artists, and I’m not interested in that,” he says. “A lot of people my age, even much younger, kind of move on from rock and roll and become singer/songwriters. And I just do not want to do that stuff. I don’t like acoustic guitars. I mean, I write songs on my acoustic, I like it here or there. But I don’t feel comfortable myself making that kind of music. Or listening to it very much. I still like the music I liked as a teenager. I like punk rock, and post-punk, or whatever that kind of stuff is called. I want to keep making that kind of music. I find adult music kind of boring. I don’t know.”

Martsch says he’s much more interested in the rough, DIY aesthetic that drives younger artists. “Whenever I hear some band that has a cool song that’s recorded kind of crappy, that always sounds so much cooler to me than a band who’s really got their shit together and records and makes it sound slick and makes sure they don’t have any mistakes in it. That’s just not interesting to me.”

For some time, Martsch felt the pressure of recording as a professional, signed band raised expectations to put out well—polished, high production standard records. But with Untethered Moon, he consciously rid himself of such expectations and returned to the music that inspires him. “Being on Warner Bros., there was a certain expectation of professionalism or quality to what we do. I think that’s kind of silly. It’s not really true. It’s like, all the fucked up things about music is what makes it great. When someone plays a wrong note, I don’t cringe as much as I love it. I wait for that moment, and it’s great when that horrible thing happens. We kind of made a conscious effort to make this record a little bit more of a throwback to the kind of music we’d actually listen to.”

With that, Martsch walked us through Untethered Moon, track—by—track, while discussing his lyrical inspirations and the struggle with finding something to say through music.

“All Our Songs”

“I kind of like the music to speak for itself, unless I’m in an interview and have to say something. In my mind, it’s just talking about the music you grew up with, in some way or another. Just how meaningful and important certain songs are. Songs that sound like they’re just part of nature or something, they’re so ingrained in you.”

“Living Zoo”

“Lyrically, the ‘Living Zoo’ part was written by my wife. She’s written lyrics for a lot of our songs over the years. I think that might be all she did for this record. The basic ideas for the song [were] ‘being a lion, being a human, too, living in a cage.’ Her lyrics.”

“On the Way”

“All our songs take a long time to write the lyrics because they’re the last thing we do and they’re not really what I gravitate toward. They’re almost a necessary evil for me, because I don’t want to make instrumental music, and I don’t want the words to be bad so I have to be careful with them. But I also do not have a gift for writing the words, so it takes me forever and it’s not very fun.

“But this song, I wrote several different versions of lyrics and it never really grabbed me. Some stuff you can sort of sing whatever and it doesn’t have to have any kind of a theme. But certain melodies, or something about a song make it so the words become more important. Like, I think on ‘All Our Songs,’ the words kind of mesh into the music a little more. Whereas ‘On the Way,’ the melody was so upfront and focused, the words couldn’t be too obscure. I tried to tell a little bit of a story, keeping it to one theme instead of just lines. I don’t know why I came up with the Mars thing. Space stuff is always rad.

“Some people really know how to make [the music and lyrics] feed off each other better than I do. Some people work with words rhythmically in ways I can’t seem to wrap my brain around. It’s something I’m always trying to do. I do this thing—and I know a lot of other songwriters who do too—where they’ll just sing whatever comes to their mind just to get something out that has the right melody and the right meter and stuff. Then they go back and try to figure out what the actual words should be. So, it’s something I’m always trying to figure out how to do. Sometimes I do a better job than others.”

“Some Other Song”

“That’s the last song written for the record. To me, it’s just a pretty song. I tried to make it like a vague sort of sad love song. I don’t really know.”

“Never Be the Same”

“There’s definitely a collection [of themes on this record]. There are some things that are repeated. A couple things on purpose, some things not so much. Like, ‘On the Way’ says ‘untethered moon,’ and the album title already existed long before we knew the words to that song. Then the song was put together and that was just thrown in at the end like an afterthought, just to tie things together. I try to do that a little bit.

“I have nothing consciously that I really care to offer or share with the world, you know? I don’t have anything to say, really. But being a human being, I do have things to say. I’m just not really aware of them or too interested in saying them. But, you know, subconsciously things come out. I play on words here and there. It’s definitely important that the lyrics do something, but what they’re doing, sometimes I’m not really sure at all.

“I think that just by being a person I have things to say regardless of whether or not I care whether anyone hears them. I don’t really listen to instrumental music. I think this band has to have words to the songs. But I’m driven more by the sound of music, I’m driven by the rhythms and the chord progressions and the melodies and stuff. But to have those without any words is boring. So I have to put words to it.”


“It’s like some sort of protein or chemical reaction or something. I don’t even understand it. I kind of just found it. I had some lines about forgetting, so I decided to make it like a scientific sort of explanation of forgetting, but keep it really vague, too. As far as I got was finding out about this protein. I think it’s a protein. It has something to do with memory, but it’s way over my head. I had to look it up on the computer.

“I like the word, and I’m sure it’s CREB, I doubt it’s called ‘creb,’ but I liked the way the word sounded. It kind of cracked me up. It reminded me of a word I might say when I’m trying to make up a song and just singing nonsense. It sounded like one of those words.”

“Another Day”

“‘Another Day’ was something like ‘On the Way’ where I felt like it was really driven by the singing and needed to have good lyrics. I worked on it a ton and wrote a lot of different lyrics, a lot of different verses, and had kind of a seasonal theme for a while. I feel like there’s a few good lines in there and the rest of it is just a bunch of words trying to fill up the area. Hopefully someone will get something out of it, but for me it was a struggle. I feel mediocre about the results.”

“Horizon to Cliff”

“Yeah, I think those words kind of just came right away with the melody. It might have even been something else that just sounded too much like another song, but I can’t remember what it was now. ‘Out on the rise’ doesn’t mean anything and I just tried to make it mean something. Sort of a place where you’re by yourself and things make sense ‘cause nothing else is going on I guess.

“I kind of have a visual image of like a guy up on a cliff. That’s why I called it ‘Horizon to Cliff,’ so that it would put that image in your head of someone looking over the world up from a cliff or something, and not ‘on the rise’ like something getting stronger or whatever.

“That song has the stuff about ‘now it’s summertime, now it’s wintertime,’ seems like there’s a few things like that, things about the seasons. There’s another song that talks about the seasons changing.”


“The first bunch of lyrics to ‘So,’ I have all of the questions in it. Who, what, when, where, why? All those are in the first thing. That was my little clever thing I did. Otherwise, the other lyrics in the song are just trying to make a story out of the first bit, trying to fit all of those questions words into it.”

“When I’m Blind”

“I thought it would be a good closer. Putting it in the middle of the record it might be hard to get through, and I want the record to flow. I thought for a long time that it would be somewhere in the middle. Originally we also thought the record would be a lot longer; there’s about six songs that didn’t make it on. We thought we’d do a double album. But when I was sequencing it, it just seemed too long and started to repeat itself too much. So I originally thought it would be cool to have that song somewhere in the middle there, people would have to get through it. Then I decided to go easy on our listeners and throw it at the end so you can get out of the record if you don’t feel like that song.”

[Note: This article first appeared as a bonus article in the digital edition (for tablets/smart-phones) of Under the Radar’s April/May 2015 issue. This is its debut online.]


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