BUILT TO SPILL
BTS w/ Brett 2nd to the left
Brett Nelson interview
by Peter Criger
From the ashes of the Treepeople, Idaho's native sons Built to Spill carved out their own path in the world. Leader Doug Martsch backed with various other musicians over the years set out to make his own indie rock and, in the process, became a heralded songwriter and the band became craftsmen of their own idiosyncratic style. Though they've never sold truckloads of records, they became one of the most well-respected indie rock bands of the nineties and beyond. To get the BTS story, we spoke to long-time bassist. Brett Nelson (band member from 1992-1993 & 1997-2015) for his perspective.
PSF: How did you get interested in playing music?
BN: My dad played guitar and my mom played piano and I grew up seven miles out of Twin Falls, ID so there wasn't much to do. So, I taught myself to play the piano. Later when I met Doug Martsch, he had a guitar that was his brother Marty's and my brother Scott had a bass so it just kinda worked that we played those instruments in our first band, Farm Days, in high school. So, long story short, I guess boredom and a love of music.
PSF: Tell me a bit about Butterfly Train.
BN: Butterfly Train began when I couldn't find a guitarist in Boise to start a band so I found another bassist (Forrest Orr) and a drummer (Tim Harris) thinking "who needs a guitar anyway." After our first record, Building Distrust from Trust, Orr quit so I decided to make the second record from some 4 track demos that had guitar too. Harris disliked the new direction and quit also, so the second record Distorted,Retarded,Peculiar had two basses and two guitars which was a move in a more pop direction for me.
PSF: How did you come to join BTS?
BN: Doug asked me to play on There's Nothing Wrong with Love (1994) in the studio which also included a tour to support its release. It was a one-off kinda thing, nothing permanent. About a year or so went by and he asked if I wanted to play on Perfect from Now On (1997), this also was supposed to be just play on the record and be done, but it ended up being 18 years.
PSF: What was the chemistry like within the band?
BN: Doug, Scott (Plouf) and I clicked great musically and we all got along better than most bands probably do or did.
PSF: How did it feel signing with Warner Bros.?
BN: I wasn't in BTS until after Doug signed with WBR. But having money to make records where we wanted and a booking agent was great.
PSF: Was there a lot of frustration when it came to Perfect from Now On?
BN: Doug had previously recorded PFNO without Scott and I, but didn't like the end result. So, it was pretty easy for me and Scott to come in- we had a loose structure to build off of and copies of the previous versions to know the feel of the songs that Doug wanted. So, I think for Doug, there was some frustration, but not much for us.
PSF: Did the band feel any pressure when it came to making Keep It like a Secret (1999)?
BN: Being the second record for WBR, you'd think there would be pressure, but that record pretty much wrote itself. It just came out of jams we did and ended being our best record in my opinion.
PSF: What was recording a BTS album usually like?
BN: Every record was different. but for the most part, recording was easy from what I recall. There's always an excitement I feel to record and then I remember how drawn out and boring the process actually is. Scott and I usually got the rhythm parts out in about a week and Doug would spend a long-time tweaking guitar, vocals and the extra stuff.
PSF: What was success like and how did everyone react to it?
BN: Nothing really changed. Everyone was exactly the same as before we just made more money on tour.
PSF: How did Jim Roth come to join the band?
BN: Jim's band The Delusions had toured with BTS a bit and he just ended up playing on some songs with us live during that time and eventually played on all the songs live so it just made since that he'd be a member 'cuz he pretty much was for a couple of years.
PSF: What was the impetus behind the Electronic Anthology Project?
BN: I'm a huge New Wave fan and always thought it'd be cool to make New Wave versions of a band's music that wasn't that genre. I spoke to Doug about the idea and he thought it sounded fun, doing BTS seemed like a great starting point since I knew the songs. So, I recorded all new versions of the songs with the rule of only being able to use synthesizers and a drum machine and had Doug re-sing all the vocals. We toured with Dinosaur Jr. at some point after that and played some of the EAP/BTS to J and he thought it was kinda cool so I asked him if he'd be into it and he was so we did EAP/DJR. The last project was a 7" EAP with Ben Gibbard for Death Cab for Cutie; it didn't really do much and since EAP was self-funded, it kinda came to an end after that.
PSF: What ultimately caused your departure from BTS?
BN: I was just burnt out in every way and decided to focus more on studio stuff like mixing other bands & writing/recording music in my studio that only I'd ever hear.
PSF: Do you and Doug keep in touch at all these days?
BN: Yeah. Doug and I run into each other every now and then and it's always big hugs and catching up.
PSF: Tell me a bit about Sick Wish.
BN: After quitting BTS, my son Jonah who plays drums kept telling me we should start a band and I thought that'd be weird 'cuz I'm old enough to be your Dad 'cuz I am. But we eventually jammed with some friends and it all came together so effortlessly that it was meant to be I guess. Playing in SW with Jonah has brought back a love of music and playing live again. I remember having the same excitement, energy and drive that he has I just lost it somewhere along the way of playing bigger shows, record label stuff and taking shit so seriously for so long. So now, I'm 49 years old playing in a band with 3 twenty-one-year olds. Weird but a blast.
PSF: What are you up to when not pursuing music?
BN: I'm all about staying at home. Family, yard work and such.
PSF: What are your thoughts on the impact of alternative rock in the '90's?
BN: Honestly I'm not a huge fan of '90s music but I do believe it had a big impact on changing the landscape of music. Every new musical sound is built off of people's musical influences and how they interpret those influences which for the most part is a variation on what they "think" it sounded like, but it usually sounds different. I can love a band and say I wanna sound like that and try to do it but there are only certain parts that come through 'cuz there are other influences that also come through. A big mixture of everything one loves musically. That made sense in my head but not so sure it made any sense.
PSF: What do you hope yours and BTS' legacy will be?
BN: That we were nice people who made good music. Nothing worse than meeting a person you idolize and they're an asshole.
Brett once again 2nd to the left
Also see Peter Crigler's blog
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