The Magnificent ’90s: Doug Martsch

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Doug Martsch

In this weekly series, I take a closer look at some of the underappreciated guitar music from the lost decade of rock.
If J Mascis was the alternative guitar hero of the ‘80s, Doug Martsch was the alternative guitar hero of the ‘90s. The Built to Spill frontman was rivaled only by Stephen Malkmus in his achievements and popularity on the indie rock circuit.

Doug Martsch
Doug Martsch

And, really, he couldn’t have come at a better time. While Kurt Cobain and Kevin Shields were making extraordinary advances in guitar music, rock as we know it was beginning to change – even vanish. The raw simplicity of lo-fi and punk made traditional rock conventions seem antique. On top of that, the era of the pop star had begun, and electronic dance music gained further exposure and momentum.

In this context, a guy like Doug Martsch seems like a fairytale character. His nimble, energetic solos thrilled ‘90s audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Zep or Sabbath. And while Martsch isn’t necessarily influenced by Iommi or Page, he certainly shares some of their skill and artistry.

What Martsch really excelled at was fitting the idea of the guitar virtuoso into the mold of ‘90s indie rock. Built to Spill’s music was just as quirky as that of Beck, The Mountain Goats or any of the underground stars of the time. But instead of deadpan lyrics and lo-fi production, Built to Spill’s quirkiness came from Martsch’s impressive guitar work. Off-kilter chromaticism and bizarre, meandering melodies were his staples, anchored in a strong rhythmic center. At the time, there was nothing else like it.

Perhaps most remarkable, though, is how catchy Martsch’s intricate experimentation is. I dare you to listen to “Center of the Universe” once and not have that wonky opening riff stuck in your head for days. And on that same album, Keep It Like a Secret, you can hear the opposite end of Martsch’s artistry in “Broken Chairs”: an elegant closer filled with exquisitely dirty guitar interplay.

And Keep It Like a Secret ain’t a fluke. All that Doug Martsch touches glitters with creative gold. If you don’t believe me, check out Built to Spill’s ongoing catalog, or Martsch’s particularly overlooked work with Treepeople and The Halo Benders. It seems absurd considering what the genre has become, but it’s true: once upon a time, there was an indie rock guitarist who could actually play.

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Adam Jazairi

Adam Jazairi is a writer, art historian, director, and literary critic, and I guess he sorta likes guitars, too. He has become a shameless gearhead with an incurable case of GAS (that’s “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” for those of you who have been fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this horrible illness). His heart has room for three true loves: his Tele, his JC-120, and his pedalboard.

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