Siren Fest Headliner Gets in the Zone

Laura Kusnyer

Every summer since 2001, the Siren Music Festival has brought rock acts like Modest Mouse, the Shins, TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the kitschy shores of Coney Island. This year’s headliners, Built to Spill, have been putting out guitar-heavy, lyrically compelling albums since 1993. Siren plus Built to Spill, then, equals a match made in indie-rock heaven, right? Doug Martsch, Built to Spill’s 39-year-old front man, isn’t all that excited about it. As the band preps for a fall release of their upcoming album There is No Enemy, Martsch is more interested in playing basketball than getting hip to the music scene (which, if you’ve read interviews with Martsch before, won’t come as a surprise). Talking from his Idaho home, he mapped out his rock dream team ("We’ll be an old-guy team!") and even accepted our challenge to an intrepid game of one-on-one. In conclusion, we were correct about the Siren–Built to Spill pairing all along: a free music festival whose star would rather be shooting hoops than checking out the latest acts—what could be more indie than that?

Have you been to Siren Fest before? Doug Martsch: [Silence]

You’ve heard of the Siren Music Festival, no? DM: [Pause] Yeah, it’s the one in San Francisco, right?

No, it’s in Coney Island. DM: Oh, shoot, sorry. We have a bunch of festivals this summer. I’ve barely paid attention. I’m not a festivalgoer at all.

Why’s that? DM: I live over here in Idaho. I don’t travel at all, except for touring. I’m really a homebody, not a big social person. I mean, I love music, but not a lot of music speaks to me. I’m not out searching for music or trying to keep up on it at all. I haven’t done that since I was 20 years old. Right now I DJ a bunch. There’s a local bar here, and every month or so I go down there and just play whatever I like. I love reggae and old soul music.

Siren is known for booking lauded indie acts. Does Built to Spill fit that description? DM: That sort of stuff I don’t ever really think about. I stumbled into making a living and succeeding in the music business. I had no intention of it, and I never tried to understand it. There are some people who think we’re indie legends and other people who’ve never heard of us. Some people think we’re super-overrated; some people think we’re underrated. It’s all just personal opinions. It’s not very interesting to me.

Would you be interested in checking out other bands playing Siren this year, like the Raveonettes or Spank Rock? DM: I don’t know. I’m kind of a hard sell. Maybe I’ll see some bands I like, or maybe I’ll just sit in the tent all day.

Do you have a favorite NYC-based band? DM: Is MGMT from New York? I’ll take them. They’re pretty good. Actually, I’m not totally convinced of MGMT, but I like them. You know, my favorite one is actually the Feelies. The Feelies are my favorite New York band. Or Sonic Youth. [Ed. note: The Feelies are actually from Haledon, NJ.]

Can you tell us a little bit about the new album? DM: It’s a diverse record—a pretty weird bunch of songs, and I don’t know if they really go together. There’s a few kind of slow ones, some poppy ones, and there’s a punk-rock one. It’s our first Pro Tools record—recorded on a computer. I’m a little bit weirded out by that. I’m still a little bit leery of the sound quality of recording digitally, but I guess everyone’s doing it. We’re trying to maintain the sound from our last record, trying to make it sound kind of live-ish, like people playing in a room together. I hope it turns out good.

Built to Spill plays a lot of covers at live shows. Do you cover songs you like, or songs you want to make fun of? DM: A little bit of both. There isn’t a science to it at all, and a lot of times it’s on a whim. We covered the M.I.A. song [“Paper Planes”] when we were in Europe. Our bus driver was listening to a pop radio station, which was just horrible song after horrible song. Then one day that song came on, and I was like, "Wow, this one’s actually really good." And of course I recognized the Clash sample [from “Straight to Hell”], which made me kind of bummed at first—I was like, "They’re gonna slaughter this song now." But then I just fell in love with it and started playing it in sound check. I spent a couple of days with headphones on, memorizing the lyrics.

If you could put together your own basketball dream team of indie rockers, who would the other four players be? DM: I’ve played basketball with Stephen Malkmus [of Pavement], and he’s real good, so I’d take him. He’s a real good shooter. He is a little old, though. And I’ll take Thurston Moore [of Sonic Youth], ‘cause he’s tall…but he’s old too. We’ll be an old-guy team! I kind of think Kirk Kirkwood [of the Meat Puppets] might be good at basketball—he seems pretty athletic, plus he’s kind of tall and burly in a way.

Any ladies on your team? DM: Yeah, I’ll take a lady. I need a feisty point guard or something. Maybe M.I.A.—she’s probably a pretty good ballplayer.

I know you’re not a big festivalgoer, but what five things would you bring to a hot summer festival like Siren? DM: Shoot, I don’t know. Do they have basketball hoops there?

There has to be one somewhere in Coney Island. DM: All right, then I’d bring a basketball and two basketball shoes. That’s three things.

Hold up! The pair only counts as one. DM: Okay, okay. I’d bring money so I could buy some food and a hat and sunglasses. I have a horrible hat that I wear—one of those brimmed tourist-type hats. I hate it. I never liked wearing hats at all, but if I don’t wear it, my bald head gets burned. And then I had some eye trouble a few years ago, so I have to wear sunglasses all the time.

Do you have to wear those sports goggles when you play basketball? DM: Yup. Exactly.

We should shoot hoops when you come in for the festival. DM: Yeah! You got somewhere to do it?