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Brett Netson interview: Built To Spill + Caustic Resin guitarist speaks

Mark Dale spoke with Built To Spill and Caustic Resin's Brett Netson about the formers upcoming tour dates, all of his band projects, his hometown and more.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 23rd Nov 2015

Image: Built To Spill (Credit: Steven Gere)

Formed in 1992, Built To Spill are one of America's premier indie rock bands. Such is their popularity and consistency, the band are technically no longer an indie rock act as they are signed with Warner Brothers.

Their first two albums for Warners, Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret, are bonafide American rock classics and would sit proudly at home alongside any collector's favourite Pavement or Dinosaur Jr LP.

Often marked by walls of electric guitar - their road set up has over recent years featured three guitarists - and by the distinct vocals of band leader Doug Martsch, Built To Spill have, through constant and extensive touring, earned a much lauded reputation as a live act. April 2015 saw them release their eighth album Untethered Moon.

Setting out, chief songwriter Doug Martsch intended the band to feature a different line up on every album, but his admiration for and friendship with several core members made him rethink that initial strategy.

In the mid 1990s drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson became permanent band members and maintained those roles until Steve Gere and Jason Albertini replaced their respective positions in 2013. Jim Roth joined as a full time member on guitar in 2004.

The other longest standing member of Built To Spill is their jaw dropping guitar talent Brett Netson. Featured on their 1993 debut, plus 1997's defining Perfect From Now On and many tours and albums throughout the band's existence, Netson flitted in and out of the group at times when concentrating on his own band Caustic Resin.

That Doug Martsch reckons Netson to be the best guitarist around is evident by the fact Netson's been a full time member again for the last decade, since Caustic Resin dissolved. 

Caustic Resin's history is often intertwined with Built To Spill's because of this shared member. The groups have recorded collaborative/split releases. But, founded in Boise, Idaho, where both Brett Netson and Doug Martsch live, Caustic Resin were formed first, indeed Martsch frequently cited them as an early influence on Built To Spill.

Displaying a wilder, darker, more hedonistic sound than Built To Spill, Caustic Resin released six metal, space rock and psychedelia influenced albums between 1993 and 2003. Among them is 1998's The Medicine Is All Gone, a hallucinogenic, heavy guitar album almost without equal, a masterpiece of stoner rock.

This lost American classic is due to be re-released soon on double LP, Netson's own Scavenger Cult record label debuting its issue in the vinyl format. That will be Scavenger Cult's second release, as 2015 saw Netson release the first EP by his new band Brett Netson and Snakes on the label.

One reviewing journalist previously and rather unkindly compared Netson in appearance to Charles Manson, whereas we reckon he's more of a cuddly Grizzly Adams type.

Regardless, he's the now long haired and full bearded guitar hero whose wild eyes and even wilder riffs and slide guitar have been bursting forth from Built To Spill's live shows consistently throughout the last decade and, bar taking some time off while his daughter gives birth, will continue to do so as the band continue to tour Untethered Moon.

Mark Dale caught up with Netson prior to Built To Spill's European and Australian tours to talk about all of his band projects, his hometown, some American politics and some general music shit.

Energy Peril Success. What does that mean to you and does that motto also fit your own career as a musician - it's the city of Boise's motto, as you probably know?

It's a fitting motto since we're isolated in this valley. With alpine forest forever to the north and high desert forever to the south, with several rivers surrounding us, there has always been a variety of natural resources. But with less urban infrastructure than most cities, you're up against as many natural elements - I'm thinking mostly about older times here.

This town was founded on people's big ideas about how to make use of the area. Some were true, original geniuses who genuinely wanted to make life better and some just straight up greedy, self serving, opportunistic pricks. There's a third element of fantastic lunatics with a million and one unrealistic ideas, people who weren't hesitant to work day and night on fantastic and hilarious schemes that would never pan out.

"Pan out", that's an old gold mining term I believe This area was founded on logging and gold mining. There ended up being more silver than gold. So the motto fits and I see all of these archetypes in myself.

Around here, you just work and work on a thing until something comes of it, get great insights and comprehension, or you just drop dead thinking you just about got it. That is the way it goes here. If you're lucky. Otherwise you just work for nearly nothing and contently drink yourself to death. Or church. Or both. As is the western culture's passive default modus operandi.

But yes. "Energy, peril, success". The way of entrepreneurial business and the way of the nut job.

In these more enlightened times, what kind of mark do you think the famous 1955 scandal and homosexual witch hunt has left on the city of Boise?

Is it something that is taught or spoken about, in order to address the mistakes of the past? Were you aware of that story when you were growing up and did it affect you politically?

Nah, it was just one of those things that came up from time to time. More of a curiosity from another time. You're talking about the incidents detailed in "Boys of Boise" right?

Yes. At what stage are you up to with the reissue of The Medicine Is All Gone and how different is this issue from its first release?

We're ready to press up the records, trying to decide whether to have a label to co release. We're about to dump a whole bunch of money and credit cards into the furnace.

The Medicine Is All Gone hangs together extremely well as a collection of songs, although there are a couple of songs like Man From Michigan that don't sound sonically the same as the others. Were all the songs written and recorded at the same time and with the same musicians?

It was all recorded with the same guys. Tom Romich (bass) and James Dillion (drums). It was written over a three year period, but recorded all at the same time, in Seattle with Phil Ek. 

The album flows together really well. Was it as easy to record as it is to listen to? Under what conditions were the album recorded?

It wasn't hard to record, but it took a fair amount of time. There was a decent budget for this one. A nineties budget. However, these were dark times. It all coincided with low down drug addiction, jail time, psychosis - rock bottom personal situations and just barely getting through it. Barely. 

You reformed Caustic Resin for the 2014 Treefort Festival in Boise. A lot of your international fans, such as myself, couldn't be there.

Did the show go well enough to make you consider repeating this reunion? Is there any chance the band could play together again in support of the reissue of The Medicine Is All Gone?

It was pretty good in the sense that the spirit of the thing was still intact. Technically speaking? Well, it wasn't totally fucked. There's a volatile chemistry with this group of people. There's equal parts joy and disaster. There's a truth to it. And it can, at times, ruin everything. 

 You played guitar on Earth's 2014 LP Primitive and Deadly. Such a great band and a great sound. Do you have any plans to record more with them or to play any live shows with them?

Yes. I really enjoy the riffs that Dylan writes. And the stark nature of it.

Doug Martsch from Built To Spill has been very vocal in his admiration of Caustic Resin. Caustic Resin have recorded split/collaborative music with Built To Spill.

There was that time Built To Spill performed the Caustic Resin track Cable on Reverb in 1999 (see below). Doug seems like a big fan and a good friend. How important has that been to you over the years?

He's another one of my weirdo friends who happens to have stumbled into a perfect place in the world of music/music business. It's a great thing that he values my input. I'm lucky to have been involved. 

Considering the good relationship you have and both your strengths as writers, is there a reason why you haven't collaborated as much in songwriting over the years as you have in recording and playing live?

I don't think he is that comfortable collaborating. It seems to be a somewhat solitary thing for him, the writing part, that is. We've talked about doing something collaborative for years.

I may have similar tendencies in regards to writing the basic songs. It's kind of an alone-with-a-guitar kind of thing. I'm not sure though. It just never happens. We have collaborated on all the guitar parts on those records. That seemed to work well.

Congratulations on the Brett Netson and Snakes Scavenger Cult EP. It's great! Do you have any concrete plans to record more material with that outfit? Can we expect an album?

Yes, for sure. Steve Gere is the main other person in that group. And he is so busy with Built to Spill these days though. Fukkin Built To Spill, stealing my drummer!! Haha.. 

You didn't play any guitar parts on the studio recordings that formed the Untethered Moon album, yet you're playing many of those songs in Built To Spill live shows.

To what extent are you and Jim sticking to the guitar parts that appear on the album? How much room do you both have to improvise in those and other Built To Spill songs when performing live? 

Built To Spill is all very compartmentalized. There a bit of everything happening, here and there. 

Were you playing in Built To Spill at the time the band performed with Butthole Surfers in Detroit in 2009 and if so what was the show like? 

I was. Man, it was a dream come true to play with them.

Drugs aren't big or clever and I'm sure neither of us would advocate their use. But I do seem to have a lot of great records in my collection that were made by people who use drugs.

When I hear how way out Jimi Hendrix Experience sounds, or how much more revolutionary the records by The Beatles were after they started experimenting, or the alchemy sometimes produced on stage by Grateful Dead, I think maybe these artists couldn't have reached so far in experimenting with sounds had their minds and consciousnesses not been expanded.

What do you think? It's sometimes said that you can't appreciate the value of money unless you've first been poor. Do you think it's equally true to say that you appreciate sobriety more, having experienced the opposite of that? 

It's my belief that all the benefits that artists got from drugs wasn't necessarily the drugs but more the fearlessness and the surrender to the process and the mysterious nature of magic and creativity.

It's a fleeting and scary thing to dive right in to the unknown and surrender all rational thought. I have come to think that it's a mistake to rely on external sources. Some science says that we produce DMT and cannabinoids naturally. Turns out, it's all there if you can tap in!

It seems to take an illogical step into thoughtless surrender. Drugs sure do work, until they don't work. Then you're fucked. I really do value sobriety and go to great efforts and put in time to get more and more able to have psychedelic perceptions without drugs.

I love the challenge. I don't have any interest in making drugs and alcohol a thing to depend on. Life is fucked enough. Having been through it was a valuable life experience for sure but more often than not, people don't come back and create miserable drama and wreckage for those around them.

You have a weekly radio show High, Wild and Free on KRBX Radio Boise. That's presumably a reference to the 1968 Gordon Eastman film and not a state of mind? Or is it both?

It was vaguely a reference to the movie. More so it was a joke Mark Lanegan and the Screaming Trees guys had about the perfect record title. A sentiment that sounds a little absurd, but it's not really. It's how I like to feel.

You and others volunteer your time to Radio Boise. Why is community important or even relevant in an era when the capitalist mindset runs the world?

It's public infrastructure which becomes more and more scarce every day. I, for one, take it very seriously. I HATE what "free market" fundamentalism has done to western culture. If we don't get it together right quick, we will be absolutely helpless and totally screwed.

It's quite rural where you live. Lots of trees. It sounds nice. The percentage of black people there is much smaller than in other cities in the US. And you have hunting there as a popular pastime to some.

Do you think it's easier for people to have a more conservative opinion of guns and gun control in a place that's rural and that has a low percentage of black people than in the middle of major cities where the worse effects of having so many widespread firearms are more frequently felt?

I would hesitate to make gun violence and urban crime specifically a racial issue. Poverty is violence. White people get more chances when they fuck up. But on the note of guns in a place like Idaho, there is simply more of a casual connection to old rural ways.

Guns were just tools for survival in rural areas. Boise is a small city that had moved steadily towards urbanization since I've been alive. The rural ways are still in effect close by. I grew up here in the seventies and eighties and have deep affinity for old time-y outdoor culture and still do all those things.

Guns meant nothing until recent years. They were just another machine that could potentially be very dangerous. Those days are nearly gone as this town grows and grows and technology takes us further and further from working within natures limitations.

Guns in big cities is a whole different

matter, yes. And the militarization of the police force in the U.S. also contributes to guns, poverty and violence being the order of the day. It all gets more and more fetishized and symbolic with our hyper-reality technology distorting everyone's sense of identity. The big city propaganda now makes its way to the backwoods.

Alice Cooper recently played some music with the surviving members of the original Alice Cooper band. Would you prefer to see a live concert performed by that line up of the Alice Cooper band or the later version with Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner?

There's some really great material on Alice's final few Warners albums like Flush the Fashion and Dada, yet he kinda disowns those albums as he can't remember recording them, stating he was lost in a haze of alcohol and cocaine. 

I'd like to see any of it. All the post Warner Brothers stuff is absolutely useless. The later stuff was mostly weak jive but one stands out. "We're All (Clones)"! It's a perfect recording. I don't know how the rest of the record ("Flush the Fashion") could be so horrible. Even the Music Machine's "Talk Talk" is thin and weak. Bleh... 

If you could pick any band members from any band or era to form a musical supergroup in which you were a guitarist and singer, who would the members of your band be and what instruments would they play?

Tad Doyle from Tad on drums, Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath on bass, Eddie Hazel from Parliament/Funkadelic on second guitar and Arthur Lee from Love as my second vocalist.

If you could resurrect one band from the past to play live again for you in 2015 which would it be? Similarly, if you could go back in time and see one band at a time you really like, which band and era would that be? 

I would resurrect Siouxsie And The Banshees or Opal. If I had a time machine I think I'd try and see all of the following: Pink Floyd 1966, Pink Floyd 1971, Deep Purple 1972, Psychic TV 1985, Christian Death 1985.

UK dates below:

London - Electric Ballroom, Wednesday 25th November

Brighton - Concorde 2 - Thursday 26th November

Glasgow - Art School, Friday 27th November

Leeds- Brudenell Social Club, Saturday 28th November 

Prestatyn - ATP 2.0 Nightmare Before Christmas, Sunday 29th November

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