In the fall of 2017, indie rock vets Built to Spill were tapped to be cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston’s backing back for a couple of shows in the Pacific Northwest. During rehearsals, Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch decided to record their interpretations of Johnston’s songs — but he never really had the intention of releasing them.
“They were live versions for ourselves and our friends — that’s what I thought,” he told Billboard recently from his home in Boise, Idaho.
That seedling of an idea did come to fruition though; a year later after the short Johnston jaunt, Martsch and the band went into the studio to work on new originals but ended up returning to the Johnston material.
“We had a week off between shows and decided to go f–k around and record our new songs,” he said. “But when the time came, I didn’t feel like doing that. I wasn’t feeling the songs at the moment. It was always in the back in my mind of us doing recordings of those songs. And then when we worked on it for a bit and thought it sounded cool enough and worth releasing, in some small way.”
The resulting effort, Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston, is an 11-song tribute album of the songwriter’s work, lovingly recreated with Martsch’s trademark guitar driving the arrangements. Highlights include the jangly pop “Bloody Rainbow,” the somber sounding “Honey I Sure Miss You” and lo-fi “Queenie the Dog.”
“It’s so straight forward, it’s funny, it’s sad — that’s where Daniel Johnston sits with me,” Martsch said about the songwriter’s work. “Telling the truth, being so honest — but still being clever and such nice melodies. Really great melodies. He just plays the same three or four chords and he comes up with melodies to put on top of them.”
Johnston passed away in September 2019 of a heart attack; based out of Austin, Texas, he started releasing lo-fi recordings early ’80s and was known as an outsider artist for most of his life — but picked up countless musician fans along the way, including Kurt Cobain, the Flaming Lips and more recently, Lana Del Rey.
The live shows that Martsch played with Johnston still stick out in his memory — but the two artists didn’t necessarily forge a bond.
“They were good, [but] they were weird,” Martsch recalled. “We had a soundcheck the first day — but he can’t last long. He didn’t have a lot of stamina. He’d run through a few songs and be done. [The tempos were] a lot slower than what we wanted to play. The interpersonal interactions were pretty limited, but he was sweet. And at the end I was like ‘That was really fun, I hope we get to do it again sometime.’ And he said something like ‘Oh I don’t know.'”
Watch the video premiere of Built to Spill performing Johnston’s “Mountain Top” below.
Originally slated for a May 1 release on Brooklyn indie label Ernest Jenning Record Co., Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston is now set to come out June 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, as they couldn’t get physical product to record stores in time. They also had to cancel their spring tour; for now, it’s scheduled to kick off on June 4 at the Bunkhouse in Las Vegas.
Built to Spill’s last studio album was 2015’s Untethered Moon, the final record they released with longtime label Warner Music. Without a label, Martsch describes the band’s future in somewhat uncertain terms — but a new album could be happening in the not-so-distant future.
“I’m not sure what is happening after all of this,” he says. “I haven’t been writing much. We recorded basic tracks for 15 songs, and 10 have lyrics. I started working on that stuff and then I got side-tracked. Now I’m just sitting around, deciding if I want to work on this stuff. Making a record isn’t very fun for me. I get too self-conscious. I’m trying to get myself into a mode to work on the record — or maybe it’s just another set of demos.”