Built to Spill Turns a New Leaf: Interview With Boise Bassist Melanie Radford
This month, Built to Spill’s much celebrated album Keep It Like a Secret celebrates its 20th anniversary. While that album is widely considered to be what brought Built to Spill to the surface for the world to see, the group has begun to re-root itself.
Originally born as the brainchild of singer/guitarist Doug Martsch, Built to Spill had intended to feature shifting members with each release. However, this didn’t happen and the band became as concrete as a slightly cracked sidewalk with a few weeds and some grass sprouting up. Fast forward through the indie-rock legends nearly three decade long career and their lineup has remained relatively unchanged. That is until recently.
In a post from the band last October, the future of Built to Spill was revealed. The band will return to its incepted idea of having a shifting rotation of members. As the band has transitioned from a five piece to a trio in the past couple of years, Doug Martsch remains an integral driving force for the band, but with the help of some new faces. The original concept of Built to Spill will see the light of day afterall.
We chatted with new rotating bassist Melanie Radford about her place in the new growth of Built to Spill. Additionally we unearth her influences and musical foundations, as well as her role in Boise’s music community and her experiences at Treefort Music Festival.
How did you land the position of bassist in Built to Spill? Was there an audition process, if so, what was it like?
There wasn't really an audition process, Doug just contacted me about it. He's seen me play around the Boise scene for a while and admired the way I played and performed. When he asked me to be a rotating bassist for Built to Spill, he said he had always wanted to work with me, which was very flattering to hear. I told him I would be honored and he simply replied, "Well I'm honored that you're honored."
How was playing in Austin, TX with Built to Spill? How did the Austin City Limits Live set go?
I don't really have a lot of words for it. I think no matter who you are, whether you're used to playing in those kinds of venues or not, it's an overwhelming feeling to play at a venue that has been graced by the presence of your heroes. Both at Austin City Limits and Antone's. Since the ACL show was a benefit concert for the Hi, How Are You Project, it was also a huge privilege to play for such an amazing cause. Overall, both shows felt like a dream and I'm glad that BTS fans welcomed me with open arms.
What’s your favorite Built to Spill song? Have you had the chance to play it yet as a three piece?
I'm a big fan of You in Reverse so playing "Goin' Against Your Mind" and "Wherever You Go" has been a treat. Not to mention, playing the lead guitar melody at the beginning of "Goin'" on my bass is one of the biggest honors I've EVER received.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
In terms of bass playing, I got a lot of inspiration from John Entwistle and Geddy Lee, especially in my formative years of playing. Nowadays, I'm a firm believer that the best bassist alive today is Esperanza Spalding. I can talk about her forever... but she is an extremely versatile bassist who has a lot to say and I study her work often. As for songwriting, Erika Wennerstrom (of Heartless Bastards), Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), and Patti Smith will forever be huge influences for me because of their diversity in genre and style as well as their vulnerability and wisdom within their lyrics.
I saw you perform at Built to Spills’ practice spot years ago in your other band Marshall Poole. What are the main differences in your roll as bassist in the two bands? Also, what other music projects are you involved with in Boise?
Oh man! They're so different, I love it...
The difference is usually a conversation of space. Since Marshall Poole has become a fully collaborative 4-piece, it's important that we make sure to create space musically for each other when we're writing music together. In terms of my sound as well, I occupy more of a low-end in my tone because mids are often covered by the keyboards, all while the guitar sits on top and drums dance around us. We're constantly having conversations of what is tasteful in terms of occupancy in tone and structure.
Built to Spill is different for one because I'm obviously playing someone else's music but I also have more space to experiment with what I get to do melodically and harmonically. Since a lot of these songs were originally written with 2-3 guitarists in mind, I have to figure out when it's tasteful to step out of a bass line and explore a guitar melody or embellish a part here and there. Doug and I are slowly establishing a nice push and pull where I can take up more space or back off to give him space... which is a huge honor to be a part of such a fun process!
I am also in a new band called Blood Lemon with fellow Boise musicians Lisa Simpson (of Finn Riggins) and Lindsey Lloyd (of Tambalka) who are two people that I admire immensely. We are also a 3-piece and are currently writing songs that I am ecstatic to share in the near future! This band is a lot more rough around the edges in comparison to Marshall Poole - more punk, more heavy riffs. Plus, in terms of songwriting, it's less about the finesse and more about doing exactly what a song calls for.
I'm lucky to be a part of these 3 different bands because they're all amazing collaborations in their own right.
I know you’re a Treefort Fest veteran. Describe some of your experiences and roles with the fest. Some of your best Treefort memories?
Yes! This will be Marshall Poole's 7th year playing Treefort Music Fest! In the past I've actually volunteered and interned with them and by having that experience, I have a deep love and appreciation for the Treefort Staff & Crew. They work their asses off every year to uplift our community and put a spotlight on our rad music scene.
My favorite Treefort memory keeps on changing with every year that passes but, as of right now, my favorite memory is dancing on stage with Pussy Riot last year.
What else do you like to do when you’re not playing music?
I'm a pretty boring person when I'm not playing music. Ha! I love to play complicated board games with my partner.
I saw the Alter Ego artwork on your Ernie Ball bass—very cool. What’s your connection with Ashley Dreyfus and her art?
As soon as I saw her artwork around Boise, I immediately felt a deep connection to her Alter Egos. They represent our purest form as humans, gender-less and free, which are concepts that I've been writing about for a while... So we both decided to collaborate and now I'm honored to have an Alter Ego on my bass.
Melanie’s next performance with Built to Spill is Sunday, March 24th at The Olympic in Boise, Idaho. Treefort Festival-goers be sure to add this gig to your schedule!