Built to Spill bassist re-imagines the alt-rock guitar godfather as an ’80s
BY BRIAN J. BOWE
Everything about Dinosaur Jr screams analog.
From the sizzling tubes of Marshall
stacks to the gargantuan fuzz of a vintage Big Muff pedal; from gossamer bits
of feedback to the precise pounding of drums, the legendary trio is all about
wood and wire, strong hands and muscular sounds.
But that basic equation has been digitally
subverted on a new release by Built to Spill bassist Brett Nelson’s Electronic
Anthology Project. Nelson has re-imagined Dinosaur as an ’80s synth-pop band on
a new album of nine songs from the band’s oeuvre. The album, which features new
vocals by J Mascis himself, is due out April 21 in a limited purple vinyl
edition for Record Store Day, with a wide release to follow.
Nelson’s first Electronic Anthology Project
release focused on the work of Built to Spill. So why did he select Dinosaur Jrfor
“I kinda felt the music already had a poppy new
wave [feel] to it, very melodic, always had a hook – the things that the new
wave I liked in the ’80s had, just done with guitars and noisier,” Nelson says.
In March, 2011, Nelson emailed Mascis some demos
and to get his blessing and secure his participation. Then, he began the
painstaking work of choosing which songs to reinterpret. The process took many
months of intense listening and experimentation.
“For almost a year straight, all I listened to
was Dinosaur Jr – either my versions or their versions,” Nelson says. “I dreamt
about it. I’d wake up and have ‘Tarpit’ stuck in my head, and I’d go into the
studio and work on it some more.”
Sometimes inspiration would come from a
drumbeat, or a bassline, or a guitar passage, Nelson says. But Mascis’ soaring
guitar solos proved particularly problematic for him to replicate with
keyboards, so mostly he didn’t try. Rather, he would search for a melodic line
in the solo that he could pick out and transform.
Ultimately, seven of the nine songs were culled
from 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me,
with the beautiful and overlooked “Pond Song” from 1988’s Bug and the hit single “Feel the Pain” from 1994’s Without a Sound (the lone selection not
recorded by the original trio).
Nelson says that once he immersed himself in the
music, it was a revelation how complex it is. Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow’s
chords and melodies intertwine to the point where it’s can be difficult to tell
who’s doing what. Murph’s drumming sounds straightforward but is filled with
off-kilter moments – a cymbal hit here, a kick drum stomp there – that are hard
“Obviously I knew they were great players, but I
didn’t realize just how complicated it could be,” he says. “I viewed it more as
really good pop music with really good players, where there was a lot more to
One of the creative limitations Nelson placed
upon himself was the use of vintage gear. The backbone of the EAP sound is an
Ensoniq SQ-80 synthesizer with an eight-track sequencer built-in that Nelson
has had for a long time.
“I’ve tried to buy new ones that can do more,
and I’ve always went back to the SQ-80 because it’s easy,” Nelson says. “I
guess it would be easier if I took the time to learn something newer, but I
don’t want to because I’m comfortable with that.”
Between the Ensoniq and a series of vintage
rack-mount tone generators, Nelson would spend hours trying to create the
sounds he heard in his head. He would take a snare sound from one machine, a
kick drum from another, layer several sounds together or find effects that made
the sounds match his vision. He says he could have found newer gear that may
have approximated those sounds more easily, but the process is where he derived
“The fun part of doing it is figuring out how to
do it,” Nelson says. “To me, part of that is the challenge of having the older
things … part of the appeal of doing
this project is challenging myself and having to think.”
Built to Spill, like Dinosaur Jr, has built a
career on layered, guitar-based songs with strong melodies. So it would be
natural to assume that Nelson was a guitar geek growing up in Idaho. It turns out, he would have rather
have been in an OMD cover band than a Minutemen cover band – but synthesizers
were expensive and guitars were cheap.
In some ways, Nelson’s mutation of guitar-based
post-punk with synth-pop seems like a nostalgic nod to a bygone era where kids
with all manner of weird hairstyles came together to fight the hegemony of
MTV-ruled Top 40 over the musical landscape.
“It just seemed like if you didn’t like the
mainstream Top 40, then you were in this other group, which included people who
liked synth stuff and metal and punk rock stuff. To me it all seemed like
almost the same thing – just pop music redone in a different way than the Top
40,” Nelson says.
Even though the record is fun, Nelson gets
frustrated when people assume that the project is a goof. “It kinda rubbed me
the wrong way,” Nelson says. “It seemed like a reason to dislike it or dismiss
it as something else.”
Nelson will have more opportunities to prove
that it’s not a goof. He’s working with Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch on
two more tracks to flesh out the original EP for a vinyl release. In the near
future, he hopes to do volumes of the EAP with the Pixies and Sebadoh. The
latter desire explains, in part, why none of Lou Barlow’s Dinosaur Jr songs
were selected for this record, Nelson says.
A version of this story also appears in issue #12 of BLURT.