Disco Doom and Doug Martsch Are Kindred Spirits

To celebrate the release of Mt. Surreal, the former tourmates and friends catch up.

Disco Doom is an experimental pop band from Switzerland, led by Anita Rufer and Gabriele De Mario; Doug Martsch is the singer and guitarist of Built To Spill. Disco Doom’s new record Mt. Surreal is out today on Exploding in Sound, so to celebrate, Anita and Gabriele hopped on a Zoom call with Doug to catch up about touring, both bands’ lineup changes, and more
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Anita Rufer: What’s going on? Where are you?

Doug Martsch: I’m in… Fuck, I don’t know, Knoxville, Tennessee. You’ve been there?

Gabriele De Mario: Yeah, we drove through once. We went to a guitar shop and they had some good amps. But, yeah, I don’t remember a lot about Knoxville.

Anita: So are you in the middle of the tour?

Doug: Yep. We’re just a little bit past halfway of what I think is probably the longest tour I’ve been on — seven weeks.

Anita: Wow.

Doug: Yes. What about you guys? Are you guys doing any shows?

Anita: We just played one show here in Switzerland and are going to play the release show later in September, and then we’ll try to come over and tour a bit in the US.

Doug: Cool. When do you think that’ll be?

Gabriele: The end of October. I think it’s from the 21st until early December. The dates slowly get confirmed, but it looks good now. Now all we need is an artist visa from your government. [Laughs.] 

Doug: I’ll see what I can do.

Anita: Should we tell how we met?

Doug: Yeah, let’s get to work. We played a show together in — what city was that?

Gabriel: It was Winterthur.

Anita: A city next to Zurich.

Gabriel: We were offered a supporting slot for Dinosaur Jr. in the same place, like, six months before, but our drummer was on holiday. And then we saw that you came in the fall, so we asked the [promoter] again, you know, “It didn’t happen with Dinosaur, please let us play with Built To Spill.” And he said, “of course,” and everything started.

Doug: Well, my recollection was that we were out touring Europe without an opening band, and every place we played the local promoters would hook us up with someone. I don’t remember there being any other bands, and I don’t know if that’s because you guys just were that much better than everyone, or just for some reason, the promoters didn’t know what they were doing. But the night we played with you, we were all super psyched. The whole band is just blown away by you guys. It didn’t take long for us, talking to each other, to know that we are all kind of kindred spirits. And I can’t remember if it was a promoter or someone at the club, too, who just told us that you guys were the best band in Switzerland. So you also had an endorsement. We were like, “Oh, cool. Sounds good.”

Gabriele: [Laughs.] People still talk about us as “the best kept secret” — still, after 20 years.

Doug: [Laughs.] It’s a nice title, but it’s also kind of a drag.

Gabriele: Oh, yeah.

Anita: What’s really nice is that the people who did this show are still proud that they booked it.

Gabriele: That they brought us together. [The promoter] is still working there, and when we play there we just after the show, drink a beer together and talk about it or whatever. That was a special moment for us. I don’t want to say career-changing, because we don’t have a musical career. [Laughs.] But we realized that we can say yes to [things] — like then when you asked us to do the tour in Europe, or then after that touring in the US for us was a big mountain. We [never thought we] could never go there, and you helped us so much just asking us. We learned that “yes” is something beautiful to say, to do, to think. You know, I’m always a little bit, “Eh, I don’t know, maybe…”

Doug: [Laughs.] It was like a year later [that we went on tour]?

Gabriele: Yeah. It was a long tour, two months almost.

Doug: And you guys did the whole trip with us.

Gabriele: Yeah. I was nervous. I needed probably half the tour until I calmed down. [Laughs.] It was just too much.

Doug: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a really fun tour. 

Gabriele: Yeah. So, I think we saw a lot of lineups in the last year — in the Built To Spill history, we saw the five piece lineup, the four piece lineup, the trio. And I’m looking forward to see Melanie [Radford] and Teresa [Esguerra] in lineup with you.

Doug: Yeah, those ladies are amazing. I love playing with them.

Anita: It’s so great to see you all play together. I would love to see that live. Great energy. 

Gabriele: The energy with Melanie on bass is just amazing, and Teresa on drums — and you’re smiling a little bit more. [Laughs.] 

Doug: [Laughs.] They’re fun ladies. They’re so good and they’re so sweet, and I’m pretty honored to be in a band with them.

Anita: That’s awesome. Is it the first time that Built To Spill has had women in the lineup?

Doug: Yeah. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever played in a band ever with any women. 

Gabriele: And how does that feel? 

Doug: I mean, musically it doesn’t really matter at all, of course. They are different — every person that’s played in the band has their own thing going on. They bring their own thing to it, but they also kind of tailor themselves a little to what Built To Spill is, and these guys are the same way. When we first started playing together, there was a lot of discussion of how things would go and how to approach the songs. Mel’s so good — first of all, she was kind of trying to play guitar parts and bass parts at the same time, trying to fill in all this space, and I told her that wasn’t necessary. I just kind of kept trying to get them to tone it down a little bit, because they were maybe a little too heavy for us sometimes and too busy a little bit. We had some talks about it and worked some stuff out.

That was before the pandemic when we were about to hit the road. We were about to do a tour in March of 2020, and then over the time between then and to summer of 2021, when we got back together again after everyone got vaccinated, they had really taken to heart the stuff we talked about. It was really good, the way that they were able to make it their own thing but really be true to what I thought was important about the stuff. 

Anita: When they came in the band, how do you start the process — are you describing a lot or do you let the people first just learn the song?

Doug: Yeah, I just gave them a list of songs and let them pick a couple of songs too, and then just they learned them on their own. Teresa was pretty straightforward — here and there, I had to tell her things that I thought could be a little different, different feels, different things that are on the record that are subtle that ou can’t really hear that well that I thought were important.

Anita: Are you talking about sounds?

Doug: I’m just talking about playing style. Like an example would be the song “Else,” the hi hat: she was playing with two hands and I’m like, “You gotta play with one hand, it has a different feel if you play with one hand.” Little things like that. And then Mel’s was a little more intense, where she was kind of playing these notes and stuff, extra notes that were guitar parts. A lot of those records, because there’s so many guitars, it’s sometimes hard to pick out what the bass is actually playing. So it’s a little bit of that, “OK, this is what the bass is actually doing.”

So just a lot of that kind of stuff, and also them getting comfortable and kind of knowing how what I expect and what I think. They were a little nervous to work with me at first and it took them a little bit to realize that I was pretty open and I trust them. It’s really fun right now. I’m getting lots of compliments about them and how great they are. Like you said, the energy they bring, the joy that they bring to it, it’s really unbelievable.

But who are you guys playing with these these days? What kind of band do you have going on?

Anita: We changed again. You know us.

Doug: Imagine that. [Laughs.] You guys change more than us, and we have a reputation for that. Was that something like Built To Spill where it was built into you guys, or is it just the way that things have rolled out over the years?

Anita: Since we’ve been doing it a long time, we move around with people, people are coming and going. We don’t plan it, but it happens.

Doug: Is it just that people aren’t available anymore, or that you don’t like playing with people? 

Gabriele: I think it was just one time with someone that we thought it didn’t work. But most of the time, it’s because I think in Switzerland, when a band really starts to tour or wants to go out and tour a lot, the reality is just different for them. They realize, “I can’t do that. It’s too much, it’s too long, I lose money,” whatever. And because we are a couple, for us, it’s just easier to say yes to a trip, to an adventure. For some people, it’s not easy to do, so we have to sometimes change because of that. But yeah, it wasn’t our intention to do that. But it happens.

Doug: Gotcha. Totally.

Anita: We are famous in Switzerland for changing drummers, and we’ve sometimes had to hire a drummer for just one tour, because we got offered the tour but we had no drummer. 

Doug: Like playing with some people you don’t even know just because you need a professional drummer to go out with you.

Gabriele: Yeah.

Anita: It’s also happened that, Flo, our bass player, knew a lot of drummers that we didn’t, and we said, “OK, please ask this person,” because we had no other idea. And he brought in a few drummers.

Doug: It’s cool, because you guys seem to be very particular about the people you play with, so it must be tough playing with so many different people when you have such a specific vision. And also — you guys seem to have a really specific vision. How do you two agree on that vision?

Gabriele: I don’t know. Anita and I have played since ‘91 together. It’s a long time. When we start to play — it sounds a bit like a cliche or whatever, but we don’t have to talk about it, we just do it and it feels just right. It’s an organic process. We play so much together, we live together, we’re couple. So that’s probably the easiest part, when we play together.

Anita: But I guess we start to argue when we record. When we are recording a record, then it’s not any more just playing. Then it’s making decisions. We have this 16-track studio recording machine, and we always have to decide if we keep something or if we throw it away. I think because we are a couple, we are perhaps sometimes talking straight what we think and we are not diplomatic in what we want to say. And we do not compromise — we discuss and we try and try and try and try until we both are happy with it. In the recording process, I think that’s pretty important. I don’t want to compromise in the recording process, and I guess for you it’s the same. 

It’s different when people get involved in the recordings, because there the how everyone is talking has to change compared to when the two of us are discussing. And then we have to explain much more to the people recording with us, we have to try to find words for what the vision is. And sometimes we do gut decisions — it’s not analytic, so it’s really hard to explain to other people what our vision could be. And it’s a lot of trial and error. So I think it’s pretty hard for people to play with us in that way.

Gabriele: In the process of recording, I think we function really good just the two of us. When we start, we do maybe 80% of the recordings, and then we when we are in a situation where we don’t have actual people in the band while we are recording new material, we ask some person who we think could bring something good to the music. Otherwise, we do it on our own. 

We like to work with people while we’re recording, but we just like to do it for a short time. We want to just try to record the momentum, when they know a little bit of the song but they don’t don’t know the whole arrangement, so things happen — they make mistakes. But those mistakes are beautiful. 

Disco Doom’s Mt. Surreal is out now on Exploding in Sound. 

(Photo Credit: left, Raffaella Chiara)

Disco Doom is, as always, led by the band’s core of Anita Rufer and Gabriele De Mario. Releasing music together for some 20 years, such longevity has earned the band a legendary status in Switzerland, as well as a reputation for making incredibly forward-thinking rock music. Their latest record, Mt. Surreal, is out now on Exploding in Sound.

(Photo Credit: Raffaella Chiara)