Music » Music Feature

Keeping It Like a Secret

After almost 20 years, Built to Spill are still indie rock's best unsung heroes



Smart choices often outpace ability. That could be Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch's personal motto. The small decisions made a huge difference on his band's seventh album, There Is No Enemy.

For example, Danny Levin added a conquering trumpet solo to "Things Fall Apart," an epic six-minute head trip through reggae space-rock. "I was close to bagging what a lot of people think is the best part of the record," laughs Martsch, who after much brooding replaced a guitar solo with the horn section you hear on the record. "Art, in general, is about making the right choice. It's not really about being talented."

After 18 years in the music business — 15 of those on a major record label — Built to Spill are still vanquishing tiny clubs and enormous outdoor venues with their indie-rock sonics (they just got off the road opening Kings of Leon's summer shed tour). Since their 1993 debut album, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, the Idaho natives have redefined the sound of post-grunge Northwest rock, building a reputation as solid underground musicians. The group is celebrated for its aggressive attack on various guitar styles, but after all this time Martsch thinks he and his bandmates are just screwing around.

"If you send me into Guitar Center, I'd get laughed out of there," he says. "I'm technically not a good guitar player at all. I never took lessons, I never practiced. All I did was grab onto a few ideas and played them with a lot of confidence. [Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young] know their way around the neck, which I don't. I just took their aggressiveness."

Built to Spill build their onstage sound with three versatile guitarists. Longtime sideman Brett Netson can play Ben Harper-style slide on his lap before switching to noisy Joey Santiago-inspired experimentalism on the neck. Backed by bassist Brett Nelson, drummer Scott Plouf, and third guitarist Jim Roth, Built to Spill spearhead a number of styles: explosive punk, otherworldly dream-pop, epic multi-minute hippie guitar jams. Last year's There Is No Enemy features all of them.

"Hindsight," the single, is a gentle, country-tinged radio-rock gem, picked from the mud and polished with shimmering six-strings and Martsch's yodels. "Tomorrow" is a slowly growing guitar saga that lasts more than seven minutes, full of beastly fuzz drones attacked by wah-wah pedals and symphonic violins. And "Pat," which sounds like a furious punk-rock projectile, is actually a celebratory homage to deceased pal Pat Brown, who played in Martsch's old band Treepeople.

"Its theme is universal — when someone dies and they visit you in your dreams and you're glad to see them, but you're a little confused," explains Martsch. "I had the song for years and kept adding parts and taking parts away from it. It had no lyrics, but it was pretty obvious that it sounded like a Treepeople song."

Martsch comes from a long line of Boise bands. It all started with the 1980s hardcore group State of Confusion, which eventually turned into Seattle alt-rockers Treepeople. Martsch would go on to form both Built to Spill and the Halo Benders in the '90s. He released a solo album in 2002 (Now You Know) and plays in various projects like the tribute-focused Boise Cover Band too. "I've also started my old high school band again — Farm Days," he says. "We're probably a couple of songs away from making an album. It's a three-piece. It's like Built to Spill, but stripped down."

Martsch is one of the few guys left from the alt revolution who's still working like it's 1995. Since May, Built to Spill have played more than 50 concerts and plan to tour heavily into November, hitting a lot of smaller venues they've never visited (including Akron's Musica this week). The band also hopes to write some new music on the road. Perhaps the new batch of songs will elevate Built to Spill beyond their indie status, but more likely than not, Martsch and his band will continue to explore the outer reaches of feedback-driven noise and sweetly melodic pop.

"We've never been very risky," laughs Martsch. "That's Built to Spill's thing. We've always tried to get across the things we're trying to lay down. But every time we do it, we usually end up discovering something new."Send feedback to [email protected].

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