In many ways, Built to Spill is the little engine that could of indie rock—there from the beginning of the genre in the early ’90s, plugging away one album after another. They haven’t had the sizeable output of Flaming Lips or Guided by Voices, but a consistent high level of quality that fans can depend on. This has kept them on the roster of a major label (Warner Bros) through the boom and bust of grunge, as well as the music-industry crisis.
It’s been 20 years since the band formed in Boise, Idaho, and they’ve influenced several generations of musicians. As 43-year old frontman Doug Martsch’s aesthetics and the music he listens to have changed, so has the way he thinks about music.
“There’s what really goes on when you listen to music versus what people think is happening; what they pay attention to, like the melody and lyrics,” Martsch says. He says he has less of a preconceived idea of what it’s going to sound like now than when younger, and is more interested in the tonal subtleties and innumerable choices that go into every recording.
Releasing an average of one album about every three years gives the band the opportunity to fine-tune things. Although he wouldn’t call himself a perfectionist, he records numerous takes until he sometimes starts to “wonder if I’ve lost the meaning of the song. I still stumble across ideas for songs, and musical passages,” Martsch says. Instead of the punk rock of his youth, now he tends to listen to more reggae, soul and ’60s music, and it’s had an impact on his sound, which is now less angular than on early releases.
With guitarist Brett Netson, frontman of Caustic Resin, who joined in 1995, and Martsch expanding their technique in the vein of psychedelic rock, the band’s songs have become more meandering, yet not without energy. “As opposed to my earlier years, where I just wanted to get something down, now it’s like in the ‘60s, when music became like honing a craft,” he says. Boise has turned into “little Seattle” and found an identity as part of the Northwest. Martsch’s former band, Treepeople, and the Halo Benders project with impresario K Records, are part of Northwest indie lore.
Although Martsch sees the band’s evolution as a gradual process, even somewhat arbitrary from one album to the next, Martsch’s 2002 solo release, Now You Know (Up Records), was a transitional point in his music, with evident folk and blues influences. Built to Spill is the link between classic-rock musicians like Neil Young and bands that followed Built to Spill, like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse.
There Is No Enemy, Built to Spill’s most recent release (Warner Bros, 2009), might lull the unsuspecting into underestimation, but like all of the band’s releases, it’s a multifaceted set of songs that takes time to delve into and uncover all its nuances. Martch’s wife thought of the title, “sweet, funny, in its own way political,” he explains. In the song “Hindsight,” he sings, “Hindsight’s given me too much memory/ I feel like in all this time/ I haven’t learned very much/ Shouldn’t all this be getting easier?”
Martsch’s attitude toward life has changed as much as his attitudes about music: “It’s more complex and less understandable than I had expected,” he says. “This world is complex, and life is incredibly strange, and we are each having our own completely individual experience of it.” That same kind of awe comes out in his songs. The band is working on their next release, due next year.