Built To Spill - Biography
Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Doug Martsch formed indie rock band Built to Spill in Boise, Idaho in 1992. From modest beginnings on a small label, the band has become one of the most popular and influential indie rock bands of the 1990s and 2000s.
Built To Spill leader Doug Martsch began his recording career in alternative rock quartet Treepeople. Formed in Boise in 1987, the band soon relocated to Seattle, Washington. Though Martsch's vocal and writing contributions to the band were minimal, his guitar prowess was established early on. Treepeople's debut, Guilt, Regret, Embarrassment (1989-Toxic Shock), was highly praised. Martsch left after the band's third album, Just Kidding (1993 C/Z), having already assembled the original version of Built to Spill. The band started as a trio, consisting of Martsch, Brett Netson on bass, and Ralf Youtz on drums. The same year as Treepeople's final album, Built To Spill released their debut, Ultimate Alternative Wavers (1993 C/Z). Though a bit rickety and thin-sounding, the record clearly displays Built to Spill's signature sound, mixing jammy Neil Young classic rock, post-grunge angst, and injecting plenty of winning hooks, as well.
The following year, as per Martsch's vision that his group would frequently change its lineup, Netson and Youtz were replaced by drummer Andy Capps and bassist Brett Nelson (you read that right: Nelson replaced Netson). Built to Spill also switched indie labels for their sophomore album, There's Nothing Wrong With Love (1994 Up). This lineup proved more formidable. The first of four albums Phil Ek would produce for the band, the sound is also a quantum leap forward. Martsch's songwriting, too, really shines here. With aching cello (from guest John McMahon) balanced by a crisp chorus, the single "Car" has become a Built to Spill classic. Slow rocker "Reasons" simmers with intensity, while offering big rhythmic hooks and sweetly chiming guitars. Another single, "Distopian Dream Girl," showcases Martsch's patented spiky guitar melodies, which are somehow prickly and melodious at the same time. The album received high critical praise, including an A- from Robert Christgau.
In 1995, Doug Martsch signed Built to Spill to Warner Brothers. The band toured with Lollapalooza and teamed with members of Boise indie band Caustic Resin (including Brett Netson) for a four-track EP, Built to Spill Caustic Resin (1995 Up). The following year, Built to Spill issued The Normal Years (1996 K), a compilation of tracks recorded from 1993 to 1995 and featuring both lineups. Also, during this period, Martsch teamed with Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson to form The Halo Benders, an eclectic indie side project that issued three records on K Records from 1994-1998.
Built to Spill's third album, Perfect From Now On (1997 Warner), features another lineup change, with Netson returning on bass and Scott Plouf taking over on drums. Far from booted out of the band, Nelson added guitar to five of the record's eight cuts. McMahon again contributed cello, to five songs this time. A dark album with lengthy tracks, it is denser and more expansive than its predecessor, offering an American indie rock counterpart to Radiohead's OK Computer (1997 Capitol) from that same year. "I Would Hurt a Fly" echoes the tempo, beat, and mood of Radiohead's "Karma Police," with Built to Spill's song trading guitar and cello for the piano in the Oxfordites' tune. Opener "Randy Described Eternity" encapsulates the overall feel of Perfect From Now On, as heady space rock combines with heavy riffs and melancholy melodies. That said, each song has its own rewards, from the rolling rhythms and shimmering sounds of "Velvet Waltz" to the welcome buoyancy and warmth of "Kicked It in the Sun." The album received mostly high marks, ranging from three stars from Rolling Stone, to a B+ from Christgau, and a 9.2 from Pitchfork.
Martsch soon named Nelson and Plouf official band members, sensibly abandoning his original vision for ever-shifting lineups. With almost no assistance from guest musicians, this lean trio recorded Keep It Like A Secret (1999 Warner). Built To Spill's fourth album saw tighter, shorter songs and a lighter mood. "Center of the Universe" is downright jaunty, with a tipsy guitar theme and punchy hooks verging on power pop. Even the moodier, slower, and longer "Time Trap" has a relaxed groove and a major-keyed chorus. Only closing cut "Broken Chairs" (with guest keys from Quasi's Sam Coomes) echoes the intensity of Perfect From Now On. Keep It Like A Secret peaked at #120 on Billboard, while earning an array of critical marks. Oddly, Christgau likened the record to grunge and gave it a cursory "honorable mention." Meanwhile, Pitchfork gushed again (9.3/10) and Rolling Stone upped their appraisal of the band's output by half a star.
Built To Spill began the 21st century with the self-explanatory Live (2000 Warner), which featured additional guitar work by Netson and Jim Roth. Along with several of the band's best-loved songs, the album includes a 20-minute take on Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," along with a Halo Benders tune ("Virginia Reel Around the Fountain"), and a cover of another former K Records act, Love as Laughter's "Singing Sores Make Perfect Swords." A powerful live band, the disc does an admirable job of capturing Built To Spill's potency on stage.
The band's fifth studio LP, Ancient Melodies Of The Future (2001 Warner), combines mostly sunny melodies with mid-paced tempos and a hazy sheen, marking a sonic compromise between the darkly sprawling songs on Perfect From Now On and the relative peppiness of Keep It Like A Secret, while presenting a new and psychedelicized facet of Built to Spill's sound. Coomes supplies keyboards to three cuts, while Netson adds guitar, thumb piano, and hi-hat to seven of the album's ten tracks. Another high water mark in the band's discography, the record hit #94 on Billboard and received strong marks all around.
Martsch went solo the following year with the folk and blues-influenced Now You Know (2002 Warner). Critics were generally positive toward the album, but it certainly made nowhere near the impact of a full-band release. After touring extensively from 2004-05, Built To Spill released album six, You In Reverse (2006 Warner), the following year. Without Phil Ek manning the boards, the band turned to Steven Wray Lobdell, who co-produced with Martsch. Lobdell also played guitar, piano, percussion, and vibes. Netson contributed guitar to four cuts and Coomes laid down organ on the scorching "Gone." The album opens with the lengthy "Goin' Against Your Mind," a galloping track that melds punk-pop to searing guitar rock. Mostly, the album evokes Crazy Horse-backed Neil Young — one of Built to Spill's clear influences all along. You In Reverse received good press and peaked at #63 on Billboard.
Three years later, Built To Spill returned with their seventh studio album, There Is No Enemy (2009 Warner). This time, Martsch shared production credits with Dave Trumfio, who'd helmed records by Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Grandaddy, and others. The band worked with a wide range of guest musicians, including Coomes, former cellist McMahon, Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, and Jellyfish keyboardist Roger Manning. Despite all these cooks in the kitchen, the album is resolutely Built to Spill. "Hindsight" chimes and strolls a la Keep It Like A Secret, the brief "Pat" blisters past, while "Life's a Dream" floats by like clouds. Were it not for the remote and echoey treatment of Martsch's vocals, the record would have great appeal. Nonetheless, most critics saw past this, and There Is No Enemy was generally well reviewed. It scored higher on the charts than any of its predecessors, peaking at #50.
After nearly two decades, Built to Spill remain a strong creative force in the studio, while steadily climbing the charts with each subsequent release and remaining a compelling live act.