Built to Last

Doug Martsch runs the biggest little band on Earth

Twelve years ago Nirvana was about to release In Utero, and Kurt Cobain locked himself in a bathroom, threatening to commit suicide. Twelve years ago the only thing as awe-inspiring as alternative music was the inability of thrift stores to keep flannel shirts in stock. Twelve years ago grunge was king, and Seattle was the hippest city in the nation.

So naturally it was time for Doug Martsch to leave.

Martsch left Seattle in 1993 and went home to Idaho. Having grown up in Twin Falls and lived for a time in Boise, the move back wasn't too much of a stretch. Besides, Martsch thought, it was just a temporary change of scene. He had ideas, he had songs, he had a front porch. Before he knew it, he had a band called Built to Spill.

Doug Martsch (left) is the one sure thing in Built to 
Spill's ever-changing lineup.
Doug Martsch (left) is the one sure thing in Built to Spill's ever-changing lineup.

But let's get our verbs straight here. Martsch didn't have a band; he was a band. It's not such a mind-warp concept these days, with "bands" like Bright Eyes (one guy -- Conor Oberst) and Iron & Wine (one guy -- Sam Beam) and Mountain Goats (one guy -- John Darnielle) milking the underground and dominating college radio. But twelve years ago it wasn't exactly common for one guy to suggest plurality with a band name.

With bassist and former Caustic Resin member Brett Netson and drummer Ralf Youtz, Built to Spill released Ultimate Alternative Wavers. Not much happened. Martsch rotated his cast, dropping Netson and Youtz in favor of Farm Days buddies Brett (not to be confused with Netson) Nelson on bass and Andy Capps on drums. It was this lineup that recorded the 1994 breakthrough album There's Nothing Wrong with Love on the Seattle-based indie label Up Records. That same year, Martsch recorded with Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson as the Halo Benders and put together yet another new cast of Built to Spill to tour Europe and the States.

Not bad for a guy who says he doesn't like to do stuff himself.

"I was always pretty lazy and not very motivated," says Martsch, at home in Boise on the eve of the first national Built to Spill tour in more than two years. "When I was young and saw people putting a band together and putting out records, it was really exciting. The indie aesthetic appealed to me, but I never did it very well."

A new lineup of Built to Spill went on tour in 1995, playing the second stage of Lollapalooza. Warner Brothers noticed and signed Martsch, as Built to Spill, to his first major-label record deal.

Martsch wanted to keep the freshness of working with new people, but his sound wasn't quite as simple as the idiosyncratic guitar pop championed by the lo-fi bands of the day. Constantly having to relearn old material with new bandmates was less than thrilling, so Martsch re-recruited Brett Nelson along with ex-Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf. In true collective fashion, the resulting album, 1997's Perfect from Now On, featured a slew of guests and friends.

If you close your eyes and imagine what an indie-rock album circa 1997 sounds like, there's no way you're thinking of the sound captured on Perfect. It just doesn't sound like 1997. It's moody and dark, full of winding psychedelic riffs. The underground music scene responded in turn, lapping up the Built to Spill sound faster than they could ask you if you've heard of Neutral Milk Hotel. Very few ears could have possibly heard every layer of the music the first time through, and by necessitating repeated listens, Built to Spill inadvertently made itself the word-of-mouth band of the year. It's almost tantric: Wait for it, wait for it, and then....the fifth time you hear it, you're hooked.

The complexity of some of the eight- and nine-minute songs reinforced for Martsch the uselessness of changing band members all the time. When he headed back into the studio post-Perfect, Martsch ditched the collective and brought Nelson and Plouf with him.

Though he had a solid lineup for Built to Spill, Martsch was by no means ready to give up his method. Emphasizing the creative process that led to the more intellectual sounds and songs off his previous albums, Martsch engineered long jam sessions for the band. The results: ten tracks that make up Keep It Like A Secret, released in 1999 to overwhelming acclaim and -- gasp -- Billboard chart status.

All this while Martsch, fast becoming nationally renowned for his inimitable voice and slinky, stylistic guitar playing, lived the life of a hermit in a small suburb of Boise, Idaho.

"It's where we live," he says. "It's where my son goes to school. It's home. I don't miss the 'scene.' That stuff doesn't really matter. There's nothing I could do in New York or LA or Seattle that I couldn't do anywhere."

Except maybe be a rock star. If it was going to happen for Martsch, it would have happened after the release of Secret. Martsch brought his sound full circle into waves of distortion and cerebral pop that perfectly melded the legacy of '60s psychedelica with the recent history of '90s lo-fi. Secret tipped the boat for Martsch, cementing a place in the indie canon for his guitar work.

The practically mainstream following resulting from the success of Secretled to the 2000 release of a live album chronicling the subsequent tour. The 2001 follow-up studio album, Ancient Melodies of the Future, didn't get rave reviews, but it wasn't panned either. Apathy seemed the general consensus.

It's hard to follow an amazing album with a good one. Amazing is a double-edged sword: Do you stick with your sound and tempt indifference, or do you stray into uncharted territories and risk alienation? Martsch opted for the former, perhaps because he had enough alienation in his normal life.

"I don't have a computer. I don't have any need for one. I don't really need to communicate with anyone on a daily basis. I'm not antisocial or anything. It's kind of a natural thing as you get older. You tend not to socialize as much unless you have to. In Boise I don't really get out much at all."

At 35, it's not like Martsch has one foot in the grave. Two years after the release of his solo album, he's back with Nelson and Plouf, listening to old reggae, old soul and old Built to Spill sessions, trying to understand the nature of the jams that ended up translating into the group's best studio songs.

"It's way more of a band now. We write songs together. It's definitely not my band."

Martsch isn't even all that excited about going back on tour. The songs he's been working on don't sound too fun to him right now. Once he gets them out in front of people, though, he thinks he'll start enjoying them. Once they become alive for an audience, they become more real for the band. Martsch plans on using this tour as a series of live jam sessions. In all likelihood the new songs debuted and refined on the road will be the ones included on the new album, not the other way around.

It seems Martsch is right -- it's not his band. It's ours. So much for ditching the collective.

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