Formed in: 1992, Boise, Idaho
Key Albums: There's Nothing Wrong with Love (1994), Perfect from Now On (1997), Keep it Like a Secret (1999), There is No Enemy (2009)
Built to Spill are an alternative-rock band from Boise, based around the songwriting and guitar-playing of Doug Martsch. Despite the seemingly non-commercial nature of their music ("on all our records," Martsch once told Pitchfork, "there's nothing that seems like a single to me"), Built to Spill have remained signed to Warner Bros. since 1995. During that time, they've been hugely influential; Pacific Northwest bands Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, and Band of Horses all citing the importance of Built to Spill's influence.
"I guess I find it flattering that anyone cares about what I'm doing and that bands would point to us and say they were inspired by us," Martsch has said. "I take it all with a grain of salt because if we weren't around it would have been someone else. It has to do with timing and the region. Modest Mouse is one of the best bands ever I think and they just happened to be at the right age we were around and they happened to hear our record."
Martsch (born in 1969 in Twin Falls, Idaho; a town he later memorialized in song) grew up in thrall to the powers of music. “I could only buy a record every few weeks with my allowance, so there are certain David Bowie records that I just know inside and out,” he remembers.
In 1984, whilst attending Boise High School, Martsch formed his first band, Farm Days, with bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Andy Capps, both who would, inevitably, end up playing in Built to Spill.
In the late-'80s, Martsch started playing in Treepeople, a noisy, pre-grunge outfit of Boise natives based in Seattle. Martsch left the band, in 1992, because of a disinterest in touring.
Upon leaving, Martsch found he need an outlet for his songs, and formed Built to Spill as a recording project, in which he'd be the only official member. "The idea behind the band from the get-go was to change the line-up and the sound for every release," Martsch would later explain.
Built to Spill's first incarnation found Caustic Resin band-leader Brett Netson on bass and Ralf Youtz (brother of Martsch's then-girlfriend/future-wife Karena Youtz) on drums. They made their debut with the 1993 LP Ultimate Alternative Wavers, a loud, ragged collection of songs that carried over much of Treepeople's aggression.
Martsch's determination for reinvention came to fruition with 1994's fabulous There's Nothing Wrong with Love, a collection of sweet, sentimental pop-songs in which Martsch was joined by his old high-school pals Nelson and Capps. Produced by Phil Ek (who'd becoming a recurring figure on BTS LPs), and home to many of BTS's best songs ("In the Morning," "Twin Falls," "Car"), the album was treated to exuberant critical acclaim, establishing the band as critical favorites. "No one's told me it sucks," Martsch dared to admit, to Westword. "That's as good as I could hope for."
Throughout these early years, Martsch had been recording poppy little singles with K Records honcho Calvin Johnson, and, in 1996 these were eventually collected on the compilation The Normal Years. "I'm not particularly proud of a lot of that stuff," Martsch confessed, "but I think people should have the right to own it without paying huge prices."
After a disastrous 1995 tour in the UK with the Foo Fighters were Built to Spill were routinely showered with projectiles, Martsch determined his band would never open for another. Luckily, they were about to become big enough they didn't need to.
In 1995, Built to Spill unexpectedly signed to Warner Bros right when the great alternative-music cash-in was coming up empty. The move raised eyebrows at the time, and no one could've possibly predicted the relationship would last through two decades. "We've made money for Warner Bros.," Martsch defended, to Westword. "We haven't made them a lot of money, but we don't lose them money, because we don't cost that much."
After delivering a host of two-minute pop-songs on There's Nothing Wrong with Love and The Normal Years, Martsch's major-label debut, 1997's Perfect from Now On, seemed like commercial suicide. The ragged, psychedelic record found most of its songs sprawling out past six minutes in length; Martsch inspired to experiment and explore by constantly listening to The White Album. Martsch insisted there were no record-label grumblings at the finish product ("anyway, if there was, it was their problem, not mine”); Warner perhaps happy there turned out to be an album at all.
Perfect from Now On was essentially recorded thrice. Once Martsch tried to play all the instruments himself, and didn't like the results. The master tapes from the second sessions were accidentally destroyed. And, by the third time, Martsch had lost all perspective.
“I just obsessed over it,” Martsch told me, in 2007. "I’d think about the order, how every song would fit together, how it’d add up to make an album. I’d obsess endlessly over those things. And every time I'd listen to it, all I could hear were its flaws."
"Burnt out" by its making, Martsch and his now-permanent band —Nelson on bass and Scott Plouf, formerly of the Spinanes, on drums— refused to play any Perfect from Now On songs on tours supporting it, turning shows into hour-long, improvised jams.
Yet, by the time they got around to record the first Built to Spill 'band' album, 1999's Keep it Like a Secret, the trio swung back the other way; playing short, sharp songs. The fourth BTS LP instantly became the band's most successful record, denting the Billboard charts at #120.
In 2000, Built to Spill released a live album (wittily titled Live) that featured a 20-minute workout on "Cortez the Killer," a song by Martsch's biggest musical influence, Neil Young. The electric quality of the band's increasingly-tight live-show did not, however, translate onto 2001's mediocre, poorly-received Ancient Melodies of the Future, and album Martsch would later confess was "not too good of a record."
Next: Built to Spill on Hiatus, A Martsch Solo LP, and One Detached Retina...