Built to Spill were one of the most popular indie rock acts of the '90s, finding the middle ground between postmodern, Pavement-style pop and the loose, spacious jamming of Neil Young. From the outset, the band was a vehicle for singer/songwriter/guitarist Doug Martsch, who revived the concept of the indie guitar hero just as Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis — another important influence — was beginning to fade from the limelight. On record, Martsch the arranger crafted intricate, artfully knotted tangles of guitar; in concert, his rough-edged soloing heroics earned Built to Spill a reputation as an exciting and unpredictable live act.
Much like Pavement, Martsch's compositions were filled with fractured song structures and melodies, often veering abruptly into new sections with little attention to continuity or traditional form. (In fact, the difficulty of Martsch's songs helped force him to abandon his original intention of working with many different lineups, since the twists and turns were difficult to master.) His lyrics had all the loopy wit and pop culture references of many a '90s slacker icon, but Martsch changed things up with a genuine wistfulness borrowed from Mascis' and Young's more introspective moments. Unlike Pavement, Built to Spill were never hailed as rock's next great hope; they were neither as revolutionary nor as eclectic, and their music — with its winding instrumental passages and less immediate construction — required more effort to absorb. Instead, they remained even more firmly underground, where their unorthodox approach enjoyed tremendous support from the indie faithful and allowed them to stay together and keep releasing records more than two decades after they began.
Built to Spill were formed in Boise, Idaho, in 1993, shortly after Martsch had departed the Boise-rooted, Seattle-based Treepeople. Martsch had grown up in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he formed his first band, Farm Days, with bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Andy Capps while in high school during the mid-'80s. After moving to Boise, Martsch hooked up with former members of the local hardcore punk band State of Confusion to form Treepeople, which relocated to Seattle in 1988. There they signed with the local indie C/Z and issued several albums and EPs that offered a distinctive take on early Northwestern grunge. Eventually tiring of the band's far-ranging touring commitments, Martsch departed after 1993's Just Kidding album, and despite the continuing boom of the Seattle scene, he returned to Boise to refresh himself.
Martsch formed the first incarnation of Built to Spill with bassist/guitarist Brett Netson (also a member of Boise scenesters Caustic Resin) and drummer Ralf Youtz. Initially maintaining a relationship with C/Z, Built to Spill debuted on record in 1993 with Ultimate Alternative Wavers, on which Martsch billed himself as "Dug." Afterward, Martsch moved the band over to another Seattle indie, Up Records, and revamped the rhythm section, in keeping with his plan to make Built to Spill a loose aggregation that would allow him to work with a variety of musicians. This time, he was joined by bassist Brett Nelson (not Netson, but his old cohort from Farm Days) and drummer Andy Capps (also from Farm Days, who'd joined Nelson in a group called Butterfly Train).
Accompanied by cellist John McMahon and guest spots from several ex-Treepeople, Built to Spill scored a creative breakthrough with 1994's acclaimed There's Nothing Wrong with Love. With the help of producer/engineer Phil Ek, who would become the band's regular collaborator, Martsch's fragmentary songwriting aesthetic and detailed arrangements really hit their stride, resulting in a minor gem of quirky indie guitar pop. The same year, Martsch formed a side project with Beat Happening frontman and K Records honcho Calvin Johnson, and they recorded the first of three albums as the Halo Benders. Martsch formed a new lineup of Built to Spill with former Lync rhythm section James Bertram (bass) and Dave Schneider (drums), but this incarnation existed only for a series of live gigs in America and Europe during 1995, which included a stint on the second stage of that summer's Lollapalooza tour.
The positive response to There's Nothing Wrong with Love — coupled with the increased exposure of Lollapalooza — helped create a buzz around Built to Spill, and before 1995 was out, Martsch inked a deal with Warner Bros. that promised a good amount of creative control. In the meantime, he and Brett Nelson reunited with Brett Netson and several other members of Caustic Resin for a collaborative (not split) EP on Up, titled Built to Spill Caustic Resin. In early 1996, K Records issued a compilation of rarities and outtakes, The Normal Years, that spanned 1993-1995 and featured work by most of the band's lineups. Martsch then turned his attention to recording Built to Spill's major-label debut. At first, he started working with drummer Peter Lansdowne and no bassist, but found that the chemistry was wrong for the more expansive songs he was trying to write. He brought back Brett Nelson and recruited former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf, and re-recorded most of the album, only to have the master tapes damaged. The third re-recording was the charm, and featured guest guitar work by Brett Netson to boot. Finally released in 1997, Perfect from Now On was a set of longer, moodier songs that once again earned positive reviews, and substantially expanded the band's growing fan base.
Tired of continually reteaching the band's repertoire, Martsch subsequently made Nelson and Plouf permanent members of Built to Spill. Material for their next album was, for the first time, worked out through collaborative effort — mostly full-band jam sessions. Despite those origins, Keep It Like a Secret emerged as the tightest batch of songs on any Built to Spill record yet, and was greeted with some of their most enthusiastic reviews to date when it appeared in 1999; it also became their first to reach the pop charts. New supporting cast member Sam Coomes — also of Quasi, formerly of Heatmiser — contributed keyboard work. In response to demand from fans, the Live album was culled from the supporting tour, featuring additional guitar work from Brett Netson and longtime band cohort Jim Roth; assembled from three different gigs by Ek, it was released in 2000.
The proper studio follow-up to Keep It Like a Secret arrived with 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future; critical responses ranged from enthusiasm to indifference. The following year, Martsch took a breather to release Now You Know, a solo album on which he delved into more traditional folk and blues. After a long break from releasing records, the revamped group (now a quartet comprising Martsch, Nelson, Plouf, and Roth with additional help from the guitar-playing Brett Netson) stormed back with one of the finest records of their career, 2006's You in Reverse. Built to Spill resumed touring just after its release, and began recording for their next album later that year, although the results came in the form of a single, 2007's "They Got Away." The band entered the studio once again in 2008, recording There Is No Enemy with production from Martsch and David Trumfio. The album appeared in October of 2009 and the band spent some time touring behind it. They next appeared on a tribute album to the Smiths (Please, Please, Please), covering "Reel Around the Fountain." While in the early stages of recording their next album, Plouf and Nelson quit the band and their roadie Jason Albertini (otherwise known as a former member of Duster) joined on bass, while their live sound engineer, Steve Gere, became their drummer. The group then scrapped what had already been recorded, starting over with the new lineup and Sam Coomes co-producing with Martsch. Still with Warner Bros. after many years, the label released the band's eighth studio album, Untethered Moon, in early 2015. ~ Steve Huey