In the late 1980s, the band Treepeople formed in Boise, Idaho, spending most of their existence in Seattle, Washington. It was formed out of the ashes of a local punk band called State of Confusion. Doug Martsch of Twin Falls, Idaho band Farm Days also joined the band. Treepeople’s most acclaimed work, 1993’s Just Kidding, sits in the space between late-80s Hüsker Dü and the first Sugar album. Later that year, the first Built to Spill album came out featuring Martsch, Caustic Resin’s Brett Netson, and drummer Ralf Youtz. The band was Martsch’s brainchild from the beginning, as he intended to change the lineup for every album.
Built to Spill’s sound was indebted to 70s Neil Young and late-80s Dinosaur Jr., with Martsch assuming the persona of a cryptic ringleader with a propensity to drag on with his guitar from the word “go.” “Shameful Dread” and the Velvet Underground-cribbing “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup” do not approach drone, but are every bit as disorienting as that genre’s standard fare. Ultimate Alternative Wavers laid a significant amount of the groundwork for the early Modest Mouse albums.
While Ultimate Alternative Wavers is considered an inconsequential album in their discography, it was where Doug Martsch truly found his voice as a musician. The album was miles ahead of anything he had been involved with up to that point. Had Built to Spill floundered from there, Ultimate Alternative Wavers and its awkward family photo cover were good enough to stand on their own as a significant lost rock album of the 1990s.
Martsch’s next move was a massive deviation from what he had been doing the previous half-decade: a twee pop album. 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love is a reunion of the Farm Days lineup (Martsch, Brett Nelson, Andy Capps). This is the album that boasts their most beloved song “Car” and marks where the Built to Spill project turns the corner, cashing in on Martsch’s knack for songwriting by pairing his words with a band weaved in and out of rudimentary and flashy playing as well as The White Stripes in their prime.
“Car” marks where the hubbub around Martsch’s lyrics starts. In subsequent interviews, he has been about as evasive about his lyrics as Shaun Morgan of Seether. Unlike Morgan, however, it’s abundantly clear that he’s not throwing ideas against the wall hoping for something to stick. From the project’s outset, the lyrics were the product of a writer’s workshop with Martsch writing and his wife, Karena Youtz (sister of the former drummer Ralf), adding bits here and there. There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, in particular, is a reflective album, chock full of anecdotes about sex, drugs, and isolation. Complete with nods to Twin Falls and Albertson’s, it may be the most Idaho album ever.
Martsch would resurface on 1995’s Built to Spill/Caustic Resin EP, Built to Spill Caustic Resin. Taking the appearance of a split EP, it was an EP by a hybrid of both bands. Given the nature of the Built to Spill project, this could have just as easily been billed as a Built to Spill EP, featuring Martsch and members of Caustic Resin (Brett Netson not among them). The collaboration boasted the four songs that made the EP and “Still Flat”, which appeared on the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Bothered: The Indie Rock Guide Book To Dating. The material is closer to Ultimate Alternative Wavers than There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, but hardly provided insight into what Built to Spill’s next two albums would sound like. As it stands, Built to Spill Caustic Resin is a meandering one off, just worthy enough that diehard fans of the band should stumble upon it.
Martsch’s biggest move of that year was not the EP with Caustic Resin, but signing to Warner Bros. Records in the midst of the post-Nirvana raiding of indie rock’s talent pool by major labels. During this time, Martsch was also playing in The Halo Benders with K Records and Beat Happening founder Calvin Johnson.
In 1996, Built to Spill would release The Normal Years, a scatterbrained compilation of their indie period, on K Records. It features various incarnations of the band, drawing from B-sides, live songs, covers, and past album tracks. Featured are different versions of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love tracks “Car” and “Some”. “Still Flat” from the previous year’s Red Hot album also makes the compilation. The highlight is a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time”, initially slated for an anti-anti-gay compilation. The compilation’s final track, “Terrible/Perfect” recycles Martsch’s chorus from Treepeople’s “Ballard Bitter”.
The rest of the 90s comprised Built to Spill’s classic period. Netson was virtually back in the band, along with Scott Plouf in place of drummer Andy Capps for 1997’s Perfect From Now On. Their first release on Warner Bros., Perfect From Now On is the album that established Martsch as a bona fide guitar hero. “Randy Described Eternity” effectively picked up where “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup” left off. The demented “Velvet Waltz” and winding “Stop The Show” were part of a dense middle section that followed the Martsch’s wailing solo on “I Would Hurt A Fly”. The prom-core “Kicked It In The Sun”, and to a greater extent, “Out Of Site” gestured at how relaxed the next two albums would sound by comparison. Despite being released by Warner Bros., Perfect From Now On is still widely considered a seminal indie rock album.
Perfect From Now On’s place in rock’s canon is earned, considering it stacks up considerably well amongst more celebrated rock albums from the same year. It lacks Isaac Brock’s pathos from Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West and the refinement of Radiohead’s OK Computer, but remains the most enthralling (not the best) listen of the three.
Their best album was 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret, which fused the approach of the band’s last two studio albums. The full-time personnel remained the same from the previous album, but lost the twin guitar Brett Netson brought to its best songs. The album’s lyrics are more pronounced than any other release in Built to Spill’s catalog–a diatribe of existentialist mumbo jumbo.
Punchy numbers like “Center of the Universe”, “Sidewalk”, and Bad Light are more robust than their indie material, which is undoubtedly the product of a major label budget. “Sidewalk” and especially “You Were Right” are Martsch’s initial steps to becoming a rock’n’roll curmudgeon. A philosophy expert could properly speak to what extent the books Martsch spent his 30s reading affected his songwriting. If he is to be believed, Keep It Like a Secret has Noam Chomsky looming over it.
Martsch expertly broke from the sound collage and epic guitar solos of Perfect From Now On for Keep It Like a Secret, on which he opted to relegate the long guitar passages to introductions and codas that accentuate songs like “Carry the Zero” and “Time Trap” more than overwhelm them. The closer, “Broken Chairs”, is a focused exercise in rock guitar that would make the Martsch that made Ultimate Alternative Wavers eat his own hat. Keep It Like a Secret remains the best Built to Spill album by virtue of having the best songs.
Two months after the release of Keep It Like a Secret, Treepeople bassist Pat Brown committed suicide. He was memorialized a decade later in the Built to Spill song “Pat”.
Built to Spill released a live album through Warner Bros. in 2000 before returning in 2001 with Ancient Melodies of the Future. The album was a half-assed retread of There Is Nothing Wrong With Love. The one point where they best the 1994 album is “Strange”, Built to Spill’s best pop song.
Before Ancient Melodies of the Future’s July 2001 release, Martsch had put the finishing touches on his solo debut, Now You Know. Released in 2002, Now You Know is a blues album that only shares his voice with the character of any Built to Spill release. Blues was an odd choice for Martsch, given his proclivity for abstract songwriting. That approach prevails on Now You Know, to unflattering effect. His guitar chords resemble parts of Ancient Melodies of the Future’s “Happiness” skipping, which is disorienting. More shocking is when Martsch busts into a guitar solo on “Lift”. The album’s outlier, “Sleeve”, could have been an Ancient Melodies of the Future B-side. Now You Know is Doug Martsch’s most dispensable release since the turn of the century.
Brett Netson reprised his role as Martsch’s sparring partner on Built to Spill’s 2006 album You In Reverse. Dedicated to the deceased Pat Brown, it’s the band’s return to long form songs. It boasted four guitarists, who succeed in making You In Reverse Built to Spill’s Television album. One of those players is producer Steven Wray Lobdell, who replaced Phil Ek in the capacity he had occupied on every Built to Spill album since There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. The music is more calculated than the unpredictable collages of Perfect From Now On. The incantations of “Goin’ Against Your Mind” rank among the most marvelous ideas the band has espoused. The album was a return to form.
A month after the release of You In Reverse, ex-Farm Days and Built to Spill drummer Andy Capps was found dead in his Idaho home.
Built to Spill released their last album with Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson, There Is No Enemy, in 2009. Internet relics are the most interesting relics and newer fans of the group would be hard pressed to recall that There Is No Enemy was streamed from the band’s MySpace profile. It’s the band’s most downtrodden album, one in which Martsch’s voice is left to provide the melancholia more often than the guitars. The most energetic number is the aforementioned Pat Brown tribute. In their catalog, There Is No Enemy is vastly underrated. It may be their third best album.
In 2010, Martsch and Brett Nelson re-worked seven Built to Spill songs as synthpop duo The Electronic Anthology Project. Nelson would revive the idea with J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. songs in 2012.
Gere and Jason Albertini replaced Plouf and Nelson respectively in Built to Spill’s touring lineup in the six-year interim between There Is No Enemy and Untethered Moon, the longest break between albums in the band’s existence. Initially touring members, they were tapped as full-time members for the Untethered Moon sessions. Martsch is very assured in his performance throughout Untethered Moon, almost to a fault.
For better or for worse, Untethered Moon is the album that the band settled into its status as rock elder statesmen. Martsch fell in love with the effects pedals and the rhythm section is less than admirable at times. “When I’m Blind” is sure to draw “Goin’ Against Your Mind” comparisons. It’s some of the most inoffensive music from a group of players that have made a career out of minding their own business.