What to Do Tonight: Built to Spill

Built to Spill: drawn from life
  • Built to Spill: drawn from life

Smart choices often outpace ability. That could be Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch’s personal motto. The small decisions made a huge difference on his band’s seventh album, There Is No Enemy.

For example, Danny Levin added a conquering trumpet solo to “Things Fall Apart,” an epic six-minute head trip through reggae space-rock. “I was close to bagging what a lot of people think is the best part of the record,” laughs Martsch, who after much brooding replaced a guitar solo with the horn section you hear on the record. “Art, in general, is about making the right choice. It’s not really about being talented.”

After 18 years in the music business — 15 of those on a major record label — Built to Spill are still vanquishing tiny clubs and enormous outdoor venues with their indie-rock sonics (they just got off the road opening Kings of Leon’s summer shed tour). Since their 1993 debut album, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, the Idaho natives have redefined the sound of post-grunge Northwest rock, building a reputation as solid underground musicians. The group is celebrated for its aggressive attack on various guitar styles, but after all this time Martsch thinks he and his bandmates are just screwing around.

“If you send me into Guitar Center, I’d get laughed out of there,” he says. “I’m technically not a good guitar player at all. I never took lessons, I never practiced. All I did was grab onto a few ideas and played them with a lot of confidence. [Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young] know their way around the neck, which I don’t. I just took their aggressiveness.”

Built to Spill build their onstage sound with three versatile guitarists. Longtime sideman Brett Netson can play Ben Harper-style slide on his lap before switching to noisy Joey Santiago-inspired experimentalism on the neck. Backed by bassist Brett Nelson, drummer Scott Plouf, and third guitarist Jim Roth, Built to Spill spearhead a number of styles: explosive punk, otherworldly dream-pop, epic multi-minute hippie guitar jams. Last year’s There Is No Enemy features all of them.

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