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How Built To Spill helped define indie rock — as a major-label act

Carry the Hero

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If you were asked to name a quintessential '90s indie-rock band — a member of the pantheon, a pillar of the movement — you'd be well within your rights to name Pavement. Or Guided by Voices. Or Archers of Loaf. Or certainly Built To Spill. But of all those bands, only one has spent more than 15 years on one of the most definitively non-indie record labels there is: Warner Bros.

"Well, I think maybe people consider us indie rock because we've never really had any hits or made any kind of mainstream impression," Built To Spill founder and frontman Doug Martsch tells the Scene via phone. It's hard to say that his band had no mainstream impression whatsoever — at least as part of the indie-rock movement at large — but we'll allow the man his modesty. "When I was a kid in the '80s and punk bands started signing with major labels — like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü and stuff, or even, like, R.E.M. — it seemed to us at the time that these bands would sort of change their sound and stuff when they signed to a major label. That was something that we kind of tried not to do."

Built To Spill's velvet waltz with Warner began with 1997's critically acclaimed Perfect From Now On, an eight-song collection of winding, cello-adorned, existential guitar ballads that fetched immediate comparisons to both Neil Young and Dinosaur Jr. Gorgeous, weird, deeply thoughtful and melodically diverse, the record — with its average track length clocking in at over six-and-a-half minutes — found no place in a radio landscape populated by the likes of Aqua's "Barbie Girl" and Hanson's "MMMBop." But the band maintained a dedicated fan base, going on to release five studio albums between 1999 and 2009 — all of them critically lauded, and all of them issued via Warner Bros.

And in all that time, Martsch & Co. managed to do something that none of their aforementioned contemporaries could: not Pavement, Guided by Voices or Archers of Loaf, or '80s-born alt-rock predecessors Pixies or Dino Jr. Built To Spill remained a band. They never disbanded, melted down or went on any sort of long-term hiatus. In fact, they had hardly any member shakeups at all, maintaining roughly the same lineup for more than a decade. But because they never broke up, Built To Spill was also never presented with the opportunity to do one of those cash-grab reunion tours that have proved so fruitful over the past decade.

"I kind of wonder sometimes, if we had stopped after Keep It Like a Secret ... " begins Martsch. He digresses for a moment to acknowledge that Perfect From Now On, its 1994 indie-label predecessor There's Nothing Wrong With Love and 1999's Keep It Like a Secret are widely regarded as Built To Spill's seminal trifecta. "People still think [those] are the best records of ours, those three records. ... Maybe if that was really our legacy and we did a reunion tour now, maybe we would make a lot of money, like Pavement or Pixies."

But of course, no band plans from the outset to eventually split up and re-form, no matter how lucrative a reunion tour — or, as in the case of Dino Jr., a full-on reunion — may prove to be. As Martsch plainly states it, he never stopped enjoying making records, and as he's said in interviews time and time again, Warner Bros. has long given him the time, budget and space he needs to make records his way. For Built To Spill, that means intervals of two, three, even five years between LPs. Martsch will occasionally fill those gaps with side projects or, as in 2002, a solo record. But mostly, it's month- or six-week-long stretches of touring while he painstakingly writes, rewrites and retools songs for the next Built To Spill record.

"That's just the nature of making records — sometimes it takes many, many tries to come up with something that sounds good to me," says Martsch. "It's always, 'I'll make these songs work.' We don't write a new batch of songs. I'll just keep working on these songs until I figure out how to make them listenable." And that's where Built To Spill stands now, as Martsch works on a follow-up to 2009's There Is No Enemy at Steven Lobdell's Audible Alchemy in Portland, Ore.

Built To Spill's songs — painstakingly crafted and as good now as ever — are big, emotional things. Layers of diverse guitars, each of them twinkling or buzzing or careening in its own way, build to poignant climaxes as Martsch warbles in that high-pitched croon of his about big things and little things and about how all things are really just the same. These songs are weird, yes. Always weird. But they're pop songs in the way that weird, catchy guitar symphonies can be pop songs, and at the center of it is our inclusive, eternally modest protagonist Doug Martsch, always just trying to write songs that anybody could like.

"I feel like every time I make music I try to make music that I think anyone can like," says Martsch. "Maybe not quite anyone [laughs]. I also understand that with the quality of my voice and sort of the weirdness of our musical ideas just from the influences that we've had, I know that it's not super radio-friendly or anything. But at the same time, I still feel like anyone that likes any music could like Built To Spill."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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