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In 1999, Built to Spill debuted “Carry the Zero,” an essentially-perfect song off Keep it Like a Secret, an essentially-perfect album, which completed an essentially-perfect three-release run that included 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and 1997’s Perfect From Now On.
While the group has continued to churn out great music since (albeit at a much slower pace — they’ve only released four albums in the last 15 years), that flawless stretch of music in the mid-90s forever established the band as icons of indie rock—practitioners of both expansive, guitar-driven melodies and humble, unassuming pop concoctions. Their influence is writ large, and while guitar-based indie music isn’t exactly en vogue now, any band that still has a devotion to six-strings is in debt to the legacy established by the Boise-based group.
Yet, to hear from Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch — the one and only constant of the band — you would think this group just issued a couple of unmemorable albums and faded into the ether.
“I think of us as just music — part of this stream of music over the years, and all we did was take note of some of our influences and use them. Some people happened to stumble across us and we had that same effect on them,” said Martsch.
While Martsch expressed bewilderment at the thought of his band’s impact, he said he was extremely humbled by the band’s place in the indie-rock universe.
“I never thought I would do anything with music except make it for my friends and family,” said Martsch. “The fact that any kind of stranger would like our music at all — that means the world to me.”
Plenty of strangers still love Built to Spill’s music, which is why the band remains busy. Last year, the group issued their eighth LP, Untethered Moon, and played more than 100 shows. The group is still touring behind that release, and their current jaunt includes two stints at Slim’s, on February 9 and 10.
Melding Neil Young’s elegiac vocal approach with the guitar histrionics of J Mascis, Martsch makes music that can be both challenging and accessible, immediate and slow-building, technically-precise and irreverently-sloppy. There Is Nothing Wrong With Love was a collection of whimsical, lo-fi love ballads, Perfect From Now On showcased an epic tapestry of space jams, and Keep Like A Secret settled seamlessly into an area somewhere between. With each new album, Martsch adds wrinkles to the sound and feel of the band while retaining the sonic hallmarks of Built to Spill.
He’s now also learning how to do more with less — after two years of touring as a five-piece outfit, Built to Spill is now a lean trio, with just Jason Albertini on bass and Steve Gere on drums accompanying Martsch. A band famous for its intricate guitar interplay will now have just Martsch up there strumming for the next set of shows.
“It’s been challenging, for sure,” Martsch said of the recent departures of guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson. “We lost some of the best guitarists I’ve ever played with, so filling up that space has definitely been an issue. I certainly have to be a lot more focused now live. In the past, we could all kind of get away with being sloppy. That’s not the case now.”
Under the new lineup, Martsch said the group will tighten its set list up to focus more on the songs from Untethered Moon and some new, unreleased tracks, while throwing in a few smatterings from the band’s classic three-album cycle in the 1990s.
“I think the new songs are a just bit more forward-looking,” said Martsch. “I like all the old stuff, but I feel like these newer songs are more about who we are now.”
Martsch said he hopes to get into the studio sometime this year, but, given the pace of Built to Spill’s output, the next album is realistically a few years away. Additionally, that next release could be on another label, as the band’s lengthy contract with Warner Brothers (an ironic twist to being a famed indie group is that Built to Spill has been with the majors since 1997) has finally been fulfilled with the release of Untethered Moon.
Because Warner Brothers gave the band such a wide berth regarding creativity and scheduling, Martsch said there is a chance they’ll return to the label, but he said he’s also eyeing other opportunities. He said he hopes to “meet with the lawyers,” and come to a decision sometime this spring.
In the interim, the band will continue to tour (they’ve got dates scheduled through the end of March and have a few festival appearances lined up for the summer) and work on making the kind of music that has enabled a legion of like-minded followers over the past two decade. That impact is something that Martsch is still coming to terms with.
“I don’t necessarily think we’re doing something that special, but I feel honored to be part of this legacy of music,” said Martsch. “I feel super proud and blessed to be doing this for a living.”
Built to Spill, with The Hand, Iceberg Ferg
February 9 and 10, 8 p.m.