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"Sometimes I think that we're just an alternative band," says Doug Martsch, the voice and guitar behind Boise, Idaho's Built to Spill. "We're more than that, but I can see other people automatically pigeonholing us."
Martsch needn't worry: Built to Spill isn't so easily categorized. Unlike many alternative (whatever that means) acts, the band hasn't earned much airplay on modern-rock radio or video stations, nor has it received loads of cash from major labels or faux independents. But that hasn't stopped the trio (Martsch, bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Andy Capps) from drawing attention from the indie-minded jet set.
The reason for this recognition has everything to do with Martsch's previous collaborators. Of course, bands in the incestuous Northwest scene swap members more frequently than the musicians change their clothes, but Martsch's pedigree is a cut above--he worked with Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson in the Halo Benders and played a major role in Seattle's Treepeople. The latter band never hit it big; its notoriety stems from word of mouth generated by two distorted, soaring full-lengths (Guilt, Regret, Embarrassment and Time Whore/Something Vicious) beloved by punky skater boys and other urban hipsters. Nevertheless, Martsch didn't stick with Treepeople for long. "They wanted to tour a lot more than I did," he says.
His head filled with songs meant for Treepeople, Martsch soon joined forces with two friends, Brett Netson (an entirely different person than Brett Nelson) and a musician simply known as Ralf, to form Built to Spill. In 1993 Seattle's C/Z Records, the current home of Seven Year Bitch, released the fruit of their labors, Ultimate Alternative Wavers. Although the album's moniker was taken from a dopey 1990 letter sent to Treepeople, the recording as a whole was a clear break from the music made by Martsch's old chums. Ultimate had fewer drum rolls than the average Treepeople disc and relied less upon tough-and-sweaty guitar riffs. Instead, Built to Spill threw noise, hooks and cheesy organ into the standard feedback mash--and came out with much more complex and clever songs.
Even so, Martsch doesn't see Built to Spill as a complete departure from his previous group. "I think a lot of Treepeople songs could be Built to Spill songs," he says. "It's just that Treepeople was faster, with distorted guitars...When someone writes songs, they tend to write the same kinds of songs for different bands."
This theory was tested just after Ultimate's release, when Netson and Ralf left Built to Spill to concentrate on other groups. Fortunately, Martsch soon ran into Nelson and Capps, who'd played with him in Farm Days, a band they'd created while attending the same Idaho high school nine years earlier. "It took me a couple of weeks after we talked about playing together to even realize that it was the old Farm Days band," Martsch claims. "But it's completely different, because we're all different people. It's almost unrelated that we used to play together."
Instead of touring, the new lineup recorded singles that wound up on three different Olympia, Washington, labels: Saturnine, Atlas/Face the Music and K Records. Meanwhile, Martsch was growing dissatisfied with C/Z, especially because the label refused to issue Ultimate on vinyl. As a result, Built to Spill jumped ship to Up Records--owned by Chris Tikino, a former lackey at Sub Pop--and released a new album, There's Nothing Wrong With Love.
"Originally, it was a tongue-in-cheek kind of remark, but true," Martsch says about the disc's title. "I mean--`There's nothing wrong with love"--you can't argue with that. But the record came out as kind of a sappy love record anyway."
Not entirely. Somewhere between Ultimate and Love, Martsch learned the trick to writing great pop songs. "Car," for instance, sums up Built to Spill's intentions: It opens with whiny, Neil Youngish vocals and simple acoustic guitar before being joined by a slack rhythm section, a gorgeous cello part and electric guitars that buzz in the background. It's beautiful and dissonant at the same time. Other songs glow with almost reverential nostalgia. A case in point are the lyrics to "Big Dipper," which sound as if they were written by a wide-eyed ten-year-old: "When I was little, someone pointed out some constellations to me/But the Big Dipper was all I could see."
Love is so good an album that it's likely Built to Spill will soon be inundated with record-company contacts. When A&R people come calling, Martsch concedes that he'll listen to them. "Right now, Up is the thing to do, at least for another record," he says. "But if someone is going to offer us a bunch of money, it would be pretty hard to say no. I don't want to work. My girlfriend doesn't want to work. We want to have a house and be able to take care of our baby. All that stuff is pretty tempting."
In the meantime, Martsch is left to savor the good reviews Love has received thus far--such as they are. "No one's told me it sucks," he says. "That's as good as I could hope for."