Going Against All of Your Minds: The Unassuming Subversion of Built To Spill
PCP Issue #52
by Andy Smith
The West is a fabled place in American lore, and as massive and geographically ill-defined as it may be, when you say “the West” out loud, visions of sweeping landscapes, epic mountains, and herds of wild animals running across vast open spaces will magically appear. Go ahead and try it right now if you want to.
And if you have driven across this portion of the country, which can be roughly defined as the area stretching from west of the Missouri River to the coastal mountains ranges along the Pacific Coast, it’s expanse can be breathtaking, and the ability to drive across large stretches of it at high speeds with not another car in sight is certainly hypnotic and often unnerving.
Accordingly, there is a common expansive, epic essence among some of the better-known indie rock from the American West. This musical thread that conjures images of endless skies and scenes of grandeur and open spaces runs from the Pacific Northwest (Screaming Trees and others) to northern and central California (Pavement, Grandaddy, and Thin White Rope) to the desert southwest (Giant Sand, the Meat Puppets, Calexico, and At the Drive-In) and north along the Rocky Mountains to Boise, Idaho, the hometown of Built to Spill.
It has been thirteen years since the first Built To Spill record was released on the small C/Z label, and after a five year absence, the band is geared up to release its seventh record (and fifth for Warner Brothers). Many fans have probably wondered if Built To Spill has been thrown on the major label scrap heap in the wake of the feeding frenzy over the hippest new pouty haircut bands, whose new wavey sounds tend to be the opposite of Built To Spill’s sweeping guitar-drawn landscapes. But the band’s forthcoming You In Reverse record, doesn’t just politely remind us that this great band is back; it boldly spells out across its ten tracks why it deserves to be mentioned before such currently popular indie crossover bands as Death Cab For Cutie and Modest Mouse, and in fact, deserves consideration alongside such influential artists as Dinosaur Jr. and even Neil Young (whom singer/guitarist Doug Martsch is often compared to).
You In Reverse is the first Built To Spill record as a quartet, with guitarist Jim Roth (who has toured with the band as second guitarist since 1999) on board as a full-time member joining drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson, and Martsch describes it as “our most collaborative record” with all of the members contributing songs. This is quite a departure from the band’s earlier days when Martsch was in full control.
He also says that most of the songs came as the result of extended jams, a technique that also worked well on the band’s acclaimed Keep It Like a Secret record (released in 1999): “We just all go in a room and someone starts playing something, and we just go with it for ten or fifteen minutes. I record everything on an ADAT machine, so then I go back through the recordings later and see what stands out. Then we build the songs from there.”
Roth’s contribution to the record is immediately felt as Martsch credits him with creating the two chord riff that forms the core of “Going Against Your Mind,” You In Reverse‘s lead-off track. As much a statement of purpose and challenge as these low-key guys are likely to make, the band takes Roth’s simple riff matched with Plouf’s driving rhythm and runs with it for eight and a half glorious minutes. The song swells and ebbs hypnotically as Martsch pastes guitar runs over it and sings in his familiar tenored voice (which probably draws the Neil Young comparisons as much as anything else). It’s a very bold way to lead off a record in these attention-deficit ridden times, but it works brilliantly. And Martsch says about the comments that Built To Spill writes overly long songs, “We would love to be a band that has just two or three minute songs, but that’s just not what we do. We swore off the long songs before, but here we are again.”
The record continues after its epic opener with more tracks obviously built from jam sessions including the shimmering “Traces” which is more subdued but still vast in its tone, the brooding “Wherever You Go”, and the almost raga-rock “Mess With Time.” Also included are songs like “Liar” and “Saturday” which Martsch said were written outside of the band’s jamming sessions and come off as more straightforward compositions, and it is the combination of these two writing styles that adds a variety to the sound and feel of the record and keeps it from getting too sprawling.
As for the first single, “Conventional Wisdom,” Martsch said the signature guitar lick, which provides the record’s most soaring moment, was the result of a simple change of the song’s key. “It originally was in A, but we shifted it to D,” he explains. “So it went from being subdued to piercing. Then the turnaround in that song just came automatically while we were playing it, which I found really unsettling that it came so easily.”
Overall, You In Reverse has a comfort and organic ease about it, which is a welcome counterpoint to the continued onslaught of music that has been processed and digitized into product. Of course, as Built To Spill fans will expect, there is stellar guitar playing throughout including plenty of well-placed slide work from both Roth and Martsch. And fans who catch the band on the upcoming national tour later this spring will get to see a full guitar army version of Built To Spill as frequent contributor Brett Netson joins as a third guitar player, which Martsch says not only takes the pressure off of him but also allows him to stand back and enjoy watching Roth and Netson in action. Taken together, the record and tour will likely provide a benchmark that the activities of a lot of other high-profile indie bands will be measured against this year.
When discussing the frequent claims that Built To Spill is somehow carrying on the fading tradition of classic rock, Martsch seems rather baffled but does find a common thread that might make the assertion indirectly relevant: “I’ve always had an affinity for bands that were on SST like Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers and Dinosaur Jr. are an influence as well. And those bands were all influenced by classic rock, so maybe that’s it.”
As for Built To Spill’s connection to the myth of the American West, Martsch points to the geographical and cultural isolation that led to the growth and development of the local Boise scene during the 80’s. This was the community that spawned bands like State of Confusion and Caustic Resin (featuring Netson) whose members eventually went on to form first Treepeople (which included Martsch) and eventually the Halo Benders and Built To Spill. “There wasn’t a lot to do and not a lot of bands came through, so we were exposed to less,” remembers Martsch. “But when you found something cool you would throw yourself into it and be immersed.”
The result was a close-knit group of musicians who took the revered do-it-yourself ethos embodied by among others, the SST label bands, to heart. “The whole notion of just regular people making music had a huge impact,” says Martsch. “And there was a strong egalitarian ideal that was about more than music.” As a tribute to one of the key figures from those early Boise days, You In Reverse is dedicated to the late Pat Schmaljohn, who was a founding member of State of Confusion.
Built To Spill has taken an anomalous road on its journey through the American music landscape. From its origins in Idaho, far removed from the coastal taste making centers, to playing long, extended guitar solos in a three-minutes-or-less pop song world to surviving as a decidedly indie band on a major label, the band has subverted the usual path to notoriety. But what You In Reverse helps to crystallize is that even though the band’s unassuming and unhurried ways make it sometimes easy to overlook, the stunning quality of its music is impossible to ignore.