Guitar-Shredding on the High Seas
"If I decided I wanted to have a hit single, and sat down to write one, I don't think I could do it," announces Doug Martsch, lead singer and guitarist for Boise's Built to Spill. The band formed in 1993 and has been erratically evolving ever since, with Martsch the only constant member. "We just stumble across things, and what we get is what we get," he continues. "It never comes out the way we imagine it's going to."
The earliest BTS records were humble, prototypically indie-rock affairs, with fairly lo-fi production values and a tendency toward brevity and self-effacing wit. Lyrics like "actually I've never even been to a railway station / even though I used to live near one" were sung with an urgency born of trying to force all those syllables into the stanza rather than anything emotional, and marked Martsch as an offhand slacker-poet in the mold of Pavement's Stephen Malkmus or Sebadoh/Folk Implosion's Lou Barlow. The music and production often sounded casual and slapped-together, in keeping with the reigning aesthetic of the times.
That all changed in 1997, the year Built to Spill released Perfect From Now On via famous non-indie label Warner Bros. The record floated Martsch's basically unchanged vocal and lyrical personality over a (relatively) huge and slick studio sound. "If I'd had my way on Perfect From Now On," Martsch says now, "it would have sounded a lot better. But I don't think it would have resonated in the same way with people. I would've wanted it to be even slicker, like some British pop band like Oasis or something, which is stuff I don't even like. And that record did come out sort of epic, but in a closet kind of way, still private somehow, and kinda fucked up. What we stumble across always seems to turn out better than what I originally had in mind."
The band quickly solidified its reputation as a post-Alternative Nation answer to Neil Young & Crazy Horse, reaching an apotheosis of guitar transcendence on its 2000 Live disc, which featured a paint-peeling, 20-minute rendition of Young's "Cortez the Killer." But in typical, roundabout BTS fashion, their next (and still most recent) CD, 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future, was a tuneful but keyboard-drenched, quasi-psychedelic monstrosity. "I wanted sounds that would just sustain and fill up areas," explains Martsch. "I just put tons of keyboards on there, 'cause guitars didn't seem to be doing it. It wasn't until a couple years later when I went back and listened to it that I realized, like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe how much keyboard is on this record!' "
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Six-string enthusiasts can hereby relax: To hear Martsch tell it, the current BTS lineup, featuring three guitar players (including ex-Caustic Resin axman Brett Netson), could be appropriately renamed Built to Shred.
"Way back on Keep It Like a Secret, I played all the parts myself," says Martsch, referring to their sophomore WB release. "But these days I think it's just a lot more interesting when there are different people coming up with totally different ideas from the kinds of things I would come up with just on my own. Since Brett's been in the band I've kinda been re-energized, 'cause he's a, um, genius and somehow I think we can exploit that to our advantage. Our most recent songs were written mostly out of practice jams. We have dozens of hours of stuff that we've culled ideas from."
Genius exploitation is apparently a long and arduous process: There's still no release date set for the new Built to Spill CD, and it's been in the works for so long that the band isn't likely to be playing much from it this time around. "We've been laboring over those songs nonstop for the last few years," says Martsch. "They're really not that much fun for us to play right now. We've got some even newer things we'll be concentrating on this time around."
Portland-based tourmates the Decemberists are easily one of the most literate and eccentric of modern touring-recording acts. Their lyrical tendency toward wordy story-songs about barrow boys, engine drivers and "chimbley sweeps" marks them as arch anachronists, but although they seem to have the market on Victorian-era job description tunes pretty well sewn up, singer Colin Meloy contends that it would be unfair to drown them in the nostalgia bag.
"We actually deal with a lot of things that are contemporary," he says, citing the recent track "Sixteen Military Wives" and its refrain of "America can, and America can't say no /and America does if America says it's so, it's so! / and the anchorperson on TV goes 'La-di-da-di-da.' " The verses of the song find an equal amount of vitriol aimed at government, media and ineffectual celebrity-liberal poseurs, while not losing focus on its compassion for those whose lives are sundered by war.
The sound of the Decemberists is not unlike Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, if that band were drained of all testosterone and fronted by Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, although Meloy's lisping, painstakingly enunciated vocals seem to be a sticking point for anti-Decemberists. Indeed, the band's reviews tend to be split between abject worship of their verbose intelligence and out-of-hand rejection of their twee sensibility. One particularly scabrous put-down from the magazine Blender, opining that their second disc "staggers under the unbearable preciousness of donkey-voiced singer Colin Meloy," even made it into the Decemberists' press kit. "I just thought it was a funny review," says the vocalist in question, with a wry chuckle.
To be fair, the band has shown steady development. The folky, at times even Belle and Sebastian-like sound of the earlier CDs gave way to the near-prog of their 2004 seafaring mini-rock-opera, The Tain, and has found even further expansion on the recent Picaresque CD. Indeed, tunes like "The Infanta" and the epic, darkly comic "Mariner's Revenge Song" fairly bristle with sonic and lyrical power, which can only be expected to gain in drama and excitement in a live setting.
"We actually have been toying around with a theatrical element," says Meloy. "We even had outfits that we wore on stage for the last tour. But I think when people come to see us they ultimately expect a rock show, so we're pulling back on that aspect a bit. We do play in front of a backdrop, though."
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