Built to Spill is a dichotomy in the "rock band" sense. They're regarded as pioneering hard-rockers, yet their rocking nature more or less ends there.
Everything else about the group is wholly unassuming. Doug Martsch, the band's burly, bearded singer/guitarist, maintains a quiet life, residing in Boise with his poet wife and hosting a weekly radio show on the city's community-programmed radio station.
Built to Spill isn't known for their hit singles or radio airplay. Instead, they remain exclusively music-driven and without superfluous airs. Today, they're a rare breed: They make music for the sole sake of making music.
"I've never thought about writing singles when writing a record," says Martsch. "I never set out to write a certain kind of song. The shape of a song is there, but I start playing around with the guitar and just stumble across songs and ideas, and build from there."
Built to Spill are preparing to record their eighth album, and first since 2009's There Is No Enemy.
"We took 2011 off, and we're going to start recording the new record in April," Martsch says. "I'm not sure how long it will take us to record, but I assume it will be about a year."
Each Built to Spill album houses a varied representation of influences. Martsch has written painfully emotive ballads ("Things Fall Apart") and in-your-face guitar-rock songs that last nine minutes ("Goin' Against Your Mind"). The heart of Built to Spill is somewhere in the middle, perhaps a song like "Carry the Zero" from 1999's Keep It Like a Secret.
"On the last couple of records, I've tried to keep things as short as they'll let themselves be," Martsch says. "But if something has to be longer, then it has to be. For example, Enemy song 'Good 'Ol' Boredom' was a song I felt was too long, but I couldn't get it any shorter — everything about it was essential."
"Boredom" clocks in at six minutes and 31 seconds, by the way.
"The last record had a lot of slow songs, just reflective of things that were happening in 'the universe,'" explains Martsch with his own quotation marks. "This new record is not too different; it's just a random hodgepodge of songs, with nothing really tying them together. The songs are really just tied together via the process of actually recording them."
That's not to say there isn't a token "pop" song on Built to Spill albums. On There Is No Enemy, that track is "Hindsight." The band filmed a music video for the song, directed by Mr. Show comedian/writer Bob Odenkirk.
"I like that song," Martsch says with modest hesitation. "We were big fans of Mr. Show. Bob [Odenkirk] came to a show of ours, and we met him and kept in touch over the years. He's an awesome supporter of the band, and still comes to our shows in L.A.
"Enemy's European label, All Tomorrow's Parties, wanted us to do a video for 'Hindsight,'" Martsch continues. "We didn't really want to, so we thought, 'Let's have Bob make it!' Luckily, he was up for it, and it turned out being really fun."
Martsch's wife penned the band's biography on Built to Spill's Web site, describing her husband as a songwriter who pours "hour after hour, day after day" into writing. It's a believable notion: Despite his seemingly casual approach to the art, Martsch appears to be a songwriter through and through. He even lists music among his hobbies outside of music — besides basketball, that is.
"I play fantasy basketball," he says, chuckling shamelessly. "I like to watch NBA games, and I play ball when I can. Granted, I didn't start playing until I was 30, so I'm not very good, but I enjoy it a lot.
"You know, I haven't played video games in a long time," Martsch reflects. "Playing fantasy basketball is the closest thing to video games that I play nowadays."
Naturally shifting back to music, Martsch begins talking about his radio show, Renegade Jukebox, which airs Wednesday nights on Boise's KRBX-FM. A peek at Martsch's playlists offers a glimpse of the musician's varied influences, including Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr., David Bowie and the Replacements.
"I just play music I like on the show," Martsch says. "You can stream it online; just go to Radio Boise [mainsite.radioboise.org] and look for my name."
In addition to their current tour, the band plays SXSW a few days after their Houston date. Those hoping for a glimpse into Built to Spill's new material at the band's Fitzgerald's show Monday shouldn't get their hopes up.
"We're not going to play any of the new stuff on this trip, because we haven't had a chance to rehearse the songs yet," says Martsch.
"Every night [on tour] is kind of different, but every night is kind of the same," he adds. "I mean, we've had bad experiences at our own shows sometimes, too, let alone festivals, so it's all good."
His comment hits close to home. The last time Built to Spill played in Houston, the crowd talked loudly through most of the set, spurring Martsch to call them out.
"I kind of remember that," he says of that October 2010 night at House of Blues. "I think that was during my acoustic stuff. I had just started playing acoustically, and I wasn't very good at it yet.
"It takes a lot more concentration," he adds. "I don't think I'd usually do that. If people talk, they talk. But I think I got a little flustered by it because it was pretty loud. We haven't played Fitzgerald's before. I think we'll be fine at a club like that.
"Then again," he continues, laughing subtly, "If people are talking, then maybe that means we're not playing that great of a show."
"We've played some horrible rooms in Houston, but we've had some great shows there," Martsch recalls. "I remember we played at the Engine Room a bunch."
True to his casual nature, Martsch isn't really approaching this Houston show with any set goals or expectations.
"We're just going to play some songs, and try to play them without messing up," he half-jokes. "Maybe not having the crowd talk through the set again is a goal, too — though I can't guarantee either of these things."
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