Built to Spill's Secret to Success: Just Keep Playing

Last month, the highly influential and legendary indie-rock band Built to Spill put out Untethered Moon, their first album since 2009. The album represents another solid entry in the band’s already stacked catalog, proving that while they have found a comfortable groove, the output has not faced any diminishing returns. Moon is also the band's first album since they underwent a lineup shift, as longtime members Scott Plouf and Bret Nelson left in 2013 and were replaced by drummer Steve Gere and Jason Albertini, the latter of whom is an original member of Queens of the Stone Age.

Built to Spill is currently in the midst of a tour behind the new album, including festival stops at Coachella and Shakey Knees, and performs at Warehouse Live tonight. While waiting for the rest of the band to wake up during a stop in Tallahassee, longtime guitarist Brett Netson answered a few questions about recording the new album, playing with a new lineup, Built to Spill's legacy and his latest solo EP, released this past March with his band The Snakes.

Houston Press: It’s been six years since Built to Spill’s last album, There Is No Enemy, came out. Was there ever a time you thought it might be your last, or was there always going to be another album?
Brett Netson: It was a given. All kinds of things cross your mind. When you’re making a bit of money playing music, you never know if people are going to come to shows. It’s a mysterious situation. I know for Doug [front man Martsch] and pretty much everyone in the band, that’s what we do, so that’s a given, so we're going do something — so why not another album?

Were these songs written recently, or have some been in the works since the last record?

Both. Some are older and some are brand-new. We have been playing “When I’m Blind” and “Living Zoo” since the last record. We tried recording “When I’m Blind” on the last record, so that’s six years old. Sometimes you’re in the studio and it's not happening and you keep trying until you get it right.

What was it like getting used to the new lineup?

It happened pretty naturally. When they first started playing with us, we did some long practices all winter. After that tour, we did ten hours a day, including weekends. We weren’t even practicing songs, just playing a lot. It really helps to play as much as possible when you start playing with new people so you can get a thorough musical vocabulary of what everybody’s tendencies and instincts are. The fact is those two guys are two of the best players I’ve ever known. Jason was in a band called Duster and a band called Helvetia. Steve played in my band, Snakes, for a few years, so when we were looking for a drummer, it made sense.

Speaking of Snakes, the new EP has a heavier tone to it. What were some of the influences behind that?

I’ve been listening to a lot of newer underground metal. It’s been one of the most exciting scenes. It’s the only thing that’s truly underground, and I have a tendency to like underground tribes. There’s great bands like Yob, Eletric Wizard and UFO Mammoth. It’s beautiful, dark and all about tying the atmosphere with heaviness. For a long time, I was disillusioned with new music. I heard some of these newer bands and was like, 'Holy crap, that’s where the weird, heavy music is.' West Coast black metal bands like Ash Borer & Predatory Light, too, that’s the stuff that got me really psyched. And there are all the same blues influences like Howlin Wolf, that stuff is so ingrained in the way I play. I knew it’s too late for me to make a doom-metal record, but I just made the record I could make.

Over the course of your 20-plus years playing music, what changes have you seen that have been good for the industry and which haven’t?
I’ve been trying to have a better attitude lately. A few years ago, I was getting disgusted with music, and everything that’s changed, mostly I don’t like. We have a lot of cheap music recording equipment being made by slave labor overseas in terrible working conditions. The U.S. capitalism is so out of control, we can't even see it. People who should know better don’t care. Plus, there’s a ridiculous saturation on the lowest part of the “so-called underground.” Really small bands don’t get heard unless they have money for a publicist. They are the gatekeepers for who rises above this sea of nothingness. What kind of young people have $1,200 to get a publicist?

The part that I do like is there are things on the Internet that have been reliable and good for people on both hands, like Bandcamp. It’s a low-noise situation where it lives up to everybody’s claims of what the Internet is supposed to do. It puts the band in contact with the listener. I’ve been playing a long time, and I remember fanzines and the empowerment of that, and the only time I’ve gotten that kind of feeling is from stuff like Bandcamp.

Whereas many ‘90s indie bands broke up and reunited, Built to Spill always continued on. Why do you think that is?

I think just the fact that we kept playing. Built to Spill is a very specific situation because you have a clear bandleader/songwriter in Doug and that’s what he does. He plays music and that’s his life. He just keeps playing; whoever wanted to keep playing with him kept playing with him and whoever didn’t, didn’t. If you have a band that’s more of a democracy, people get into fights and get sick of each other and break up. This band is where Doug picked the people he wanted to play his music. It is a band in a lot of senses, especially live, where there’s chemistry between everyone involved. Just the simple fact we kept playing.

Built to Spill performs tonight at Warehouse Live (813 St. Emanuel) with special guests Wooden Indian Burial Ground and Clarke and the Himselfs. Doors open at 8 p.m.

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David Sackllah
Contact: David Sackllah