Mission Creek Festival: Built to Spill w/ Rituals of Mine, BStar
Gabe’s — Saturday, April 7 at 7 p.m.
When I first moved Iowa City in 2000, an alarming number of Los Angeles- and New York-based music publicists tried to cajole me into seeing artists who were playing in Boise, Idaho. The first time this happened, I assumed they were joking about confusing Des Moines with Boise, home to Built to Spill, but it was only I who wound up cracking wise (pointing out that no band was worth a 1,500-mile road trip, though I’d be happy to receive a first-class plane ticket).
Given that both Iowa and Idaho are so far off the coastal radars, which overlook their thriving cultural scenes, Built to Spill’s headlining appearance at Mission Creek Festival fits like a glove. Everything about singer-guitarist Doug Martsch and his longtime band is unassuming and undramatic — from the two decades of major-label albums they’ve steadily released as the music industry collapsed around them to the lilting melodies and long, winding solos that weep gently from Martsch’s guitar.
Built to Spill has distinguished itself with a quarter century of consistent record-making: no wild stylistic turns and no off-brand collaborations with fancy production people or song doctors (a la Weezer, Liz Phair, Fall Out Boy). Martsch’s lyrics are impressionistic but emotionally direct, like the following moment from their 1994 classic, There is Nothing Wrong with Love, during “Twin Falls”:
Christmas, Twin Falls, Idaho is her oldest memory
She was only two
It was the first time she felt blue
Cafeteria, Harrison Elementary
Beneath a parachute
I saw her without shoes
7UP I touched her thumb and she knew it was me
Living in Twin Falls as a kid, Martsch loved music and listened to the radio all the time — though there wasn’t much to do in his hometown, and the only record stores were corporate retailers like Musicland.
“In junior high school I spent all my allowance money on cassettes,” he said. “I had a friend, Brett Nelson, who played in Built to Spill for a long time, and he was a musician. He had a synthesizer and I was pretty into that, and my brother and sister, who were six and eight years older than me, they played guitar a little bit. There was an acoustic guitar around and every now and then I would mess around with it, but it wasn’t anything serious.”
About a month before Martsch entered high school, a new world opened up for him after he moved to Boise (“My mom’s good, she got me out of Twin Falls, Idaho/before I got too old/you know how that goes,” he also sang in “Twin Falls”). He didn’t know anyone in that city, so Martsch took this as an opportunity to learn some chords on the guitar, and his interest grew more intense.
“That was how I got started playing music,” he said. “Brett Nelson still lived in Twin Falls after I moved to Boise, but we remained best friends, and we would visit each other over a few months and write songs together.” Martsch, Nelson and drummer Andy Capps formed a thrashy high school band, Farm Days, which was the same lineup that later played on There Is Nothing Wrong With Love. “It was rawer — faster, more punk rock and even stupider,” he said. “That was the main difference.”
“Growing up in Boise was nice,” Martsch continued, “because there was enough going on so that it wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t overwhelming either. When there was a good band that came to town, it was a special occasion. And there was a really great independent record store, Record Exchange, that is still there today — which was really important. I hung out there all the time because it was just a couple blocks from where I lived in Boise, and there was a guy who worked there who took me under his wing and introduced me to a lot of cool music.”
This led Martsch to join Treepeople, which moved to Seattle just as the Pacific Northwest music scene was revving into high gear. After releasing several seven-inches and a couple EPs and full-length records, they called it quits and Martsch moved back to Boise. He formed Built to Spill in 1992 after reuniting with bassist Brett Nelson, debuting with 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, and has remained tethered to the place ever since.
“It’s just cheaper to live here,” he said, “and more than that, it’s just where we ended up being. We bought a house there and our son went to school there, so we just put down roots. It’s still an affordable place.”
This has allowed Martsch to continue Built to Spill in his own low-key way, releasing a record every few years and occasionally going out on tour.
Martsch said the band is working on a few new songs — we might hear one or two during their Mission Creek Festival appearance at Gabe’s — but Built to Spill is in no rush to record a new album. Unbothered by regimented release schedules and other music biz constrictions, the band continues to rock on in its own unhurried way.
Kembrew McLeod is the ultimate alternative waver. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 240.