Idaho is not the first place one might think of for music, but the state best known for potatoes spawned one of indie rock’s biggest low-fi stars. Built To Spill helped define the “indie sound” for many people during the ’90s, even as they recorded on a major label.
Built To Spill took elements of power pop and grunge angst to make a low-fi math rock alternative. The band is basically centered around Doug Martsch, who started it from the remnants of Treepeople, a defunct act from Boise where Martsch was based. The band had released a string of quirky albums that combined the scruffy playfulness of Dinosaur Jr. with the broken melodies of Pavement. While not cold and as deliberate as most math rock, Built to Spill retained a playful organic quality to their music, thanks in part to another influence; Neil Young. The band’s charm and their funny name may have helped the college rock favorite ‘Big Dipper’ from 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love become a minor hit.
Built To Spill would catch the attention of Warner Bros. and be signed with some control over the direction of future albums. It was a big step for indie rock, as more big labels were trying to acquire the next big post Nirvana sound. Ironically, it would be during their time with Warner Bro. that theywould become the poster boys of ’90s indie-rock.
Perfect from Now On, the band’s big label debut was a critical success, but not the breakthrough Warner Bros. was looking for. They must have known because a few months after the release, they began working on their fourth album Keep It Like a Secret. It was Built To Spill’s most accessible album and arguably it’s best. By many measures it was pure pop, as the band polished up some rough edges while laying on the humor and charm. The meandering jam session tendencies of the past were also kept in check. With tighter arrangements, hooks and short songs, Keep It Like a Secret would become the big breakthrough Warner Bros. was looking for.
One classic element of Built To Spill that was retained was Doug Martsch’s clever writing. The song ‘You Were Right’ wraps up about 30 years worth of pop cliches for one of the year’s most humorously sarcastic songs. Other tracks like ‘The Plan’ and ‘Carry the Zero’ show just how close Martsch’s voice could come to sounding like the Mitch Easter school of Southern rock circa 1986.
Built to Spill continues to define indie-rock today with a evolution of their original formula with a bit more grown up song writing approach. They are one of the rare examples of an indie rock band making it big (relatively so) and not selling out their sound to a big label. Nowadays its difficult to tell what the “indie-rock” sound is anymore. I have no doubt that Built to Spill may have inspired its share of bands who try to sound independent be they on a big label or garage.
Death Cab for Cutie