Built to Spill were one of the most popular indie rock acts of the ‘90s, finding the middle ground between postmodern, Pavement-style pop and the loose, spacious jamming of Neil Young. From the outset, the band was a vehicle for singer/songwriter/guitarist Doug Martsch, who revived the concept of the indie guitar hero just as Dinosaur Jr.‘s J Mascis—another important influence—was beginning to fade from the limelight. On record, Martsch the arranger crafted intricate, artfully knotted tangles of guitar; in concert, his rough-edged soloing heroics earned Built to Spill a reputation as an exciting and unpredictable live act.
Built to Spill were formed in Boise, Idaho, in 1993, shortly after Martsch had departed the Boise-rooted, Seattle-based Treepeople. Martsch had grown up in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he formed his first band, Farm Days, with bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Andy Capps while in high school during the mid-‘80s. After moving to Boise, Martsch hooked up with former members of the local hardcore punk band State of Confusion to form Treepeople, which relocated to Seattle in 1988. There they signed with the local indie C/Z and issued several albums and EPs that offered a distinctive take on early Northwestern grunge. Eventually tiring of the band’s far-ranging touring commitments, Martsch departed after 1993’s Just Kidding album, and despite the continuing boom of the Seattle scene, he returned to Boise to refresh himself.
Ultimate Alternative WaversMartsch formed the first incarnation of Built to Spill with bassist/guitarist Brett Netson (also a member of Boise scenesters Caustic Resin) and drummer Ralf Youtz. Initially maintaining a relationship with C/Z, Built to Spill debuted on record in 1993 with Ultimate Alternative Wavers, on which Martsch billed himself as “Dug.” Afterward, Martsch moved the band over to another Seattle indie, Up Records, and revamped the rhythm section, in keeping with his plan to make Built to Spill a loose aggregation that would allow him to work with a variety of musicians. This time, he was joined by bassist Brett Nelson (not Netson, but his old cohort from Farm Days) and drummer Andy Capps (also from Farm Days, who’d joined Nelson in a group called Butterfly Train).
Ancient Melodies of the FutureThe proper studio follow-up to Keep It Like a Secret arrived with 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future; critical responses ranged from enthusiasm to indifference. The following year, Martsch took a breather to release Now You Know, a solo album on which he delved into more traditional folk and blues. After a long break from releasing records, the revamped group (now a quartet comprising Martsch, Nelson, Plouf, and Roth with additional help from the guitar-playing Brett Netson) stormed back with one of the finest records of their career, 2006’s You in Reverse. Built to Spill resumed touring just after its release, and began recording for their next album later that year, although the results came in the form of a single, 2007’s “They Got Away.” The band entered the studio once again in 2008, recording There Is No Enemy with production from Martsch and David Trumfio. The album appeared in October of 2009 and the band spent some time touring behind it. They next appeared on a tribute album to the Smiths (Please, Please, Please), covering “Reel Around the Fountain.” While in the early stages of recording their next album, Plouf and Nelson quit the band and their roadie Jason Albertini (otherwise known as a former member of Duster) joined on bass, while their live sound engineer, Steve Gere, became their drummer. The group then scrapped what had already been recorded, starting over with the new lineup and Sam Coomes co-producing with Martsch. Still with Warner Bros. after many years, the label released the band’s eighth studio album, Untethered Moon, in early 2015. In 2020, the band released Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston, a tribute to the legendary outsider singer/songwriter who had passed away the year prior.