Built To Spill

A lot of people ask me: “Ryan, what’s your favorite band from Idaho?” For many, that’s a very difficult question to answer.

A lot of people ask me: “Ryan, what’s your favorite band from Idaho?” For many, that’s a very difficult question to answer. First of all, there aren’t very many well-known bands from Idaho to choose from and, much like Salt Lake City’s music scene, Boise is often quietly passed by in favor of the greener pastures and bigger markets of Portland or Seattle.

But for music fans, the state of Idaho means much more than gigantic potatoes. It is also the birthplace and current habitat of one of the best bands in the entire universe: Built To Spill. Recently rocking two sold-out shows in a row at the Crystal Ballroom, Built To Spill demonstrates once again that they are indeed the greatest musicians you haven’t heard of, and more than qualified to tear Portland’s uber-exclusive music scene into tiny sonic shreds.

Cited as major influences by both Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, Built to Spill truly exemplifies the Northwest sound. They were, in fact, a crucial part of developing the indie music genre since their inception in 1992, pre-dating the Mouse’s first major release by nearly five years. Although they tour and record as a five-plus member band, every instrumental arrangement for the songs, as well as all of the lyrics, begin their life as the ethereal brain-children of frontman Doug Martsch.

Balding at 37 years old, rocking a decent beard and street clothes, he does not look like your typical rock star while on stage. Suspiciously absent are the costumes of the shallow fashionista that tend to proliferate modern rock shows, both in the audience and on-stage. Forgotten completely are the pretensions of a man whose genius spans generations, a man who knows for a fact that everyone in the filled-to-capacity crowd is completely enamored with him. He’s just a regular guy who (although he could easily hire a roadie) still takes the time to set up and take down his own equipment night after night-something to be respected in the slave-driven music economy of today.

The best way to describe BTS’s unique sound is to employ a simple mathematical formula. Take the elements of everything that is good about the 1990s post-Nirvana experimental grunge era and combine that with good old-fashioned punk rock do-it-yourself garage sensibility. Add the cult-oriented lyrical charm of Neutral Milk Hotel and you have yourself the band we call Built to Spill.

Inevitably, the band can’t help but draw comparisons to venerated 1970s folk rock icon Neil Young. Surprisingly enough, Young’s voice and flower-power social commentary are a perfect marriage to Doug Martsch’s atonal-yet-sweet singing and obscure artistic vision. On their heralded 2000 release, Built to Spill Live, the band’s combined efforts manage to transform Neil Young’s classic indictment of fifteenth century South American colonialism, “Cortez the Killer,” into a mellifluous and feedback-laden 20-minute reminder that the past is very much alive, indicating that it’s much better off in the cool, calloused hands of Doug Martsch than in the paws of an old anti-war-mongering hippie.

Touring in support of their most recent album, You In Reverse, BTS’s recent gigs at the Crystal Ballroom demonstrate the symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship that the band has shared with the fine Oregonians throughout the years. The new CD was recorded at Portland’s Audible Alchemy studios under the tutelage of owner and producer Steve Lobdell, who also contributed guitar and percussion to the album.

Their live show features a projection slideshow of images by Portland-based multimedia artist Mike Sheer that is psychedelic and awesome. More jam band-esque than you would typically expect of out similar bands, Built To Spill, when performing live, is somewhat like the Grateful Dead mixed with Pavement. You get the long improvisational songs with the three-plus guitars each going off in their own directions (with mixed results), but you also get enough of the tightly arranged, seriously rocking songs that define the northwest sound.

Two weeks prior to seeing Built To Spill, I witnessed my favorite Portland punk band, The Thermals, pull a cover at Musicfest Northwest of Built To Spill’s “The Big Dipper” out of nowhere for their encore, demonstrating the genre-spanning influence Doug Martsch has over younger bands.

By the time I finally saw BTS on Sept. 21, I was expecting greatness and I was not disappointed. A big problem with most bands on tour in support of a new record is that often times, older established songs get cut from the set list in favor of more recent material, but Doug & Co. balanced songs from You in Reverse with a healthy number of fan favorites, and everyone was happy.

I basically sat there the whole show hoping they would play “Car,” whose poignant lyrics “I want to see movies of my dreams” resonate in the minds of every Built To Spill fan. Sadly, they didn’t play my other favorite song “I Would Hurt a Fly,” but what I got instead were extended versions of “The Plan” and “Randy Described Eternity,” and a stripped-down “Car,” which was the highpoint of the evening.

The best part of the whole experience was post-show, after everyone had left and the band was taking down their equipment. I deftly moved past the lone security guard and confronted my hero face-to-face to ask him the one important question that no one had ever asked him:

Who do you think would win in a fistfight, Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse or Neil Young?

To tell the truth, I honestly don’t know for sure, but probably Isaac…

I agree. While the world might have to wait a long time for that particular showdown, at least one thing is certain: No one in the music world is kicking Built To Spill’s ass anytime soon.

New to Built to Spill? Listen to these songs:

1. “I Would Hurt a Fly”2. “Big Dipper”3. “Cortez The Killer (live)”4. “Joyride”5. “When Not Being Stupid is Not Enough”6. “Randy Described Eternity” 7. “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain”8. “Stop the Show” 9. “So & So from Wherever Wherever” 10. “Car”