Secret Society

Built to Spill leader Doug Martsch may be a modest family man, but his fans can't resist putting him on a pedestal

That Built to Spill's Doug Martsch is the most unlikely of rock stars is obvious from the minute he picks up the phone at his Boise, Idaho, home and explains that he's watching his 5-year-old son, Ben. Politely he asks, "Could you call back in a half-hour?"

Thirty-five minutes later, the soft-spoken voice that takes on a cartoonish timbre in song is still wondering where Ben's mom is, and politely asks for a minute to set his son up in front of an episode of The Simpsons before he can continue.

Actually, even after the driving force behind Boise's best-known commodity after the potato is free to talk, he doesn't say much. And he doesn't have to. Among people making original music in 1999, Martsch is one of the few who deserves the weighty moniker of "artist" at all (save The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, but, then, he gave that name to himself). Martsch is that kind of cliche, a creative visionary who speaks through his art so clearly that to elaborate in conversation would be as superfluous as painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

That's not to say he doesn't gamely try to explain Built to Spill's latest record, Keep It Like a Secret, the band's second since making the jump to major-label status on Warner Bros. Built to Spill is usually comprised of Martsch and whomever he decides to play with, but Secret marks the first time that Built to Spill has kept the same lineup for two albums in a row: Martsch, drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson.

The band's previous album, 1997's Perfect From Now On, marked a rather extreme departure from 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love, its last full-length release on indie label Up Records. While Love was loose, rangy pop marked by Martsch's childlike vocals and funny, whammy-bar guitar entanglements, reacquainting wit with the three-minute pop song, Perfect was, simply, a study in self-indulgent guitar excess. The hooks were still there, but they were buried under swirling layers of guitars and dreamy jams that were compellingly trancelike, but not particularly easy for the average listener to digest.

Keep It Like a Secret fills the stylistic chasm between the two--in fact, it could've fallen between Love and Perfect, and no one would have noticed the difference. One imagines executives at Warner Bros. breathing a sigh of relief when they first heard Secret and, though Martsch says he tries to avoid business considerations, he probably wouldn't blame them.

"I kind of think of it that way, too--kind of a cross between those [Love and Perfect]," Martsch says of the new album. "There wasn't much they [Warner Bros.] could do with the last record, and I didn't expect them to. I don't expect them to do anything with this record, but there's obviously more you can do with it. It catches people a little easier than the other one."

In fact, songs like "Center of the Universe" and "Sidewalk" are downright cute, much reminiscent of Love's "Big Dipper" and "In the Morning." Of course, Martsch still can't resist letting his imagination get the best of him, and even potential radio hits are augmented with languid guitar solos that veer as far away from a song's melody as possible. But some of the old Built to Spill playfulness is there, and whatever dark place Martsch occupied during Perfect seems, if not a distant memory, at least far enough out of sight to be out of mind.

Perhaps most brilliant is that through all his metamorphoses, Martsch's trademark sound remains unmistakable. And, though he says his lyrics are "just something to fit the meter and the melody," it's arguable that that's where the real gravy is: in Martsch's intuitive ability to convey truths about human nature. Lyrics like, "I want to see it when you find out what comets, stars and moons are all about," juxtaposed with, "You can't trust anyone, 'cause you're untrustable," strike just the right balance between romantic folly and the general frustration that life and the people living it won't ever meet their promise.

"They're about me as much as about humanity," Martsch says of his lyrics. "They're about human stupidity in general, myself included, and the difficulties of being a human being. Especially in this cultureless society."

He trails off, and there's that silence again, the silence he uses so deftly in his music, letting the guitar shimmer away before blasting out a wall-shaking solo. But as gifted and calculating a songwriter as he is, Martsch insists he has no idea how this stuff comes out. And though he is, and always has been, the brains of the operation, he never uses "I" when discussing Built to Spill.

"It's just the way we happen to sound," he says, the shrug almost audible through the phone. "When we make records and write songs and stuff, it's just messing around with things, and if something sounds good to us, we use it. We don't do very much intentionally until we start recording, and then it becomes a little more intentional, because it becomes more the craft of making the songs in the studio. I have no idea what any of our records are about, or what our next record will be about. It's just sort of what comes naturally to us."

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