Before indie rock was a thing, like the hip, Urban Outfitters thing we know today, there was Built to Spill, one of the most indie of indie bands to ever indie. Which is kind of confusing, because the band has been on Warner Bros. Records for most of its career, but whatever: Built to Spill is still, like, indie, you know? What does "indie" even mean, anyway?
Twenty-three years and eight albums later, the Boise group still is defining what independence means in modern rock, returning with its latest indie opus, Untethered Moon. If your '90s nostalgia tank was running on empty, saturnine songs like "Never Be the Same" and the peach-fuzz rock on "Another Day" should assuage that indie itch. "Living Zoo" opens like a slowed-down version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Pin" before crashing into a Galaxie 500-like pensiveness. It's indie rock to rule them all, and, in the darkness, bind them.
When singer-guitarist Doug Martsch formed Built to Spill in 1992, his original goal was to create a new lineup for each release. Martsch kept the habit for the first few albums, but after 1997's Perfect from Now On, he presumably got bored with the strategy and kept a more permanent roster.
It's been an unprecedented six years between Untethered Moon and the group's last release, There Is No Enemy. So what has Martsch been doing the whole time? We found out he's mostly been watching the Portland Trail Blazers.
"I don't even listen to very much music. I like to watch basketball, mostly," Martsch says. "When I listen to music, I mostly listen to old reggae, things I grew up with. I'm not a person that goes out and finds a lot of music . . . I really stopped buying records a long time ago."
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But that isn't to say Martsch's influences are limited. He draws from artists like Neil Young, Pavement, and Dinosaur Jr., the latter being especially interesting because there was a time J. Mascis was almost B2S's drummer. If one trait stands out, it's Built to Spill's penchant for dissolving its songs into crunchy, crushing guitar solos. You might call Built to Spill a "jam band," a label Martsch is fine with, despite its connotations.
"I mean, we definitely do some jamming, but . . . I don't think any of us really listen to the Grateful Dead," Martsch says. "There's a lot of improv when we play, but not necessarily jamming."
Martsch is the band's principal songwriter, but he has been known to co-write songs with his wife, Karena Youtz, the sister of former Built to Spill member Ralf Youtz.
"On this record, she didn't do very much. I mostly wrote all these songs," Martsch says, adding that she did write the catchy chorus to "Living Zoo." "I ran everything by her before we made the record and made sure that she approved. She helped me sort out a couple lines here and there . . . When I'm writing songs, I'll have a little melody in mind and I'll just sing out whatever words come to mind. I had this line, 'When will I realize when I'm right.' Karena recommended changing it to 'blind' because it sounded better."
Thus, the twitchy, strung-out, eight-minute album closer "When I'm Blind" was penned. About the title, Martsch says, "It has no meaning to me -- they're just words. You can go back and find something to make meaning out of it. There might be some sort of unconscious, subconscious communication going on there that I'm not aware of, but as far as I know, they're just sounds for the voice to make on the record."
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