Built to Spill have been performing for 18 years and have seven studio albums to their credit, the last five on a major label, Warner Bros. They've received all sorts of critical plaudits, too. The last thing you'd have expected from the veteran indie rockers was to go on the road as an opening band. Strike that: The last thing you'd ever expect was for the Boise-based act to open for arena rockers Kings of Leon.
Yet that's exactly where Doug Martsch and his band found themselves earlier this summer, news greeted by a collective "WTF?" from hipsters and music snobs everywhere, many of whom revile KOL with almost unmatched passion. Some fans even suggested that the roles should be reversed, with Kings of Leon opening for Built to Spill — record sales be damned.
Asked about such assertions, Built to Spill guitarist Brett Netson remains diplomatic.
"I only heard that a few times," Netson says. "I mean, there were a few reviews. Every once in a while you'll take a peek at the reviews. I don't read them all the time, but with Kings of Leon, you're curious what people are saying, so I checked out a few. It's nice when people are rooting for you like that, sure, but those guys have got the mainstream rock method down pretty well. It's pretty amazing. It's pretty impressive . . . Their music is for the casual listener. They're not too grotesque, [and] they've got this huge, huge crowd. They're like Bryan Adams. They're mainstream in a pretty decent way. Something like that's easy to sell, and they do it pretty well."
Being part of a large-scale rock tour provided some surreal moments for the band.
"It's weird," Netson says. "Really, when you're standing up there, the feeling is you're playing for 7,000 people that could give a shit, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. People were not hostile toward us, which was nice. Just picture somebody walking back from the concession booth with a plate of nachos or something, looking at us and getting confused. 'What? Is that the crew or is that the band?' It was interesting for us."
With the Kings of Leon tour behind them, Built to Spill have returned to the more familiar role of headlining mid-size venues. Netson says the band had originally planned to work on new material for an upcoming album during sound checks on their current tour, but, instead, that time has been devoted to expanding the band's setlist.
"By the time we get [to Tempe], we might have a few more old songs that we're bringing back," Netson says.
Built to Spill's brief stint as an opening band placed them in amphitheaters full of mostly indifferent crowds, but the role of headliner is not without its own set of challenges, albeit more welcome ones.
"When you're headlining, there's a certain amount of pressure to deliver at least what people are expecting and to try to do a little more than that," Netson says. "When you play your own shows, you're looking at all those people that are just totally there to see you, and they're the same old awesome people that show up every time. You love it, and you want to do the best possible job for those people — God bless 'em — so there's a little pressure. Then you open a show for Kings of Leon, and there's no pressure. It's kinda funny, 'cause you're just like, whatever. We played 45 minutes and, boom, we're done — no sound check, nothing. Then we just fucked around all day."