Built to Spill’s struggles to capture its signature sound

For any musician, trying to come up with a foolproof formula for success is folly. Pick up your guitar one day, and everything flows effortlessly. The following day, nothing sounds right, no matter what you do. One album might utterly capture your musical essence; the next might fall flat. You can play virtually the same set two nights in a row, and one show could be amazing, the other lousy. It's what's so maddening and magical about music.

Being the basketball freak that he is — both as a fan and avid player — it makes sense that Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch would come up with a hoops analogy to explain that mysterious, elusive nature of his career.

“Once you think you've got your shot and you're just knocking everything down, you're like, 'Oh, this is all I have to do,'” he says. “And then it's gone the moment you say that to yourself, and you're starting all over again.”

If Built to Spill hasn't figured out how to make everything slam-dunk perfect — and Martsch struggles to create each of the band's albums as though it's his first — the Boise quintet has nonetheless delivered awe-inspiring material across its 17-year existence. Initially forged as a hybrid of Dinosaur Jr.'s indie-punk fury and Neil Young and Crazy Horse's seismic, cosmic rock, Built to Spill quickly established itself as a distinctive and influential outfit. The band's epic, artfully constructed guitar jams and Martsch's high, yearning voice and ruminative lyrics have led the way.

The excellence continues with There Is No Enemy, its new, seventh LP and one of its most curious, and finest, albums. For one thing, it marks the band's most restrained effort to date, spotlighting straightforward arrangements and slower tempos (the billowy “Nowhere Lullaby”; the Dire Straits–summoning “Life's a Dream”) instead of proggy structures and tempestuous guitars. The band still rages and burns on “Pat” and “Tomorrow,” however. Enemy also pits some of the band's most magnetic melodies against Martsch's most acerbic lyrics. “Stay out of my nightmares, stay out of my dreams/You're not even welcome in my memories,” he murmurs in the impossibly lovely “Things Fall Apart,” which is nudged forward by guest organist Roger Manning (of Jellyfish fame).

Like most Built to Spill albums, Enemy took a couple of years to make, due to Martsch's famously meticulous approach and loads of tinkering in the studio. He also scrapped the original mix (he'd done it digitally for the first time) after his wife balked at the overly slick sound. “She was like, 'This is not cool, this is not what you guys are about at all,'” he says. “She was right. So we remixed the record, tried to make it sound more like Built to Spill.”

There was also a lengthy interruption last fall when Martsch and company did a three-month world tour, playing their 1997 classic Perfect from Now On in its entirety. Did that experience influence the new album?

“It ended up having a little bit more texture because of playing [Perfect from Now On] and sort of understanding what Built to Spill is about a little bit more, and the things that people appreciate about it,” he says.

Harnessing what makes Built to Spill so special — both on album and in concert — might prove impossible. But that won't stop Martsch from trying. “The older I get, the more I just play things and let them be, and accept that it's not gonna be perfect. But hopefully it's cool,” he adds, “and it's beautiful, and it matters.”

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