The indie-rock guitar god stands atop his stage and surveys his kingdom. Below him, fourteen years of wah-wah pedals, guitar pop, and jamming; oh, Lord, the jamming. Above, only blue skies and smoky clubs. Built to Spill's Doug Martsch shuts his eyes and plucks his guitar and the whole universe shudders.
So too will Slim's in San Francisco, the austere all-ages-venue-turned-punk-church from Wednesday through Saturday this week. His congregation will be there too some of them followers since the days of Built to Spill forefathers Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, others converted within the last three months by a sprawling heap of melodious newly released indie-rock jams named You in Reverse. His four apostles supporting guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth, drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson will accompany the Boise-born Martsch.
As it happens at Slim's, so it shall across the country. The first stretch of Built to Spill's tour runs five weeks, including four straight nights at Los Angeles' Troubadour and three at the Showbox in Seattle. Then, after a short break providing studio time to prepare songs for the next album, a six-week East Coast run follows, including three shows at New York's Irving Plaza.
The motivation behind the uniquely long stays in each city is disappointingly pragmatic. "Otherwise we travel every day," Martsch says. "You gotta set up and soundcheck and stuff. So it's nice to have a day off." Fine. No punk ethos, no strict morals, no fierce loyalty. But why Slim's? Well, Martsch says, the size is great, the sound is good, and they pay well, but ... "Mostly we like the cook." His voice floods with joy. "The chef there is just amazing." This is rock 'n' roll.
No other band books repeat dates quite like Built to Spill, says Tracey Buck, publicist for Slim's and sister venue the Great American Music Hall. The group played Slim's nine times in 2001, and at least once every year since 1997. It all stems from Martsch's desire to keep tours breezy. "They're the most easygoing guys in the world," Buck says. "They're so sweet and just so nice and agreeable. They show up and ask for a bottle of water, and that's about it."
Indeed, Martsch goes about all his business on the road as casually as possible. "I don't really get excited about it," he says. "Of course playing is fun, but travel's not always that much fun. It's a mixed bag like anything else in life. So I don't really pay much attention until I'm there." While he is here, he may head to the YMCA down the street from his hotel to shoot some hoops. Rumor has it he's almost as good with a basketball as he is with a guitar.
Built to Spill has 35 to 40 songs in its tour arsenal, and Martsch will compose a different set list for each concert. Those faithfully seeking salvation in the guise of indie rock's boldest lead guitarist and jammingest band four nights in a row at Slim's shall not experience the same service twice.
One song to expect every evening is the new album's blown-out jam of a leadoff single, "Goin' Against Your Mind." More than five minutes in, Martsch sings, Thought it was an alien/Turned out to be just God. The same could be said of Martsch himself. His style may have once seemed strange, but the fearlessness of "Goin' Against Your Mind" and improved focus of You in Reverse render it simply wonderful.
Built to Spill fans must appreciate this immensely; they waited five years to get over 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future, which found the band struggling with the guitar-pop formula established by 1999's Keep It Like a Secret. A Martsch solo record came in the interim, but You in Reverse shattered the silence with longer songs building off the group's early guitar warbling that landed them on Warner Bros., where it remains today.
"Almost everything was written from jams," says Martsch of the latest batch. "Even when we'd tighten the songs up, we would make a conscious effort to then loosen them up a little bit, to leave them sort of jamming sounding. We'd leave in some guitars that sound like they don't know exactly what they're doing."
And while "Mess with Time" may not feel spontaneous, it does show that what was once a rambling cast of musicians has finally taken shape as a defined quintet. "I hope it continues with this lineup forever," Martsch says. The album also solidifies his reputation as the only man alive who can throw furious surf-rock funk over a ska rhythm without sounding like a complete tool. You in Reverse is the band's most collaborative record to date, yet Martsch's stamp is all over it. By not seeking to break any molds, he's done just that. He takes the compliment with godlike vanity: "You know, whatever makes for good music."
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