“There’s Nothing Wrong With Love,” the sophomore album from Built to Spill, is generally considered an indie rock masterpiece.
A coming-of-age treatise with songs about young love, social anxiety and familial ruptures, the album holds up music-making as an accessible, attainable dream — not something that’s merely for “rock stars.” Indie taste-making outfit Pitchfork labeled the album the 24th best recording of the 1990s, conferring its beloved status.
Yet Doug Martsch, the mastermind behind that album and Built to Spill’s only full-time member, has a decidedly different opinion about the seminal release.
“I find that record unlistenable,” said Martsch, who also described feeling “horrified” when listening to Built to Spill’s early track “Sick and Wrong” on the radio. “I just really prefer our later records to those early ones. My voice just doesn’t sound natural or right at all. It’s pretty painful to revisit those ones.”
The complete lack of hubris for those cherished early records is typical of Martsch, a virtuoso musician who is revered by guitar geeks and indie rock fans (as well as by lots of dads), but who seems to wonder what the big deal is about his band. From his nondescript performance attire (lived-in pants and T-shirts), minimalist stage antics and just general approachability, Martsch is pleasantly humble — a rebuke to the perception that artistic geniuses must also be egomaniacs.
Martsch’s low-key presentation style has helped Built to Spill maintain stability during the band’s 30-plus years of existence, a marathon stretch that has included constant shifts in musical taste and frequent overhauls of the group’s lineup.
This year, Built to Spill will embark on a lengthy tour with two new members — bassist Melanie Radford and drummer Teresa Esguerra, who both joined in 2019, but who have played only a handful of live dates. The band will play two shows at the Fillmore on Friday and Saturday and is slated to release its first album since 2015, its first with legendary indie rock label Sub Pop.
Martsch said that most of the material for the upcoming album was written during the sessions for 2015’s “Untethered Moon.” Despite the vast changes that have happened since that time (global pandemic, attempted presidential coup, Prince dying), Martsch said he wasn’t concerned with the music feeling out of touch.
“Not only are we not really topical lyrically, but we are not really musically topical,” said Martsch. “Our records could have been made at any time. We’re not like a current band that follows any kind of musical trends.”
While some may view Built to Spill’s inattention to trends as a sign of failure, the band’s timeless quality is actually what makes it unique and special.
During a three-album run in the 1990s that began with “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love” (the album is amazing, despite Martsch’s misgivings) and continued with “Perfect From Now On” and “Keep It Like a Secret,” Built to Spill took its listeners on a thrilling tour of its capabilities, creating songs that ranged from lovably heart-worn and accessible to daringly ambitious and vast in scope.
All the music from that era sounds as rousingly relevant today as it did 25 years ago. And because of that, Built to Spill inspired countless bands to pursue indie rock that could be both pure of heart and musically proficient. But note, for a genre that prizes emotional accessibility over technical prowess, Martsch stood out as one of the few legitimate guitar gods; anyone who has been gratefully lost in the blissful guitar mist of “Carry the Zero” — the group’s most beloved song — understands that Martsch’s common man sensibilities belie a singular talent.
The secret might be out on his otherworldly abilities, but don’t expect the Built to Spill frontman to suddenly adopt a Jagger-esque stage persona. Martsch started the band as a low-stakes endeavor, and he has kept that same approach throughout his multi-decade career.
“I basically began Built to Spill as a hobby,” said Martsch. “I just never knew that anyone outside of my group of friends and my family would ever be interested in the music I was doing. I’ve been doing this for so long that I sometimes forget how surreal it is for me to have made a career out of this. But yeah, it’s been pretty unbelievable.”