THE sprawling, extravagant records of Built to Spill would be wonder enough. But part of the thrill of the band’s live shows is watching a group of slouchy Northwestern lumberjacks transform themselves into guitar gods, ricocheting coiling lines and chiming notes all over the room. The group’s humble demeanor can seem like its tacit apology for bringing instrumental virtuosity to a genre that’s long been suspicious of it. Or maybe not.
“I don’t really think of us as virtuosos,” says singer-guitarist Doug Martsch, a mellow, pickup-basketball-and-Noam-Chomsky kind of guy who calls from a tour stop in Seattle. “It’s more about a feel than putting out a bunch of notes; it’s about emotions coming out of the guitar.” Martsch, appropriately, keeps a low profile in Boise, Idaho, when not leading one of the loudest bands since My Bloody Valentine.
Much of indie rock has been based on a Puritan concision, a back-to-basics rediscovery of mid-'60s or post-punk models. Built to Spill draws from someplace else -- sometimes everywhere else, all at once.
Since the band began to unwind with 1997’s “Perfect From Now On,” all but one of its records have contained at least one track that stretches past the eight-minute mark, in which song structure seems to turn itself inside out. The live shows (they play tonight through Saturday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, with another show added Wednesday) are often dominated by these workouts, which channel Neil Young’s intimacy, Sonic Youth’s overtones, Television’s precise interplay and Pink Floyd’s stoned grandeur.
“Music to me is about imitating other people’s music,” Martsch says flatly. “To make music that’s good, the only way to do it is to reference other music.”
Somehow, the result ends up being wholly distinctive, and even BTS’ 15-minute excursions don’t meander like the mumblings of a jam band. Maybe it’s because they keep an open-ended approach to songwriting and recording, but work like crazy to make each song focus.
This was especially true of the group’s seventh album -- and first in five years -- “You in Reverse,” made in rambling fashion in an unfamiliar Portland studio. Trouser Press’ Ira Robbins calls the album, released in April, “the finest Built to Spill musical adventure so far ... engaging, enveloping and engrossing.”
That didn’t mean it was easy to put together, especially without the band’s longtime producer Phil Ek. “Sometimes it took a couple days to figure out what was going on with a song,” Martsch says. “There were a lot of extra pieces, a lot of accidental noises, atmospheric sounds and details” that were eventually drawn out of the muck to make up the record. Even with all the craftsmanship, the album’s opening track, “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” clocks in at just under nine minutes.
“We don’t try to make our songs long,” Martsch says almost apologetically. “I try to keep them succinct, but we have a lot of ideas we want to play out. I’m really worried that things will get boring, so I work hard to keep them tight.”
Sometimes this means trading off leads between the band’s three guitarists, limiting unison playing and varying the dynamics. “So it swells in parts and slows down in parts,” he says, describing how slight shifts on the drums, or the addition or subtraction of an instrument, can drive a song forward or slow it down, as in Jamaican dub.
“I don’t want to have three guitars going all the time just because we have them,” Martsch says. “That can be just as much of a limitation as not having them. In a lot of ways, not being a very good player has been a blessing for me. I feel comfortable just scratching at it or playing a simple melody, or just messing around with the tone.”
It’s funny to hear Martsch trashing his own instrumental technique; All Music Guide, for instance, credits him with reviving “the concept of the indie guitar hero just as Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis
Whether virtuoso or idiot savant, Martsch and company may be the most eccentric band ever signed to a major label. They’re almost a decade into a relationship with Warner Bros. that allowed Martsch to quit his job at Kinko’s and “bartending at the local punk rock bar” to record and tour for real.
“I don’t know how to explain why they keep us around,” he says. “But I’m completely happy there.”
THE band also seems to have inspired a whole wing of the indie scene. Modest Mouse, for instance, has spoken of the band’s influence on them. The Figurines, a young Danish band that was in L.A. last week for a show at the Echo, bear the mark of faster, earlier Built to Spill. Singer-guitarist Christian Hjelm says he’s still in awe of the way the group “takes all these classic rock elements and transforms them.”
And on Friday, while Built to Spill plays the Troubadour, one of the most stirring, BTS-influenced bands, Band of Horses, visits the Echo. Lead singer Ben Bridwell says hearing BTS’ debut as a teenager “changed my life” and calls 1994’s catchy “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love” one of his favorite all-time records. (Yes, he hopes to get to one of the Troubadour shows.)
You’d think the acclaim would make Martsch beam. “To me it’s completely meaningless,” he says. “I don’t take any pride in it. Modest Mouse happened to live in the Northwest and were kids when we were playing.” Case closed.
Martsch does take pride in the band’s shows. “We’re not interested in re-creating our albums live; it’s more like we cover them,” he says with confidence. “There’s a lot of leeway you get when you’re that loud.”
Built to Spill
Where: Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday and Wednesday
Price: $17.50 (sold out, except Wednesday)
Info: (310) 276-6168