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Drill, baby, drill 

How Built to Spill turned a quick and dirty album into a long-distance engagement

Doug Martsch and his bandmates in Built to Spill came off of the road in 2008 thinking it was finally time to record an album live in the studio.

"We'd been playing almost all of the songs live, so we thought they were sounding really good, and we were sounding good as a band," says the venerable indie-pop band's frontman. "So the original idea was to record them live, basically go set up in the studio and use all the live tracks."

That would have been a first for Built to Spill, which recorded just about every instrument and vocal individually on its previous six studio albums.

But soon after starting to record the songs live, the group's singer, guitarist and chief songwriter decided his band had been taking the right approach to recording on its other albums after all.

"It didn't take long to start to realize they weren't as interesting as we thought they were," he said of the original live takes. "They weren't very focused. There was a lot of rhythm guitar going on, and, I don't know, they seemed sort of like they didn't have much personality or something."

As it turned out, There Is No Enemy was nowhere near the easy ride the band had envisioned. A number of the songs, says Martsch, required lots of tweaking and reworking to get something satisfying. All told, the recording process stretched out over more than 18 months.

But the time and effort paid off. Album highlights include the opener, "Aisle 13," marked by its angular and off-kilter guitar hook and intertwining leads; "Life's a Dream," which builds from a suitably tranquil start into a lovely chorus with a layered Beach Boys-styled harmony vocal; and the closing "Tomorrow," a driving rocker that's tightly constructed but still manages to sound epic by the time it reaches its guitar-drenched crescendo.

In fact, Martsch and his Spillmates (guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson, bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf) ended up with an album that sounds more concise and crafted than its 2006 predecessor, You in Reverse.

With that record, says Martsch, "there was a real conscious effort to make it sound kind of weird and jammed out. We left a lot of weird things in there because that's how the songs were created and that gave us some kind of energy. And with this record, it seems more like, not pop songs, but more structured, conventional songs or something."

Even so, Martsch says the live show probably will not over-emphasize the new material.

"I think we'll mix it up and play a bunch of stuff from all of the records," he says. "I like to play stuff that people like, that people are familiar with. That to me is kind of the best part of music, to hear songs that you know from your life, that mean something to you."

scene@csindy.com

  • How Built to Spill turned a quick and dirty album into a long-distance engagement

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