Highest Form of Flattery

Built to Spill didn’t invent indie rock, they just showed everyone how to do it right

There is no contemporary rock band that hasn’t been influenced by another rock band. It’s just the way rock ‘n’ roll works — people grow up listening to it and playing it, and when it comes time for those people to start bands, they’re going to sound somewhat like something they once listened to. It’s not cheating; that’s just art.

It’s rare, however, for a rock band to influence not just the acts that came decades after their glory years, but to actually shape the sounds of their contemporaries. But that’s exactly what Built to Spill has been doing since the Boise-based indie rock band began making music more than 20 years ago. The band — never as popular in the mainstream as they deserve — has left an indelible influence on other bands.

Without Built to Spill, helmed by the silky vocals and guitar majesty of Doug Martsch, one could argue that acts ranging from Modest Mouse to Pearl Jam would have never made the sort of music they do today. Martsch is never too keen on talking about his influence on other bands — in fact, he doesn’t really listen to much contemporary music at all. When I profiled him in 2009 for the release of the band’s latest album There Is No Enemy, this is how he addressed the question of whether his band’s sound can be found in newer rock acts:

“Most alternative rock bands that I see, there’s something — I don’t know — there’s a soul missing to it. There’s something that really resonates with me that’s missing. It’s almost too clever or sounds too much like other things. It’s almost like they’re trying too hard to sound like other things. Maybe that’s what I like about the old stuff. They aren’t so obsessed with having an original sound, so they just play their asses off and play beautiful music,” said Marstch.

That said, there is no shortage of bands who are indebted to Martsch and the music of Built to Spill, even if he doesn’t really care.

Death Cab for Cutie

While Built to Spill fans typically become attached to the band because of its massive and ambitious guitar work, Martsch’s high-range vocal style can be found all over the place. Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard has never been shy about BtS’ influence on his band.

“I’ve always been a big Built to Spill fan. I don’t think that’s any secret,” said Gibbard in an interview with Splendid Magazine. “So I don’t mind when people use that as a touchstone. When it does get frustrating is when people use terms like ‘This record sounds less like Built to Spill than their other stuff.’ Still, I’d rather be compared to Built to Spill than Third Eye Blind.”

Modest Mouse

In all of indie rock, it’s hard to find two bands lumped together as often as Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. Both are from the Northwest, both have an at-times intentionally messy approach to their sound and both are fans of the other’s band. Martsch, however, thinks that Modest Mouse does it better.

“To me, Modest Mouse is one of the best bands ever. I actually wasn’t surprised that they made it big,” Martsch told Pitchfork. “They make more sense to a lot of people than I think we ever could.”

Band of Horses

The guitar explosions found on Band of Horses’ first two albums were classic Built to Spill. Or at least that’s what critics kept saying. BOH frontman Bridwell has given mad props to Built to Spill over the years, even when it comes to facial hair.

“But Doug [Martsch]’s got one of the most influential beards in indie rock,” Ben Bridwell told PopMatters.com back in 2007.

Finn Riggins

You won’t hear a ton of Built to Spill’s epic guitars or unavoidable melodies in the sound of emerging rockers Finn Riggins, but it’s hard to say that this trio hasn’t benefited from BtS. Martsch is a fan of the band, which is why he brought them out as his opening act for several different tours, including the one that brings them up to Spokane this week.

Silversun Pickups

This Los Angeles act sounds like it came right out of the ’90s and the band has often freely admitted that they’ve plucked a lot of their sounds from their heroes. One of the bands they look up to — and you can hear it pretty damn easily — is Built to Spill.

“Built To Spill is one of the greatest bands ever!” declared lead singer Brian Aubert from the stage at the 2009 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco. Later that night, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder made a similar statement. 

Built to Spill, Finn Riggins

Fri, Feb. 8 at 8 pm • The Belltower, Pullman, Wash. • $17-$20 • sterepathicpresents.com • All ages • (509) 334-4195

Sat, Feb. 9 at 8 pm • Bing Crosby Theater • $22 • bingcrosbytheater.com • 227-7638

Pound @ The Big Dipper

Thu., May 26, 7:30 p.m.
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About The Author

Mike Bookey

Mike Bookey was the culture editor for The Inlander from 2012-2016. He previously held the same position at The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore.