Not built to shill


August 24, 2001



Though it's a flawed effort, Our Band Could Be Your Life , Michael Azerrad's new book about the American underground in the '80s, makes one valuable point: There was a time when ''indie rock'' signified a broad way of living your life and making music on your own terms, while embracing myriad different sounds and styles.

While this is coming to be the case once again in the new millennium (and nowhere as much as in Chicago), through much of the '90s, ''indie rock'' evoked a definite sound more than a work ethic or a particular community. This was basically guitar rock that was absurdly introspective or self-conscious lyrically, and twee, anemic or derivative musically. I'm thinking of bands like Sebadoh, Pavement and Beat Happening.

Of course, any genre, no matter how limited, is capable of producing a few very good records. So while the latest offerings from San Diego's Pinback and Boise, Idaho's Built to Spill are both very much indie rock in this '90s sense, they rise above restrictive genre formulas to stand on their own terms, thanks to the strength of their songs.

Formed in 1998 as a side project by 3 Mile Pilot's Armistead Burwell Smith IV (better known as ''Zach'') and Thingy's Robert Rulon Crow Jr., Pinback has just followed up a strong self-titled 1999 debut with a hauntingly beautiful set of evocative mood pieces called ''Blue Screen Life'' (Ace Fu). It reminds me of the ''ork-pop'' of Cardinal, Eric Matthews and Richard Davies, though the band somewhat disingenuously denies having heard those artists--or being aware of indie rock in general.

''Anything that can be stereotyped should be stereotyped,'' Crow says, ''and then it should all be lumped together and thrown away. I think there should only be one Slint and one Captain Beefheart, and one Built to Spill is enough.

''If there's a kind of music that's been made before, we don't want to do it again. I want to make the most original music ever made, but I can't promise that I can. But I want to make stuff that's both inspiring to us and original, that will keep us interested and that we like, and whether other people like it or not is kind of secondary.''

Big talk, but Pinback's merger of truly lovely sounds and positively contemptuous lyrics (they particularly hate the awkward intersection of art and commerce) justifies some of his hubris--it's that good, and it's coming from an honest place.

''We are always going for trying to do the most intimate music possible, which is why we record at home in our rooms--so we can just sit there and not have to deal with any outside anything,'' Crow says. ''We just want to do what sounds best and what's most straight from the heart to the listener.''

So, despite their protestations to the contrary, Pinback does care what people think? (A most un-indie attitude.)

"The music should be for everybody--it would be nice if they liked it, but you can't decide that,'' Crow says. ''That was part of a song we had: You can't choose your fans or your family. It's great when people like it, because that means I made a connection with somebody and somebody understands what I was talking about, and that doesn't happen in my everyday life. I have trouble communicating in general.''

Fair enough--the desire to communicate via some means other than language is why many artists turn to music in the first place. It is certainly true of Doug Martsch, who has now led Built to Spill over the course of eight recordings dating back to 1993.

The new ''Ancient Melodies of the Future'' (Warner Bros.) is Built to Spill's finest album because it is the most accessible, an assessment that Martsch doesn't entirely dispute. ''When I make records, the songs are all just the latest batch of songs; I don't set out to make any particular type of record,'' he says. ''But on this stuff, I wanted to keep it simple, so I didn't really write many parts for the songs--it is kind of more straightforward, I guess.''

After Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis, Martsch is indie-rock's most acclaimed guitar hero, though he really has more in common with Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, another player with minimal chops but maximum taste. (Solo-wise, it's always better to play three memorable notes--even if you play them over and over again, a la Neil Young--than a florid flurry of hammer-ons.)

"It continues to surprise me that people think I'm any good at playing guitar,'' Martsch says. ''I do what I need to do, but I'm really a below-average guitar player. That's just a matter of fact--you can find any band anywhere, grab their guitar player, sit him next to me, and tell us to do a few things, and I guarantee he'd be able to do more than I could. It's just the fact that I play big, long guitar solos. People assume that if you're going to do that, you're probably good at it or something.''

And what does the elliptical Martsch think of ''indie rock'' as a genre--or of Pinback's dis of Built to Spill for delivering the same?

"I don't know what [Crow] meant,'' he says. ''And I'm not really that interested in [indie rock]. I don't worry about where we fit. I care about whether the people who are listening to us like us, but as far as bigger trends, I don't care about it all. Basically, I just worry about what I think of it and what those close to me think of it.''

In lesser hands, such an attitude could be described as solipsistic. But Built to Spill is expected to sell out three Chicago shows next week, and I haven't been able to take ''Blue Screen Life'' or ''Ancient Melodies of the Future'' out of regular rotation in my CD player.

Pinback headlines a show that starts at 10 tonight with We Ragazzi, Northern Song Dynasty, and the Zincs at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western.

The cover charge is $8; call (773) 276-3600 for more information.

Built to Spill is playing three shows at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. The Delusions open at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6; and 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Sept. 7. Tickets are $15; call (773) 549-4140.