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Label Slave or Poster Boy?

Built To Spill's Doug Martsch enjoys major-label support


From the late '90s to the present day, the Flaming Lips and Built To Spill have carried the torch of Warner Bros.' commitment to artistry. The two bands epitomize the independent, DIY-ethic even though both are roughly a decade removed from true indie labels. The Flaming Lips' dedication to creativity and trailblazing is well documented with its quadraphonic CD set, Zaireeka, and their parking lot-conducted symphonies. Yet shadow-dwelling Built To Spill is no less deserving of distinction.

Rather than perform in animal costumes or plastic bubbles like the Lips' Wayne Coyne, Built To Spill's singer and creative force, Doug Martsch, prefers less attention-grabbing - but arguably more satisfying - mature artistic statements. Chief among them is 1997's Perfect from Now On, the band's first album under their major-label contract and a beguiling commentary on its unlikely success. With the shortest of its songs clocking in at 4:52, Perfect from Now On stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, There's Nothing Wrong with Love, an album packed with three-minute pop gems and the one that piqued Warner Bros.' interest.

"I never had any intention of being signed to anything other than an independent label," says Martsch from his home in Boise, Idaho. "I don't think I stopped the songs from [running so long] partially because I was nervous about being on a big label. I didn't want to accidentally make a hit."

Warner Bros. has enjoyed an artist-friendly reputation almost from its inception, even though Prince famously scrawled "slave" on his cheek during the waning days of his contract, and longtime label rep Stan Cornyn wrote the exposé book Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group. However, even at their ugliest, the company's backroom dealings never destroyed the widely held belief that the label treats its artists right. Even Cornyn marveled at how fiercely the label guarded its public perception, as Warner's reputed artist-friendliness remained a strong selling point to potential signees throughout his tenure.

If the label's reputation as an artist's haven is exaggerated, Perfect's jagged prog didn't prove otherwise. "The A&R guy came down to the studio while we were mixing," says Martsch. "He was psyched about it. They didn't give us any trouble at all or ask us to do anything differently. You heard exactly what we handed in."

Perfect wound up giving far more headaches to its creator than label brass. "Those songs were very hard to mix," says Martsch. "They didn't take three times as long because they're three times as long - they took 12 times as long. I remember it was a Friday night and [mixer] Phil [Ek] and I had been working all day and we were all bummed out about how it was going, so we went to eat. And I remember as we were passing all these businessmen feeling envious that they were about to start their weekends. It sounds ridiculous, but that's how I felt at the time."

Martsch then retreated to the simplified song structures that first got him noticed. Although hardly the towering achievement that Perfect was, Keep It Like a Secret and Ancient Melodies of the Future are not without charm and revelatory moments. Martsch does hint that Built To Spill's forthcoming album might feature a few longer compositions, but he makes no promises. Warner Bros., meanwhile, seems perfectly content to continue to let Martsch follow his muse in any direction. The label, in yet another demonstration of its unwavering support, released a one-off Martsch solo record, Now You Know, in 2002, which he admits was nothing more than a rambling document of his attempts to learn slide guitar.

A true cynic might claim that Warner is merely using Martsch as inexpensive image maintenance. Even so, this is clearly one relationship that is less parasitic than symbiotic.

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