By Joseph Sutton-Holcomb
Special to The Seattle Times
Lead singer-songwriter Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, which plays the Showbox Friday and Saturday, Jan. 2-3, approaches live performance with an air of distinguished solemnity.
He doesn’t speak much, except for the occasional “thanks” after he finishes a song. There is often a stack of towels beside him to mop the sweat from his brow. He frequently buoys his earnest singing with an unusual, quavery vibrato, an effect he accentuates by moving his mouth back and forth in front of the microphone, like a nervous tic.
But while Martsch may not be the most animated frontman, Built to Spill has been a key influence since the ’90s on countless rock groups, including Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie.
Martsch is an artist in the classic sense. His lyrics are moving, but not particularly candid or heart-on-sleeve. They tend instead to be deep investigations into human nature or emotional states of being.
During most interactions with the press, Martsch refuses to clarify the meanings of these deliberately arcane lyrics. According to a short promotional piece written by his wife, which appears on the band’s website, he doesn’t want to impinge on the personal meanings his listeners may find in those words.
Built to Spill’s catchy, jam-heavy guitar work has been perhaps even more influential than Martsch’s lyrical songwriting. Taste-making website Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson credited Martsch’s “melodic and clever guitar lines” as “a template for bands from the Pacific Northwest.”
The band’s tracks are usually lengthy, and while they can go on long, meandering lyric-less tangents, they rarely feel aimless. The guitar-heavy interludes refocus around a verse or a repetitive hook just in time to keep the listener engaged.
If the band has a weakness, it’s a failure to venture very far afield from this established sound. But this is one of those situations where the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies.
Built to Spill’s most recent album, 2009’s “There Is No Enemy,” moved the group a ways outside its comfort zone, and proved that it was capable of producing shorter and more up-tempo songs. Martsch’s singing has become less shrill over the years, too.
The band is still worth seeing after over two decades on the scene, precisely because the members never lost touch with the qualities that made them stand out in the first place.
Built to Spill
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 2-3, at the Showbox, 1426 First Ave., Seattle; $25 (206-628-3151 or