I remember the first time I heard Built to Spill. I was at a co-worker's apartment, playing NCAA Football on the Playstation 2. He'd recently purchased a Mac and had some good speakers set up for it and was letting iTunes play some random songs. "Junior" had eclectic taste in music, but was mostly a Pitchfork/indie type.
So there we are in his sparsely decorated, very bachelor apartment. We're playing the game and I'm getting the ever-loving shit beat out of me when "Carry The Zero" starts up. At this point, my hyper-competitive ass is far less interested in the assbeating I'm taking, fixating on the song I'm hearing. I ask Junior to pause the game and tell me what we're listening to.
Junior was an interesting sort of character. He graduated Vanderbilt with honors. His family lives in South Carolina, yet Junior had a bit of the Cali-surfer thing going, especially when he said the word "awesome."
"Dude, it's Built To Spill. They're a-a-a-wesome."
I asked him what the name of the song was, and we listened to it two or three more times before I relented and let his playlist move forward to some atonal warbling from Will Oldham, Conor Oberst, or someone like that. When my destruction at his hands was over, I asked him to make me a copy of the Built To Spill CD and I listened to "Carry The Zero" all the way home.
It took a long time for me to stop listening to that one song and try the rest of the record. It wasn't love at first listen the way "Zero" had been for me. Over a period of months, I would periodically go back to that record until at long last it finally clicked into place.
Doug Martsch is simultaneously a guitar god and guitar anti-hero. Most guitar gods come from the school of Hendrix, where dazzling speed and spectacular chops overwhelm and inspire awe. This is where your Satrianis, Vais, Malmsteens, and Van Halens dwell. The other camp in guitar god land are the riff kings, guys like Keith Richards and Chuck Berry.
Martsch doesn't belong in either of those camps, doing something wholly his own. He is an idea man. He plays in the key of cool. He can get technically complex, but more often he finds a tone and melodic structure that sounds cool. Sometimes he'll try to expand the zone of cool and takes the idea in unexpected directions while other times he sits down right in the center of the idea and keeps it there until he's done with it. He's also great at layering guitar tones and sounds on top of each other. He and Billy Corgan are two of the best at that, and each has his own signature style.
Junior has since left our company and the area and odds are our paths won't ever cross again, but I'll always remember him for introducing me to Built to Spill and Elliott Smith.