Labeling a band an institution — implying it is past its prime — is a dangerous game. But if any group is capable of wearing the tag without insult, it’s Built to Spill, playing a two-night stint at Slim’s this weekend.
Led by chief songwriter Doug Martsch, the Boise, Idaho, group’s devotion to all things guitar — from fuzzy, distorted riffs to angular and precise compositions — has created the template for indie rockers of the past two decades and is embraced by new groups such as California X and Cymbals Eat Guitars.
But Martsch, whose slouchy and subdued onstage presence belies his theatrical guitar work and pleading vocals, pays little attention to groups indebted to Built to Spill.
“I mostly just listen to really old stuff, so I don’t know a lot about many newer groups,” Martsch says. “If other guys count us as an influence, then I guess that’s nice.”
Even the youngest, most ardent Built to Spill fans cannot replicate the immediacy and guitar heroism of the group, which, despite recent roster changes, is still going strong more than 20 years after its debut album.
Longtime bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf left amicably last year, opening the door for Jason Albertini and Steve Gere.
“J and Steve are two of my favorite musicians in the world, so this transition has been as smooth as possible,” Martsch says. “I’m not even sure I asked them to join the group — I think we all just assumed that that’s how it would go.”
To gear up for their tour, Martsch and the gang worked on a bunch of covers, paid new attention to debut album “Ultimate Alternative Wavers” and also practiced tracks from their transcendent three-record run in the 1990s, “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love,” “Perfect From Now On” and “Keep It Like a Secret.”
With songs that are confessional (“Car”), epic (“Velvet Waltz”) and somewhere in between (“Carry the Zero”), those recordings reaped extensive critical acclaim, delivering the group to the height of the indie music scene, where it remains.
“I really think those three albums form the core of the group,” Martsch says. “We try to balance out our set lists when we play, but we always know there is going to be a great reaction when people hear songs from those records.”
After ditching some tentative songs following Nelson’s and Plouf’s departures, the group is working on a new album, which Martsch hopes to put out by the end of the year.
“We’ve obviously had some significant changes, but it’s still pretty much business as usual for us,” Martsch says.
“We’re interested in making music that we can be proud to play.”