Irvine might be the shittiest city on Earth, the nth degree of exurban sprawl. Crime is nonexistent there, but the developers can't build walled-off, security-patrolled tracts of homes fast enough to keep up with the demand. These half-built tracts and their adjoining shopping centers are lit by tall streetlights for miles; the dust of the desert, which will disappear once the land is irrigated, floats over the scene like a fog. It's trippy.
I was driving back and forth through this sci-scape four times a week, listening almost exclusively to Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On, obsessing over its first track, "Randy Described Eternity," an eight-minute song that sounds the way it feels to lie on your back in the middle of nowhere looking at stars. The first verse, which slowly boils to a fury, goes like this: "Every thousand years/ This metal sphere/ Ten times the size of Jupiter/ Floats just a few yards past the Earth/ You climb on your roof/ And take a swipe at it/ With a single feature/ Hit it once every thousand years/ Till you've worn it down/ To the size of a pea/ Yeah, I'd say that's a long time/ But it's only half a blink/ In the place you're gonna be."
I've never really thought of "Randy Described Eternity" as a song about heaven or hell or anything like that, even during the second verse, when Doug Martsch, as Randy, asks, "Where you gonna be?/ Where will you spend eternity?" The music is just not authoritative enough. It's a slow song by most standards, with a pensive, stuttering beat; it moves like a zombie, slowly but surely, lifeless but ferocious. It's more stoner-spiritual than anything genuinely religious.
The tune is built around two ascending verses, two big mountains with a valley in between and on both sides. In those softer, lower moments Martsch plays a phosphorescent guitar line, a bright flashlight in the quiet dark. But eventually things explode again, and distorted guitars are blustering, and Scott Plouf is pounding that same zombie beat only louder, and Martsch is answering his title character's questions: "I'm gonna be perfect from now on/ I'm gonna be perfect, starting now!"
At this point I'd be halfway home from class and it would be around 10:15 p.m. I'd drive alongside the dwindling grass- and marshlands, then wind up and onto the freeway, the one gouged into the landscape like a dried-up riverbed. I'd have the windows down and I'd be smoking a cigarette and there'd be very few cars on the road, because in Irvine everyone goes to bed early. The heater would be blasting my feet and the song would be very loud. I'd pound out the beat on the steering wheel as I sped home, thinking of that giant sphere 10 times the size of Jupiter, of standing on my roof and trying to touch it, of trying to be perfect, of having all the time in the world to try to be perfect from now on, knowing all the while that there's really no such thing. Looking back, I realize that this is something the band would eventually find out for itself, too.
Built to Spill was founded by Doug Martsch in 1993 after leaving his previous band, Treepeople, and the city he was residing in, Seattle, for his hometown of Boise, Idaho. Martsch had the idea of starting a band whose membership would change with every record, which didn't really work in the long term but which was on his mind while recording Built to Spill's serviceable '93 debut, Ultimate Alternative Wavers. After touring and toying with the lineup some more, Martsch entered the studio again to record There's Nothing Wrong With Love with producer Phil Ek, who remains Built to Spill's producer and close collaborator to this day.
Love was a breakthrough. It came out in late 1994, a year before the respective debuts of Modest Mouse and Neutral Milk Hotel and a year after Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain -- in other words, smack dab in the middle of the American indie rock moment. The songs on Love weren't smugly obtuse à la Pavement, nor calculatedly brash like those of the grunge explosion that Martsch had very intentionally escaped when he left Seattle. Instead they were tattered and frank and fun. Martsch was the stoner who just thought certain shit was kind of cool, and he wanted to talk about it simply and honestly, over music that was just that. "I want to see it when you get stoned on a cloudy, breezy desert afternoon," he exclaimed on "Car," a song I've listened to more times than any other song in the whole world.
I was not alone in my love for Love. In 1995, Built to Spill was tapped for the East Coast leg of Lollapalooza. That exposure and what Martsch described to me as dumb luck (a roommate's friend knew a guy, etc.) led to his band signing with Warner Bros. It was a weird occurrence. Built to Spill was too wimpy and earnest to be the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam, and not arty enough to be the next Sonic Youth. Martsch says, "I only did it because I thought I didn't want to tour at all. I thought, 'This way I'll be guaranteed some money without having to go out and promote us and stuff.'"
So the band -- by this point solidified as Martsch, Plouf, and bassist Brett Nelson -- goes into the studio and, after what turns out to be an arduous, six-month recording process, comes out with '97's Perfect From Now On, probably the last thing Warner Bros. was hoping for: an eight-track album with an average song length of about 6 1/2 minutes and no singles. To make matters worse, it was around this time that Built to Spill was earning a reputation for unpredictable shows that found Martsch -- who is often mistakenly characterized as indie rock's answer to Jimmy Page, despite the fact that all he does is play simple riffs loudly -- taking his now-epic songs in this or that loopy direction.
These excursions were sometimes successful but typically boring and self-indulgent. Still, the songs on Perfect From Now On remain some of my favorite of all time. "Velvet Waltz" is, as its title suggests, a frisky, fuzz-drenched eight-plus-minute sashay; "Kicked It in the Sun" is what Pink Floyd might have created if Syd Barrett had overdosed on Ecstasy instead of acid. It's no secret that Martsch loves classic rock, and on Perfect we find him merging the kind of arrangements you'd expect from a band like Kansas with the textures and tones of lo-fi indie rock.
Eventually the band settled down. For 1999's Keep It Like a Secret and 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future, the members swore off meandering anthems -- "[Perfect From Now On] was just kind of a pain to work on in a lot of ways," Martsch remembers -- writing mostly three- and four-minute ditties that lacked the raw oomph of a song like "Randy Described Eternity," but still showed off Martsch's knack for bright, playful melodies as well as his ear for clever wordplay -- "You're so occupied with what other persons are occupied with and vice versa," goes a line from "Carry the Zero." As it toured on these albums, the band jettisoned its will-to-jam and began to enjoy just playing songs, often digging into the treasure chest and performing favorites like "Car" and "Kicked It in the Sun." I can't say all this levity is as satisfying as the more naked adolescent refrains of the early material, but then again, I suppose I've changed, too. I'm no longer keeping my parents on suicide watch, and Doug Martsch has a family to raise (his son Ben is 12).
Which brings us to right now. Thanks in large part to more than a decade of consistent touring, Built to Spill boasts a sizable, enamored following of twentysomethings like myself. But given the current state of affairs, it stands to expand that audience greatly.
Last year Modest Mouse, with its hit "Float On," became an overnight sensation, as popular with the 11-year-old kids who watch TRL as those of us trying to make rent and still have money left over to get drunk. Add to this the twin phenomena of the acclaimed Garden State soundtrack's indie ethos and The O.C. 's continued inclusion of indie rock songs in its episodes, and you've got exactly the climate that didn't exist back when Warner Bros. first signed Built to Spill -- younger audiences yearning for something that's not too arty, too wimpy, too loud, too soft. Built to Spill seems juuuuusssst right. Is it any wonder that Warner exercised its option to re-sign the band last year?
Characteristically modest, Martsch dismisses the idea that his label's renewed interest in the band is an indicator that larger success is on the horizon. "I'm sure there are some people [at Warner Bros.] who are thinking that and other people who don't even know we exist. But I've never been that interested in promotion or publicity. I don't want to be as famous as Modest Mouse."
And maybe that won't be a problem. The good news for people like me is that the songs Martsch, Nelson, and Plouf are working on right now in a studio up in Portland are showing a growing resemblance to the material on Perfect From Now On. "For whatever reason," says Martsch, "the [songs] on this new record are a little longer. The one we're mixing now is, I think, eight minutes long. ... There's no hit on the record."
How typically Built to Spill. How simultaneously frustrating and endearing, how imperfect.