From Here to Eternity

Figuring out Built to Spill's place in the world, and maybe mine, too

The first time I went apeshit crazy was, as the cliché goes, during my freshmen year of college at UCLA. There was a girl involved, drugs, alcohol, accusations, innuendoes, severed ties. Inevitably my folks had to come rescue me from myself. I spent that spring and the following summer back at my parents'. I tried different anti-depressants, some of which put me right to sleep, others of which had no effect at all; I sat in the various chairs of various shrinks; I got a job waiting tables. When I wasn't working or shrinking I was driving back and forth to night classes at the University of Irvine. Throughout it all -- but especially during those drives -- I listened to Built to Spill.

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."

Built to Spill's Doug Martsch (center): "I've 
never been that interested in promotion or 
publicity. I don't want to be as famous as 
Modest Mouse."
Built to Spill's Doug Martsch (center): "I've never been that interested in promotion or publicity. I don't want to be as famous as Modest Mouse."

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.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
San Francisco Event Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.