From Here to Eternity

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

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.'"

Damn stoner.

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.

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."

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.

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