MAGNET Classics: Built To Spill’s “Perfect From Now On”

BuiltToSpill

The making of Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On
By Steve Klinge

The story of Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On is a tale of imperfections. At least that’s the way Doug Martsch sees it. He scrapped the album twice before finally settling on an acceptable version, and when he finished it, he thought he’d never want to hear or play those songs again. And when he went back to listen to it in 2008, to perform it for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, he hated it. At first, at least.

But Perfect is, indeed, perfect. Eight long songs, dense with guitars that come in waves and crescendos, guitars that are clear and precise even when they’re crackling with distortion. It’s also full of accessible melodies and real songs, not just thin ideas on which to hang extended guitar jams. Released in 1997, Perfect From Now On was Built To Spill’s major-label debut—back when the jump from an indie to a major had cultural, ethical and existential meaning—and it still sounds like a revelation.

Perfect was Built To Spill’s third album. Prior to forming BTS, Martsch released two LPs while in the Boise/Seattle band Treepeople, and he had collaborated with K Records founder/Beat Happening leader Calvin Johnson for a pair of albums as the Halo Benders. Martsch envisioned BTS as a loose project rather than a regular band, and the lineup continually shifted in its first few years. The debut Built To Spill album, 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, came out on C/Z Records and featured long, experimental tracks with melodies that only occasionally asserted themselves. Its follow-up, 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, was radically different, focusing on compact, tightly structured songs like “Car” and “Twin Falls” (later covered by Ben Folds). That album, produced by Phil Ek, caused a post-Nevermind major-label feeding frenzy for Built To Spill.

“After There’s Nothing Wrong With Love came out, there was a lot of label interest in us,” says Martsch. “We went on tour, and it became obvious that we were more than just a local Boise band at that point.”

Martsch came to the attention of Joe McEwen of Warner Bros. on a tip from Mike Johnson, then the bassist for Dinosaur Jr.

“Mike’s a real music guy and a record collector,” says McEwen, who was then the senior vice president of A&R at Warner, and had gotten to know Johnson while at Sire Records. “We had Charlie Rich and O.V. Wright in common. Mike told me, ‘There’s this guy in Iowa, he’s like a John Lennon-type,’ I remember he said that specifically. ‘He records for this little label, and he’s great.’ I took Mike seriously. I think There’s Nothing Wrong With Love had just come out. So, I sought it out—it’s not like you could look it up on the internet back then—and coincidentally, he was playing in a little club in New York City … I think it was Under Acme. I went and introduced myself. He had a song on that album, ‘Car,’ and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s great, I just love that.’ I thought, ‘That’s special; this kid knows how to write a song and really craft.’”

Martsch’s deal with Warner assured him a lot of creative control and a budget to work with (not to mention health insurance for his young family), but the songs he was working on were not the compact ilk of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. Instead, he was building expansive, taut epics out of fragmentary guitar lines, something that combined There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’s melodic side with Ultimate’s breadth and scope. It’s an album of guitar heroics, in the lineage of Television, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth. David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Butthole Surfers—these were some of the artists Martsch was thinking about at the time. The suite on side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the extended structures in classical compositions were especially influential.

“Like most musicians, I assume, I have a wide variety of tastes,” says Martsch, who sees Perfect as a logical evolution of what he had been playing. “Most of it was just a natural occurrence, things I stumbled across playing my guitar, making up songs. There’s a lot of weird, long songs, and I was influenced by a lot of other bands that had long, weird songs—that’s nothing I came up with. And maybe part of it was a little bit of a reaction to being signed to a major label. My main worry at the time was that they were going to try to really promote us, and I didn’t really want that to happen. I wanted us to grow at our own pace. I wanted to sign to the label because I wanted to get some money and not have to work. But I didn’t really want to be part of the major-label music machine. Too many bands that I loved signed to major labels and subsequently made records that I didn’t think were very good. In a way, it was to make something that would let Warner Bros. know that we were going to do things our way and didn’t want to be stars or anything. We just wanted to make music.”

The “we” there is ambiguous, since BTS was officially Martsch himself at that point, although producer Ek and Martsch’s wife Karena Youtz—as sounding board and business manager, respectively—were central to the process for both There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and Perfect From Now On.

Ek, who produced Love and 1995’s Built To Spill Caustic Resin collaborative EP, uses the plural pronoun, too. “Back then, signing to and simply being on a major label and making major-label records was a different thing, but there really wasn’t much talk of it or much pressure that we felt. I’m sure there was some, especially for Doug, but not that that crept into the sessions or hampered us in the studio. A lot of that had to do with Warner Bros. simply being a cool group of people and trusting us and their artists. We just wanted to make a great album.”

Martsch admits that he felt the expectations, at least at some points in the process. “It was definitely the first time I thought there was going to be an audience for my music,” he says. “This was the first time I was like, ‘Whoa, people are actually going to listen to this, and it’s going to be reviewed.’ Up until then, everything was kind of like free and fun.”

Martsch originally planned to play everything on the album himself, except for drums. He wrote the songs alone, constructing most of them from short guitar melodies that he liked, but didn’t think were sturdy enough to carry a whole song. You can hear that on “Kicked It In The Sun,” as many short melodies and riffs flow together sequentially. It has enough ideas to make four or five solid songs, but melded, they make one great one. Perfect, even.

To begin recording the album, Martsch recruited drummer Peter Lansdowne, from Seattle’s the Purdins, but as they got “about halfway into recording,” Martsch began to second-guess himself. “I don’t know what it was,” he says. “I think it was mostly myself; I think Peter did a good job. It didn’t seem like it was going very well, and I was pretty insecure about my playing on it.

“Calvin Johnson came to visit when I was working on it with Peter. I played it for other people, too, and they didn’t seem very excited by it—not just myself. I didn’t know what to do yet when Calvin showed up and I told him what was going on. He said, ‘You should just scrap it and start over.’ I just spent 10,000 or 20,000 bucks—I don’t know how much money I’d spent at that point, but I’d spent more money than on every record before already. He convinced me that I’m not going to remember the money as much as I’d remember the record.”

Martsch had prior experience rethinking an album: After hearing the initial mix of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, he and his wife thought it sounded “kind of boring,” he says, and, with the blessing of Up Records owner Chris Takino, the band went back to rework some of the tracks. Ek had his reservations about the first session of Perfect tracks, too.

“The first recording we did, I mostly liked,” says Ek. “Some of the songs were in lower keys, and at the time I liked that it gave Doug a bit of room for his singing range, but that first recording was also quite ‘tense’-sounding upon listening back. But we kept ‘Made-Up Dreams’ from that session, and I love that song.”

“Made-Up Dreams” used to be Martsch’s favorite Built To Spill song, too—until he stopped having favorites. It’s also bassist Brett Nelson’s favorite, even though he didn’t play on it. It’s the album’s sole sub-five minute song (barely), one that gradually evolves with a clear forward momentum, and it’s of a piece with the rest of the tracks. “No one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them,” sings Martsch in one of the album’s typically metaphysical ponderings.

Martsch and Ek took Calvin Johnson’s advice. “Rather than try to fix it or do anything with Peter still, I decided to scrap the whole thing and start over with new people, just to get everything out of my head and the taste of the whole thing out of my mouth,” Martsch says with a laugh.

Johnson suggested that Martsch check out drummer Scott Plouf, who had recently ended his partnership with Rebecca Gates in the Spinanes, and Martsch recruited Nelson, his “longtime musical best friend” with whom he’d played on and off since their high-school band Farm Days, including on the previous BTS album.

Nelson, who bought a Rickenbacker bass for a more Beatles-like sound for the sessions, was initially surprised at the new songs. “I really love Doug’s short poppy songs, and Perfect seemed sort of drawn out, not really my thing,” he says. “But the writing was amazing, and I was happy that Doug thought I could help his ideas gel into what he wanted the record to be.”

The new trio rehearsed in Boise, then went to Seattle to record basic tracks with Ek, who remembers that second set of sessions being much more fun than the first. But disaster—or a blessing in disguise— struck when Ek brought the tapes back to Boise for overdubs.

“Phil came down with the tapes, and maybe they got too warm in the car or something might have happened to them,” says Martsch. “We had some tape-shredding. It might have had something to do with the calibration of different machines. We’re not really sure what happened.”

“The tapes from session two may possibly have been defective originally,” says Ek. “But I transported them in the back of my station wagon from Seattle to Boise to do overdubs at a Boise studio, and while setting up the tape machine and playing back one of the reels, the tape somehow got stuck from the supply reel to the take-up reel and stretched and completely ruined one of the songs from that second session.”

So, they started all over, again. Which, of course, cost more money. Warner Bros., for its part, was not concerned with the slow progress of their new signing.

“Doug had a fund; he got a certain amount of money and went off to do it,” says McEwen. “I had that with other groups, and usually with great results. It wasn’t like the bills were running up or anything. It was more, ‘Hey, man, you’re off to do your thing; when you show up with a record, cool.’”

“I was spending our money that they gave us,” says Martsch. “It’s money they have to give us anyway, so they don’t give a shit. It’s just about how much is left to go into our pockets at the end.”

Everyone now agrees that the band sounded under-prepared for those second sessions. “We thought, as a band, that we could rehearse another week and probably do better takes of the songs,” says Martsch. “And Phil thought that maybe he could record them a little better; he was a young guy, and this was his first big project. So, we bagged that batch of takes and did it again.”

“It was the first real major-label record I’d done, the first record with a budget to do all the recording we did and use all the cool gear that we used in the studio,” says Ek, who went on to produce the Shins, Fleet Foxes, Band Of Horses and others. “It showed me that you should never sacrifice your art and work if at all possible. I was 24 years old when we started that record, and 25 when we finished it.”

Nelson calls the re-recording a “blessing,” too. “I don’t think Scott and I had a good enough feel of the music the last go-around, or understood what Doug was going for,” he says. “So it seemed a little too forced and unnatural.”

“So, finally we got good versions of stuff, and then I worked on stuff a bunch more, and I still was not happy with things,” says Martsch. “Still, I felt like it just wasn’t quite there yet, and I really didn’t have it in me to do everything myself. So, I went to my two go-to guys, John McMahon and Brett Netson, to get some cello and Brett Nelton-style guitar on the record.” Netson, who led Caustic Resin, played on the first BTS album.

It’s hard to imagine Perfect From Now On without McMahon’s cello. It adds a woozy swoon to “I Would Hurt A Fly,” at least until Martsch and Netson’s guitars go haywire for the final two of the song’s six minutes. Remarkably, given all the revisions and reworkings, the album does not sound belabored. Songs such as “Randy Described Eternity” and “Stop The Show” retain a sense of spontaneous discovery and inspired improvisation, even as they are definitely composed pieces. On future albums, a number of BTS songs would arise from jam sessions, but not the ones on Perfect.

With the addition of some Mellotron from Robert Roth, and final overdubs, Martsch was finally willing to call the record finished. That’s when McEwen got to hear what they had been working on. “He ended up just showing up the last day of mixing,” says Martsch. “We played the whole record for him, and he just stood there and listened, played some air guitar, and said he liked it.”

McEwen recalls being more enthusiastic. “I just remember going out to Seattle, meeting Phil and being at the studio, and they played me stuff, and I was floored,” he says. “It was a leap to someplace that no one could foresee.”

Martsch, for his part, was sick of the album by then. “When the record came out, I did not like it at all,” he says. “I was super burned out on it. We went on tour, and we didn’t play any songs from it. I was like, ‘I don’t really ever want to play those songs. I’ve had enough of them.’ But you know, I think I liked them, too. I felt a real sense of accomplishment of overcoming obstacles, in that no matter what happens, I can do it. That’s something that’s stuck with me forever, since then. So, that meant a lot to me. But I didn’t want to ever hear it again.”

Warner Bros. released Perfect From Now On on Jan. 28, 1997, and both Martsch and McEwen cite Neil Strauss’ New York Times review from February 2 as the initial source of the album’s acclaim. The headline of the review was “60’s-Style Heroics for the 90’s.”

“He was really enamored of Netson’s guitar playing, especially, and he gave it this really good review, and he compared it to Clapton and Hendrix and stuff,” says Martsch. “That kind of set the tone, as the New York Times can set the tone for other people. I felt he really did us a favor by starting things off that way.”

“I wasn’t sure how people would react to the record,” says Ek. “It’s a long and daring album to be a major-label debut. People weren’t prepared for that type of album from BTS, especially following There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, so the reaction of people sorta of loving it, but also not quite understanding it, wasn’t a total surprise to me. But I thought at the time—and still do feel—that it is an incredibly brilliant and ballsy album to make, and it’s a testament to its genius that we are talking about it now.”

Martsch, of course, made his peace with the album, with reservations. “It has a do-it-yourself, homemade quality to it, but it seems to be stretching out to try to be this epic thing,” he says. “That juxtaposition, which I think could be a horrible thing and fail badly, somehow works with this record. I think I had different ideas about what it should be when we were working on it—I wanted it to be more like the Beatles—and I think if sonically it was what I wanted it to be, and if I could have played on it the way I wanted to play, it would have been a less interesting record, more conventional, maybe more popular. But I think what is good about that record is that it’s kind of epic, but it’s also kind of private. It has some bigness to it, but it also sounds like it was made in someone’s bedroom in a way, too.”

After the album came out, Plouf and Nelson became permanent members of the band for the next 17 years, until they quit, amicably, in 2012. Netson continues to be involved with the band, including on this year’s tours.

For the 2008 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York, BTS was asked to perform Perfect in its entirety. Martsch went back to check the original recordings, since the songs had evolved over the years of playing them live.

“I listened to it for the first time in a long time, and I did not like it,” he says. “It really annoyed me, especially my vocals. There were so many things about it I did not like. But then we worked on it, and it kind of grew on me, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s not so bad.’ That was an interesting experience, of hating it and having it grow on me, like someone else’s record might.”

McEwen’s experience when he recently went back to the album reaffirmed his memories. “I hadn’t listened to it in years,” he says. “So, I started listening, and oh my god, it’s still great. There isn’t anybody around today that could do that on this level. In a way, it’s like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, which is another record I was involved with in a similar way, in that it just occupies its own space and it takes the guitar-rock form, which is kind of getting used up in a way, and makes something spectacular out of it. I mean, these are seven-minute songs that are extremely accessible; there are melodies within melodies, there are guitars all over the place, and they never step on one another. It’s really something. When I listen to it now, I marvel at it. And its follow-up, Keep It Like A Secret, is equally extraordinary.”

Martsch is currently working on a new Built To Spill album, the first since 2009’s There Is No Enemy, and its trajectory has been eerily similar to Perfect. Martsch, Plouf and Nelson recorded basic tracks for it a few years ago, before Plouf and Nelson left. Martsch scrapped those tracks and has started over with a new rhythm section of drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini. Maybe the album will come out next spring—Built To Spill is still on Warner Bros., which is remarkable, too—but it’s hard to guess when Martsch will come to terms with its inevitable imperfections.

“Who knows when anything is really done,” he says.