Two years ago, when Santiago decided to learn and perform Built to Spill’s album Perfect From Now On in its entirety, I would have never guessed that Built to Spill themselves would one day book a series of shows doing the same exact song-for-song tribute to their own masterpiece.
I also would have never guessed that through a series of events both deliberate and unpredictably farcical, Doug Martsch would ever hear a live audience recording of the show where we played Perfect From Now On; or that, years later, when Built to Spill took the album back on the road, that he’d track us down and personally invite us to the show.
It was one of those heart-stopping answering machine messages: “Look, Doug wants to put you and your band on the guest list for the show next week, so gimme a call back.”
I was agog. I called back, and sure enough, Doug Martsch had heard the Santiago recording of Perfect From Now On. And he wanted to meet us.
“I can’t believe you did it,” Doug told us backstage, smiling. “It even took us a long time to re-learn some of those songs.”
We said to him, fumbling over our words, I’m sure, how much we loved the album, and how grateful we were to him for making it, and what a satisfying project it was to learn it in its entirety. Nick explained that it took the better part of a month, “locked in my bedroom,” to figure out the insanely complex guitar parts, which perked Doug’s interest. “Did you learn any new formations?” he asked, unaware of how accurate his suggestion was.
The phenomenon we often encountered, I explained, was that we’d listen to the songs and imagine, in our heads, how they’d be played. But then, when we actually picked up our guitars, we realized that our fingers had to be arranged in completely different patterns in order to play the parts correctly. “So it was an amazing and indirect learning process,” I said.
“If you’ve got time,” Doug offered, “if there’s some parts you couldn’t figure out, I could get my guitar and show you some stuff.”
Jesus Christ, we all thought. Is this for real? But by that point, after hanging out for a while, it was time for the show to start. The band walked by, up the stairs and to the stage, and Doug thanked us again before strolling behind to perform one of the greatest albums ever made.
As I’ve said before, the greatest asset Perfect From Now On so brilliantly brandishes is a complete sense of mystery. Learning it didn’t change that, and seeing Built to Spill play it in its entirety didn’t change it either. Even onstage, the album still emits, from just about every song, the themes that everyone ponders when they first spend a long night gazing up at the stars and talking to a good friend about life:
The universe is infinite. You are small, and your life is relatively insignificant. It’s wrong to go through life acting otherwise. Imagination is useful. The world is noisy. Sympathy is a luxury. Beauty is random acts coming together. Other people can be cruel simply by thinking the thoughts that they think. No one knows for sure what happens when we die. When you feel the darkness shining through, what are you gonna do?
I dare any major label A&R rep to scout out an album like Perfect From Now On today. I further dare them to release it. Think about it: this was Built to Spill’s major label debut, those three feeble words which give the record company carte blanche to respond with those five familiar words—”we don’t hear a hit.” Did someone at Warner Brothers in 1997 actually see the artistic value of Perfect From Now On?
The show was magical, hitting a stride with “Stop the Show,” completely coming unhinged with “Velvet Waltz,” and slicing through the previous 45 minutes with “Untrustable / Pt. 2.” Cellist John McMahon, who played on the original album, added immensely to the sound; as did Brett Netson, who’s rightfully been cited as Built to Spill’s secret weapon. Songs became elastic, speeding up and slowing down with even more freedom than on the record, and the band’s legendarily long jams were kept short but no less sprawling. There was a lot of open-mouthed gaping in the crowd.
They played three more songs: “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” “Car,” and “Stab,” and then the lights came up. We drove back to Santa Rosa in awe, and I stayed up until 4am thinking about the unbelievable circle of events that life sometimes throws us.
One thing especially sticks out from the night. I had tried not to be too interrogative with Doug Martsch backstage at the show, but I couldn’t help but ask him a burning question. Did learning Perfect From Now On again, I suggested, bring up any old emotions for him?
“No,” he said, calmly. “I don’t really look at music that way. I just play it.”
Tags: 2008, Built to Spill, Entirety, Live, Perfect From Now On, Review, Santiago, September, Slim's