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.”
The news hit like a one-two kiss of sloppy, wonderful indie-rock love: both Built to Spill and Liz Phair have announced that they’ll perform their great masterpieces—Perfect From Now On and Exile In Guyville—in a series of shows around the country this year.
I’ve fielded countless questions about if I’m going to these shows, because of a truly million-to-one coincidence: I myself have actually performed both of these albums.
Okay, so maybe it’s not a million-to-one shot, but it’s pretty uncanny: in 2001 as part of a duo, and then again in 2006 with my band, Santiago, I learned and performed Perfect From Now On in its entirety. Earlier this year with my friends Dean and Steve, I learned and performed Exile In Guyville. And now, as if to answer our weird but urgent prayers, both albums are getting the ‘In Its Entirety’ treatment by the OGs.
I’m not claiming any kind of cosmic credit for altering the creative waves of the universe. Lets face it, Sonoma County’s not that big. But I will gladly use the news as a reason to talk about what it was like to learn two of the best records of the 1990s.
As anyone familiar with Perfect From Now On and Exile In Guyville can imagine, they were incredibly daunting projects to take on, especially since I had to not only figure out some truly otherworldly guitar parts but also remember hundreds of lyrics. Yet each album compelled me. They’re both crammed with mystery. I felt like if I could wrestle with them in the most direct way possible—figuring out how to play them, and then playing them in public—I could unlock some of that mystery.
When I first heard Perfect From Now On I hated it. All the songs were long and slow and repetitive, and it didn’t grab me at all. Then Built to Spill put out Keep It Like A Secret, which I instantly loved. “Finally,” I said, “I understand what all my friends have been crazy about!” So I went back and listened to Perfect From Now On. I still thought it was a boring formless piece of shit.
It was, however, a boring formless piece of shit that I kept coming back to, and I can’t explain how it happened, except that one night I was sitting alone in my apartment half-drunk, pitifully alone and staring at the carpet, and “Velvet Waltz” came on, and Doug Martsch sang those lines:
And you’d better not be angry
And you’d better not be sad
You’d better just enjoy the luxury of sympathy
If that’s a luxury you have
Suddenly, Perfect From Now On was the most incredible revelation in my entire life, bursting from its ruminations on the meaning of eternity to its sharp, final accusation: what are you gonna do? As a salve for one of my darkest hours, I listened to it every day and every night for a week, over and over. It was an enormous ocean, and I swam through it like a lost soul from a shipwreck, looking for an island.
I’d heard about a guy named Nick Jackson who played guitar and who knew how to play some Built to Spill songs, so I called him completely out of the blue. “Hi, Nick? Hey, my name’s Gabe. Rob gave me your number, and he says you know some Built to Spill songs on the guitar. I’ve got a totally ridiculous idea for you, and feel free to say no, but do you want to learn Perfect From Now On with me and play it at a show?”
His classic response: “Uh, sure. What’s Perfect From Now On?”
He went out and bought it and quickly and amazingly learned every single note, and we started practicing two weeks later. Just us and our guitars, with me singing. The show, at the Old Vic, went well, and afterwards I felt like I’d not only conquered the record in a way, but also made personal amends for talking so much shit about it all those years.
Fast-forward to 2006, and Santiago’s just finished recording Rosenberg’s After Dark, a sprawling concept album all about Santa Rosa. We needed to clean out our systems, so we started fucking around with There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. But it didn’t seem right, and we kept coming back to the songs from Perfect From Now On. It sure sounded a lot better with a full band. I called up Nick Jackson, who was down to fill in again on guitar, and we planned the ultimate joke: for our record release show, we’d play someone else’s record.
It was such an excellent idea. Then my world fell apart. In the middle of rehearsing, my mom died in a terrible car accident. Suddenly Perfect From Now On took on an entirely new emotion for me, and all of its intertwining mystery came rushing back. There was a lot of pain and confusion and heartache going on, and just as the album had earlier given me a salve for my solitude, it sprang up again and offered me a cathartic way to say goodbye.
The show we played was a blur. I remember only one thing vividly about it: singing those lines from “Velvet Waltz”—the ones about about anger, sorrow, and the luxury of sympathy. Someone recorded the show, and when I hear myself singing those lines today, I realize that I’m not one step closer to understanding Perfect From Now On. It’s still a vast ocean, and for as long as I spent swimming around in it, I never found the island. I like it that way.
Exile In Guyville is another story altogether.
I have an ex-girlfriend who listened to Exile in Guyville all the time when we were together. I’d heard about the album when a friend of mine saw Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone, and at first I thought it was basically a wimpy soft-rock record with some token sex references thrown in for attention’s sake. I couldn’t understand why my girlfriend loved it so much, but how can you argue with a girlfriend who loves songs about sex? So I put up with it. She played it over and over.
Eventually, in a haze of prescription Vicodin and Seagram’s gin and English ovals, Exile In Guyville sunk in. I realized that there’s a lot of songs on the record (like “Explain it to Me”) that drone in a really cool way and some (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) that are just plain surreal, lyrically. Those are the ones that I really fell in love with. The eerie ones. My girlfriend kept on playing the ones about blowjobs, though. Years later, as our relationship soured, she kept turning to the blowjob songs for support, and I decided that I couldn’t understand her anymore at all if she still, after all those years, found more solace in “Fuck and Run” than in “Shatter.” So fuck her and fuck Liz Phair and fuck that record, I thought.
Songs don’t disappear. I eventually bought Exile in Guyville again, cuing up my favorite songs first, of course, and then listening to the whole thing. A healthy dose of distance from the mitigating circumstances of its arrival into my life helped me appreciate it all over again. And again, I picked up the phone and called some people and somehow talked them into learning it and playing it in public.
This idea actually had its genesis in 1995, when I distinctly remember walking around a small town in Indiana, waiting for a flat tire to get fixed, singing “Fuck and Run” in my best Johnny Cash impersonation with Alyssa. How crazy would it be, I asked, to take on the ultimate indie-rock feminist statement and perform it from a male point of view?
13 years later, I had even more of a reason to learn and perform Exile in Guyville. Liz Phair had started completely embarrassing herself with teen-girl-whore pop bullshit, and I needed to remind myself and others that she was once great. Also, there was a serious element of reclamation involved; a personal creed, I suppose, that I could love a record on my own terms, and that it didn’t belong to any one person, or to one ex-girlfriend, or to one gender, or to one line of thinking. Plus, a couple years after being stranded in Indiana together, Alyssa had died of a heroin overdose, and I always remembered that she thought it was a cool idea.
We learned the thing in about 4 or 5 practices, cramped into my small office room, and it was an amazing musical experience. Lots of unnerving surprises. I played piano on “Canary.” The show went incredibly well—even the songs about blowjobs—and I think, somehow, we achieved our goals. If nothing else, it was intensely satisfying.
My favorite Exile in Guyville song is still “Shatter.”
So anyway, the long and short of all this is that no, I don’t think I’m going to see Built to Spill perform Perfect From Now On in its entirety, nor do I fathom I’ll go see Liz Phair perform Exile in Guyville in its entirety. The purpose of going those kinds of shows is to commune, in the most direct way, with an album that you love, and I feel like I’ve already done that in the best way possible. Actually, I feel like I’ve inhabited those albums—and to paraphrase the song, I’m not sure I want to go back to the old house.