Who would've imagined that a poke in the eye during a pickup basketball game would have a profound effect on Doug Martsch's life and music career? The Built to Spill frontman didn't think much of it when he sustained the injury earlier this year. An eventual trip to a physician, however, revealed he'd suffered a detached retina, and the prognosis was not good.
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"When the doctor first saw it, he was like, 'Well, we should at least attempt surgery,' but he didn't think it was gonna work out," Martsch says over the phone from his home in Boise, Idaho. "They were pretty sure I was gonna be blind in that eye."
So in late February, the 36-year-old singer-guitarist went under the knife, forcing the postponement of his band's five-week tour planned to coincide with the April release of You in Reverse, Built to Spill's highly anticipated sixth studio album. Although the band—which also currently includes bassist Brett Nelson, drummer Scott Plouf, and guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson—has toured the country every spring for the past few years, they hadn't put out an album since 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future. Work on new material was progressing slowly—with numerous songs recorded, reworked, then scrapped, in many cases—because, Martsch admits, his heart just wasn't into it.
"When we finished Ancient Melodies, I consciously took a break because up until that point I'd been working super hard on music, and I was pretty burnt out on alternative rock at that point in my life," he explains. Martsch and mates were clearly a band on a mission between 1997 and 2001, releasing four albums in that span (starting with Perfect From Now On, widely considered their best) and touring prodigiously. "So then I really got into basketball and kickin' back and watching a lot of TV and I really, really enjoyed it," Martsch continues, "but I felt kinda guilty, and I sometimes wondered if I'd get obsessed with music and get more active with it again. I'm in this position where I can make as much music as I want, and I felt guilty for years that I wasn't doing it as much as I could have."
Basketball, in fact, supplanted music as his new obsession—Martsch was playing all the time, as if he was plotting a tryout with an NBA team. "I'd go to bed thinking about moves I would try and remembering parts of the game I'd played that day. I'm not even that good, but what I found was that I was taking it way too seriously and wasn't having that much fun. If my shot wasn't falling, I was getting really pissed off."
And then the injury, which cut short his hoops career and put his whole life on hold. After his surgery, Martsch spent three weeks essentially immobilized, having to keep his head facing the ground at all times. At first, he was bitter and extremely depressed.
After a while, and with advice and encouragement from his wife, Martsch began to snap out of his funk. "You can either try to make something good out of it, or you can be completely resentful and bummed out about it, and I just couldn't see that going anywhere. What I realized, just lying there with nothing to do but think, is that for so long I'd just been afraid of getting bored, with music or with life or whatever, and I was kinda running away from that. Like, 'I don't wanna get bored because who knows what'll happen to me then—that sounds horrible,' and I realized it's really not that bad."
He also decided to cut himself a break with his music. During a phone conversation this time last year, the typically self-doubting Martsch had said rather bluntly that he thought a lot of Built to Spill's back catalog "sucked," and at that time he was far from thrilled with how the material destined for You in Reverse was shaping up.
"I haven't made a record yet that I didn't hate by the time we were done with it, because I just notice all the shortcomings, but I guess I'm basically pretty happy with this one," he says now.
Despite everyone in his circle telling him that You in Reverse is the strongest Built to Spill album in some time, and possibly the band's finest recording yet, it took his wife's seal of approval to finally convince him that might be the case. "She's not easy to please. She's pretty harsh," he laughs. "I think she appreciated that it's sorta jammy but never meandering, that everything there seemed like it was supposed to be there, and that was pretty important to me because it has sort of an improvised feel but has nothing in common with a jam band."
She's absolutely right. Even at its most epic—as on the stunning nine-minute opener, "Goin' Against Your Mind," which features gobs of guitar riffs and melodies crashing into its vigorous rhythms and Martsch's high, emotional-not- melodramatic vocals like waves battering a shoreline during a hurricane (the song's subdued midsection acts as the "eye of the storm," too)—the disc rarely sports parts that feel aimless or particularly wanky. As always, Built to Spill uses Everybody Knows This is Nowhere–era Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis' boisterous bag of tricks as launching points for its own noisy splendor; propulsive and chaotic on "Conventional Wisdom" and "Mess With Time," haunting and slow-burning on "Gone" and "Saturday."
Recuperated enough to lead Built to Spill on a four-month tour of the U.S., Martsch says he's musically reinvigorated enough to bring the band into studios in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin along the way to record at least a half-dozen new songs. Though still dealing with double vision and a scar on his retina that likely will never go away, he says that in some strange way, he's grateful the injury occurred.
"Now I go to bed thinking about music again. After this thing, I've really kinda been put back on my right course."