Pushing the Rock
Who would have imagined that a poke in the eye during a pickup basketball game would have such a profound effect on Doug Martsch's life and his 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 that he'd suffered a detached retina, and the prognosis was not good.
"When the doctor first saw it," recounts Martsch from his home in Boise, Idaho, "he was like, 'Well, we should at least attempt surgery,' but he didn't think it was gonna work out. They were pretty sure I was gonna be blind in that eye."
In late February, the 36-year-old singer-guitarist went under the knife, forcing the postponement of the quintet'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 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," he explains, "I consciously took a break, because I'd been working super hard on music, and I was pretty burnt out on alternative rock at that point in my life."
That's understandable. Between 1997 and 2001, Martsch and his mates released four albums (starting with Perfect From Now On, widely considered their best work) and toured prodigiously.
"So then I really got into basketball and kickin' back and watching a lot of TV, and I really, really enjoyed it," Martsch admits. "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 were 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," he recalls. "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."
But Martsch was soon sidelined by the eye injury, which cut his hoops dreams short and put his life on hold. After surgery, he spent three weeks essentially immobilized, having to keep his head facing the ground at all times. At first he was bitter and extremely depressed. Martsch says he remembers lying on a massage table, which he was forced to sleep on, and listening to the television as a news anchor delivered word of Dana Reeve's death.
"They mentioned some quote," Martsch recalls, "like Christopher Reeve saying to her, 'How can you stay with me now that I'm like this?' and she said, 'Yeah, but you're still you inside your head.' To me that just seemed really pathetic, like, what does that mean? He's not him anymore; what does it matter what he is inside his head? If I were him and 'just me inside my head' but didn't have any of my physical attributes, I would just wanna be dead. What would be the point? How could I enjoy myself? What makes me even interesting?"
After a while, though, 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," he muses. "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 some slack with his music. During a phone conversation this time last year, the typically self-critical Martsch had said rather bluntly that he thought a lot of Built to Spill's back catalogue "sucked," and that 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," he reveals. "But I guess I'm basically pretty happy with this one. I'm trying to let that negative stuff go. I'm learning that every time you feel bad about things, you have to remember that you're gonna feel good again, that whatever it is that's upsetting you, it's not gonna last forever."
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 just might be the case.
"She's not easy to please; she's pretty harsh," he says, with a laugh. "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 mid-section acts as the "eye of the storm") -- 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 & Crazy Horse and Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J Mascis's boisterous bag of tricks as launching points for its own noisy splendor. The album is propulsive and chaotic one minute ("Conventional Wisdom," "Mess With Time"), and haunting and slow-burning the next ("Gone," "Saturday").
Currently in the midst of a four-month-long tour, Martsch says he's 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 most 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," he says. "After this thing, I've really kinda been put back on my right course."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.