Who would've imagined that a poke in the eye would have such a profound effect on a music career? Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch didn't think much of it when he first sustained the injury during a basketball game earlier this year; an eventual trip to a physician, however, revealed he'd suffered a detached retina.
“When the doctor first saw it he was … pretty sure I was gonna be blind in that eye,” Martsch says from his home in Boise, Idaho. So in late February, the 36-year-old went under the knife, forcing the postponement of the quintet's tour to coincide with You in Reverse, Built to Spill's highly anticipated sixth studio album and the first since 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future. It was yet another stall for a record that had progressed slowly — with numerous songs reworked or scrapped — because Martsch's heart just wasn't into it.
“When we finished Ancient Melodies I consciously took a break; I was pretty burnt out on alternative rock,” he explains. He'd clearly been on a mission between 1997 and 2001, releasing four albums (starting with Perfect From Now On, widely considered BTS' best) and touring prodigiously. “Then I really got into basketball,” Martsch continues, “but I felt kinda guilty and I sometimes wondered if I'd get obsessed with music again.”
Basketball became his new passion — Martsch was playing as if plotting a tryout with an NBA team. “I'd go to bed thinking about moves and remembering parts of the game I'd played that day. I'm not even that good, but I was taking it way too seriously. If my shot wasn't falling, I was getting really pissed off.”
And then came the injury, which put his whole life on hold. After surgery, Martsch spent three weeks essentially immobilized, facing the ground at all times. At first, he was bitter and extremely depressed, but with 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,” he says. “What I realized, just lying there with nothing to do but think, is that for so long I'd been afraid of getting bored, and I was kinda running away from that.”
He also realized he should cut himself a break musically. This time last year, the typically self-doubting Martsch admitted that he thought a lot of Built to Spill's back catalog “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, but I guess I'm basically pretty happy with this one,” he says now. “I'm learning that every time you feel bad about things, you hafta remember that you're gonna feel good again.”
You in Reverse uses the usual amounts of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-era Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and Dinosaur Jr's boisterous bag of guitar tricks as launching points for its own noisy splendor. The album sounds propulsive and chaotic on “Conventional Wisdom” and “Mess With Time,” haunting and slow-burning on “Gone” and “Saturday.” Often called “the jam band for jam band-haters,” Built to Spill certainly offers coarse, sprawling passages that bear the spontaneous electricity of a live show, but even at its most epic — as on the stunning nine-minute opener “Goin' Against Your Mind,” — Reverse rarely feels aimless or particularly wanky.
Freshly refueled on the songwriting front, Martsch says he's reinvigorated enough to record at least a half-dozen new songs on the road. Though still dealing with double vision and a scarred retina, in retrospect he's somewhat grateful the physical setback occurred. “Now I go to bed thinking about music again,” Martsch admits. “After this thing, I've really kinda been put back on my right course.”