It takes a lot to knock an obsession out of Built to Spill singer-songwriter-guitarist Doug Martsch. Behind the beard, the down-low home life with wife and child, and the phone conversation padded with softly undercutting “Oh, I dunno’s,” once lay the heart of a raging pickup basketball junkie.
“I kinda got sucked into the NBA play-offs seven or eight years ago,” explains Martsch, 37, from his home in Boise, Idaho. “Then I quit smoking cigarettes five or six years ago, and when I quit smoking, I decided to go shoot hoops, and then I just got really addicted to it, totally loved it. That was kind of my main passion.
“Yeah, I played music somewhat, but basketball was what I lived for and did every day.”
A seemingly harmless hobby, except that Martsch threw himself so vigorously into the game that he was starting to do some real damage — to himself. Most recently, Built to Spill — one of Northwestern rock’s most respected representatives and one of ’90s indie/alternative/modern rock/whatev’s most influential bands — had to push back the tour dates for their new album, You in Reverse (Warner Bros.), because of a detached retina Martsch suffered while banging around the court. And then there was the last time Built to Spill played in San Francisco, two years ago …
The band was staying at the Phoenix, and as usual while on tour, Martsch ventured out, looking for a local pickup game. He found one at the Tenderloin Golden Gate YMCA. “I was playing noon ball with the people there, and I got smacked in the ear and popped my eardrum, and I was deaf in my right ear for a couple months,” he recalls. “I kept waiting for my hearing to come back. We had to finish the tour, and I could only hear out of one ear, and it was driving me crazy!” After he returned home Martsch finally, reluctantly broke the news to his wife, who had been worried about basketball injuries for some time. One can imagine the I told you sos ringing out all over Boise.
“Yeah, I had my right ear destroyed, and my right eye destroyed so far, and my right knee also,” continues Martsch, who, at one point, also suspected he had a torn ACL. “So, I dunno — I’m about done. I also started taking it a little too seriously. I started not having very much fun unless I was playing well. If I missed a few shots, I’d just become really frustrated, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself.” After his eye injury Martsch followed his doctor’s orders to stop playing for a few months, and in the process, some of the fixation dissipated (though plucky challengers can get a taste of it by playing Martsch via a game on the band’s Built to Spill Web site).
Luckily for patient Built to Spill fans, Martsch reimmersed himself in music. Those listeners had been waiting for five years for a studio follow-up to Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.). Touched by Martsch’s passion for the Delta blues — which resulted in his 2002 solo album, Now You Know (Warner Bros.) — You in Reverse finds the band shaping less characteristic jams and experimenting in the studio, sans their longtime producer Phil Ek and accompanied by only engineer Steven Wray Lobdell (who ended up getting the producer credit). Pitting himself against longtime contributing guitarist–turned–permanent member Brett Netson of Caustic Resin, Martsch unfurls guitar solos that are both economical and impassioned, beginning with the lengthy, multitextured suite “Goin’ Against Your Mind.” He buries his vocals as guitars chime brightly in the foreground on “Liar,” then throws indie listeners for a loop with souped-up ska and flamenco tempos (“Mess With Time”). In all, Martsch sounds more like a ’burb-bound Neil Young than ever before, harnessing a semi-tamed Crazy Horse for his garage jams with his Seattle- and Boise-based bandmates while sidestepping the dangers of repeating himself and working in almost undetectable jabs at the current political environment.
Looking back at the gap between Ancient Melodies and You in Reverse, Martsch is quick to point out that the band actually took only a yearlong breather between tours and recording. But the reason they took the break, he confesses, was that “I just really burned out. I was just kind of tired of Built to Spill and wasn’t very interested in alternative rock in general.” He discovered Delta blues around the time he recorded Keep It Like a Secret and, he explains, “that’s all that sounded very good to me.”
That changed when the group got together to jam for You in Reverse, which Martsch describes as Built to Spill’s most collaborative album yet. He hopes with the official addition of Netson that he can write songs with the rest of the band while Built to Spill is on tour and recording songs at studios across the country. “I’m just kind of excited,” says Martsch. And that’s a major score for someone who claims he doesn’t think he has a “real lust for life.”
“I think the best things Built to Spill ever does are yet to come on some sort of level.” SFBG
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