MAGNET – NOVEMBER, 1993
By Thomas W. Reimel
Armed with brilliant simplicity, an uncompromising sound and a four-string guitar, the duo known as Idaho are no small potatoes.
What are two guys from California who call themselves Idaho ?
Simple. The bare minimum.
That’s not an insult. Together Jeff Martin and John Berry make music that’s like a perfectly balanced house of cards: anything taken away threatens the disintegration into chaos, anything added threatens the vulgarity of excess. Listen to Idaho’s spare, haunting melodies and you’ll see what minimum means—not the least amount that’s passable, but the most that’s possible.
“I think we’re both somewhat minimalist,” explains bassist, vocalist and four-string guitarist Martin. “It’s kind of like the ‘less is more’ thing... It’s very simple what we’re doing. It’s not like we’re covering the tape deck with tracks and tracks of overdubs. It’s very cut and dried. It s shockingly simple, I think, what we’re doing.”
Simple maybe, but simply brilliant. Contrary to expectations, getting down to basics was a long and arduous process for the duo. The “overnight” critical acclaim The Palms EP garnered for the duo was preceded by years in the rock wilderness. “Our first band together was in 1980,1982,” Martin says, “We were always making tapes and kicking around, but nothing seemed to gel until recently. I guess we had to become a little older and more mature. It was just the two of us working on this, and we think maybe that’s one reason it worked... because we eliminated everybody else.
”Actually having a decent recording studio made a difference,” he continues. “We could actually sort of ‘fake being a band.’ We could sort of do everything ourselves. [It was] mainly maturity though, for me, personally. I think that I was actually very lazy before, and I’d get very impatient. I could never really finish anything. Who knows, though? I just think it has finally developed and worked this time.”
The old rock ‘n’ roll routine of failed bands, go-nowhere demos and aborted attempts wasn’t the only detour in Idaho’s trip from anonymity to its anointment as a formidable practitioner of slo-core. Quite simply, guitarist and drummer Berry was in the Big House.
“John did some hard time,” Martin laughs. “He was a bad boy!”
“I experimented with personal chemistry and paid the price. That was a long time ago,” Berry says simply.
Just like that. None of the apologies of the zealously reformed, nor the defiance of the habitual user—just one more experience that has brought Idaho to where it is. “We had made a demo and when [Berry] came out we just picked up where we left off,” Martin says.
Don’t be fooled into thinking dirge-like songs and take-it-as-it-comes attitudes translate into your typical pair of laid-back Californians. When it comes to its sound, this duo is uncompromising. A self-described “studio band,” Idaho was able to get the freedom in that studio by Martin’s lack of business acumen.
“I was going to start a recording studio a few years ago,” he says, “and I took a loan out... I was going to go into business, and then I was told it was really the wrong business to go into—it was a no-win situation, it was a money pit. So for the past few years I’ve had a lot of really nice stuff. I’ve never really been able to go into another studio and work very well. The pressure would get to me, and I need the freedom to be able to go in there whenever I want.”
“And the time to try to do stuff and somewhat experiment with different things,” Berry adds.
Idaho doesn’t confine its independent ways to how it plays—it extends to what it plays. Not many people would parlay an incomplete instrument into an artistic outlook. But Martin does.
“Somebody’s Fender Strat was kicking around sometime early last year,” he explains. “There were just four strings on it. I’ve never been able to play guitar, really—I’m like a piano player, and I can barely play bass. So I tuned [the four-string] randomly to what sounded interesting to me, and I wrote a song. And it appeared to be so simple.
The songwriting kinda went from there,” he continues. “And I finally had someone build one for me. I’ve always thought six was too many. I want guitarists to strip their parts down. Usually they’re too full, too rich to layer on top of in a song. The four-string gets right to the point.”
It’s in songwriting that Idaho’s message shows loud, slow and clear. Strip away everything extraneous—whether it’s strings or people—and you’re left with just one thing: the naked truth, which is always more than the sum of its parts. Listening to the achingly beautiful “Gone“, you remember what music is supposed to do—tap into the primal depths of life. For a band composed of two burgeoning masters of the art, Idaho has a fairly mundane writing and recording routine.
We have our little formula,” says Martin. “John writes a song... And I’ll go down into the drum booth and play drums to it, and we’ll go from there. I’ll put a bass track down, put a vocal track down, and John will do his thing over it, some guitar feedback. And if I wrote the song, John will play drums and I’ll play the four-string guitar... and generally it works pretty quickly. We don’t do a lot of changes, it just of happens.”
“There’s always a lot of changes involved,” Berry adds, “even if it’s fairly well written out. It’s always a fairly creative process. If something isn’t working, we’re always flexible. You know, stuff just happens sometimes.”
Of course when you go this far out, you’re on your own. There’s no one to blame and nowhere to hide. Idaho doesn’t shy away from its challenge, though. Most would agree Palms is a sterling recording, but a dissenting voice comes from Martin himself, who is more pleased with the band’s recently released full-length album. Year After Year,
“[Year After Year] is more organic sounding, a little bit messier, a little bit less produced than the EP,” he says. “The Palms EP is too crisp and compressed and punchy. We were very rushed with it. And with the album we had a little bit more time, and we had slightly better equipment to mix down onto. So I’m happier with the sound of it.”
As the interview ends Martin and Berry tell me that because of touring commitments (both foreign and domestic), they’ll have two months to write and record Idaho’s next album. Just about the minimum. Just about right.