RAYGUN – 1993
The light is fading in Jeff Martin and John Berry’s living room, softening a typical “guy” place-all mismatched furniture, blanket walls and an upright piano denuded to show its private parts. As it gets darker, the only illumination comes from a muted lamp and a glowing in the other room. Now I understand.
In broad daylight, Berry and Martin are just (but not merely) two 20-something guys who live in LA and happen to have a record (Year After Year) out on a cool indie label. Friends since high school, they have the kind of yin and yang rhythm that only comes from Iong standing habit. Martin thinks on his feet, even when he’s sitting down, composing and refining his thoughts even as he speaks, so that words sometimes trip over and contradict each other. Berry leans back in his chair, deceptively sleepy, and embellishes Martin’s narratives with wry asides and comical facial expressions.
This is why the partnership that is Idaho works: As a whole, it’s as ethereal and brooding as October twilight , but not night-black, detached but not reclusive. We talk about Los Angeles and about how so many people who live here—ourselves included—would love to get out. Idaho is the soundtrack to that feeling, as well, huddled masses hiding behind barred windows and doors. Daylight, when trying to understand this band, just won’t do. The seeds were planted roughly ten years ago, when they were attending “rival high schools.” No names. They met in a mutual friend’s band, discovered they had similar musical ideas and started writing songs together, something they have been doing off an on ever since. They started up again about two years as Idaho, “and we just stated making demos, about half of which are on the record.”
“It was after a couple of really weird things we were doing,” Berry adds, “like playing Al’s Bar every month.” He stops, makes a face. “Why were we doing that?
“We were experimenting with different styles,” Martin answers. “It was more like a Husker Du punk pop sort of thing, melodic music, the opposite of what we’re doing now.” Berry raises his eyebrows at him. “Well, maybe not the complete opposite, but it would be shocking for you to hear it now,” Martin concedes, “I wasn’t playing guitar yet [they both play just about everything], and John would come into the studio with a guitar line, and we’d add a drum line, then I’d put bass to it....”
“And then I’d put the most cathartic guitar possible over the top of it.” Without realizing it, Berry has just perfectly defined what he does best. The most cathartic guitar possible.
Martin laughs. “Yeah, I remember my mom would have to call the back room because John would have this little Fender Princeton turned up full-bore. We’d get these really beautiful sounds, and that was the beginning of our formula. Its kind of the same thing now, six years later.”
“Except now we can almost play it live.”
Al’s Bar gigs aside, playing live was never Idaho’s raison d’etre, although to their surprise, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing; a short east coast tour down and west coast dates to go. “We’d never really thought about playing live,” Martin says. “We’ve always considered it to be a recording thing. But it’s getting easier-before it was utter terror for me. I had nightmares about playing live.”
Berry looks up, interested. “You did?”
There is no terror in actually making music, however. It’s a natural process, one with which they are both comfortable. Martin reconsiders something he said earlier. “I guess when I say formula, I mean we have to do it a certain way. It just seems to write itself, really”.
“We have different qualities that balance each other out,” Berry explains. “He’s more melodic and has a unique vocal sense, and I’m like…make it sound big. Big drum sound, more reverb, more fucking reverb. Martin’s totally the opposite: ‘I want less production, I want things dry.”
I’m falling into their conversational mode, and start musing that no matter how many times I listen to Year after Year, or the Palms EP that proceeded it, I get hooked by the vocals but not by the lyrics. It’s not that you can’t hear them, it’s just that they are as much a part of the fabric as Berry’s cathartic guitar. It’s not a question, but Martin answers it anyway: “Lyrics come last. Even vocal melodies come before the lyrics. We often have a version of the song where I’m just babbling....”
“We always have a version of the song where he’s just babbling.”
“They’re usually my best vocal tracks, because when the tape is rolling, something just gets choked in me.”
“It’s like the meaning of the words get in the way,” Berry clarifies.
Whatever it is, it’s powerful. We get onto the subject of words and of writing. I’ve already written more words than I’m suppose to, so we’ll leave you now, kind of like a work in progress.
The light is fading...........(out).
STORY – KAREN WOODS