March 17, 1995
Jeff Martin’s living his own private Idaho
by Jeff Stratton
The band Idaho is often mentioned in the context of the so-called “New Depressives” movement, alongside American Music Club and Red House Painters from San Francisco. But Idaho, from Los Angeles, is not exactly new. And leader Jeff Martin doesn’t necessarily see himself as depressed.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re part of any movement, let alone the New Depressives,” says Martin. “I don’t feel like being lumped in that category at all. Idaho’s music is just honest music. It’s not necessarily positive and joyful. Lyrically, I feel like I’m trying to deal with problems in my life. “I don’t see the comparisons with the other bands, really. I listened to the last Red House Painters e.p. and it was very sad, very desperate music. And I wouldn’t put American Music Club in there either. We won’t be lumped in there for long.”
Idaho’s sound is at once more electric and less somber than Red House Painters, not as polished or as rocking as American Music Club. Martin’s collection of four-string guitars with unusual tunings makes Idaho sound different, off-kilter and strange, and his pained singing creates an atmosphere that warns: Difficult Listening.
“The guitars are a big part of why Idaho is unique,” says Martin. “I discovered them by accident.” A classically trained pianist, 30 year old Martin had never picked up a guitar until two years ago. And the first one he picked up was missing two strings.
“I didn’t even know how to tune a guitar. And I wasn’t about to learn from scratch. I thought playing a guitar required too much finesse. With only four strings I can kind of ham-fist my way through stuff. I’m sure they wouldn’t work for a real guitarist, but to me It’s a great way of coming up with my own voicings and chords no one’s ever heard before. If you’re listening to a guitar in standard tuning, you’re used to hearing those same chords. There’s only so many ways you can play an E. Until now.”
Even though Idaho’s second album, This Way Out (Caroline), is minus the dark presence of original guitarist and partner John Berry, Martin admits that he’s always had a predisposition for less-than-sunny California tunes.
“I always wrote minor-key saddish piano pieces all my life. I’ve always liked that stuff. But the New Depressives, that’s funny. A lot of that is still the fallout from John Berry.” This Way Out does find Martin treading some downer turf lyrically, but overall, the angst is kept in check and the music is mature and well-constructed. Red House Painters (see review next page) are around the corner, and the shadows of Joy Division and Leonard Cohen are just offstage.
Opening for Cranes last month, Martin showed himself to be upbeat, easy-going and leading his band to a brighter, sunnier spot on the lawn. Live, the band wasn’t frail and tired at all. Depressed or not, Idaho has been taking its Prozac, and by gum, it’s working.