FEBRUARY 18, 1995
IDAHO still sound like death’s own angel dragging a lake for corpses. And they still sculpt the sweetest sadness this side of Red House Painters. Only now the band’s JEFF MARTIN is going it alone, and he’s never sounded better, as SHARON O’CONNELL discovered when she talked to him about hope, happiness and heroin.
“OH, GOD,” SIGHS JEFF MARTIN, running his hands anxiously through his hair. “I know he’s going to read this stuff. But it’s already happened and he really doesn’t seem to care.”
It’s never easy. In the break-up of any kind of relationship, it seems that one partner is weighed down by shitty circumstance and inevitably goes under, while the other draws a deep breath before swimming away in another direction.
Jeff Martin is too self-effacing, too uncertain and self-conscious, too damned nice to ever think of himself as a winner. But where the split from John Berry, his partner in Idaho, is concerned, he’s certainly the survivor.
JEFF and John went their separate ways after the recording of 1993’s stunning “Year After Year” album and supporting tour, mainly because, after being clean for three years, John had started using heroin again. As the junk began to wreak its havoc, Jeff realised the partnership could no longer work and decided to go ahead and do the next album alone.
None of this is easy for him to talk about now, as we sit here in the window of a cafe on San Francisco’s noisy Folsom Street with the first beer of the afternoon. He and John are still on good terms and see each other regularly, so Jeff is torn between wanting to tell the simple truth and the feeling that he’s betraying a close friend by doing so. Somehow, though, the conversation ends up revolving around John.
“I ring him up practically every day just to check that he’s still alive,” Jeff tells me, only half joking. “He’s become this tragic drunk, but it’s better this way. You can call him up the next morning and it’s still John -he’s there. He’s hungover, maybe, but when he was doing heroin he was just a freak. He was always hiding, but he’s part of the world again now. Alcohol is an accepted poison, so he can somehow make his way a little better.
“It’s so tragic he’s lost this life he finally created for himself,” Jeff says, shaking his head. “I really worry about him because he’s unable to fend for himself. He writes these beautiful songs and plays them over the phone sometimes. He really wants to do something again, but I don’t know what it would take.”
THE new, post-Berry Idaho album may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone familiar with the hypnotic, planing melancholy of the earlier records. The desperation and longing are still there, expressed with the same divine eloquence, but half the songs sound bigger, beefier and have way more swing than ever before. And it’s more than the fact that now Jeff has a full band behind him instead of just John. “Drop Off” could easily be J Mascis in one of his rare thoughtful moments; so could the lusciously compelling “Drive It”. And’ “Fuel” sounds like Martin’s been listening to Neil Young in his car with the top down. Those comparisons with Red House Painters and Codeine are much harder to hang on Idaho now.
“I think I needed to get some stuff out my system,” Jeff admits of “This Way Out”. “I wanted to shake it up a little bit more and I wanted to blow out some exhaust with fortitude and abandon. I couldn’t have done another record like ‘Year After Year’ right afterwards. Ifs so complete in its mulchy sadness, there’s no reason to do any more. But I think the third record is going to go back to a more textured, smooth, driving kind of music - more subtle.”
BY his own admission, Jeff’s a late developer. He and John came from similar backgrounds (wealthy parents, private schools) in LA, and he still lives there with his parents, both professionals, in a house with 24-track studio attached. John got deeply into drugs and spent a couple of terms in jail, and it’s he who showed Jeff a wilder way of life.”
“When I met him,” Jeff laughs, “I was this square little preppy listening to bands like The Police, and he was this really hip little punk kid who used to roadie for The Deadbeats and was exposed to a lot of stuff.
“All of my rebelling, I did with John,” he remembers. “He was my key into this other world and I loved it dearly but I couldn’t handle it, either. I don’t have the stamina to be intoxicated all the time and I didn’t have the hatred that he has. I don’t know where it comes from, but he was born with a lot of it and then his parents had a very bitter, early divorce. And John has a lot of chemical problems, he can’t sleep... it’s sad, because he’s a wonderful, truly alive person. I never met anyone who has the capability of enjoying life so much and living it with such passion, but with all these demons. It’s just overwhelming to be around.
“John helped me find my own thing and he helped me escape from my parents,” adds Jeff. “I always knew that would be through something John and I did, but right now I couldn’t imagine working in a partnership with anybody. I want to have a career more like Brian Eno’s had; I want to move on and I always want to be changing. I don’t need John to do what I do, at all.”
THE force with which the songs on “This Way Out” are expressed may be new, but the sentiments aren’t. Loneliness and solitude, and the necessarily solipsistic nature of human existence still loom large; Jeff’s beautifully bereft, grey-toned voice still sounds haunted.
Where does this gorgeous gloominess come from?
“My music’s always had that desperate sadness and longing for escape,” claims Jeff. “There are cassette recordings of me playing the piano when I was 10 at my parents’ house and it’s all sad, pretty music. I was never really into rocking out or writing songs about cars or whatever. I think you’re very sensitive at that age and I could sense a certain sadness in our family. I could tell something was missing and maybe I was tapping into that.”
“My childhood memories are of total insecurity and rear of people and school,” he adds, almost shuddering. “I had enough unquestioning love around me to make it work, but I used to stutter so badly that, for the most part, I could hardly speak. “I still do, but I’m getting better just through having to do interviews. All this has been really good for me and I knew it would turn out eventually. The only thing I was ever confident about in my life was that I could do music that was a pure and powerful force- like some kind of life energy. I was lazy and f***ed up, but I always knew that eventually I would get it together.”