MARCH 11, 1996
“This is my first interview I’ve done in a year,” apologizes Jeff Martin of Idaho, as he sweetly stumbles through yet another answer. No problem. Expressing emotion verbally can be difficult, and doing it through music isn’t any easier. Yet over the course of the past couple years, on two albums and a handful of EPs, the California songwriter has done just that, wrenching more feeling out of his guitar than you’d think six strings could accommodate, and topping it with disconsolate vocals
His new release, Three Sheets To The Wind, continues that pattern. But gorgeous songwriting aside, two other redeeming factors should silence naysayers who dismiss his miserablism as a folly of retarded adolescence: Idaho varies the musical tone throughout (the initial one-two punch of the quiet “If You Dare,” followed by the rowdy “Catapult,” is a fine example), and Martin sticks so doggedly to his narrow scope that the subtle nuances of despair take on a larger, poetic scale. By keeping his vocals mixed low, and enunciating only half of the time (usually dropping off mid-couplet), Martin ensures close listening. Lines like “I’ll watch the sun go out” (“Shame”) and “Late December is what I’m feeling” (“Alive Again”) don’t sound absurd, because it’s phrases like this that make up the bulk of his lexicon—they make sense in the context of Idaho.
The musical part comes easily. “I’ve always been good at it,” Martin claims. “I remember I was a very good improvisational pianist when I was young. At three or four, I could sit down and write songs at the piano.” But that’s only half of the story. “I dread writing lyrics,” he admits. “I don’t know who to get mad at that I have to do it.” He puts the task off until late in the creative process. “I write them after the music. I’m starting to feel compelled to jot things down now. I’m so unorganized. I generally don’t have a cassette deck, or even a pen, so I say ‘oh, fuck it’ and it’s gone.”
Regardless, Martin has been writing more songs of late, only a fraction of which made it to Three Sheets (four others surfaced on last year’s EP The Bayonet (Fingerpaint). When Martin rehearses with the rest of Idaho— additional guitarist Dan Seta, drummer Mark Lewis, and bassist Terry Borden—he records the whole session. “We come up with three or four song ideas, practically complete, per rehearsal. I’ve never had this happen before. We had a huge job this year, to go back and mine through all of this stuff.”
Having the first steady line-up since Idaho’s inception helped, too. “There really is a band now,” Martin stresses. “In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to go out and tour and could do everything by myself. I think there’s a real essence to that stuff I do on my own. But it was so aggravating to play it live that I was forced to seek people to play with—people who can write their own parts that I don’t hate. The band has emerged from that, and now were really coming into our own.”
And then there’s Marty Brumbach, who’s been producing Idaho since its debut ER The Palms, back in 1993. “He really is a fifth band member,” Martin confides. “He has these great organizational talents, and he’s a great balance for me. He’s really an adult, where I’m still groping around and figuring out what the fuck I’m doing here. He’s able to come in, and keep things anchored, yet he knows when to leave me alone.
“I don’t think that the first record would have gotten finished if he hadn’t been around,” he adds a minute later, “because John and I really didn’t know how to finish songs.”
A flag goes up at the mention of Martin’s former partner in Idaho, John Berry, who found himself without a band following Year After Year due to his heroin addiction. What became of him? “He’s just still so messed up,” says Martin, his volume dropping a notch. “I think he’s in drug rehab again. It’s too bad. Even up ‘til a couple months ago, I’d call him, and he’d pick up the guitar and play something over the phone, and it would just be so good.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to him,” he continues. “I’m surprised he’s alive, actually, and glad and grateful that’s he’s where he is, because he thrives in that environment. When he first went to rehab, he actually became a spokesman and traveled around, and became highly respected and helped a lot of people. And he really loved that. But then we started working together, and I think the music brought him back into that mind set.”
The narcotic feeling of Idaho’s music didn’t leave with Berry, though, and as the title suggests, Three Sheets is drinking music. Not raise-a-glass-of-good-cheer drinking music, but God-I’m-so-lonely drinking music: Hank Williams on codeine. “I notice that, unfortunately, listening to Idaho makes me want to go into that spiritual, chemically-induced sort of escape,” concurs Martin. “It angers me. I want to start writing some earthbound, boring music that I can listen to while making breakfast.”
Fat chance. But while devoted fans might be hard-pressed to agree, surely there are songs in the band’s catalog he finds at least moderately uplifting?
“They’re all uplifting to me,” he jokes, before confessing that he can’t think of any that fit that adjective. “It’s funny— the most uplifting in tone, but not necessarily the lyrics, is ‘One Sunday’ off of Year After Year—the chords and almost slightly swing/funk beat. It’s definitely a love song, about a relationship that has just ended.”
Martin is elusive about his own romantic side. He wrestles with the ugly adage that love only finds those who don’t seek it. “I believe that’s possibly true,” he sighs. “I’m just very impatient, and I don’t believe it’s going to happen. But I know by looking for it, it never works. I’ve been trying since I had my last steady relationship, and all of my efforts to replace it have proved futile. They definitely come up sour every time.
“Personally, I don’t think I could be with someone a lot, right now. I need to be by myself. But I’m feeling a definite void that is getting a little gnawing.”
Admittedly shy, Martin forms few friendships, most of them through his music. That wasn’t always the case. “In high school, I had a solid group of friends, and was pretty much a normal teenager.” But after graduation, he relocated to England. “London, by nature, is gloomy and cold in the winter, and at that point I went into this transformation,” he recalls. “I got very, very depressed, and spent hours alone, drinking gin and reading George Orwell and listening to a lot of Bowie and that gothic, dark shit, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Joy Division.”
Fortunately, the friendship Martin has solidified with Idaho’s bassist seems to be steering him towards a little more human contact. “He is just a wild man,” he says of Borden. “It’s been fun to get to know him, because I’ve never been able to go out and have wild nights and meet people, and he’s become a catalyst for me, for a lot of stuff I didn’t get to live through.”
And that worries him, when he thinks about the two of them touring together soon. “I find that I start to abuse myself too much on the road, because I’m still terrified to play live,” he admits. “I drink too much and eat shitty food. I’m a pretty sensitive person physically. I have really bad back, I almost had an ulcer, all these weird problems with my body. I definitely need to take better care of myself next time we go out on the road.”
In the meanwhile, Martin has been investing a lot of energy into fixing up the house he just bought in Laurel Canyon. “I love it. I was given some cookbooks for Christmas and I’ve been cooking. I bought old carpets and all the stuff for my bed.” The enthusiasm is understandable; up until a couple years ago, the 31 -year-old still lived with his parents. “The only times I’ve really lived on my own, and had a house and a girlfriend, it lasted for about a year and a half. I find it hard to keep a place out of chaos.”
Amidst all this talk of relationships and setting up house, I break down and tell Martin why I’ve been a fan of his music since the first time I heard it: I was turned on to Idaho by someone who eventually broke my heart. The Palms is a landmark on the emotional highway of my life. “I get a few stories like that,” he admits, offering little consolation, “about people listening to Idaho during relationships and having it be a really good touchstone.” He chuckles. “Not to pat myself on the back.” S3
“Skyscrape” 7” (Ringers Lactate) 1993
The Palms EP (Caroline) 1993
Year After Year (Caroline) 1993
“Fuel” 7” (Caroline) 1994
This Way Out (Caroline) 1994
The Bayonnet EP (Fingerpaint) 1995
Three Sheets To The Wind (Caroline) 1996
by Kurt B. Reighley