APRIL 4, 1996

Idaho Songs Feature Eclectic, Ever-Changing Arrangements

An Interview with Jeff Martin


I first heard Jeff Martinís Los Angeles-based project Idaho about two years ago while Idaho was doing an in-studio performance/ interview on KCMU. I remember being somewhat affected by an odd warmth that resonated from Martin and fellow collaborator John Berryís mostly dark and melancholic songs. Their dreary songs maintained an aesthetic beauty that drew me into their loneliness.

Martin and Berry recorded just two albums together, the Palms EP and Idahoís debut full-length, Year After Year, before parting ways. Berry was addicted to heroin and Martin simply couldnít work with him anymore. Martin wanted to keep Idaho going, however, so he recorded a second Idaho album, entitled This Way Out, entirely on his own. This Way Out, while still embodying the projectís trademark dreariness, was a bit lighter, and definitely marked a trend on Martinís part away from the despair that engulfed Berryís work.

With Idahoís latest effort, Three Sheets to the Wind, Martin has moved the project even further away from its roots by employing an entire band to record it. In a recent phone interview with Martin concerning Idahoís upcoming show at that the Crocodile Cafe, he talked a bit about, among other things, Idahoís ever-changing arrangements.

GO: You used an entire band to record Three Sheets to the Wind, so what do you see as your current role in the band? Do you see Idaho as a Jeff Martin project or an actual band?

Martin: It started off as a Jeff Martin and John Berry project, and then it became a Jeff Martin project. [On] this last record the crossroads have kind of been reached. I had a lot of songs written for it, most of which ended up on the record, but some of songs on the record were jams that the band and I recorded in the rehearsal studio and turned into songs. So the record has different musical angles crossing each other. I think that makes it pretty interesting but I think the next record is going to be a 100-percent band record.

You know, I would say that Iím the leader of the band, but I donít lead with an iron fist. Itís pretty much a democracy. Everyone writes parts and everyone writes songs. I write all the lyrics and I tend to be in the studio a bit more steering the way the songs go, but itís really working like a band right now.

GO: So do you feel like the people you are working with now is Idaho or do you feel like you could be working with an entirely different group of musicians on the next album?

Martin: I think that weíre really on to something. Iíve never really experienced anything like this, because Iíve never had a band. Iíve never had four people who could just pick up their instruments in a room and start writing really great music off top of their heads. I canít imagine that itís something that happens often enough that I could just wipe the slate clean and start over. I could see us last a while this way: If Idaho does well and keeps going, I could see myself doing a solo record.

GO: So you would distinguish a Jeff Martin record from an Idaho record?

Martin: Thatís a good question. I believe so. I donít know if Idaho has affected [the other band members] or weíre all just affecting each other, but there is a definite continuity going through the music. It would be hard for me to really draw a distinct line down the middle between what I would do by myself and what I am doing with them because I havenít tried it, really.

GO: I understand that Idaho started out as a studio project.

Martin: Oh yeah. When we started it, it was just John and I in my little home studio doing music just for the hell of it, not ever thinking it would be released ó or caring, even. At that point both of us were pretty resigned to not having music as a career. We just thought we would look back and say we recorded some music that we loved. I think that attitude really helps, because I think we hit on something. We liked it a lot and the daunting task of turning it into something live was a real soul-trying experience.

Iím just starting to enjoy playing live now because Iím with a band that can do it. Itís a newly acquired skill, whereas the stuff l was doing before felt really natural. Itís a very different medium ó recording music with drums and guitar, being in a studio, putting microphones in front of things and mixing, and never thinking about a live performance.

GO: Do you feel that Idaho is moving away from being a studio-based band now that you have an actual group of musicians to work with?

Martin: We recorded this record in the studio, really, because we hadnít discov≠ered what we could do. It has more in common with the first two records in that it was kind of pieced together. We didnít have the confidence to track things live, because Iíve never done that before. And a lot of the record was recorded when the four of us really started to play as a band. We hadnít yet discovered that we could write together so there were only a couple of songs we could play before we recorded them.

Thatís not going to be the case with the next record. Iím not going to record records the way Iíve been recording them because you get so much more out of that real-time language.

GO: Having done all your records in the studio, how does that translate in a live performance?

Martin: The other band was pretty hit-and-miss. We had our on nights because sometimes all the cards fell into the right place and everyone was into it emotionally and physically and it worked. But usually it didnít. It was pretty much chaos, and chaos can work to your advantage at times but thatís nothing I would gamble with.

It seems that pretty much now weíve gotten to point were 95% of the time, itís working. Itís great because even though most of these songs that we recorded were pieced together, weíve discovered that we can translate some of the more studio-type songs with a different twist, and weíve decided that thatís a good interpretation of the songs. So I think now the songs are more human live.

GO: The name Idaho is an interesting name for a band from Los Angeles. It seems that by naming yourself after a community so drastically different from your own, that you are, trying to make a conscious distinction between yourself and your community.

Martin: I think youíve hit it pretty much on the head there. We didnít, and I still donít, feel like we have anything to do with any scene in L. A. at all musically. I feel like I walk around there as a stranger anyway. I never felt any close assimilation with the city. The only part of the city I really like is the geography and the weather and some of the older architecture. You can live a very private existence there. So youíre not, really affected by your surroundings if you choose not to be.

GO: You get compared to American Music Club pretty regularly. Do you feel like thatís a good comparison?

Martin: You know there is that and then there is the Dinosaur Jr. comparison. Iíve probably heard one American Music Club song in my whole life, but I think itís okay. People have to try and make sense out of things so people compare us to something. If American Music Club is what theyíre coming up with as a comparison then we must be pretty original because I havenít ever listened to them. I loved Dinosaur Jr.ís first record or two and maybe people see how that has affected me, but I donít know.

GO: I think a lot of that has a lot to do with the nature of the music you play. Both you and American Music Club write dreary, melancholic songs, and people pick up on that.

Martin: Maybe itís a California thing. I mean itís beautiful mere but itís kind of like paradise gone awry a little bit. In L.A. and Hollywood there is a certain false beauty to the place. People go there with their dreams and they donít pan out. There is a feeling in the air that something is tragically wrong. Maybe there is something going on that might affect certain artist to go that route.

GO: Do you feel thatís what made your music go that route?

Martin: I donít know. Iím from there. I had a pretty good upbringing. My parents are still together and I was given a lot of affection, but then again I could sense that there was even something very wrong with their relationship when I was young. But then again who knows, I donít know how much what youíve been exposed to or how youíve been treated has an effect on somebody. I personally liked music that was in that vein.

Itís funny because I think the adjectives that people use to describe Idaho are often incorrect. Like Idaho has been called sad-core. People say it has this woeful, lonely feel to it, but I think thatís beautiful. Thatís just what comes out naturally.

Thatís not really the case anymore, though. Right now Iím land of moving away from that and writing songs from all different sides of life and different perspectives.

GO: Do you feel that having toured with certain bands has influenced you musically?

Martin: Definitely. Touring with Red House Painters affected me a lot because I definitely became much more influenced by their music after we toured together. With Low, I could point out parts on Idaho records that have been directly influenced by them.-I really like that because I donít listen to records over and, over again and get as much out of them as I do when I do a tour with a band. Then you really get inside their music. I am very happily affected by them and I like to initiate that into what Iím doing.