Three seasons in the life of Jeff Martin and Idaho

by Dan Fiden


Jeff Martin pretty much is the band Idaho, although he doesn’t say so in conversation. The band was formed by Jeff and John Berry, but Martin has been the only constant. He keeps writing his melancholy songs and lyrics as musicians pass through his life like so many Psychic Friends through mine. He refers to an album like 1994’s This Way Out as though he didn’t play all of the instruments. “We tried to do this...” or “The sound we got on that album was that....” You get the idea. After our fourth or fifth conversation I finally confront him on this little bit of neurosis that could mean the difference between the gas chamber and a few months of Rorschach and Prozac. “Ah, Jeff, do you know you refer to Idaho in ‘we’?” “Do I? That’s odd...” is all Jeff offers.

It’s true to Jeff that Idaho has a life of its own, so I guess the way he talks about his band isn’t all that unusual. I’ve gotten the impression after our three or four conversations that Idaho dictates to Jeff more than vice-versa. He’s always got another plan or, more precisely, he’s got a million.

The following is the story of how I finally got to talk to Jeff. It’s a timeline, really. It seems that from the time I first met Jeff to now a lot has happened in the with the band. It basically goes something like this.


14 May 1996:

Idaho’s playing in Rochester— some bar I haven’t heard of, but I decide to go. Of course, I’ll be going alone, but these things happen.

They play for about an hour; the set was well worth the fin I spent on admission. After the show something comes over me— let’s call it the brashness of youth. I walk up to Jeff and congratulate him on the show, as if he either knows me or cares to. The conversation is sometimes awkward, due entirely to my inarticulacy, but Jeff is patient and accommodating. Soon we’re joined by guitarist Dan Seta and after I say something that would only be witty for Rainman— “My name’s Dan, too, so it’s easy to remember your’s”— I settle down. We talked for about five minutes.

idaho’s late spring of 1996

According to Jeff, Idaho’s music is “very vast and very lonely; really landscapetual.” I thought about that word for quite a while and couldn’t possibly describe them better. Martin seems preoccupied with place, creating surreal soundscapes with his four-string guitar and imagistic lyrics. The band’s name and album designs are symptomatic of the sound. There are three full-length Idaho releases, Year After Year, This Way Out and Three Sheets to the Wind— all of which were released by Caroline— and two E.P.s, The Palms and The Bayonette.

When I saw them in May it was in support of Three Sheets.... Jeff recorded this album with a full band: guitar, bass and drums— a change from Year After Year which was done with John Berry and This Way Out which Jeff did by himself. The band was riding the crest of a number of great reviews, including a CMJ cover story. The excitement was apparent. While the band played the slower fare Martin is known for, there was a real urgency in the set. They played a good mix of old and new (I swear they played “Save,” though Jeff claims they didn’t play it the whole tour.)

When I asked Martin about that spring, he was upbeat. “Dan [Seta] was great and the other guys picked it up real fast. We had a really great show in Austin at the South By Southwest festival. I was glad to be on the road.” It was going to be quite a summer for Idaho— the prospect of pretty much non-stop touring, including a second stint with the seminal coma-pop band Low, this time in Europe. Martin was happy with his band and their prospects.


7 August 1996:

Idaho’s playing in Chicago— I’ve heard of the bar this time, and I won’t have to go alone.

On the way to the show, I yap about how great it’d be to do an interview with Jeff Martin. Of course, I’m completely unprepared— no tape recorder, no pens or paper. I pay my eight bucks. I’m slightly pissed at the rate hike, but I dismiss it as life in the big city. Out of the corner of my eye I see Dan, the guitarist (it’s easy to remember his name because it’s also mine). He glances over and it’s a bit like “Strangers in the Night.” I approach him and he asks “Haven’t we met before?” I fight off the urge to make some lame pickup line joke, and respond in the affirmative.

I ask about the possibility of an interview and he seems cool with the idea, but it turns out he’s meeting his cousin for dinner. Just goes to show that family’s always important. I tell him I’ll talk to him after the show.

The band plays and after the show I talk to Jeff, although he doesn’t remember me like Dan did and I’m a bit disappointed. He, too, seems to be open to an interview, but we decide to do it later over the phone. His funeral.

idaho’s late summer of 1996

It’s a much different band this time. The set consists of mostly harder, faster Idaho— of which there isn’t much. They play some new material which Jeff says will be on an upcoming E.P. It’s harder, in keeping with the rest of the show, and in an interesting twist John Berry joins his ex-band on stage for a song. “John is still the biggest Idaho fan out there, and since he was on tour [as Lifter’s stage manager] I thought it’d be nice to have him up for a song. The rest of the band wasn’t into it, and they didn’t bother learning the song so we only did it once.” I asked about the more upbeat new material. “I could feel things getting away from me. When I play with other people I tend to lose my vision and my confidence, so it’s better when I write alone. I hate to be a dictator in a band; I hate to tell people exactly what to play.”

His dissatisfaction with the band led up to his parting with drummer Mark Lewis and bassist Terrence Borden. “Dan [Seta] is the only person I can see myself playing with again. I love what he plays.” I asked if there were other reasons for the personnel change. “It’s tough to be in a band when you play all the shows hung over. They’d be running around looking for beer or girls after the shows. That’s why I split with John [Berry], too.”


4 October 1996:

ring... ring... ring... ring...

Machine: “Hi. This is Jeff. Leave a message.”

Simple. I like that.

DF: “Hi. My name is Dan Fiden; we met at some shows over the summer. I had talked to you about an interview and I was hoping we could....”

9 October 1996:

ring... ring... ring... ring...

Machine: “Hi. I’m not here, but I’ll get back to you soon...”

Variety. I like that.

DF: “Uh, Jeff this is Dan Fiden calling again about that in­terview....”

13 October 1996:

The details of this call are unclear, as I had just returned home after a long night with a bottle (liquor is a cruel mistress), but I know that it involved me singing half of my message.

14 October 1996: beep...

Machine: “Hi. Dan this is Jeff Martin calling about that interview. Why don’t you give me a call back soon and we can set this thing up.”

Just as I thought— the old “drunk call” technique worked.

14 October 1996:

JM: “Hello?”

DF: “Hi, this is Dan Fiden calling.”

JM: “Hey. What time is it there? I guess it’s not that late...”    

DF: “About one.”

JM: “It is? In Chicago?”

Embarrassment sets in. I’ll have to admit my locale.

DF: “Actually I’m in Ohio right now.”

JM: “Ohhh...”

DF: “The heartland. The breadbasket.”

JM: “We always stop in Ohio. I don’t know why... Dan’s parents are from Cincinnati or something.”

He says this as if no one is really from Cincinnati. Maybe he’s right.

DF: “Never been.”

“Never been?” What the hell does that mean? Sounds like some stupid Calvin Klein commercial.

JM: “Really? You’re missing out.”

DF: “Am I?”

JM: “Ummmm... no.”

DF: “Ah... Jeff? I’m recording this.”

JM: (laughs) “You shouldn’t have said that.”

DF: “Why, are you gonna turn it on? Turn on the show?”

JM: “I’m gonna get all unnecessary.”

At least the recorder is working this time. (Ed. Note: MoYO Spring 1996 issue featured interviewer plagued by recording problems.) We set up the interview for the following day at four.

idaho’s fall of 1996

“We just stopped getting tour support so that was the end of that” says Martin about the split with Caroline. It’ pretty much the classic story— a band releases some albums, all of which are lauded by the music press but none of which achieve too much commercial success outside of college radio circles. “One thing that Idaho always has had is critical success,” muses Jeff. I seem to sense a bit of but a lot of good that does in his voice, but I could be reading into it too much. Stamped prominently on the Three Sheets... case is a quote from Musician magazine positively comparing Martin’s songwriting to Kurt Cobain. When asked about these persis­tent comparisons to the likes of Cobain or Mark Eitzel— both of which are considered by many critics today’s best songwriters— Martin seems cynical. “I think they [the crit­ics] hear my whine and they shoot for anyone with a similar sound. Personally, I don’t really see the similarity.”

Idaho didn’t head to Europe, as Jeff had hoped. Instead they did a tour with Lifter, a rather heavy punk-pop outfit. I asked Jeff about the mismatch in sounds and how it affects a tour. “We tend to play some of the harder bands because we have kind of a big sound, but playing with a band like Low is great. The audience pays so much attention. It can also be intimidating.”


12 November 1996

I received the photos of the band from their manage­ment, so I decided to really sit down and go through my notes a bit. I pop in the tape and hit play. I’m a little excited. Hell, why shouldn’t I be? The interview lasted about an hour and it went really well. The first three phone calls (transcribed above., Ed.) sound crystal clear and lovely. Then a blank. Nothing. Hiss. Noise. The ocean. I rewind and fast-forward furiously, but I’m just avoiding the cruel truth. All the while I mumble under my breath, “Fuck. No. Fuck. No. Fuck.”

After about ten minutes of searching, I find a chunk of dialogue. Overly sensitive male, quietly discussing his hard life. Definitely not Jeff, and I know it’s not me. That’s Judd. That’s fucking Judd from the Real World on my tape.

I pieced it all together in my head. I had the Real World on the TV while I spoke to Jeff on the phone. I had set the stereo to record the TV instead of the phone. I am a loser. I am like Judd.

idaho’s winter of 1996

I spoke to Jeff one last time to get a little bit more on tape. He was quite upbeat con­cerning the prospect of an Idaho E.P. In March. “I’ve got someone who’ll release it so I’m going to do it. I don’t want to just do demos right now. I want a finished product.”

After the tour ended, Jeff began recording almost immediately. The split with Caroline didn’t seem to concern him much. “We’ve had major label interest in the past, but it wasn’t the right time. I’ll shop this release around to labels and we’ll see what happens. Right now I can see Idaho going a couple of different ways. I guess in an ideal world Idaho would be a studio band that didn’t tour, then I’d have a three-piece that played rockers that toured. I want to have a career now, so part of me wants to play the game a little and part of me wants to say fuck it and do what I’m doing. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”