The Inside Connection
Putting Themselves On the Map
Idaho Survive Personal Traumas To Make A Name For Themselves
By Keith Loria
Idaho’s history is very colorful, with a rotating door of band members and a few narcotic issues involved. “The origins of the band started in 1992, when John Berry and I began playing together as a duo,” says frontman Jeff Martin. “We played softer, more indie-guitar rock stuff around North Hollywood.”
Martin met Berry, the son of actors Ken Berry and Jackie Joseph, while attending a private school in Santa Monica. “A friend of ours put together a band of sons of all famous people, so there was John and Xan Cassavetes [son of John], and it was just a horrible idea,” he says. “They weren’t that good and they needed a keyboard player, but since my parents weren’t famous, I couldn’t be in the band.”
Eventually they decided that talent was a bit more important, and Martin joined the group. That line-up evolved into Circa, featuring Martin on keyboards, Berry on bass and vocals, and Gary Owens’ son Chris on guitar and oboe. “The stuff wasn’t that good,” Martin laughs. “In fact, John and I didn’t even get along at first. Then, one day, we just clicked and formed this bond. He’s one of my best friends, even today.”
Martin wanted to do more than just play around town, and at the age of 19 he moved to England and signed a deal with Ensign Records, home of Sinead O’Connor. “That was in 1983 and I was doing stuff like Howard Jones,” Martin says. “But 1 was 19 and the engineer was using all the money on blow and we’d get high every day and the record was just crap.” Since he wasn’t going to get famous with that effort, Martin returned to Los Angeles and started playing keyboards backing up some local talents.
Although he had been playing keyboards since he was 2, Martin wanted to venture to other instruments and tried his hand at the bass and guitar. “Whenever I tried to play six-string guitar, I couldn’t stand it,” he says. “I felt like I was compelled just to play standard chords, and I’d heard those too many times. A guitar was sitting around that had two strings missing. I tuned it up to some random tuning and wrote my first song. It just opened up a whole world to me. I thought, my God, I don’t have to rely on other guitar players now. I can really start writing songs and get the power out of this instrument.”
Martin began designing new four-string guitars, built by Venice guitar maker and repairman John Carruthers. “We just kind of copied a Fender shape with a skinnier neck, but still the same length as a regular guitar,” he says. “They are perfect for what I want to do.”
The musical results of this inventiveness attracted the attention of Caroline Records, which signed the band in 1993. They quickly had success with an EP titled The Palms and then reached critical success with their first album, Year After Year, a year later.
“I don’t want to sound corny, but the recording of the album was almost like this religious experience,” says Martin. “We got so excited about it; it was just so blissful and wonderful to do. I’m sure it happens to tons of people when they’re creating something. I don’t know if it was what we were going through at the time, our age, just that special combination. I think some people felt the same thing when they heard it.”
By the time the first Idaho record was completed, Berry had already been in and out of rehab for heroin. “His demons helped give the first album a dark feel,” Martin says. “He was clean for a while but then went into a relapse in the early ‘90s for about two years.”
Idaho was now ready to tour. For shows, Martin slid over to bass and they added Jeff Zimmitti on drums and Doug Smith on the four-string guitar. This lineup toured England and America, but while the creative process had been blissful, touring was a problem, as Berry’s battle with heroin often fueled rifts with the other band members. For obvious reasons, after the ‘94 tour Berry and Martin parted ways.
In 1996, Martin carried on with an all-new line-up and produced another critical success in Three Sheets to the Wind, but the band’s label was providing no help. “They basically got rid of all of their guitar bands and weren’t showing us the support we thought we should get,” Martin says. “It all ended up for the best. We [were] an inch from signing with A&M Records at that point, and thank God we didn’t do it. We would have been dropped by now and I would have been totally bummed out.”
Idaho recorded Alas in 1998 for indie label Buzz, and Dan Seta joined the group as the new guitarist. He liked recording for an indie and decided that was the direction he wanted to continue in. The formation of Idaho Records soon followed. “I never really had high aspirations for Idaho being a commercial success,” he says. “I would probably buckle under the pressure. Everything’s happening at this pace where I don’t feel like I’ve lost my credibility.”
The new label also brought Berry back into the fold. Berry has been clean since and though he’s no longer with the band as a performer, he now operates behind the scenes of Idaho music. “He’s our record label now,” says Martin. “He did a great job getting things organized and he’s an important part of who Idaho is.”
Again working with Seta, Martin’s latest Idaho effort, Hearts of Palm, is less reliant on guitars and even more atmospheric than previous efforts. In terms of exploring the tones and tunings of the Idaho signature four-string guitar, Martin figures he’ll soon hit his limit. “I’m actually getting tired of using guitars that much,” he admits. ‘The next record I do is not going to be guitar-based music at all.”
But for now, Idaho seems to be finally finding some of the notoriety from the fans, as they are becoming more of a staple on the radio airwaves. Don’t be surprised if Idaho becomes the most recognized name on the music map by summertime.