I have to say that Idaho is one of my favorite bands. Their two fantastic gigs in La Guinguette Pirate, in Paris, were a big event, as it was the first time the band played in France, after almost ten years of a quite confidential career. It was on a rainy Saturday afternoon, still under the shock of the Friday evening concert that we met Jeff Martin, a deliciously kind person, shy and self-assured at the same time. It was an opportunity for us to make fools of ourselves in front of a hotel groom, to speak English like only French people can, and especially to talk about the situation of Idaho and their new album, Hearts of Palm, which is at last released in France these days.
This tour has been long awaited. Why hadn't you come in Europe before?
Our first record company, Caroline Records, didn't believe that it was important. They didn't want to pay for that, and were very careful about their spending with us. When we started, there was a little bit of buzz about this slow emotional music, with bands like Red House Painters and all. There was interest, but I don't think it was really happening on a large scale. There wasn't a lot of recognition. There was really no one in charge who could mastermind a European tour, they didn't think it would be effective. At that point, I wasn't very involved in the decision making about that, so I didn't really pushed the issue. And Buzz records couldn't afford to bring us all here. Frankly, I was surprised, I never knew there was interest in Europe. How am I supposed to know, our record don't really get imported here, and I just get some e-mails of people who say they like Idaho.
There were articles about Year After Year in France.
That's true, the first Libération article happened then, but I didn't know that it symbolized anything, on a large scale.
In what state is the band today?
It's in a very interesting state right now, it's in a state of change. Dan Seta is not working with me anymore. He didn't really leave the band, but he's so busy with his work, he's married now and he has to buy a house. I think he would just like Idaho to be a hobby. Because that's how Idaho has been treated for the last three years. I've been working very hard on it, but Dan would come over after work and just do some guitar and I would take his guitar in the computer and do a lot of stuff. The way we define Idaho is very different now. For him it's just a hobby, like a little project, and for me it's what I do. It didn't make sense to keep the relationship going, because I want to tour a lot and he can't. I frankly can do with the records alone anyway. He's very talented but I want to go a different direction anyway. The sound of Idaho is not depending on Dan, although he did affect it nicely. Other people have too, like Terry Borden, our bass player on Three sheets to the wind, who's very responsible for the sound of the record. People have input, and that's always going to happen, but I'm not going to have a partnership-type relationship with anybody anymore. I can be innovative and make original music by myself, and that's the way it will go on. John Berry, the original guitar player, offered to help me with some of the business, and he and his girlfriend ended up really starting this label with me, and they've run everything, they've created lots of wonderful things : they found this distribution in America, created this tour. John was working on the business side of it, and it just made sense that if Dan couldn't come on this tour, then John would fit in. So he did the best he could, he wasn't ready for this tour, but now it works, he's doing nice things. So John will probably help when we tour. But he doesn't have a creative involvement in music. I don't know what's going to happen in the next few months, but I'll probably go home and do a record by myself, an EP and put it out in the spring.
Since Year after year, your music evolved a lot. There was more feedback, distortion and rock things. It's more constructed now, with more arrangements. Is that a conscious direction?
I think I'm maturing a little bit, and my tastes have changed. I felt a little bit lost in my life at that time, and the music was a little bit more desperate. That was a long time ago, everybody changes. I don't think that there could have been more records with that same set of textures and feelings. It was too much, it was a very heavy record. I'm not struggling with the same issues. I'm a much older and wiser person now. I think it's a beautiful record. If John and I did a record together, it might sound a little bit more like that. But a lot of that is John Berry's. That sort of dark romantic side of the music is a lot of his input, and it's a little bit more like John's character. The songs of Year After Year, like Skyscrape or God's green earth, those are my songs and they're a little bit more like what I sounded like later, but some of the heavier songs are John's songs, that I've arranged and completed with the vocals and the bass guitar.
Idaho is a sort of cult band in Europe. Do you like that situation, or would you like to get more audience?
Yeah, I would. I never knew that there was really much interest in Europe. I still don't know really the extent of it, but I would definitely like the recognition to step up a little bit, who wouldn't? I'd like to sell some records, I enjoy coming to Europe, I'd like to live here someday maybe. There's much more open-mindedness in Europe for music like we're making. We have a following in America but it's very small and I don't feel as comfortable performing there. We don't really fit in to the climate there. It makes me very happy to come do this tour and see good response and I realize that's it's a vast territory that we have not explored and we should come over and play all over Europe. I need to perform more because it doesn't feel natural to me. Just even on this tour, we started all pretty uncomfortable with the whole thing and it didn't sound good to me at all, and now it's getting okay. It'd be great for us to make it a habit to come over here and play. But I think if Idaho got too successful (and with the way the music is, I don't see that happening soon), I don't know how I would handle that because I like the isolation, this sort of anonymity that comes with playing music that's not mainstream. I like my privacy and I don't want to get to the point where I would have to deal with the corporate side of success or with the external responsibilities that go with selling more records.
Is that the reason why you created your label Idaho music? To be free, not to depend on any structure?
Yes, but also no other labels were really interested in us. I didn't really look for a new label. We had a bad experience on Buzz records. The small labels have their problems. The labels in America that I like are a little bit to hip for us. We're not a hip band. We're not like a Matador records' band. It's hard to define Idaho, and the good indie labels in America don't really know what to do with us. We wanted to see what would happen if we released the record on our own. John convinced me that it could be a nice thing to try, because for once we would actually get some of the profit from the record. And with the Internet now, it's easier. So far the signs of the record sales aren't very good in America, but it's hard to tell yet. And it's so unfortunate that we can't get our record over here but we're gonna try. Distribution in France is difficult, but we'll figure it out. There's a side of me that would like to sign to Dreamworks or something and have somebody else take care of everything, but for now putting this record out ourselves is a good idea. Now we've educated ourselves about how it works, we know so many more people.
You music seems more and more personal. Do the other members of Idaho bring in ideas or sounds?
Well, the only other member in the last three records was Dan Seta. He would just bring in a guitar part or a bass part, and I would take it and turn it into a song. There's no input really. Dan had input with sonic textures and some chords, but never a song. I'm pretty good at taking a crude idea and using it as a basis for a melody or something. People will come in just for a little bit. Joey Waronker for instance, who plays with Beck and REM, will write his own drum part. I usually don't tell people what to play. The best thing to do is to let people do what they do best. Melissa Auf Der Maur had some ideas, there's this song on Alas where she talks and she's very good at that so I let her do that. I don't really have a heavy hand with people I work with. But I've had some bad experiences working with people before. If I get too involved with someone, it starts to get sort of unsettling and I'd like to do most of it by myself now.
The lyrics are also very personal, sometimes even obscure.
Yeah, to say the least. (laughter). I don't love writing lyrics. I've never been very good with words. There's something that happens when I write lyrics that I'm not controlling consciously. I'll look later and say "oh well, that's interesting ". But ideas don't spring up naturally. I don't tell stories, I'm not really saying anything obviously about my life or someone else's life. I don't want to be too obvious. I like to write lyrics that have different facets of meaning. They have to strike some sort of truth in me somewhere. The way they sound is very important also. It's the most difficult part of the process. I dread doing it sometimes. But I don't work on it very long.
You seem to pay a lot of attention to the sound on stage. There are long pauses between the songs, where you'll tune your guitar, load sounds from your sampler and so on.
One reason why it's taking so long is that I didn't bring everything that I use in America here, and usually I can just push a button and everything happens. The guitars go out of tune very easily, since they're four-strings and they change tuning a lot. I'm a perfectionist. First of all, if I don't hear the music right, I can't sing on key. I have to leave my judgment aside, because I'm such a perfectionist that it's hard for me on stage. I'm just trying to do as much as I can to make it sound okay. Unfortunately I need that time to tune the guitars and get the sounds correct. I think it does hurt the live show a bit. But it's the only way I can do it for now. Idaho was never intended to be a live band. I want to leave good records and the live things are just peripheral events, it's not the most important thing to me. It will change in the future, because I think it's a good exercise for me to get out of my house, to travel and to do this. It's gonna make the music better ultimately.
Your music is often described as sad. Personally, I find it more and more serene. Does that reflect changes in your life?
Serene is a good word, I think. When I started with Idaho, I was a little bit lost, very insecure. I was really concerned about what other people thought of me, and rebelling against my parents, against authority figures. Since then, I became more detached from other people scrutiny. I never had a drug problem but I used to be very dependent on drinking, and I was always sort of medicating myself. I'm a lot healthier now in every respect, and I feel more at peace inside. So the music probably reflects that. There's always improvement to be made but I feel a lot better about myself now.
Since Alas, electronic seems to appear in your music. Is that a side of your music you want to develop?
Yeah. I want to develop the electronic-type side of the music, and create this sort of atmospheric music with the computer. I think that for a while the next frontier has been to leave this rock'n roll form out and go somewhere else. The possibilities are definitely limitless with music. But I also want to do the opposite and record a lot of stuff live, and not have so much control over the recording process with multi-track and altering pitch and so on. There's a thing that comes with knowing you have to do something in one take. So I want to do both. I've been toying with the idea of just being Jeff Martin now and not Idaho, but I think that would be wrong. Maybe "Jeff Martin" could be the studio side and Idaho would be more of a band thing, but I don't know yet.
Idaho's often compared to bands like Low, Red House Painters or American Music Club. Do you feel close to these bands?
There's a general intention which is similar. But I'm a little bit isolated, I think. I haven't really heard anything that reminds me of Idaho. I'm not saying that we're that original or that amazing, but there's something that sets Idaho apart in its own world in a strange way. I would agree with all these bands, but I can't think of newer bands performing the same kind of music. It's a very interesting time. I think a lot's going to happen in the next few years. There's gonna be some major changes. John was playing that band in the car, Mogwai. I like them. They're very organic and rock, but at the same time it reaches higher.
Don't you thing belonging to an existing scene would help you touring much more, playing in festivals and so on?
Probably. But it's not the style of Idaho. We didn't think of that intentionally, but Idaho was a good name for the band, because Idaho in America is a remote and isolated part. It would be definitely beneficial for us to be associated with a scene, but I don't see that happening. We're gonna try to come do some festivals in summer, but it's hard to put us with other people.
How do you see the future of Idaho?
I'm gonna keep doing this. I'm interested in getting in the film scoring or commercials if I can. But it's hard to get involved with that world because it's a very tight network of people, and I don't have a lot of connections. It would be nice to make money actually doing this. But Idaho or Jeff Martin solo will always make records. It's just staring. I feel like I've been doing a lot of homework with these records, there has been some wonderful moments but I think it's gonna get a lot better. I think I'm gonna get more prolific and that records are gonna start sounding better. I'm not running out of steam at all. I'm running out of money, but that's probably good in a weird way. It's gonna be interesting for me to have to find a way to make more money with the music. But I'm not gonna let it affect the music. No one's really taken Idaho and done the right thing with it promotional-wise. There must be more of an audience out there. So I'm gonna be more interested in the promotional aspect of it, which I never cared for before.
You've got a web site. Did the Internet change anything for you? Or will it?
I want to make the web site a lot better, make it a way for people to buy Idaho's records. It'll be a great thing if I can make the web site more informative. I think it's a great tool. I don't think we could have started our own label without it.
Interview by Loik, photos by Guillaume.
A big "thank you" to Stéphane from Bandido / Telescopic.
this interview is/was online at Pop News
and is available here for archival purposes only