by Susan Moll
Few people piss off the Red House Painters and get away with it, especially when it comes to their groupies. Unless, of course, you’re a member of Idaho. “When we opened for them back in ‘93 on a tour - somebody thought it was me, but it wasn’t me-- our guitar tech had, twice in a row, been the victorious one in the whole groupie chase,” recalls frontman Jeff Martin. “And the Red House Painters guys -- we had the same manager, Kim White-- complained to her that we were stealing all the girls from them. It’s so 13-year-old! I couldn’t believe it.”
Mark Kozelek probably couldn’t, either. “ That’s when kooky stuff was happening, and we were still young enough and spontaneous enough and drugged-out enough that rock ‘n’ roll-type stuff was happening,” Martin laughs. “I was pretty crazy on those first tours, compared to now: I wake up before everyone else and do yoga-- I don’t smoke or drink or do anything anymore, really. On the road, especially, I’m very saintly, or else I’d lose my mind!”
A 180-degree turn from Idaho’s distant past, when cofounder/guitarist John Berry Keith Mooned hotel rooms on a regular basis and once endured a gig with a broken heroin needle lodged in his right arm. These days, Idaho’s a rather more placid place to be: Martin spent the weekend dodging swarms of hellion children at L.A.’s Griffith Park, gunning down an unfortunate few with water pistols. (“I enjoy vicariously having children through my friends, ‘cause I really get along with little brats.”) He’s almost fully recovered from his recent 14-city jaunt in support of Idaho’s seventh record, _Levitate_ (Idaho Music). Good thing, too, or else he mightn’t have had the strength to push his vintage Alfa Romeo-- which ran out of gas while en route to having the gas tank _repaired_- across a busy intersection in 85-degree heat.
“Music is so hard to talk about in many ways,” muses Martin. “It communicates beyond what our language can put across, and having to sit there and analyze it and talk about it is a struggle for me.” Seems it’s a struggle for the El Lay music press, too: Instead of viewing Idaho as a rest stop in the lonesome crowded west, it turns up its collective coke-packed nose at them,
pigeonholing Martin as a broken-hearted savior with a hatful of hollow and a throatful of ache. Or they elbow their slow, subdued wallow-a-go-go alongside “slowcore” fixtures like Codeine and Low -- or, worse, the sensitive-guy arena occupied by Spain-- and leave it at that. Which doesn’t do much to assuage the self-doubts to which Martin’s admittedly prone. “I’m a real perfectionist, and I’m very critical of my abilities in many ways,” he confides. “Live, I’m generally scared to death.; I’m somewhat a shy person. Singing-- I think it’s one of the hardest things to do well. Some people are born with the ability to do it really well and I wasn’t, I don’t think. But I found on this tour that there were moments where I felt I could do no wrong. I really was in my element-- I was surprising myself.”
Although _Levitate_ emerged during a nasty bout of writer’s block, its contents came with a startling immediacy. “The songs began to have a real emotional impact on me right on the spot,” says Martin. “Not that I’d be breaking down in tears, but I just felt this real connection with the songs right off the bat, as opposed to having to whittle away at them and turn them into something that I loved. It felt like I had this direct emotional attachment with the songs and I only needed to spend a couple hours with them. It’s almost like when you’re asleep-- you’re dreaming and it’s a very personal experience but is very profound and has a lot of meaning right then and there.”
Aside from guest drumwork from USC grad student Alex Kimmel and executive-production chip-ins from Berry (now Idaho’s manager and head of Idaho Music), Martin made _Levitate_ virtually alone. Even so, it’s a full-sounding record -- thanks to the fact that Martin played almost all of the instruments-- and a rivetingly intimate one. “That’s not the best way to work all the time, and I think that the record-- as much as it benefits from the fact that I did it myself, it suffers as well in some respects,” he ponders. “When you have someone else come in and work in the room with you, you have a bigger palette to choose from. There are more nuances; you have more of a grab-bag of textures. The presence of someone else’s soul there-- there’s a nice symbiosis that occurs. By yourself, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as much: You don’t have someone else’s objective opinion to make things a little bit more efficient-- you’ll go off on a tangent and you won’t have somebody to rein you back in. At one point I played John some of the initial ideas and he didn’t respond to them at all. And I’m very sensitive to other people’s opinions with my music and I don’t always trust my instincts. When someone else is around I tend to acquiesce a little bit or bend to their point of view.”
Even though they’re best known for excursions on the four-stringed guitar, Martin (a classically-trained piano prodge who discovered the 88 keys at age two) never lay his hands on one until Idaho formed. The piano lay by the wayside until _Levitate_, which is quite possibly the most piano-based outing in the band’s catalog. “I still struggle a little bit with guitar,” Martin admits. “You can tell by the way I stand when I play. Some guitar players hold a guitar and it looks really natural for them; for me, the guitar’s just a difficult instrument. With the piano, I notice I breathe more and my back is straight. It feels like it’s part of me, you know?”
Idaho’s songs absorb you, their saturnine beauty enough to stop you dead in your tracks. Over the past decade Martin’s come up with some of the most personal missives this side of “In My Room,” verbalizing from the bottommost depths of his soul. He doesn’t so much sing as whisper in your ear--think a less-warbly Jeff Buckley or Country Joe MacDonald, if the latter teetered on the precipice of a nervous breakdown at all times.
Colored by the same guitary distortion and feedback that fleshed out Idaho’s last offering, 2000’s moody, arresting _Hearts of Palm_, _Levitate_ stays true to Martin’s minimalistic bent, hot springs of life bubbling beneath surfaces of sparseness. “On the Shore” paces along at a brisk amble; the title track’s brushed drums pulsate at a heartbeat’s rate, ending the record with a plaintive sigh. Martin spent a fair amount of time toying with tunings, altering pitches and resequencing sounds via ProTools, although “ I don’t do a whole lot of hocus-pocus on everything-- just simple things that alter the song in subtle yet effective ways.” Instead, he revels in moments in which “you get a little window of clarity sometimes where the judging part of your mind is still asleep and you’ve got to hit the creative process at those moments. There is a part of you that you have to nurture and have to understand that really does know if something’s good or bad. And I’m getting better at noticing that that’s in effect.
“I listen to old Idaho,” Martin says, “and there are moments of true inspiration there, but it’s a little self-conscious. I think the music is speaking on its own a little bit more. It’s evolving, it’s not losing its heart.” In other words, it’s levitating.