Idaho
07.29.06
Q&A
words: Deniz Kuypers
photos: Official Band Site

Some of the best bands toil in obscurity. Take Idaho. The band released their debut EP, The Palms, in 1993 when it consisted of Jeff Martin and John Berry. To date, the band has released two more EPs in addition to one outtakes collection and seven albums, and has existed in almost as many incarnations. The core member throughout its thirteen-year existence has been Martin, singer, primary songwriter, and sonic mastermind. On the bandís first proper record, 1993ís Year after Year, heís credited with vocals, bass, the bandís signature custom-built four-string guitars, and drums. On the last album, 2005ís The Lone Gunman, he is responsible for all instruments. A classically trained pianist, Martin reportedly didnít play guitar at all until the early Nineties, when he accidentally stumbled upon a guitar that was missing two strings and realized that four strings suited him better than six. Due to Martinís limited ability, Year after Year was heavily influenced by Berryís noisy guitar work and a host of bands the two of them were listening to at the time. Berry left the band shortly after the albumís release, and from that moment on every album saw Martin spreading his wings a bit more, shrugging off dust, and eventually creating a dreamy, pure, at times almost ethereal kind of music.

On Idahoís sophomore album, This Way Out, released in 1994, Martin begins to really learn how to wield his instrument, in part due to the fact that Berry has by then left the band and Martin is on his own. The result is the hardest-rocking record in the Idaho catalogue. Despite Martinís classical background, pianos are strangely absent or buried beneath layers of guitars until Idahoís last effort for Caroline Records, 1996ís Three Sheets to the Wind, for which they regrouped with a whole new line-up without Berry. ďAlive Again,Ē off that album, displays a new sensitivity, and it rings in a new era for Martin, an era of exploration not just within his genreís boundaries but also outside of them.

The following year is the real turning point. On The Forbidden EP and its follow-up Alas Martin and the occasional backing musician (Dan Seta on guitar, Joey Waronker on drums) begin to experiment with layered sound structures. Both collections of songs show the band not so much reinventing itself as bursting through a door and finding a wealth of possibility lying at their feet. Unfortunately, Buzz Records went bankrupt and these two gems are now out of print and somewhat hard to find. Martin continues to perfect his newfound wistful, out-of-this-world sounds. He begins writing more songs on piano, as the majestic opening song to 2000ís Hearts of Palm, ďTo Be the One,Ē demonstrates. This ProTools-heavy record flows like a dream, a succession of beautiful melodies, pitch-shifted vocals, reversed guitars, and countless production tricks. It is his best-selling record to date, though in Idahoís world the term ďbest-sellingĒ is pretty much extraneous. 2001ís Levitate sounds like a companion piece to Hearts of Palm, but itís lighter, with even less guitars. Itís a landscape slowly lighting up before oneís eyes.

The progress the band made from the stark Year after Year sessions to the band-oriented Three Sheets to the Wind days to Martinís (semi-) solo work is captured on 20002ís We Were Young and We Needed the Money. Martin meanwhile busies himself scoring a soundtrack to the TV show The Days (in 1998 he also wrote the soundtrack for the movie How to Make the Cruelest Month), pushing back his next proper album. When The Lone Gunman finally sees the light in 2005, it sounds like the culmination of a decadeís worth of experimenting with vocals, instrumentation, and computer recordings.

Itís the first gloomy day after a month-long heat wave in San Francisco. Martin is in town for a day, after visiting his father in Napa Valley, and he suggests we visit a newly opened museum before the interview. Heís kind, soft-spoken. He laughs a lot and shows a genuine interest in me. When he sees the list of questions I have prepared, he says, ďOh my god.Ē I tell him, ďItís a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.Ē He replies, ďNever again,Ē and then laughs.

Deniz Kuypers: Idaho has seen many line-ups, but the last three records have basically been solo efforts. Is that a conscious decision you made, to start working solo, or is that how things turned out to be?

Jeff Martin: Itís probably a little bit of both. Iím much more comfortable working alone. Those magic moments in music tend to come more often when Iím alone. That said, working with somebody is just as amazing and has its own rewards. Iím never going to completely turn away from collaboration, though history seems to show thatís what Iím doing. The last record was mainly the result of working on television shows and trying to get commercials and auditioning, and no one was around for these things. So by virtue of the fact that I was in a situation where I was working by myself, the music happened. I donít think it was a conscious choice on my part.

DK: Do you miss the dynamics of playing with a band?

JM: I got a little taste of it going to Spain earlier this year. [In May 2006, Idaho played shows in Sevilla, Granada, and Malaga.] I put a group together to do that: John Berry, the original member, Bill Samke, who mixes my records, and a young bass player who plays on my records here and there. We would jamóthough I hate the wordóand it was phenomenal. I found myself thinking, ďThis group of guys could make a great record together, and we could call it Idaho.Ē But being in a band, you deal with a lot of personalities and as people get older they mature away from it. Itís more efficient being alone.

DK: Perhaps part of it is also that you like having complete creative control over your music?

JM: Yes and no. Watch, Iíll answer every question like this.

DK: We could turn this into one of those choose-your-own ending type of interviews: ďDo you want Jeff to answer with either A or B?Ē

JM: Theyíre both pertinent! But to answer your questionÖ Iím a perfectionist to a fault. Iím not too good at directing people and knowing how to get the best performance out of them. Iím not a great cast master or bandleader. So if they do something and I donít love it then I just donít use it. For a perfectionist like myself itís easier to beat up on myself as opposed to having someone else around.

I have this weird fear of imprisonment, though thatís a crude way of saying what Iím getting at. Inspiration happens so unpredictably. Even in meeting people and working with them you have to compartmentalize and schedule your creativity or inspiration. Alone, it happens when it happens. I have a separate little studio on my property, but I moved my studio equipment into my house because to walk out there and close the door was too much of a commitment. I needed it just to happen. I needed to be able to sit at the breakfast table and just turn on the computer and record something.

DK: You havenít toured much over the last few years, so the Spain gigs definitely came as a surprise to me.

JM: I never toured as much as most bands do, but when I did tour, I didnít feel it was taking the music to a bigger or better place. The sacrifice was too much. After the deal with Caroline ended in 1996, I paid for everything. Touring became expensive and taxing. It also got harder as I got older. I seemed to have bad luck with personnel. Adverse situations between band members. People crying. People fighting. Hysterics. It was just too much. And again, the perfectionist problem came up, for live I could never afford to bring a sound guy. We almost need the Radiohead treatment, but we canít do that. At the Spain gigs, the soundman didnít know what I was trying to do and he butchered the sound. I was getting shocked. Thereís another side to Idaho thatís almost like an arena rock thing that you canít hear on the record. There were some grandiose moments, but afterwards my voice was toast. Next time Iíll go out, Iíll just go alone and play piano.

DK: Judging from your records, you are a sonic perfectionist. There are so many layers of vocals, harmonies, guitars, etc. Production-wise, your albums sound very labor-intensive. How long did it take you to record an album like The Lone Gunman?

JM: So much of it happened really quickly. A lot of The Lone Gunman is first takes. Itís not labor intensive, actually. Iím very impatient. Iím very focused, and I want things done fast. I just have a good setup of equipment thatís ready when I need it. The great thing about ProTools is that you can clean up something that was initially just an outpouring of expressions. Iím not a super ProTools guy, though. I pitch-shift vocals, but I donít correct them or smooth out the rough edges. Thatís why a lot of people donít get Idaho until theyíve heard it many times. They need to learn the unique language of it. Itís music thatís written from the right place. Itís like a dream that comes out. Thereís a pure form of inspiration there that has a weird way of communicating and that takes a while for the conscious mind to make sense of it.

I hear a lot of stuff that sounds really good, but when I put on a CD of my own ó just to compare it with what else is out there ó I say to myself, ďI see, itís a little more dimensional, even though it might sound cruder and harsher.Ē So much of what I like about music is texture, the little painterly things. Itís not really the songs and the stories. I like the subtle stuff. A lot of my music consists of only one part that I barely develop. Iíve just figured out what the right mixture of technology is. Mid-Sixties transistor- or transformer-based gear mixed with the new computer technology. In the late Sixties and early Seventies they really figured out how to make some great equipment. Beatles records, for instance, sound amazing. Those were recorded with state-of-the-art equipment, but that just got killed over time. I learn new things all the time and my next record, I think, is going to sound twice as good.

DK: The custom-built four string guitars you use have a very pure and distinctive tone. Is this a recording technique, or is it something special about the way they are built?

JM: For one, theyíre tuned funny. They donít sound as good as an original Fender or Gibson. They require high-tension strings, which gives them a unique voice. Plus, Iíve even figured out what the best speakers are for the right amps. Iíve come up with about thirty tunings and I have eight four string guitars and theyíre just recorded the right way. I know how to make them a lot better sounding than they really are. I havenít done a lot of guitar recently, but much of the unreleased Lone Gunman stuff is heavier on guitar.

DK: You have been using the computer to record your music for well over a decade. Would you say that The Lone Gunman is the result of all that youíve learned through the years by trial and error and studying ProTools?

JM: Itís evolution. I still donít know how to record a piano. People might think they sound right on my records, but they donít when I compare them to how they sound in the room. I just picked up stuff on the way and went back to basics with the Sixties and Seventies way of recording. Mixing is important, too. A lot of people ruin their albums by mixing in all kinds of crappy digital effects. My music is very pure and unadulterated. Thereís never any reverb on anything and no effects. It might sound very produced, but itís all hands-on.

DK: Your music is often described as ďdepressingĒ or ďgloomy,Ē though over the years you have been moving toward a dreamier and ďopenĒ type of music. To what extent do you try to create a certain sound or mood, and to what extent does it simply happen?

JM: The songs just reflect my mood at the time. Already, Iíve evolved from the Lone Gunman sound. Iíve become a purist, who uses less of a rock Ďní roll approach. I hear orchestral percussion in my head these days. I used to be very impressed by Swans, Joy Division, and Ian Curtis maybe a little bit. I was very much into Dinosaur Jr., which made its way onto This Way Out. When John Berry and I met, I was this preppy little kid who listened to The Police. He listened to Iggy Pop and Ultravox and it really influenced me. He exposed a whole universe to me. I used to force my voice to do certain things. On The Forbidden EP, however, I began singing without coloring, and Iíve kept that going. I found a comfortable place to sing from that feels honest, and thatís where Iím staying now. People might describe early Idaho as dark, but Iíve also experienced it as very therapeutic and purging and joyful in a sense.

DK: In earlier interviews, you mentioned that words or lyrics actually get in the way of what you really want to say, and so they are actually a ďchoreĒ for you to write. Has your attitude toward writing lyrics changed over the years?

JM: Often what Iíll do is I will play a song and hold the mic and sometimes the song will come. Itís almost like a movie I start to see, an urban scape, and the words begin to come. I get lucky from time to time and the words come out just right. I look at some of the stuff on The Lone Gunman and think, ďWow, thatís better than anything I can come up with.Ē Words are just pointers to some other truth. Youíre basically saying, ďIíll use this word to point in a direction to what I really want to say.Ē Theyíre just feelings, and how do you describe feelings? Music, in a sense, is a combination of the words and the tones and the relationship between it all. So much wonderful music never had words. But some people tell me I get down on myself too much and they say they enjoy my lyrics and I should give myself more credit. Writing lyrics just does not come as naturally as the music, though at times they happen and theyíre wonderful.

DK: You used to say that there were a lot of guitars on your earlier records because you were ďrebellingĒ against the piano and your classic training on that instrument. Yet, the last three records are dominated by piano more and more. Why is this? Do you think forthcoming records might return more to the guitar?

JM: Itís a combination of things. Iím almost too trained at piano. I default too often to stuff I was taught to play. Because my guitars are tuned so weirdly, I come up with a lot of happy accidents. That doesnít happen on the piano. But then again, itís so easy to sit down and play the piano. Itís right there. I write almost all of my stuff on piano these days. It comes out like breathing. I mean, Iíve been playing it since I was two.

DK: Would you say Idaho has a more of a following in Europe than in the States? If so, how do you explain that?

JM: In Europe all these unique opportunities just appear out of the blue. We once did this festival in the mountains in France. We played with this much-respected French pop star from the Sixties, though I forget his name. It was a festival dedicated mostly to poetry and classical music and we were the only band that was asked to play. There were kids up on the roof and the whole town was there. And the Spain gigs came about because someone who organizes festivals heard The Lone Gunman and wanted us to play. We did a big press conference on TV and nobody even knew who we were.

I think there are probably more fans in America, if theyíre still around, but in Europe the system, in structural terms, works more for a band. The press is more interested, people will actually pay for you to play, and the audience is more open-minded. The French press really got behind Idaho in 2000, and that did a lot. Germany followed the next year, and then it expanded to Italy and Spain and so on. Weíll play for 200 to 600 people over there, but here that wouldnít happen. Maybe in LA weíd play for 150 people. Historically, Europe has embraced more obscure artists such as Leonard Cohen or writers like Bukowski. Thereís this fascination with people from America who are sort of on the fringes.

DK: You are branching out into film and TV composition. Do you enjoy the new challenges this poses, or is it primarily a financial choice?

JM: I think anybody who listens to Idaho will see I might be able to score as well. The music is very visual and subtle. I think I have the right aesthetic to work in that media. A lot of it was financial too, though. I was fortunate enough to not have to work a lot in my life, but I blew a lot of my money being a dumb kid. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could work a real job, that I didnít just sit around and make records just because I had all day to do it. The first time I scored, I thought I could get to write great stuff and get paid for it. But then reality hit. It was all about pandering to networks and dumbing down the music and using midi samples. The fantasy began to dull or sour a little bit. Iím close to getting new jobs, but do I really want them? If I donít get a new show soon, maybe itís time to start working on a new record. Life is so short. Am I honest with myself? What really matters? Thereís so much music I still want to write, and when I score other peopleís stuff, will I ever get to all the neat ideas I have? Conversely, by TV scoring I could fund greater projects, but right now, thereís no funding. Maybe this would be the stepping-stone to doing a film. Or making a film, an independent film. I donít know if I would be the right person for doing a film, but each Idaho song almost presents itself as an idea for a movie. When youíre inspired to do something itís amazing the wind that comes in and fills your sails.

DK: Have you ever had or would you ever consider having a normal day job?

JM: What would I do? I videotaped weddings for a while.

DK: Despite critical praise your music has not really gained the public acclaim it deserves. Does this frustrate you? Why do you think your work has not yet reached a larger audience, whereas bands like Low have broken through?

JM: It doesnít bother me. A lot of bands, like Low, are more accessible. Their music is very complete in its execution. Idaho is an experiment. Itís not quite as polished and presentable. Itís an open book. I can see why thereís not as much of a following. I like meeting people who have been touched by the music, though. I hope I have longevity with my music. I donít know if Low or some of the other bands Idaho used to be compared to have enough variation to keep going.

Part of me is glad Idaho never took of. I donít think I was ever ready for bigger recognition. But Iím finally confident enough for it. I accept my limitations now. All the things I thought were awful, my weaknesses, I think are strengths now. My mother always came to my European shows and she noticed the difference. She says I really light up now and become a true performer.

When the interview was over, Martin and I sat and chatted for a bit. He says he might be releasing a companion album to The Lone Gunman, one that expands on many of the ideas and short vignettes on that record. It will be sort of an alternative version of The Lone Gunman, that both complements and continues that album. He is also trying to have Gunman properly released in the US, for right now itís only being sold through the website. He mentions he has considered dropping the name Idaho altogether and just recording under his real name, and he asks me what I think of this. Yet, Martin has always been the heart and soul of Idaho. The name Idaho has come to mean so signify so much more than just a band: itís a feeling, a place both light and dark, like those famous shots of LA spread out under the night sky, lit up like a sea of stars. Or, in Martinís words, ďa dream beyond the words.Ē

Many thanks to my friend Richard Glass, who helped me with some of these questions, and who first introduced me to Idaho.

Chronology:

The Palms EP (1993)
Year after Year (1993)
This Way Out (1994)
The Bayonet EP (1995)
Three Sheets to the Wind (1996)
The Forbidden EP (1997)
Alas (1998)
People Like Us Should Be Stopped Ė Live (2000)
Hearts of Palm (2000)
Levitate (2001)
We Were Young and We Needed the Money (2002)
Vieux Carrť (2004)
The Lone Gunman (2005)

this interview is/was online at Loose Record
and is available her for archival purposes only