- Idaho (Martin, second from left): softer and more reflective indie guitar rock.
We are a people transfixed by new musical genres every month or two, so here's what Idaho has been tagged: sad-core. Slow-core works too. A glance through the band's press clips reveals an abundance of descriptions like "somber," "maudlin," and "darkly unhinged." Its brooding, chiming, windblown music (it's easy to get caught up in this) evokes cinematic images of a lonely twilight.
But Idaho mainstay Jeff Martin turns out to be upbeat and friendly. Martin is eager to talk about his band's jagged history. He formed Idaho in '92 with his longtime friend John Berry. The group staked a claim alongside like-minded bands Codeine and Red House Painters, working the softer and more reflective end of the '90s indie guitar-rock spectrum. Idaho stood out from its peers due to both Martin's controlled but highly emotive baritone vocals and their unusual guitar arrangements, a by-product of their custom-built instruments.
While attending Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica, California, Martin met Berry, son of TV and movie stars Ken Berry and Jackie Joseph, who was then attending Oakwood, a private school in North Hollywood. A mutual friend put them together for a band that was "all kids of famous people."
"What a horrible idea," Martin recalls, laughing. "I was a teenager -- I thought it would be kind of fun. They were sort of New Romantic. They just needed someone to play keyboards. My parents weren't famous, so some brat from Brentwood had to do."
They evolved into Circa, featuring Martin on keyboards, Berry on bass and vocals, and Gary Owens's son Chris on guitar and oboe. "We just made this godawful stuff," Martin says. "It was almost like Magazine. That's how I met John. We didn't get along at all at first. Then, all of a sudden, we just had this bond. He really is still my best friend."
Getting an itch to do music professionally, a 19-year-old Martin moved to England with his parents and sister, and scored a deal with Ensign Records, which was having success with Sinéad O'Connor and the Waterboys. "It was like Howard Jones or Tears for Fears -- it was '83," he says. "My life almost went off on a completely different tangent, but it didn't work out. The engineer used the money on blow, and we'd be high and made crap." Returning to L.A., Martin landed sideman gigs playing keyboards with Toni Childs and David & David.
A pianist since the age of two, Martin had played bass in early bands and tried 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. Being a big Brian Eno fan, I wanted to just change it. 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."
It wasn't long before they attracted the attention of Caroline Records, which signed them in '93. Priming the audience with an EP, "The Palms," the band followed up quickly with Year After Year, which was embraced by both U.S. and U.K. press.
Creating and recording these songs provided a golden time for the band.
"I don't want to sound corny, but it 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 -- they really have this wonderful thing happen . . . 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 came together, however, Berry had already been in and out of rehab, struggling with heroin addiction since '87. He'd been clean for the beginning of the '90s, but a tar-smoking party in July '92 started a relapse that went on for two solid years. Speaking by telephone, Berry figures his addiction put shape to the music, describing the first album as "slow and dark and barely hanging on."
With two critical and college-radio successes under their belts, Idaho had to get its music onto the stage. For shows, Martin slid over to bass, Berry conjured swirling walls of Velvets-esque feedback, Jeff Zimmitti joined on drums, and Doug Smith learned the ropes on the four-string guitar. This lineup toured England and America, but while the creative process had been blissful, touring proved to be a source of grief; Berry's battle with heroin often fueled rifts with the rest of the band.
The recent live release People Like Us Should Be Stopped documents the tour's rough ride. Berry looks back at himself in the third person in the liner notes, telling of fistfights and hotel disturbances as "all the while he had a broken needle in his right arm during all the performances contained here." Nonetheless, the live document is currently the only in-print recording of songs from Idaho's early days, and despite all involved disclaiming the sound quality, it's a beautiful snapshot of a band at a personal and musical crossroads.
For obvious reasons, after the '94 tour, Berry and Martin parted ways. "As much as I tried to get it together, I just couldn't," Berry recalls. "Jeff was constantly having to deal with someone who was strung out, sick, or stealing. If I was me dealing with me then, I'd have been out of the band in 15 seconds."
Martin carried on with an all-new lineup and even tracked '96's Three Sheets to the Wind with his new rhythm section. Though the press continued to support the group, by late '96, interest at Caroline had begun to wane. "They basically got rid of all of their guitar bands," Martin says with a shrug. "I think they were trying to get a head start on the next thing. It all ended up for the best. We came an inch away 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."
A quick stop at indie label Buzz resulted in '98's Alas, which also saw the addition of Martin's new four-string partner, Dan Seta, alongside guests such as Melissa Auf Der Maur of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins and Joey Waronker of Beck's band.
Again working with Seta and guests, Martin's latest Idaho effort, Hearts of Palm, is less reliant on guitars and even more atmospheric than previous albums. 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 a little bit tired of using guitars that much," he admits. "The next record I do is not going to be guitar-based music at all."
Having referred to palms in two album titles now and printing a map of L.A. on the new CD, Martin still isn't sure what role the city's geography and personality play in his music. "I wonder how much L.A. is even a factor. Would the music sound the same if I lived in Des Moines?" he muses. "I don't know -- I think I always liked music like that. I think of my piano stuff when I was 9 and 10; it's kind of minor-key, Erik Satie-like stuff that some people might say sounded sad, and stuff that to me is just beautiful -- just what I like."