What You’re Talking About is Pure: An Interview with Idaho

idaho concert

Emerging in the early ’90s alongside bands like Red House Painters, Idaho strung their ballads with fuzzy guitars and enigmatic lyrics, prolifically releasing an album or EP each year. Since the release of Levitate in 2001, Idaho has served as a solo project for front man Jeff Martin, peeling back several layers of sound to reveal a world of half-whispered vocals and subtle effects, where you can hear breaths taken and piano pedals lifting. Most recently, 2005’s The Lone Gunman consists of several instrumental pieces and more pronounced experimentation with manipulated vocals, while preserving an intimate singer/songwriter sensibility. Martin has also tried his hand at scoring films and television shows as well as making short films. Two early Idaho records, The Forbidden EP and Alas: Special Edition, are being re-released this month, while Martin puts the finishing touches on another album. Currently on a European tour, he spoke via e-mail from his tour van.

I have read that a lot of the material on The Lone Gunman came about when you were working on television scores and that it is sort of a collage of works from the period following Levitate. Yet to me the album feels very solid, very personal, and may be my favorite of your works to listen to all the way through. So I’m curious about how you put the album together and whether you consider it a different sort of project from your other albums.

This record started in early ’03 which coincided with a concerted effort to break into the TV/film world. It was time for me to get a real job. As the auditions and opportunities began to appear, I became a music making machine. Most of these attempts to get work were failed ones and I thought that some of this stuff would be great for a new Idaho CD with just a little bit of tweaking. Having to write within the confines of this new situation, writing for someone else, so to speak, was maybe a good thing… changing the target and getting me out of my comfortable track. I would say over half of the tracks on The Lone Gunman were taken from my scoring library. I did finally get a TV show, and then another one. The first one was great because I was, for the most part, allowed to do what I wanted. The second one was a taste of hell and I believe that I would rather spend time in prison than be stuck in that situation. So over this two-year period I was able to cull enough stuff to put together a rough version of an album. I spent a few weeks putting on the final touches. If I ever re-press this CD, I would love to include some more of the songs that didn’t have time to be represented here.

Can you talk a little bit about your approach to composing music for film and television, and how it differs from the songs you write as Idaho?

I have no training in scoring… I found, however, that I had some sort of knack for looking at a scene and coming up with something. Probably my favorite part of making Idaho records is the subtle touches, the textural aspects. I hope to do film someday as TV is really just too fast-paced, and what you are writing for tends to be somewhat crappy… But now I’d rather just make short films. I’m seriously getting into Super 8 and 16mm cinema-photography. I’m planning on having Idaho records be a visual experience as well for the next effort.

Yeah, I saw a few mysterious things up on YouTube. There’s something called "Hotel Vocal Experiment" that you put together, which seems to have been for someone’s dissertation or school project. What was the story behind that? It actually made me think of David Lynch. The keys, the lamp, the telephone… Are there any filmmakers that inspire you, in regards to making short films and making music?

A girl I was going out with at the time asked me to do that for a school project, yes. I love grabbing the video camera and making short movies without too much planning… just filming "what happens," doing a quick edit and putting it up online. I’d like to think I could make indie films but I’m all into taking the easy route through life from now on, and that just sounds like a pain in the ass. The three-minute rock video is something I’m excited about. The next Idaho CD will definitely come out with a DVD. Now that people can download music so easily I think it would be smart to include something more with the CD. I’m inspired by Kubrick, Hitchcock, I love the DOGME films.

What first inspired you (or necessitated you) to create your own label, Idaho Music?

Idaho cofounder John Berry brought up the idea back in late ’99. I had just had a bad experience with a small Chicago label where the guy just disappeared without paying me for whatever was owed the Alas CD ’98. I’ve tended to prefer to do business with friends, which has been a double-edged sword.

I’ve read that when Kierkegaard was in school, his father instructed him to place second in his class. The idea being that just placing first is much easier than weighing your peers, to know precisely what it would take to fall between the strongest and third strongest, and to have the ability to do so. I was thinking of that while listening to your song "Kite"–in the way you let your notes evaporate and wobble in the choruses. And many other moments on The Lone Gunman. Basically, the concept that it’s harder to create something with nuances and subtlety than it is to just belt something out and satisfy everyone. Do you think that’s true?

I think the straight answer to this is just that I have very little control over my voice. I think I was born with crappy pitch. But if I was dead-on with the vocals maybe the music wouldn’t be as special or unique. Much of The Lone Gunman was improvised. I would make some sort of click track and improvise for a few minutes playing my Wurlitzer while singing. With some minor editing… I had a song. I was tired of crafting lyrics. Stream of consciousness babble was working for me. I don’t know if I could do it now… I find that certain inspirations come in cycles in different forms.

That’s a good way to think of an album, that it is born in a singular cycle of inspiration, which doesn’t repeat. Can you remember any of these other particular cycles, for any of your other records, or a specific song that you wrote?

Really, every record has its own unique arc of inspiration. They are an imprint of that time. Sometimes the record happens fast… Sometimes you have to be patient and wait for inspiration to come back, so the record takes longer to make. I’m fine with either situation. Records like Alas or Levitate (written and recorded quickly) have a nice unified sound… but Hearts of Palm has more diversity and was pieced together over a one-year period.

So, you’re on a pretty extensive European tour at the moment. Do you find that there is a different musical climate there?

It’s mostly that I get paid to play there. And the cities are closer together. People seem a little more open-minded. And Idaho has more mystique over there, perhaps, being from California… I haven’t played in America for a long time, so it’s hard to compare the two.

idaho self portrait

The last two Idaho albums (Levitate and The Lone Gunman) were basically solo albums–can you talk about your decision to keep the name Idaho? And do you feel a different sort of attachment to these recent albums?

I’ve been tempted to just make music under my own name, but in this day of information overload it may be hard to operate with a new name. My booking agents in Europe tell me that they always at least get responses to their emails to club-owners because they’ve heard of the band. Not to diminish the contributions of people I’ve worked with, but most of the Idaho CDs have felt like solo records in a way.

You seem to be very aware of the business lurking behind the art–booking agents, TV stations, record labels, all the not-so-pretty stuff. Have your feelings about music been poisoned at all by your experiences with the industry?

Somehow I keep the music-making part of my brain clean. The business stuff seems to work itself out. But maybe if I had more interest in the business side of things I’d have more "success." Like the kind of success my parents would like me to have. I just let things come when they do. I believe that things happen for a reason and I like the way my music has gotten some recognition, but not too much. Dealing with too many agents and corporate folks would just be too stressful and meaningless, ultimately. I really want to keep Idaho more like a hobby. The music would suffer otherwise. The TV scoring is another animal altogether… That’s just a really good paying but hard-as-shit-to-do kind of job. There’s something gratifying about getting all the cues in on time and seeing your work on the tube the next day. I’ve never done a show for that long, though, so I don’t know what it’d be like to be doing it all the time… I think one ages at twice the rate.

You seem to have shifted your palette with each album, favoring guitars and then pianos, organic sounds and then electronics and treated vocals. Has there been another shift on the new material you’re working on?

I’m getting back into the four-string electric guitars a bit more, but I think I equate them with "rock" and I’ve been steering away from that aesthetic with the recordings. The songs I’ve done so far are piano and acoustic guitar based. Really minimal with a continuation of the multiple voice layering of The Lone Gunman. Strangely enough, however, I’m on tour with two guys that are totally rock and roll… We’ve written a few songs together but I think they’ll end up on the next live CD, most likely.

How did where you grew up influence your exposure to music and your tastes in music?

It was mostly key friends that exposed me to music. I went to a high school in Santa Monica that was at the time sort of unorthodox, I guess. There were some kids there with extraordinary taste in music.

One of my favorite lyrics of yours is from "For Granted": "Eucalyptus trees have traveled clear over the ocean and you can too." Do you remember the gestation of this lyric, and can you talk about this sentiment a little?

Well, as far as I can remember… many of my favorite trees in Los Angeles came from somewhere else. Also something about that city makes you feel like people aren’t supposed to live there. I live in Laurel Canyon. My house has been hit by a landslide, the air is filled with mold spores due to the freaky weather changes and subsequent Santa Ana winds, cars are packed into the street most of the day. Yet somehow I love the place…

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

Being born probably : ) I’m not sure what to say about that. Sometimes someone who likes my music has told me that a certain Idaho song or record has helped them through some period, a break-up, or [they’ve] met someone because of it… On a personal level I feel like I’ve overcome many of my insecurities, self-consciousness, and bad habits in the last ten years.

What recent albums are you enjoying?

I haven’t had a lot of time to listen to music other than Idaho rehearsals.

What is the best thing you’ve eaten so far on tour?

We just finished with the Italian leg of the tour. The most amazing pasta ever.

Visit Idaho on MySpace.

Identity Theory’s recommended listening: "To Be the One," "Kite," and "For Granted" by Idaho.

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