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Rising Above: Idaho's Jeff Martin imparts a plaintive sigh to the band's new album, 'Levitate.'

His Own Private Idaho

Jeff Martin states his case on near-solo Idaho album 'Levitate'

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, they're a member of Idaho. "When we opened for them back in '93 on a tour, our guitar tech--somebody thought it was me, but it wasn't me--had, twice in a row, been the victorious one in the whole groupie chase," recalls frontman Jeff Martin. "And the Red House Painters guys complained that we were stealing all the girls from them. It's so 13-year-old! I couldn't believe it." Painter 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 & roll-type stuff was happening," Martin laughs. "I was pretty crazy on those first tours, compared to now. I don't smoke or drink or do anything anymore, really."

That's a 180-degree turn from Idaho's distant past, when co-founder/guitarist John Berry Keith-Mooned hotel rooms on a regular basis and once endured a gig with a broken heroin needle lodged in his 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. He's almost fully recovered from his recent 14-city jaunt in support of Idaho's seventh record, Levitate (Idaho Music).

"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 L.A. music press, too: Instead of viewing Idaho as a rest stop in the lonesome, crowded West, it turns up its collective nose at them, pigeonholing Martin as a brokenhearted savior with a hat full of hollow and a throat full 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. "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 that there were moments where I felt I could do no wrong. I really was in my element. I was surprising myself."

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 intimate missives this side of "In My Room," verbalizing from the bottommost depths of his soul. Although Levitate emerged during a nasty bout of writer's block, its contents soon came with a startling immediacy.

"The songs began to have a real emotional impact on me right on the spot," Martin says. "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'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 drum work 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. "When you have someone else come in and work with you, you have a bigger palette to choose from," he ponders. "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'll go off on a tangent and you won't have somebody to rein you back in."

Idaho's best known for excursions on the four-stringed guitar, but Levitate is quite possibly the most piano-based outing in the band's catalog. "I still struggle a little bit with guitar," Martin admits. "With the piano, I notice I breathe more, and my back is straight. It feels like it's part of me, you know?"

Colored by the same guitary distortion and feedback that fleshed out the band's last offering, Hearts of Palm, the new album stays true to Martin's minimalistic bent. "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.

"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," Martin muses. "I listen to old Idaho, and there are moments of true inspiration there. 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.

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From the February 13-20, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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