Jeff Martin -- no, not the Tea Party guy -- knows perfectly well that the whispering, doleful, steel-grey songs peculiar to his band Idaho will never make him a pop star. Forget about the rainy-day gloom the bedsit composer scores with chilling precision using a piano and a weirdly tuned four-string guitar. His parched warble alone is too unorthodox to cut through the mainstream clatter of chirpy teenage voices.
But Martin is secure in the knowledge that those who dig his black-and-white ballads -- and people either don't know Idaho at all or worship them outright -- will readily fork out for a new disc and cancel all else to make way for one of their rare gigs.
"It's true," Martin confirms with a chuckle from midtown Manhattan.
"People have told me that the way they became exposed to Idaho was through a friend or a roommate who would play our records incessantly. So part of our fan base are people who were force-fed our music until they finally gave in."
It's been eight years since their debut, The Palms EP, sparked a heated love affair between the UK press and Idaho's pretty, pretty songs. Of all the so-called slo-core bands to emerge in the 90s, only Idaho seemed capable of tearing off the mask of dour self-importance to reveal regular folks who just happen to make flowing, madly ambient pop.
Maybe that's owing to Martin's base in sunny L.A. or the fact that, offstage, he claims to be a pretty happy guy. He's even pals with his dad. "Funny enough, after years of thinking I was out of my mind, my father has become an Idaho fan."
But there's never been any doubt that the graceful candlelit ambience of his songs was more a product of what attracted his ear than any contrived bid for the disaffected.
With Idaho's beautiful, sad and typically square-peg new disc, Hearts Of Palm -- released on their own Idaho Music imprint -- Martin is talking about touring more to spread the word, so much so that long-time guitarist and co-songwriter Dan Seta is out of the band (day job conflicts), while Idaho co-founder John Berry, who split years ago, is back as manager and guest guitarist.
"I'm kind of a reclusive guy, so touring is good for me and I'm committed to doing more of it. But Dan just couldn't take part in the kind of touring we need to do, so it was natural to have John fill in," Martin says. "John's playing samples and a bit of guitar, and it's working out great. He started our odd guitar sound in the first place.
"Having said that, I don't see me collaborating with him in songwriting. The direction of Idaho is changing, and I want to make records alone again."
Strangely for a musician as preoccupied with sonics as Martin, Idaho released a live disc -- People Like Us Should Be Stopped, Live Vol. 1 -- earlier in the year. And that was why?
"There was a certain kind of magic with that tour and that band that I've never experienced before. The live record is the only document of that time period."
Fair enough. Less surprising, perhaps, is learning that Martin scored the music to a 98 film, How To Make The Cruelest Month, that debuted at Sundance but has yet to get major distribution. About time, too -- it's hard not to notice the filmic quality to Martin's music.
Martin says the experience was a good one, adding that, at age 36, "in four years, I might want to look to doing more, as well as some production.
"People seem to respond to Idaho's lyrics, which befuddles me because I don't take that much pride in them -- that's the most difficult part of songwriting. But I guess I must be in tune with something, because I write in a very stream-of-consciousness fashion.
"Music can be a very healing thing, and it's certainly therapy for me to write. But there's just as much joy in the music as anything else. People can read it however they like."
IDAHO, with FAST FREDDIE and 122 GREIGE, at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Monday (November 6). $7. 968-2001.