Smashing Pumpkin James Iha's Solo Trip
Addicted to Noise
By Gil Kaufman
The charismatic Smashing Pumpkins guitarist steps out with a surprising solo album that's all about power pop. Gil Kaufman gets the lowdown.
Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha knows what you expect, but that's not the only reason he isn't giving it to you on his solo debut, Let It Come Down. "I didn't set out consciously to make a retro record," Iha says of the subdued, 11-track album. "I just wanted the songs to really stand out and the vocals to be the main driving force instead of heavy-duty, alternative-rock drums and fuzz-box guitar."
Iha's power-pop-leaning love songs received their first-ever live tryout at a recent, unannounced set opening for Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan at Los Angeles' Viper Room. Iha confounds as much as surprises on songs such as the delicate album opener "Be Strong Now" and the John Lennonesque acoustic love song "Lover, Lover." Over the course of the album (recorded in Iha's basement studio in the summer of 1997), the usually silent guitarist exorcises his personal demons in compact, rolling, sunny pop-nuggets that are the polar opposite of the Pumpkins' over-the-top, cathartic power jams. In this interview with Iha -- who took a break from the Los Angeles recording sessions for the Pumpkins' upcoming album -- he talks about setting his electric guitars aside; learning how to sing; being the first Pumpkin to leave the patch; "lovers' rock"; and whether Let It Come Down foreshadows the upcoming Pumpkins album.
ATN: When I heard this album, I was pleasantly surprised, because I was
sort of expecting what
everybody else was probably expecting -- a guitar type of thing. I know
that you grew up in
Chicago, and there definitely seems to be this Shoes [legendary Chicago
power-pop band] and/or
Raspberries power-pop thing going on in this album. Were those bands a
Iha: Well, I don't think I'd use those terms. I've never heard the Shoes, actually, but I've heard of them. The Raspberries I like, but I really don't think they were my main reference point for this record. Some of it does sound very pop, but I guess I was going back to older reference points, not necessarily a style of writing or using the same kind of arrangements as these bands used, but sort of the feeling these bands had, like in early Band records, Neil Young, older singer/songwriters.
ATN: Those [Neil Young, The Band] more than others? The whole power pop
Iha: I like pop music a lot. I like all kinds of different music. Most of these songs came out of writing them on the acoustic guitar -- I would say maybe nine out of 11 I wrote that way.
ATN: Is that an unusual way for you to compose songs?
Iha: No, not really. I mean, most of the time when we're on tour, or at home, I don't really play electric guitar too much.
ATN: Is that a conscious choice?
Iha: No ... you know, when we're on tour, it's full-on hard rock, and when I come back to the hotel room, I don't really rock out again in there. The acoustic gives me the bass and rhythms, all the chord voicings of the guitar -- that's kinda why I've been writing on the acoustic. Just kinda on one instrument.
ATN: It's not something you do with the Pumpkins?
Iha: Depends. I mean, I guess my writing has changed. In the early days I just used to write instrumentals. I can't really remember how I wrote them. I guess I probably wrote them on electric, and those are the kinds of things that made it onto Pumpkins records. And after a while I got tired of writing those weird instrumentals.
ATN: You sort of got into that niche -- you were the "weird
Iha: Well, that wasn't my name. I just had all these demos that sounded too abstract to me. So I just started singing and making up proper songs. I don't know, I've just sort of fallen into the mode of what's on the record.
ATN: One of the other bands I was going to mention that seemed to
inspire you is the Byrds.
There seem to be quite a few songs, like "Jealousy" and "Beauty,"
especially, that sound like
they could be lost Byrds tracks.
Iha: Yeah, there's a little bit of that jingle-jangle in there. In some ways the record is sort of a throwback record. Everything I used --12-strings, acoustics, clean electric guitars and strings, cellos and violin and organ -- are all kind of '60s or '70s instruments. I didn't set out consciously to make a retro record or anything like that. I just wanted the songs to really stand out and the vocals to be the main driving force instead of heavy-duty, alternative-rock drums and fuzz-box guitar. People will either like the songs or hate them. There's nothing to hide them. There's no alternative-rock stomp-box thing, there's no trip-hop beats or anything like that.
ATN: Are you wondering how people will react to the album? Are you
worried that people might
not accept this?
Iha: I really just thought I didn't want to stray too far from where the songs originally came from. I just didn't want to turn it into an alternative-rock record or a trendy, whatever's-going-on-now record. I wanted it to sound good and feel good, and it just seemed like all those instruments seemed right. So did the kind of arranging I did.
ATN: Was there any point when you thought, "Man, this really doesn't fit
in with what's going on
now -- what if people aren't interested?"
Iha: Well, I knew it didn't sound like an alternative record, just by listening to the demos. I think the melodies are really strong, and the fact that it doesn't sound like everything I hear on the radio is a good thing. I was more worried about it sounding good than I was about it being something it isn't.
ATN: Did you feel a lot of pressure -- because of your "day job"?
Iha: I thought the most important thing was that it not sound like a secondhand Pumpkins record, and then that it should be able to stand on its own, as its own record, and just not hide anything.
ATN: It sounds like it definitely does do that. I keep coming back to
"Jealousy." That really
surprised me, especially the vocals, since I think a lot of people don't
even think of you as a
singer. You've obviously sung some songs on Pumpkins records, but this
is really the first time
you've come out and been "the singer." Did you know that you could do
Iha: I liked the songs that I had but never really sung out as much as on this record. The producer I worked with, Jim Scott, had worked on a lot of records -- a couple of Tom Petty records and Whiskeytown -- with really upfront vocals where the songs drive themselves. It's not really a big, modern, alternative-rock sound that drives them. By the end I realized I hadn't used the distortion pedal, and the drums sounded like drums used to sound on older records. [Veruca Salt singer] Nina Gordon sang on one song, backup vocals on "Beauty." I played it back for her, and she said, "Don't take this in a bad way, but this sounds like a record my parents used to listen to."
ATN: Do you know what record she was talking about?
Iha: She said it was something like an old Linda Ronstadt record or some of those early California-sounding records. And Art Garfunkel. Maybe she was talking about the album cover. She was saying my album cover should look like this one Art Garfunkel record.
ATN: It sounds like you only recently started to "learn" how to sing.
When did you start doing
that in earnest, or when did you start concentrating on it?
Iha: Well, the first lead vocal I did on record was a song on the Pumpkins record Pisces Iscariot, on "Blew Away," then I sang lead on the last Pumpkins record, on "Take Me Down." I knew on this record that I had to really work on the singing. I went to a couple of vocal coaches and spent a lot of time on it, and it was good.
ATN: Are you happy with the way the vocals turned out? You seem to have
succeeded in your
attempt to move away from the alternative-rock thing -- the vocals on
this are so clean.
Iha: Yeah, I'm happy with how they [the vocals] came out. I don't think it's anything to run away from I don't like a lot of reverb, or whatever. [The album] sounds cool to me.
ATN: Do you think people will be surprised by what your voice sounds
Iha: I'm sure people will [be surprised]. They think they might know what the record will sound like, but I don't know how they could. All they know about me is this image -- this guitar foil [Corgan's foil] image with me in glammy makeup with big hair, the Asian space-cat. So I don't know what they would expect. I guess if I saw me, I would expect some terrible-sounding din.
ATN: This is the first solo effort from a Smashing Pumpkins member. Was
it important to you to
get out of the gate first, or did it just happen that way?
Iha: No, I've wanted to do this for a while, a year or couple of years. But it wasn't like a "who's first" or anything like that. It was just that a time frame opened up to do this record. I just thought it was now or never.
ATN: How long did you spend on it?
Iha: Probably over two months recording -- two and a half months -- and then two weeks mixing.
ATN: And you did this in your home studio?
Iha: Yeah, I recorded it in my basement, but I mixed it in a real studio.
ATN: Can you give me a sense of what your home studio is like? Do you
have a lot of old
instruments down there, or is it all new gear?
Iha: For one thing, it's a really small basement. There's like a control room. Jim [Jim Scott co-produced the album with Iha] brought in a bunch of old gear for those gearhead-inclined; we had, like, a little Neve board, a mini Neve board and a Studer 24-track. In the live room I had one old weird drum kit, a '60s kit that Jim had and I had, a Yamaha kit. I don't know, just a bunch of Fender amps, Vox amps.
ATN: So it wasn't like top-shelf, new-gear stuff.
Iha: There were a few new things, but most of it was older stuff.
ATN: And that's the stuff you normally write on?
Iha: That's the stuff I record on. The main things I write on are just acoustic guitars. I have like five or six acoustics, and I just put them into different tunings and have them laying around the house. I just pick them up and try to get something out of it.
ATN: It sounds like it was important for you to have this be an acoustic
singer/songwriter type of
thing. You've even mentioned James Taylor and Jackson Browne as a couple
of the inspirations.
Is it still cool to like that type of stuff? Do you think it has come
back into vogue these days? Is
it so unhip, it's hip, or is it just you?
Iha: Well, I'm not really into the belt-buckle-coming-back scene. People probably have really terrible ideas of what they sounded like, but when they first came out, they sounded really great. Over the years some of those people, they've gotten a terrible reputation. I didn't really think about it -- there are things I like about them, but it wasn't like my main inspiration. The thing I like about them is that they wrote good songs; they sang great; they had good-sounding, feeling records. I wanted it to be a singer/songwriter record, but I didn't want it to be like an unplugged record, like just acoustic guitar and voice, because I think it would have been taking a major, even a bigger risk than I'm taking now. I guess I wanted to put together [something] like an old school band, like maybe a Phil Spector kind of record, where he uses a bunch of really good guys, but they're not really all session musicians -- they're just friends and people who come over to play.
ATN: You did use an interesting group of people, in addition to
[Fountain of Wayne's] Adam
[Schlesinger] on piano and [former Pumpkins tour drummer] Matt Walker on
drums. Tell me a
little bit about Greg Leisz, who also plays with Matthew Sweet.
Iha: He actually played on the last Pumpkins record. He played pedal steel on "Take Me Down."
ATN: What does he play on this record?
Iha: He plays pedal steel and some guitar on a lot of songs, but I don't know which songs. He also played on the last three k.d. lang records, and he's part of her touring band.
ATN: So you're a big fan of k.d. lang?
Iha: Yeah, I like k.d. lang.
ATN: What about Neal Casal and John Ginty?
Iha: Those are both people that Jim is friends with. Jim was saying we probably should try to get some harmony vocals on these, just different kinds of voices. He has recorded Neal before -- he's a singer/songwriter he has done an album with. He came over, and he just sounded great.
ATN: Did you want only male backing vocals, or did you ever think about
using female backing
Iha: I didn't really know until we tried it. He kinda sounds like me in a way, so it's good.
ATN: Explain a little about the title of the record, Let It All Come
Iha: Well, all album titles are pretentious, but this one is particularly pretentious. Some of these songs I've had for a while -- half of the songs are kind of old songs -- and I was trying to make some analogy about when you're waiting outside for rain to come down or when something's about to happen, and also about the expectations some people might have, that this might be a hard rock record or something like that.
ATN: When you were putting this together, how did Nina Gordon
[singer/guitarist for Veruca
Salt] get involved? I imagine you two are friends from around Chicago.
Did you ask her
specifically to come in and do it?
Iha: Well, she wasn't just hanging out in the band room. She's a friend of mine, she was off touring. She actually sang on a Pumpkins b-side called "Said, Sadly." I just asked her if she wanted to. She's managed by the same management company. I asked if she was in town and called her up.
ATN: That's easy, just pick up the phone.
Iha: Yeah. Well, she showed up in her Rolls Royce.
ATN: Is it liberating to be freed from that bombastic work of your day
Iha: Yeah, it's great to do a record of all my songs the way I heard them. I kind of went for a certain sound. I think I got it. It was a real good cathartic release to do things the way I wanted to, without working in a group context. It was just basically me and my producer, Jim.
ATN: Was it a conscious choice not to have any of the other band members
Iha: Well, actually, D'arcy [Wretzky] sings on one song -- she sings on "One and Two."
ATN: It's pretty restrained and sober for a guy who's known for
over-the-top guitar dynamics.
You're known as a guitarist, but this isn't necessarily a guitar album.
Iha: Yeah, it's totally not a guitar record. I don't think there are really any solos per se on the record. I just wanted a combination of rhythm and a little melodic guitar coming in and out of the mix. Kinda like early Stones records used to do, where Brian Jones and Keith Richards used to sort of play these little melodic lines, but you couldn't really tell who was playing what. It wasn't like a full-on rock guitar solo -- it was just sort of little lines that come in and out of the music, just to keep things going along.
ATN: It seems like "Winter," especially, has a line like that, where it
sort of comes in and out
Iha: Oh yeah, there's some ropy things on there.
ATN: What do you mean by ropy?
Iha: I don't know. Sometimes my guitar just sounds ropy. Yeah, there's a lot of ropy things on there.
ATN: Do you play all the guitars on the record, with the exception of
the pedal steel?
Iha: No, actually, it was all pretty open. I probably played maybe 60 percent of the guitars, I played all the acoustics and some electric, but Greg is actually a really great guitar player. He helped me fill out a lot of the second guitar player parts, where I had the main riff or main chord sequence for guitar. But most of the time I didn't really have second guitar parts. And Neal played a little guitar, too.
ATN: Did you not want to have big solos on this?
Iha: Most of the songs don't have room for it, they didn't really call for it.
ATN: When you decided to do this, how did you find time? It seems like
the Pumpkins were
pretty busy recording and touring for the past few years.
Iha: Well, it just happened this summer.
ATN: Was it hard to get away? Did you get any flak from the rest of the
band for trying to go off
and do this?
Iha: No, it was just kind of agreed upon that I'd do it. This summer was the only couple months I could do it.
ATN: Is there any theme to this record? Because it seems like it's sort
of a suite of lovers' rock
in some ways.
Iha: Love rock. I didn't consciously set out to make some love rock album, I just realized by the end, that's all I wrote about.
ATN: Is this inspired by any particular love affair or relationship?
Iha: Yeah, it's probably not just about one person. Some of the songs are kinda older songs. Some of it's real, some imagined.
ATN: What are some of the imagined songs? "Be Strong Now" seems to be
about somebody else.
Iha: Yeah, the main premise of that song is about this depressed person, that's real. But it's about the whole idea of saving this person -- that's the imagined part -- not that I haven't tried to save this person, but I haven't shown up on a horse at her door in shining armor. I just imagined somebody, I don't know if they're really a boyfriend, just kinda a friend or family member, anybody.
ATN: Is a song like "Lover, Lover" coming from a more personal place for
Iha: I think "Lover, Lover" sounds like a real eerie, desperate love song. Kind of like a dark cloud song. I don't know what it's about. I know what it's about ...
ATN: You wrote all the lyrics to this record, right?
Iha: I wrote all the music and lyrics. I don't know if it [the album] really is about one person, it's probably more about a feeling than one particular person.
ATN: As a recording artist on a major label and the owner of an indie
label [Scratchie Records],
what have you learned from your involvement in running the label, and
how are you involved day
Iha: Well, I'm not really in on a day-to-day basis because I really don't have time. But I realized that it's a brutal world out there for the up-and-coming alternative rocker. There's a lot of good bands out there, and it's really hard to get bands on the radio and into stores these days without having to battle 30 other bands at the same time. We're trying, but it's tough.
ATN: You talk about how it's hard for up-and-coming bands. Now that
you've made it to the top of
the heap, so to speak, is it everything you ever thought it would be?
Iha: It is, but it's much more based in reality. You have this idea of how glamorous it is, but glamour's kinda imagined. You do get to do TV awards and play in front of huge amounts of people, but when you do those things and [you're] onstage, in front of a stadium or in an arena, I'm just thinking about playing the songs right or the sound or what the reaction is. When you're doing a TV award thing, you don't want to say something stupid. I guess it's cool, but it's just much more rooted in reality, like, "I hope I don't mess this up."
ATN: You guys were nominated for another Grammy this year. What do you
Radiohead and the Prodigy getting nods? Is it another sign that newer
bands are breaking
through to the Grammy people?
Iha: That's great. They're both really good.
ATN: Do you think that's a sign things are changing a little bit?
Iha: No, it's like popular music. There will always be edgy music, and there will always be sort of middle-of-the-road music, it doesn't really seem that insane to me.
ATN: Is the feel and sound of this album a foreshadowing of the
direction the Pumpkins are going
in on the album you're recording now?
Iha: No, it's not really a foreshadowing of that. The Pumpkins record is more of a down record, it's less about rock, but it doesn't sound like my record. It's half organic, half electric. It's sort of hard to say what it is, actually.
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