For a while in the 1990’s, the Smashing Pumpkins had a whirlwind ride, spitting out singles such as “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “Zero” that enraptured listeners with a searing dose of alternative corrosiveness from the psyche of frontman Billy Corgan. It touched a nerve and brought the band to the height of fame. But by 2000, the seams were busted and everyone scattered. James Iha, the young man behind the torching guitar sounds, kept moving forward, making music, dabbling in art and film, opening a recording studio and playing in two super-groups, A Perfect Circle and Tinted Windows.
Now in 2012, Iha has put together a reflective solo album titled Look To The Sky and last month took a little time while home in New York to call in to talk about his “cool” youth and what inspired him to go back into the studio.
James, tell us where you grew up and what you were like as a kid.
Well, before my soul was crushed by the music industry – no, I’m kidding (laughs) – Music is awesome and great and I owe everything to it. I was born in a suburb of Chicago. You know those John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and stuff like that? My high school was sort of like one of those high schools. It wasn’t as much fun as those movies were though (laughs). I grew up there and it was a very nice middle class suburb, really boring but nice. I was a fan of music cause my brother was a big fan of music and I used to look at his records and he had all the classic rock records. I sort of went through every different phase of music. He was into like Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, The Who and I got into all those. Then I got into my own things, like heavy metal. Then I got into New Wave, which became a lifelong journey into music (laughs) I’m sorry, I’m probably going off on a tangent. What’s the question?
I was just asking what you were like as a kid.
I was cool (laughs) I guess. I think I was a quiet kid and music was definitely an exciting thing to me. Music and film.
Was your family musical? Or was it when rock & roll grabbed you that you picked up an instrument? My mom used to play like a nylon string guitar and she would play sort of like children’s lullabies. That was really nice but like you said, it was definitely rock music that got me excited and wanting to do something similar. Who would you say was the band that really got it’s hooks into you and made you think that that was what you wanted to do too? I don’t know if it was one band. Probably the bands I really could relate to when I was in high school were like REM, U2 and the Smiths, a lot of the 80’s guitar bands. They were sort of like the complete thing and wrote their own songs. They were not like the regular kind of corporate rock bands that I perceived other bands to be. I kind of felt like I had something similar in the mindset to those awesome bands.
When you started writing songs, what were you writing about?
I started writing songs in high school and they were about really silly things probably (laughs). The first songs I wrote were probably more jokey kind of songs cause at the time we liked a lot of like punk rock bands. There was just a lot of silly punk rock bands back then - not silly but the songs sounded silly. Maybe like the Dead Kennedys or something like that. So we wrote songs that were maybe in the similar vein in the very beginning.
When was the first time you really started performing and how did it feel to actually be on a stage playing music?
It’s definitely like a teenage boy’s fantasy to play in a rock band. I started a band in high school with some friends and we played like the talent show and it was awesome, just playing music for people; even if it was just for like a talent show at our high school. That was probably like the biggest buzz I had in high school.
Do you remember what songs you played?
We did an original song and we did “Rock & Roll All Night” by KISS.
You seem to be involved in so many things: writing songs, playing music, art. Out of all that you do musically, which one gives you the most satisfaction?
Definitely doing a solo record is very satisfying but I kind of realized that I’m a musician and it’s pretty rare just to play in one band your whole life. So I like doing a lot of different things. I like playing guitar for other people. I like writing songs. I like working on instrumental music. I like running a studio. It’s all kind of related to music but just coming at it from different ends. They all kind of have their own thing that’s interesting or fun.
Where do you find your inspiration comes from the most?
That’s a good question. I don’t know (laughs). Like when I pick up a guitar, the things that I hear and the way that I play the guitar – I’m not the greatest guitar player by any means – but I like to think I hear original things. And I pick up on different kinds of things, like a different, specific kind of sound. When I produce bands or work on anything sort of related to music you just have your own taste and you have your own ideas of what’s good or bad.
Why did you decide to call your latest record Look To The Sky? Is that like your life philosophy because it gives off a very hopeful vision?
Yeah, I think it’s kind of hopeful. I didn’t really have a title for the record so I went through all the lyrics on the record and that was one line that stood out to me. I thought it, like you said, had a sort of positive feel and there’s a lot of elemental things that are lyrically on the record, like about the sky, the stars, the ocean, and not to be too hippy-dippy or anything but I kind of felt like it was a metaphor for being positive and also being something that if you look around you there’s something great about life. Like when you’re little and you look up at the sky, you just realize how big the world is and I think that is an amazing thing cause everybody gets so caught up in everyday life and you kind of forget about things like that.
I’d like to think that the way the songs were written and the way the chords and the recording of it, that the music and the recording of the music and the friends I had play on it, it was all very organic. I didn’t have to force much to make it happen. You could have gone in any direction with this album. Why did you pick the singer-songwriter, organic route?
Well, you know, I got to be me (laughs). I don’t know. I’ve played with heavy bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle, and I don’t think my voice goes with like really heavy music like that. I guess it’s just what I feel comfortable with when I do my own solo stuff. It’s just sort of what I go to.
One of tracks on the album that stands out is “Appetite”. I found it a little friskier than the other songs, with it’s little boogie-woogie jazzy piano on it. You have all these beautiful lyrically sounding songs and then you have this little frisky song thrown in.
(laughs) It is a frisky song. When I wrote it, it was kind of a bluesy acoustic song and I kind of thought it was boring. I liked the song but musically it was boring. So I took everything off of it except the vocals and I put a drum machine and it kind of gave it that cabaret feel that is sort of there; that frisky feel you speak of. I had the piano player, Mike Garson, and he played on a lot of classic David Bowie records like Aladdin Sane, which was also a very signature kind of piano song. He sort of took it in like another stratosphere I guess. I also had Tom Verlaine, who played with Television, and he played guitar on it and it had sort of like a duel between Mike Garson and Tom Verlaine with me singing on it. I don’t know, I sort of went with it (laughs). Are you going to be touring?
I’m going to try. We have like an East Coast run booked right now and I’m going to Japan soon. It won’t be like a giant world tour but I’m going to promote it. It’s just it won’t be like eight months of hard touring. Any chance of Tinted Windows coming back into your life?
Yeah, I think so. We talked about it this year, we just haven’t done a damned thing about it (laughs). But we talked about it. I hope so. We’d all like to do it, we just all have busy schedules and things going on. So hopefully we’ll do Tinted Windows too.
Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
You know, I remember when our high school band started playing the bigger Chicago venues, meeting local bands was like a huge thing. Like, wow, I can’t believe I met that guy from that band that’s only known in Chicago (laughs). One of the early big shows I did, we [Smashing Pumpkins] opened up for Jane’s Addiction on their Nothing Shocking tour and that was pretty big for us.
What did you think of those guys?
They’re legends, I mean, at that time there wasn’t really another band like them. They were beyond heavy and they had everything: awesome records, awesome band, awesome front-man. They were a dangerous rock band so we were definitely blown away by them.
Speaking of the Smashing Pumpkins, when they were really big and everything was going on for you guys, how did you keep from letting all that go to your head? How did you stay grounded?
(laughs) It is weird when you’re in a really big rock band. I guess you’re really insulated when you’re on tour and making records all the time. So I guess just the rest of the band just keeps you in check cause you’re just always with the same people 24/7 like ten months, eleven months out of the year. I don’t know (laughs). That’s a good question.
Well, you made it through and that’s the good thing
Yeah, yeah (laughs)
Anything else you want to say about your new CD?
Check it out. Please check my new CD out (laughs) With a new Dokken album hitting the airwaves, Don Dokken has a lot to say. Join us next week to find out about his past and what he currently has on his mind.