James Iha - Uber Rock Interview Exclusive Print E-mail
Written by Mark Taylor   
Saturday, 15 December 2012 03:00

As a member of The Smashing Pumpkins James Iha played guitar on some of the most influential rock albums of his generation. This was a band that sold millions of copies of the ten albums they recorded together, whilst selling out arenas worldwide in the process.  Then it all suddenly came to an abrupt end at the dawn of a new millennium, as the band’s leader Billy Corgan decided enough was enough for the grunge godfathers. 

 

James having already released his first solo album ‘Let It Come Down’ in 1998, might have been expected to have quickly put out a second solo record following the Pumpkins demise, but instead he chose to collaborate with a variety of bands and musicians, write film soundtracks and launch his own recording studio, whilst in-between still find some time to become a member of A Perfect Circle.

 

The sophomore solo album from James was certainly a long time coming, five years in the recording ‘Look To The Sky’ was finally released earlier this year, and I took the opportunity to catch up with him when he was in London recently playing a packed out show at the Shepherds Bush Empire.  We got to discuss his recording career spanning over thirty studio albums and find out what really makes him want to work in the music industry in 2012.

 

 

Iha pic 1James thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk with me today, can I just start by just asking how do you pronounce your surname, because I’m sure to get it wrong otherwise. (laughing)

 

It’s actually produced E- ha with an E rather than an I pronounced phonetically.

 

Well James thank you for clearing that up, so let’s talk about your new album ‘Look To The Sky’ which is your first album in fifteen years but it’s been out in Japan for six months already, how was that?

 

Oh that’s a long and very boring story.

 

But people being people these days isn’t there a risk that many of your fans will by now have already downloaded the Japanese album for free?

 

Umm, good question, ah, maybe I guess, because as soon as you put it out, it’s out everywhere in the world these days, which is a problem for all musicians these days, I mean you can’t find the Internet right? (laughing)

 

So you’ve got around twenty other musicians working with you on this album, tell us a little about your favourite tracks and who was involved in the recording of those songs.

 

Okay, let’s see. Uh Tom Verlaine played on two songs one called ‘Appetite’ and one called ‘Till Next Tuesday’, he’s such an iconic guitar player and he also lives near my studio (laughing) and he was nice enough to come by bringing all his own gear, and it was definitely a thrill to watch him play. I’m also friends with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs so to get Nick (Zinner) and Karen (O) in to play and sing on two different tracks was also a real honour for me.  They are great people and obviously talented people but them being able to play on my record was definitely a perk of living in New York City.

 

And the record was produced by Nathan Larson who seems like an enigmatic type of character, tell us a little bit about what working with him was like.

 

Well he was in a band in the nineties by the name of Shudder To Think and they toured with The Smashing Pumpkins and I just sort of remained friends with Nathan over the years and although he’s done the usual rock band things over the years he now does a lot of film scores and does a lot of composing, but having him involved with my record really kind of got me motivated and going.

 

‘Look To The Sky’ is credited as a co production between the two of you, so just how did Nathan influence you?

 

Well his main thing is just to get on with it, and one of the reasons it took me like 18 billion years to get this record done is that I was just working on the same songs over and over. And Nathan just came in and challenged that way of working immediately, he was like “just get it done”, and that kinda made me realise what wasn’t working for me. He has great musical influence on me but he is also a great motivator for me personally too.

 

Look To The Sky CDBut in reality that billion years you mentioned was only really five years and you are a busy man with the soundtracks and other projects you are involved in.

 

Yeah I suppose, I uh, well since The Pumpkins broke up I started a recording studio in Manhattan and then I started playing with A Perfect Circle plus I have my own record label, so yeah I guess I have been busy doing other things. (laughing)

 

I’ll continue to play with A Perfect Circle too, the plan being to do some shows next year.

 

Funny you should mention A Perfect Circle because I noticed your Las Vegas show to end the year and also the Australian Soundwave dates when I was doing some browsing just earlier today, so you looking forward to those shows?

 

Yeah I was looking at the bill the other day and it’s looking cool in a heavy-o-sity kind of way.  It should be good.

 

So can we expect some summer dates from you guys in Europe?

 

Oh God, honestly I don’t know.  I do know we will be doing Lollapalooza Chile and maybe some South American dates - I’m not too sure right now, I just can’t say right now you know. It’s really Maynard and Billy’s call with that one. (laughing)

 

Back in 2009 you also had the band Tinted Windows with Bun E Carlos (Cheap Trick) and Taylor Hanson (Hanson) how did that come into being?

 

I’m lucky enough to have worked with all sorts of different people in my varied career, I co own the studio with Adam Schlesinger from Fountains Of Wayne who was also in the band, and we were just sitting around one day when he out of the blue just say “You fancy being in a band with Taylor Hanson?” and I was like “Yeah, let’s do it.” (laughing)

 

So was it a project done for fun or was it serious?

 

Oh it was both, it was fun but we took it seriously.  I know it’s a ridiculous name, and some people may have seen that, but it was our powerpop pop rock record. We keep in contact about doing another one, but that just hasn’t happened yet.

 

So what was it like working with Bun E?  Were you fans of his music?

 

Cheap Trick were huge, and it was definitely a huge thrill for me to play with him.  I mean you imagine looking back when you’re playing and there’s Bun E Carlos.  That is an awesome feeling.

 

Tinted Windows

 

And you’ve worked with many of your heroes on this new record, like you say Tom Verlaine is on there, are you in awe of these people when then walk in the studio?

 

Oh umm, working with Michael Stipe was pretty awesome, working and producing a song for him on one of his records, and we did a benefits show together.  Now that was really humbling because when I was in High School I saw R.E.M something like four or five times, so it’s kind of freaky to be like “Oh wow can you we get to the studio today”, but it’s such a thrill and I have to pinch myself sometimes, but you gotta be cool. (laughing)

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the soundtrack albums you’ve made in Japan as I think many people may not have heard about these.

 

I did two movies one was called Linda Linda Linda and the other um I can’t remember the Japanese pronunciation for, but the first movie was about this all girl band playing in a high school and the second was about this doomed psychotic lesbian love affair.  I certainly had fun doing both of them. The music was fun and the directors were really open to what I was doing.

 

How does that compare to making a band album then?  Does it give you more room to experiment?

 

It’s sort of like a different part of your musical brain, because your making music for picture as opposed to like thinking about a song or structure, it’s just sort of like you get a video clip you look at the edit and the content of what is going on and then you need to remember what the director wants, so it’s like a totally different way of thinking. 

 

When I that kind of stuff I really enjoy it and get into it but it’s just not the same as being in a band or constructing your own songs.

 

 

So let’s go back to ‘Look To The Sky’ and the video you made to ‘To Who Knows Where’, tell us all about that video, it certainly looked like a lot of fun to make.

 

Well it was loosely based on the David Bowie movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, and we were looking for a concept for the video, and I just sent the director some clips including the trailer for that film.  So we then decided to just have some fun recreating some key scenes fro the movie in almost something like a homage, which we shot in Joshua Tree and downtown L.A. It was certainly a lot of fun.

 

With a video inspired by a David Bowie film, is it safe to say you are a fan of his music too?

 

Oh yeah, what else is there to say about David Bowie, he’s such an icon who has been influential to me because of his reinventions and his style, and just the way he approaches music.

 

On ‘Appetite’ as well as Tom Verlaine we actually have Mike Garson playing on that track too, and Mike famously played with David Bowie on ‘Aladdin Sane’, and I wanted him to recreate that sound on my song.  I think he got it very similar because as I found out that is just how he plays. (laughing)

 

You’re over in Europe right now playing four shows, including just the single show in London, can we expect more dates in the future in support of ‘Look To The Sky’?

 

I certainly hope so, for this one as you say it’s just the four shows, but yeah for next year I do hope to come back.  We haven’t booked anything yet, but we’re talking about it.

 

Having mentioned earlier that you like playing in a band, do you not long for the days you spent in The Smashing Pumpkins rather than being solo?

 

You know I just love all of it, but what I really love is doing my solo thing and starting from scratch and playing the clubs, but then I’ll play with A Perfect Circle and I’ll be playing big stages at big festivals and that’s great too, but they are totally different things, but being in a and or being solo, I’m cool with both.

 

Iha pic 2I can’t really do this interview without asking you a specific question about the Smashing Pumpkins, and I was just wondering if you could tell us what your relationship is like these days with Billy Corgan? I mean do you exchange Christmas cards. (laughing)

 

Ah! (laughing) umm no Christmas cards, no communication, we haven’t talked in God…probably a decade or something like that.  For me when he broke up the band in 2000, and it just seemed like a natural time to end it you know. We had an amazing run we did all those amazing records and tours and it was probably the natural peak or arc of the band to end when we did.

 

So were you disillusioned at the time of the split?

 

I’m not so sure it was disillusionment it was more that I was tired and just needed to recharge my batteries. I mean we were a band for twelve years, so it definitely defined part of who I am and I’m sure it did them as well. But it’s been like twelve years since we’ve broken up and it’s not really a part of my life anymore.  I certainly respect it for what it is/was, and I enjoyed it, plus there is nothing about it I regret.  I mean who wouldn’t want to be in a huge cool band like we were, but I’ve a different life now.

 

And now you have more freedom?

 

I wouldn’t call it freedom, it’s just different, but in some ways possibly more freedom largely due to the cycle the band was in with really intensive long touring and recording and….it’s just good to do different things and I think the older you get you just don’t want to be on tour forever, or you do and you don’t want to be like living in one city for like years on end.  I’m just happy with the way things are.

 

Well you’ve certainly kept yourself busy, I make it thirty albums that you have played on in total over the years.

 

Wow really? (laughing) I honestly don’t know how many I’ve done but that sounds great.  It’s certainly gone by fast. It’s all been so cool.

 

So just to finish off is there anything you would like to do in the future that you haven’t done yet?

 

I think I’d like to do another solo album but turn it around in a more precipitous manner, plus I really enjoy the A Perfect Circle gig and hopefully we’ll do more touring and possibly some recording. Unfortunately I cannot speak for the band as I’d be speaking out of turn but it’s something I’d like to see us do, but we’ll see what happens next there.

 

Well on that note James I’d just like to say it’s been fantastic talking to you and thank you for talking with Uber Rock.

 

Oh thank you very much; I really appreciate it, thank you.

 

You can currently order ‘Look To The Sky’ for around £3 or less than $5 here:

http://www.theomegaorder.com/JAMES-IHA-Look-To-The-Sky

 

Or you can visit James Iha’s website here

http://www.jamesiha.com/

 

[James Iha solo photographs courtesy of Aliya Naumoff]