JI: James Iha GW: Guitar World
James Iha will be the first to tell you that he was a competent but hardly stellar musician when he was recruited in 1988 for a fledgling rock band called the Smashing Pumpkins. Since then, the slender soft spoken Chicago native has slowly stepped up from second fiddle role, moving from simple rhythm backdrops to increasingly baroque fills and riffs to full on leads. By the time they toured behind the 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the infinite Sadness, the Pumpkins had become a dual guitar threshing machine the equal of any hard rock band.
Unfortunately, Iha's reputation has not only caught up to his abilities, primarily because of his style-both in life and as a player is remarkably self effacing. He's not much for the monster solo when a concise four or eight bar blast will do the job. Nor does his emerging talent for penning a memorable melody and a poignant lyric attract much attention in the band where he shares a stage with Corgan one of the premiere song writers of his generation. Yet Iha's songs such as "Blew Away" and "Said Sadly", though only Pumpkins b-sides are gems worthy of discovery.
But if Iha and his talent have been under raps to date, they are now enjoying a coming out party on Let it Come Down, an 11 song collection of originals that should be an ear opener even for Pumpkins fans. "I think people are expecting some edgy alterna-rock," Iha says with a chuckle. "And that's not what this album is about."
The opening seconds set the tone, as Iha strums an acoustic guitar over what sounds like a pair of hands clapping out the rhythm. "If I come and hold you now/You'll be safe and sound," Iha sings in a voice full of gentle reassurance. Much of Let it Come Down conjures up am image of a lone guitarist on an unmade bed, hunched over his instrument in some nameless hotel in some forgotten city on some endless tour, his mind focused on a lover waiting a thousand miles away.
With Iha's voice and guitars, both acoustic and electric, as a fountain, the melodies are fleshed out with everything from live strings to Hammond organ by a variety of collaborators, including pedal steel whiz Greg Leisz, keyboardists John Ginty and Adam Schlesinger moonlighting from Fountains from Wayne) and, singing harmony vocals, Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon. Former Pumpkins tour drummer Matt Walker and his brother bassist Solomon Snyder, concentrate on framing the songs rather than stomping them into he ground. The intimate mesh if instruments (no artificial sounds loops or samples) has a warm glow that can be attributed to producer Jim Scott; the organic vibe evokes Scott's pristine engineering work on Tom Petty's recent albums.
There's not a wasted moment on the tightly arranged songs, many of which suggest Iha has done some serious wood shedding with his classic rock record collection. From the Byrdism chime of "Beauty" to the spacious open tunings of "Country Girl", the disc has a vague Seventies country rock flair but the hypnotic "Winter" has the feel of a Sonic Youth mood piece before morphing into a Lennon like Beatles melody, while "Jealousy" has the slice and dice syncopation of a Keith Richards rhythm track. Though Iha's gift for six string is readily apparent, the album isn't about solos or flash. It's the melodies that resonate and the surprising resilience in Iha's voice, which evokes the conversational warmth of such seventies singer songwriters as Al Stewart, David Gates and Cat Stevens. Let it Come down doesn't quite fit in with anything out there in the rock and roll shopping mall at the moment, and Iha couldn't be happier.
GW: I'm hearing all sorts of vintage sounds on this record. It has a living, breathing quality that sounds straight out of the seventies.
James Iha: The only thing I tried to get was the feel of some of those early Neil Young and the Band records-the sound, the homemade feel, the really good songs and understated playing. The great thing on those early the Band records is the chemistry, the sound, the classic instruments, the B3 organ, acoustic piano, the strings-it sounds right and makes you feel good.
GW: The album really sustains a mood, and hangs it together rather than coming across as a collection of songs you've written over the years.
JI: I do tend to write more ballady, slower songs. So I concentrated on the upbeat songs for the first half. The second half is more down. But when we finished it, I was surprised by how up the record sounded. I like the way it melts together in some way.
GW: The Pumpkins toured through early '97 played European festivals in the summer and then were back in the studio recording a new album in the fall. How did you find time to write and record your own album/
JI: After we played the European festivals in July, I came right back and spent the whole summer in my basement recording studio. I had some songs from two years ago, and had written a bunch more because I had been thinking about doing the record since early '96. So when I got the chance I was ready to go.
GW: What kind of setup do you have in your basement?
JI: It's a hi-fi demo-studio: a 24 track machine, a bunch of cool microphones, weird amps. Basically I recorded the whole thing there. But I don't think it sounds like a basement record, like somebody's indie rock demo, which I was determined for it not to sound like. We mixed it in LA.
GW: Jim Scott seems to have been perfectly suited for what you were trying to accomplish. How did you hook up with him?
JI: He was recording the band Whiskeytown for Outpost, where the Pumpkins old A+r guy Mark Williams is working. He suggested Mark to me. I liked what he did with the Petty records. To me he's like a smoking gun in the music business, a star engineer-mixer who isn't that widely known yet. We hit it off. He was down in the basement with me everyday.
GW: I envision a lot of these songs as love letters from the road.
JI: My song writing is obviously more soft and less edgy than the bands. I think this record was a reaction against touring with the Pumpkins, because every night was saturated with super-heavy distorted guitar. And we toured for well, for years and the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was play a Marshall stack.
GW: Did you write on an acoustic?
JI: A few were written on electric, but most of it started acoustic. I had this little rule that if it sounded good with just a guitar and voice, it would be able to stand up to some kind of band arrangement. A lot of the songs were arranged and written just to stand on just my voice and acoustic guitar, but I didn't want to do just an unplugged record. I just wanted to make a record that supported the songs without getting in the way.
GW: What instruments did you use to develop the songs?
JI: I have about five or six acoustics lying around my house, each tuned differently. A little more than half the album is recorded in open tunings. I especially like Gibsons; the Hummingbird,the J-100,the J 160 they're all traditional country and western guitars. And I have a really good Martin guitar. I have a lot of electrics, but I mainly use just three or four: a Fender Telecaster, a '68 Strat and this weird Danelectro guitar that sounds acoustic but looks electric-actually, it looks like a coffee table made out of wood paneling or something, like somebody made it in their home ec class. I did a lot of overdubs with that. I played slide on it, a few bits on the song "Lover, Lover" and I used it as a rhythm guitar, and, just here and there, drop in melodies or chords to fill out the arrangement, as well as ghost rhythm guitar parts to broaden out the sound. But there wasn't too much layering.
GW: All the frills are there to serve the song.
JI: There are barely any guitar solos. Maybe two or three parts, but there's no part where it's like "take it" I thought of those early Stones records when Brian Jones was in the band, and there wasn't so many lead solos. It was rhythm, rhythm and melody, and you couldn't discern whether it was Keith or Brian playing; the melodies would pop in and out of the rhythms. They weren't making lead guitar records.
GW: You've become a pretty accomplished lead guitarist, but you didn't really highlight that side of your playing why not?
JI: The main things I wanted to get across was the songs and the voice. I wasn't really preoccupied with hard rock dynamics. The way everything was arranged, I didn't really think about guitar solos or killing drum sounds. I wanted to make a record full of songs, so I wouldn't get that alterna-rock, he's loud then quiet Nirvana comparison- that rip off sound that most alternative bands use. I can play guitar, but it wasn't a big concern, I wanted everything to sound right, and to embellish the songs but not to the point of ELO...well ELO was pretty good. But I didn't want to make an orchestra of guitars or make it progressive in that sense. I wanted it simple and direct.
GW: So guitar solos are overrated?
JI: I don't think there are any rules of guitar playing. I think it's what's best for the band or the song that matters. It really depends on what kind of record your going to make. If you're Clapton, people are going to expect a lot of solos. I think my guitar playing is pretty good in the band context, but if you put me up against Steve cropper or someone like that, I don't think I'm so good. By no mean s I can walk on stage with whomever and reel off lead after lead. It just wasn't a concern. I was much more concerned about the songs being good, the vocals, and the overall sound of the track.
GW: How do you mesh your guitar style with Billy Corgan's in the Pumpkins?
JI: When I started working with Billy, I was more a rhythm player, a supporting guitar player. I've always done what we call drop ins. They're not really solos or rhythm parts, but melody lines. I think my playing has gotten better, or at least more creative. Once again it's about what the song needs.
GW: Is your attitude writing for your record different from the one you take writing for the Pumpkins?
JI: I suppose there is a certain mindset I try to get in when writing for the band, the arrangements and the sound of some of the chords with my own vocal melodies. So lately I've just started writing songs, and if it sounds like something for the band, I think about it that way. But in the initial stage, I just sort of write. Some of the songs on the record had been slated for band records, and for whatever reason didn't make it or I just didn't finish them in time. And there was definitely a few songs that would have not sounded right on a band record.
GW: Was it frustrating for you not to get more of your songs on Pumpkins albums?
JI: I like the songs I write, but there was no way they would come out as some kind of body of work in the band context because that's not what the bands about. The band is mostly Billy's songs. I talked with Billy about doing this record for awhile, and he encouraged me to do it. I used to write instrumentals for the Pumpkins, and it got lame to me after awhile to be tooling away with these weird songs. I had to learn how to sing. After I got comfortable with my own voice, the songs just started coming-full melodies, verse, chorus, bridge. That happened maybe three or four years ago.
GW: How did you develop your voice?
JI: A big problem of mine was not singing enough on my demos and the few Pumpkins songs that I've done. I would have to double my vocals to make them smooth enough. A lot of this record features a single vocal; there's no double tracking. To get that kind of character, a really good singer songwriter kind of voice, you have to sing out. The songs are very vocal driven; there are no huge drum dynamics or guitar histrionics. It's about the sound and the voice and the song. On a lot of Jim's records, the Tom Petty records, the vocals are really up front. You can hear the melody. If you turn them down really low you can still hear the voice really clearly. For people to identify the songs or hear me differently I knew I had to spend some time on singing. Jim really encouraged me not to hide anything behind guitars or weird sounds.
GW: Petty once said that the relaxed conversational singing voice he developed on full moon fever came about because his producer Jeff Lynne heard him singing on the couch one day and insisted that he keep it that direct-as though he was singing to one listener in the room.
JI: Yeah that's kind of what happened on my record. Some of the songs are really sung out like "here I am! But more are in this intimate I'm-in-the-same room-with you vibe.
GW: So you didn't make an alterna record and its not a techno record. It doesn't have any rap beats on it, and neither Puffy or Babyface produced it. You realize James you're committing commercial suicide by putting out a record like this don't you?
JI: (laughs) Right. I don't know how to do these songs any differently. I went with a certain kind of sound, so whatever else happens is the way of the world. I'm just happy with the way it turned out. I just thought that If I turned on the fuzz pedal it would fucking ruin these songs-they'd be terrible and annoying. I just think alternative rock is just so lame these days that it isn't anything I would want to be associated with.
GW: what's your attitude toward techno? The Pumpkins have dabbled in electronic textures on songs like 1979 and EYE.
JI: I like the chemical Brothers and Prodigy. I think they're pretty cool sounding. Prodigy have songs but its not really about songs in general. I don't think as a guitar player, that I'm going to be out of a job tomorrow. It occurred to me to experiment with some of that, but just from when I wrote the songs, on an acoustic guitar, it didn't seem natural to get into a full blown computer world. It takes a lot of time to get into computers and keyboards.
GW: Did you find it difficult being the guy in charge?
JI: To take on a full record I knew would be daunting. At certain times I thought, Oh god this is too much because I had always been in a band context with Billy producing. So I knew it would be a lot more work than I am used to. But I knew what I didn't like. I knew I didn't want songs ruined or played wrong, so it wasn't really that hard to hear what's a good part or differentiate them between a good drum sound and a bad one. Everybody who came in it wasn't like they were hired help. I respect them all as musicians. I definitely directed them, but it was more about the feel of the song. If I knew exactly hat to play I would just play it myself. But I wanted outside input on some things. I don't really know piano parts that well, so I let Adam and John make up their own parts, which was fine because those parts stuck close to the song.
GW: Did making this record change the way you think about your role in the Pumpkins/
JI: There are two hats I can wear, as a producer or as a guitar player. Billy is pretty focused on what he wants to hear, but I give advice freely if I hear anything. It's not hard for me to switch back and forth.
GW: As a young player, were you also committed to the song over the chops?
JI: I went through a lot of different phases of liking music-New Wave, heavy metal, the first beginnings of alterna rock, like Janes Addiction and Dinosaur JR. I've always liked bands and singers, but I've never paid attention to guitar heroes. I've always liked songs better than guitar playing. Any of the standard guitar heroes, like Jimi Hendrix, I think are great. But I've always been drawn to songs more. For whatever reason one of the first records I got was the first pretenders album. I thought those songs were awesome like Brass in Pocket. It was one of the first records that made me realize how much I liked music. One of my first records my older brother and I got was the Byrd's "Sweetheart of the Radio." My parents got it for us for Christmas. And I was like, "What?" Now it all seems to make sense. I never asked them why but they got us that particular record but I guess it was a foreshadowing of things to come.