"The record I made is fairly subtle. It's singer-songwriter based and not very rock-oriented." That's how Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha describes his solo debut, Let It Come Down, on Virgin Records. The first member of the alternative music mainstay to release a solo effort, the overall critical and commercial reaction to Iha's melodic and eloquent release has been positive.
However the phrase use most often is "not what you'd expect," to which the 30-year-old musician replies, "I guess it's natural for people to be surprised. When they think of the Pumpkins, they think of an edgy-alternative rock band. It's not that kind of record at all. It doesn't surprise me, because, obviously, I wrote it. But there have been things that I've done on Pumpkins records before that sort of point in this direction. I guess to the average layman who really hasn't followed anything I've done, it is a departure from the image that I have."
Oddly enough, the image the curious guitarist has built for himself over the years is that of a quiet, far from commanding, insular artist. During the interim between Smashing Pumpkins records, Iha opted not to runaway to an island of paradise(or whatever rock stars do between records), or make a look-at-my-famous friends grandiose album. Instead, he holed-up in his basement for two months, and made an introspective album reminiscent of the California rock sounds of the Seventies.
"Basically, I've been writing more songs than I get on Pumpkins records, and I have started building a catalog of songs." He explains. "I'm getting tired of some of them just being b-sides--some of them are good enough to be album tracks. I thought it would be good to do a record all my own, that had some sort of cohesion," Iha admits.
The Smashing Pumpkins are usually thought of as singer Billy Corgan's outlet to voice his frustrations and angst, and there have been rumors in the past--which Iha denies, incidentally--that Corgan played all the instruments on the band's albums. The eleven songs that make up Let It Come Down, on the other hand, are Iha's voice, and reflect the writer's personality.
"People have never really heard me sing that much. They mostly know Billy's songs and the band's vibe. I think it would be really lame if I made a Pumpkins-like record. I didn't want to make a big, bloated solo record. I didn't want it to be pretentious. I just wanted it to be about the songs and the singing. I didn't want to go to a big studio and spend a lot of money, and have a million famous guests on the record.
"The Pumpkins tour a lot, and when we're not on the road, we're in the studio," Iha continues. "I play electric, saturated, distorted guitar every night. When I go back to the hotel or home on break, I don't want to play through a Marshall stack. I'm sure a lot of these songs are reactions to that sound. I've always written instrumentals, and liked to make up my own chords. Then I started learning how to sing and eventually began wanting to do my own songs -- sing them the way I heard them in my head. On my album, I tried to make the songs believable, and able to stand up with just my voice and acoustic guitar.
Smashing Pumpkins aficionados will remember that Iha has sang lead vocals before--on "Take Me Down" from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, as well as "Blew Away" on Pisces Iscariot--and those songs paved the way for the material that makes up his solo effort.
With a voice that is reminiscent of Al "Year of the Cat" Stewart, Iha's release is a throwback to a time when singer-songwriters such as Jackson Brown ruled the charts, prior to the doom and gloom of today's alternative artists.
"There's a little bit of that feel", Iha acknowledges. "It just happens to be a lot of mid-tempo, up-feel to the record, which I guess is the "California sound." I like a lot of those things --they're inspiring to me-- but I didn't set out to copy, or make a record that is derivative of those people."
Once Iha decided to make a solo album, there was one important factor that he agonized over: his voice. Because the songs were so straightforward and not muffled with feedback or distortion, the lyrics and the vocals needed to be strong. "I knew the songs were all focused on the vocal melodies and the singing, so I knew people would have to pay attention to the singing. It was one of the most important things on the record. I tried not to think about it that much and just did it," Iha says.
Listening to the melodic songs that make up Let It Come Down, such as the lovely "Be Strong Now" of "Sound of Love" they possess much the same melancholy feel of the Pumpkins' hit "1979".
Did Iha think his songs could have made it onto a Pumpkins release? "I'm sure that some of them could. I think a good song can be recorded a couple of different ways and still be valid," the songwriter says.
Iha's tunes have a comfortable milieu to them, which is probably due to recording the album at home. (Bugg Studios is located in his home basement.) Iha and the album's producer, Jim Scott, who engineered and mixed Tom Petty's Wildflowers and She's The One, had all the necessary equipment for the job: "old mics, weird guitars, old amp."
Iha goes on to say, "We weren't purist about it, but I have some good equipment, and Him had some good equipment, and surprisingly, my basement sounded pretty rocking. It sounded pretty natural and warm, like a regular studio. We saved a lot of money, and it was more comfortable to record at home. I think I had a pretty good understanding of the songs I wrote, and I knew what I wanted, and Jim was really great. For a first-time record, we had our ups and downs, but mostly ups."
After finishing his solo album, Iha jumped right into the recording of the Smashing Pumpkin's latest project, currently title Adore. And, as a result of recording his own record, the guitarist admits to being more comfortable in the studio. "With every new project you take away something with you. I had to wear more of a producer hat on Let It Come Down, and it was the first time I sang on a collection of songs."
Co-producing his own record, Iha says that the solo project carried a very different vibe than his other job with the Pumpkins. It's completely different," he maintains "because it's only me. Generally, when I play with the band, Billy writes most of the songs and he's sort of the main arranger. When the band plays at its best, everyone comes up with their own parts and intuitively there's a band sound to it.
"On my record, I wrote most of the songs on the acoustic guitar and had a pretty good idea of what sounded good," he continues. "I knew immediately when something didn't sound right, as far as drums, strings, and arrangement. Everything kind of came from me. My producer was the only other objective voice."
For the album, Iha assembled a band that included former Pumpkins touring drummer Matt Walker, and his brother Solomon Snyder, on bass, yet he knew exactly what he wanted, or, as he puts it, what he didn't want.
"Most of the people that played on the record had a pretty good feel for the songs. I definitely directed what was being played, and more importantly, what not to play. Generally, less was more on my record."
Knowing that the vocals were going to be the paramount, the singer is asked which tends to come easier for him, the lyrics or the melodies? "The lyrics and the melodies come at the same time that I figure out chord progressions. Not all the lyrics--just the general feel or tone of the song. Generally, I'll keep a line or a word, or some sort of theme from what I originally started writing and build it up after that."
As for the title of the album, Iha merely says, "The name of the record is supposed to mean two things--the sound and the songs coming down to more simple singer-songwriter form, and less of a take on the world vibe. It's more personal. I was trying to make some analogy to coming down to a more simpler form. I also read that when it snows or rains, it's a great released outside. I was trying to make an analogy to me having a great release of songs."
Now that the record is complete, comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins are inevitable. "I'm not going to make them," Iha jokes, "I had a fairly good idea of how the record was going to be. I had seventeen songs or so, and I wasn't really sure whether it was going to be more acoustic or more electric."
"I think where it landed was somewhere in the middle. I think it's a really good first record. I think the singing is pretty together, and it shows the songs as what they are. I always with I had written more songs, but when it's all said and done, I'm pretty happy with it," he muses.
Iha can't say when his next solo album will ever see the light of day now that the machine known as Smashing Pumpkins is starting to rumble, with a slated released of Adore and tour to follow. As for his final thoughts on the album, Iha says, "People see me more in a glammy light. I wanted the album to be simple. I just wanted it natural, kind of the way I am, off the big arena rock stage.