James Iha Takes A Bow
The Smashing Pumpkins' enigmatic guitarist steps into the spotlight with his solo recording debut, Let It Come Down- an intimate, acoustic departure from the Pumpkins' electric angst.
What's the impetus behind the solo album?
Basically, I've had some songs backed up for a while, and I've been kind of storing them up and waiting for the opportunity to do a whole album of just my songs, the way I wanted to do these songs as opposed to in a band in context. Because I don't think that a person buying a Smashing Pumpkins record would expect half the songs, or for that matter me singing my own songs.
What's your favorite track on the album?
Well, it's kind of like picking a favorite child. I can't really do that. I like all the songs for different reasons. I really didn't want to turn out an album with a couple of good songs and a bunch of filler. I wanted all the songs to be good.
Is the atmosphere in the band restrictive? How much control does Billy Corgan have over the Smashing Pumpkins?
He writes a lot of songs and people expect to hear his kinds of songs on the Pumpkins' records. He has a really strong idea of what he wants to hear on his songs. It is restrictive for me in a way, I can't do all my songs because they just don't fit the band vibe. You know you can say it is restrictive, or its also great 'cause I wear a couple of different hats. Sometimes, I'm just a guitar player or sometimes I'm a songwriter or I' m a producer.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I don't know- Probably a bad song.
When you were younger did you dream about becoming a rock star?
It's kind of every teenage boy's fantasy to become a rock star. It was fun playing in a band and the kind of energy one gets from making this horrific noise. When you are that young you can't see that far down the road. It is kind of a daydream. A lot of the lyrics are about love.
Were they written for anyone in particular?
Songs are seldom written about one person. But I sort of had other songs that dealt with other subjects, but they didn't make the album. I don't know. I just wanted to make love rock.
Who are the most prominent women in your life?
Well, there's this girl that I am seeing, you know, and we've been going out for I don't know how long now. But I talk to her almost every day. I guess she's like a really good friend. She's supportive but objective at the same time.
Is she a musician?
No. She couldn't really say what I am playing is technically good. But she knows what she likes. I have another friend who is a writer. We all these sort of twenty something-angst conversations. And another friend of mine is a designer (Anna Sui). We also sit around and have these Gen-X conversations.
What does the woman you're seeing do?
I don't want to bring in their names or their place in the society. I know a lot of people would want to ask me just because all of my songs are about relations. But I really don't want to. DJ Theo Mizuhra says he found more support from the other communities than the Japanese American community.
Have you had a similar experience?
I grew up in a very white-bread, homogenous, suburb that could be a suburb anywhere. When my parents moved into the suburb, which would be in the late 60's when I was born, there weren't any Asians, let alone Japanese people. So I never really had a community to base my work from.
What about shows and fans?
When we used to play clubs and smaller shows, people would have more access to us just because whenever we would be breaking down equipment or when there was no back stage. I never had that many Asian kids come up to me over the years. Now that we play bigger shows, our access to people is really small. I get a small percentage of letters and comments and people. I don't get any negative feedback, but I don't get that much feedback from Asian kids in general.
Who would you say your musical influences are?
I like good sons and I like good singers and bands. I like classic rock, groups like the Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. I think that they are all great. I like other things like country rock like Graham Parsons. I've been listening to this Bossa Nova CD, early Jobim. I buy things here and there. Gustav Mahler. There's no real one defining influence, I just like good songs and melodies. There are some songs on your solo record that sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It's hard to get away from the Beatles and the Stones and classic rock. They sort of wrote the book on three-and-a-half minute pop songs. Their melodies and their arrangements form such a huge core of what pop music is about. But I don't think I am like Oasis where I've taken that much. There might be a few Beatlesque things but not that much. They're not odes to the Beatles.
Are you a spiritual person?
No, not really. I don't go to church. There are some songs that kind of have to do with faith and god. But I'm not a big believer in organized religion. I believe in some higher power, but not really in the context of going to church every Sunday, doing all these things to be closer to God. But each person has their different needs. The answer to that question could be an hour long.
I saw the Smashing Pumpkins live and you were standing in the background. Why is that? It may have been that you had a problem with your guitar.
Yeah, I always have problems with my stupid guitar. The guitar is the bane of my existence. It is also the greatest thing. I don't really stand in the background. It's just when you have a band, most people watch the singer-unless you have Jimmy Page on the left. A lot of the focus is on Billy. He's outspoken, the main song writer, and the singer of the band. So that's probably why people thing that. You know when I do interviews with the band that's who they focus on.
What drew you into modeling? I'm friends with Anna Sui and she just asked me to do it. You know I think that it was pretty fun. It's completely different than music. It's sort of like this insane job to have. I definitely wouldn't want it as a job to have normally.
Are you going to continue modeling?
I really want people just to focus on the music and I really don't want to have all these other different things going on. I don't know. I might do something for fun, but I don't really see me making it a second career.
So is this the alternative-glam-rocker image we see in the media who you really are?
They see the Pumpkins' videos and press pictures, and that's what they get.
Is that who you really are?
You know it's all part of the band and the music.
So what do you do on a regular day?
What do I do on a regular day? Well I swing from chandeliers and do lots of drugs and put on makeup. I mean, what do I do on a regular day? If I'm at home, generally, I get up around nine, nine-thirty something like that. I make tea and toast and orange juice, and I sit there with my notebook with things that I gotta do. I try working on a song in the morning. I walk my dog, Bugg, make endless phone calls, to management, people, and friends. I run some errands. I go to Starbucks or something like that, work on the song again, maybe later in the day, have dinner. That's it. I have a completely boring life. It sounds like heaven and hell. (Laughs) Yeah, it's great. That's if I have time. But most of the time I'm either touring or recording. So that's why I kind of choose a more mundane lifestyle when I'm off touring.
I heard you dropped out of college.
I didn't really drop out but I didn't finish. I was one year from graduating from Loyola University (Chicago) with a fine arts degree.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to go into music?
I think my dad was definitely skeptical, but it's not likely they cut me off or anything like that. You know it was just something I was doing. I mean from their viewpoint, it just seemed insane. "Why would you want to become a musician when education is everything?" I mean, they have a very good point. But at the same time, I told my mom that it's only once in a lifetime that you can try to go for something, and if you don't do it now that window of time gets very small. It's not like I could go to college and finish up my degree and then go back into music. It just wouldn't happen.
What do they think of your music?
Uhhmm. I don't know. I think they like it.
Can you tell me about your hair history?
My hair history. That's kind of a dodgy subject. My hair history. I don't know why my hair is such a big thing. I guess I'm like Bon Jovi or something. I just have this insane hair thing on my head. It used to be green, used to be red, used to be blue, then I put all these skunk stripes in it. I just thought I looked too normal so I just sort of did something to it. But now I am so sick of seeing myself in this way that I think I'm just going to chop all the crazy stuff off and get like a normal Supercuts cut. I think that would be more rebellious, that would be more punk rock than having dyed hair.
Do you mean a business cut?
Just like a regular guy haircut. Whatever that is. Which is something normal. I'm sick of looking unnormal.
What about the nickname "Asian Cat"?
I have never heard that. It must be on the internet.
I found it on the Internet, but I had no way of confirming it.
(Laughs) I guess I look like one. It's probably because of the streaks. It's not a nickname I gave myself.
Have you seen the web-sites?
I have heard about the web-sites, but I have never been on the web-site. I can only imagine.
I hear you are a big fan of Popeye's Fried Chicken.
It's so weird the information that people get about me. It's just so weird to me. I kind of like Popeye's but I don't go there every day. People will come up to me and say something like that, and I don't even know what to say to them. I'm like "Yeah." It just sounds like stalker information.
I guess there is a lot of "stalker" information about you.
I'm really normal and boring. There's not that much celebrity gum to write about in my opinion. But then I'm really weird, so maybe my ear is really off.
Some fans describe you as an enigma.
I don't know what people expect out of celebrities and out of rock stars these days. I am who I am. I dress the way I want to dress. I say things that I want to say. I'm not really trying to be this enigma for people to put on TV or in a magazine. It's funny what people's perceptions of celebrities are. I guess a lot of celebrities turn it on for the media and stuff. It's such a strange thing. People see me in the context of the band so they ask Billy all these questions. They've already asked all the serious artistic questions to Billy so when they get around to me I make these off-the-wall comments. So people think of me of being mysterious or something. I'm not being mysterious. I'm just making jokes. I'm doing this interview for this magazine. I'm not really a big believer in certain groups. I think people should do what they want to do . I've never really been held back being Asian. I've always done what I want to do. I'm surprised that there aren't more Asian kids in music.
Do you think that is because of lack of visible presence with the Asian Americans in rock music?
It used to be weird for people to see women in rock bands. And now it's like not a big deal at all. There used to be one or two female bass players or something like that and that was kind of odd. But now people really don't write articles about that anymore. It's like, who cares? When people think of Asian American musicians, classical musicians quickly come to mind...
What has been the music industry's reaction to you?
This is the first time I have really sort of stepped out and done something that is just me without hiding in a band or in the guise of a bigger unit. I don't know. It'll be interesting to see. What happens when you meet with record executives? I think that it is a bigger issue that I am in this big alternative rock band. I have never had people comment, "Oh, you're Asian," or "you're Japanese." I have never really sought that out. I always wanted to be treated as an equal either as a musician or a songwriter and not based on my race or gender. You know, there are a few Asian musicians I've seen, like that guy in that ska band Save Ferris. I hope that one day when people write about it they don't say "these Asian American" people or "these Asian" musicians. I mean, it shouldn't really make a difference. Either the music sucks or it's great.