I Am What I Am October 10 2003
Asia Pacific Arts Online Magazine

Interview by Nayla Huq

The latest addition to art-metal band, A Perfect Circle, is none other than the Smashing Pumpkins' somber-faced guitarist, James Iha, who embraces only the positive energy of his ethinc status

"Look at that fashion sense. Is it a wonder that he was fashion model for a little while?" Image Courtesy of jamesiha.org

James Iha, the most famous Asian-American alternative-rock musician, hands down, has put his best foot forward as the co-founder of the Smashing Pumpkins with Billy Corgan, a band that helped define our generation. As the Pumpkins' guitarist, Iha put the "smashing" in the Pumpkins. During the 90s we rocked out to "Cherub Rock" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", though many of us don't know the correct title of the song.

Iha's critically acclaimed solo album, "Let it Come Down" turned out to be the diametric opposite of the Pumpkins' tumultuous tirades. Barren of the Pumpkins' angst-ridden wall of sound, Iha's sunshiney singer/songwriter work pays homage to 70s California soft-rock with acoustic, lovey-dovey melodies that makes girls swoon. As one of the partners of Scratchie Records, he has helped produce The Sounds, whose electromagnetic attraction factor is drawing in the critical acclaim and the financial gain. Now that the former Pumpkins' guitarist has joined, and thereby completes A Perfect Circle as their new guitarist, APA has taken the opportunity to get to know the "shy" guitarist-in-the- background as the most famous Asian-American rock musician in the West. He's so modest that he understates his far-reaching influence.

Nayla: I know a lot of Asian-American magazines have interviewed you. Do you feel awkward about people focusing on your ethnicity as a Japanese-American instead of just focusing on you as a musician?

James Iha: Well, I guess it's by an Asian magazine I expect them to ask me about that. I mean, it's part of me. It's not like my dominant part. I guess I see myself probably in a lot of different ways, musician, New Yorker, I don't know, as a Japanese-American . . . I don't know . . . it's just . . .a dog-owner . . .I don't know. It's just part of it I suppose, but that's fine.

Nayla: I've heard that you've been to Japan. What was that like?

James Iha: I've been there many a-times. It's great. It's great. I had a roommate from . . . a while back, who was a friend of mine from Tokyo, and I go over there every once in a while. Actually we [A Perfect Circle] are going there pretty soon. I think we have a show in mid-October in Tokyo, and then Osaka.

Nayla: Do people ever approach you, I mean I'm sure people approach you in Japan. How do they react to you? Is there a reaction?

James Iha: I guess in Japan I blend in more. But uh, I mean, but if I'm in a band and we're playing shows, then yeah I get recognized. And, you know. . . I guess they treat me like I am . . . like a rock star.

Nayla: So, I read this interview that you did for an Asian publication, and you said something about not really being approached much by Asian kids after doing shows. Do you have any ideas about why that might be?

James Iha: Well, I mean . . . I don't know why I said that. I mean I do, every once in a while. It's not like that often, I mean, I suppose out of a ratio of 10 fans maybe like 1 or 2 of 'em might be Asian, and maybe every second or third time they might bring up something that they're Asian and I'm Asian. No, I've heard over the years that it's nice for them to see somebody who's like, you know, a well-known successful musician who's Asian. I've heard it from a few musicians, too. So, yeah, it's great. It's cool. I don't like hear it everyday…

Nayla: What did you do between breaking up with the Pumpkins and joining APC?

James Iha: Um, I went hiking.

Nayla: Oh!? (Thinking: Hmmm . . . that sounds so unlike you.)

James Iha: No! Hahaha. I live most of the time in New York now. I have an apartment there. I have a recording studio with a couple of friends called Stratosphere Sound and I have a record label I do with a friend called Scratchie records. We have a partnership deal with New Line Records, which is part of New Line Cinema, and . . . I worked on that. I was starting to produce a little bit, and write for other people before I got the call to play for A Perfect Circle.

Nayla: I read that you felt, I guess, artistically constrained in the Pumpkins, like not being able to contribute your own ideas much, and that you were sort of recruited by APC once the album was made. How do you feel about not having been part of A Perfect Circle's album making process?

James Iha: Well, it's kind of a different thing. I was with the Pumpkins for 12 years and it was kinda hard to get my material in for, you know, for whatever reasons. Sometimes it didn't really fit the Pumpkins format, or . . . or you know Billy just had too many songs, or you know … whatever. So playing with A Perfect Circle is kind of a different thing. They've started as their own. It's their own band. I don't look at it like as "boy I wish I could have . . . ", I mean, it would have been nice to play on the album, but it's nice that they even asked me to play with them. And they kind of left to find a guitar player at the very end, so you know, I don't really take it as any slight that I wasn't able to play on the record. It's flattering just to play with them period.

Nayla: So you had to learn a lot of material in a short time. How did you deal with that? Or is it that you're so experienced that it's easy for you to adjust?

James Iha: I took a lot of megavitamins. Haha. I don't know. I just practiced a lot in the short amount of time.

Nayla: How long was the time span?

James Iha: 2 Weeks.

Nayla: So you had to learn their old material too, right?

James Iha: Yeah, yeah

Nayla: What's it like working with Maynard and the other APC members?

James Iha: They're fun guys. Haha. You know they're all really good musicians, so . . . they definitely have, you know the vision of their band figured out and they've all played in other bands. It's fun. It's fun.

Nayla: Is it easier working with them or with, uh, Billy?

James Iha: I don't know. You can't really compare because I played with these guys for 2 months and the Pumpkins I've played with for 12 years, so I can't really compare it.

Nayla: How did you become part of APC? I know they called you, but . . . I don't know, did they just think, "hey whose a good guitarist?" and pick you? And that was it?

James Iha: Well, they had been working with you know a couple of people while they were doing their record, and it's just . . .for whatever reason some of 'em didn't work out, and Troy, who was the original second guitar player in A Perfect Circle, ended up becoming a member of Queens of the Stone Age. So they just started rehearsing, and I think I was just on a short list of people. My name came up, they got my e-mail address and e-mailed me.

Nayla: Now I'm quoting this from an interview you did in the past: "I didn't want to make a water-down Pumpkins record." That's what you said to Kenosha News. I didn't get the date for that, so . . . . Is this why "Let it Come Down" is so diametrically opposite of Smashing Pumpkins' music?

James Iha: Yeah, I mean, at the time I was just writing on acoustic. I didn't really want to make a hard rock record, or something that. . . . I wasn't really writing stuff that was sort of like the Pumpkins, or songs that could be turned into that kind of music, so I guess I just sort of went the other direction. Um, yeah. That's basically it.

Nayla: So do you have like two sides to your music? Like you like the mellow, light-hearted stuff that you've done on your own, and then the two major bands that you've worked with, their music is very dark and hard.

James Iha: Yeah. Yeah. I guess it's kind of funny. I mean I like pop music, and I like heavy music and, stuff that I like . . . the band I've signed on to our label right now; they're called The Sounds. They're kind of like a new-wave pop band. They're totally like, you know, like… there's no like heaviness, like heavy metal in them at all. I don't know. Yeah I like different things and I like to do different kinds of music, I guess.

Nayla: Will you be making any solo albums in the future?

James Iha: Uh, yeah, yeah. I don't have any plans right now, 'cause this is kinda all I'm doing, but yeah, I think I'll eventually get to it.

Nayla: Do you think it might be another mellow or something, sort of like "Let it Come Down"?

James Iha: I think it'll be a little more . . . up. A little more . . . maybe a little more heavier, but it's kind of hard to say.

Nayla: Yeah. Are you political at all? Like the two major bands you've worked with, the lead singers have . . . have made some rather strong comments, so . . . how do you fit in all that?

James Iha: Political as in like politics?

Nayla: Well not as in like, you know running for California governor, but you know, having strong opinions about certain issues, etc.? (I was in a daze at this point. This question was more complex than "do you have opinions?")

James Iha: Yeah, I mean I have opinions about politics and social issues. I don't really think being a rock star is the best . . . the best person to like talk about those things, 'cause you kinda sound like a . . .I don't know. Musicians always come off sounding a little bit pretentious, and a little bit . . . I don't know, hypocritical, from what they do, talking about strong issues.

Nayla: So for Scratchie Records, have you gotten any new artists for that?

James Iha: Right now the band we're working on is The Sounds.They're from Sweden. And they're on tour with a band called Rooney, right now in America.

Nayla: How do you feel about where you've been, where you are now and where you think you're going?

James Iha: Well. . . you know. Ha. Gosh it's really hard to talk about . . . I don't know, my life. I'm happy with the Pumpkins, what I've done, what I was working on, and before I started playing with A Perfect Circle, A Perfect Circle was like a really good surprise for me. You know, it's going to be a really long tour, and well, I guess I'll see what happens with A Perfect Circle, 'cause they do other projects too, and I don't know. I hope I can always do a lot of different things, do 'em well.