A soft smile plays on his lips as he answers. "Me and my friends used to sit around and make fun of Prince [music] videos." This man whose beginnings took place in the monotony of a 1970's Chicago suburb has risen to heights of fame, fortune, and worldwide adoration. What does James Iha have to say to this? "It's pretty cool..."
Shy, quiet, and deep-voiced, Iha gives off engimatic security. He doesn't have any more glitz on him than a black-banded watch, but he radiates style. His features are soft, feminine. He is not intimidating, but he seems slightly unreachable. James never gives too much of himself - this is why some of his fans are left wanting more. He does this somewhat unintentionally; James is not one to play petty superstar games.
"I don't know what people expect out of celebrities...and rockstars these days," he remarks. "I am who I am. I dress the way I want to dress. I say what I want to say. I'm not really trying to be this enigma for people to put on TV or in a magazine....People think of me as being mysterious. I'm not being mysterious, I'm making jokes."
James was born on March 26, 1968. He was the middle child of Japanese-American parents. James describes his suburb Elk Grove as "very white bread, homogeneous" and "safe, but devoid of culture."
James's musical experiences began at a very early age. James's mother used to play him lullabies on her guitar, and his parents weren't the kind of people who didn't give a crap about music. The listened to such bands as the Who. When James was six years old, he asked for an Elvis Presley album for Christmas, and his parents bought him a Byrds release instead. James was confused, his big brother very happy. The older boy was a classic rock fan, who influenced James during his earlier years music-wise. However, James was destined to go more punk and new wave in his later years than he was Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. "My first concert was Iron Maiden, and my second was Billy Idol, so I guess I've always been a bit mixed up."
Young James was "pretty good" in his early school years. He recalls some unkind instances about those days, the usual doddering insults delivered to minorities. "Sure, I got called 'Yeeha Iha'." James also remembers schoolmates taunting the kids on the handicapped bus; James's younger brother rode that bus. "It still instantly puts a knot in my throat 'cause it's just so mean," he told Spin magazine.
In high school, James describes his academic performance as "mediocre." James was considered a bit odd by his peers. "I remember after I joined my first band some guys at school started hanging out with me and their popular friends said 'Why are you hanging 'round him? He's weird....I don't think I had a girlfriend the whole time I was there. I had my own style - I was wearing tie-dye shirts in 1983 when no one else wore them. I was always a walk silently and carry a big stick kind of guy. I still am."
James says he "gatecrashed" his school reunion in 1996 at the height of the Smashing Pumpkins' fame. "...I was the king. But it was weird because these people affected the way I am today and yet I have nothing in common with them. I guess they expected me to be Mr. Rock Star. I hate to dissapoint everyone..."
James joined his first band when he was fourteen. The Feds/Snaketrain are described by him as "punky, midwestern garage rock." After one of his first gigs, James found himself stranded with no ride home. "Luckily, I ran into my neighbor." James was the guitarist for the Feds. He had gotten his first guitar a year or so before he joined the band (saved up money from his grocery-store bagger-boy job and bought it off a guy in school) but "it just kind of sat in my closet for a while until one of my friends got it out and forced me to play it." James says he thinks he took some guitar lessons at some point, but most of his ability was gained through playing in the Feds and the Pumpkins.
James's musical tastes at the time were things like The Clash, The Pretenders, The Smiths, The Cure, and R.E.M. James says his guitar playing and his taste in music were "the only thing I did that had any individuality."
After high school, James enrolled in Loyola University in Chicago. Graphic Arts was to be his major. He decided he was going to get good grades; conversely, in lessons he admits that he used to draw pictures more than take notes. Unfortunately (or fortunately) James never got his degree. "I was one year from graduating...with a fine arts degree." Blame it on Billy.
Eighteen-year-old Iha met up with Billy Corgan through a mutual friend. The two of them didn't exactly hit it off as people, but they were both heavily involved with music. The two young men played together for awhile, and then James dissapeared. Who knows. Anyway, he called up Billy later and asked if he still wanted to play together. Billy obliged, and the two started writing and playing together once more. James says that after the Pumpkins actually began going places, school just became too stressful. "It was hard, you know, doing homework on the bus between gigs."
James's parents were skeptical ("My Dad was definitely skeptical....") about his decision to go into music. "From their viewpoint, it was 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...it's not like I could go to college and finish my degree and then just go back into music. It just wouldn't happen." James stuck with the Pumpkins.
In the earlier days of the Pumpkins, it was just Billy on bass, James on guitar, and a drum machine. They used to serenade people in Polish bars. Corgan reflects on those embryonic shows as "unbelievably bad." As the size of the Pumpkins increased the music grew as well. James was involved with (ex) bassist D'arcy Wretzky-Brown for a few years, before their relationship ended during the harrowing Gish tour. "It was really shitty," James recalls. "It was like we went through the same things everyone else does when they break up, but we were stuck together."
Throughout the rough times, James has remained an outwardly cheerful and (let's face it) the most "normal" member of the band. In his 1994 article in Sassy magazine he writes about racing go-carts with the Beastie Boys and joining George Clinton on stage at Lollapalooza. James's dog Bugg has gotten an incredible amount of attention as well. Fans are always asking James about him; James describes him as "kind of a band mascot." Bugg is featured on the liners of both Gish and James's solo release.
James remained a funny, intelligent and invaluable part of the Smashing Pumpkins throughout their lifespan of thirteen years. He has been referred to as the Pumpkins' "secret weapon" musically. Another interesting thing is James is the only Pumpkin to remain in the band consistently throughout its turbulent history. (Besides Billy, of course.) He was also the first to join :) And after the Pumpkins, his fans expect James to get into some good stuff and produce some great music. Perserverance and determination, folks. James is a very grounded person, and is one of the few rockstars in the business today that can be labelled decent. He doesn't get off on the stupid shit and doesn't proclaim himself better than anyone - and this is what makes him just that. This little suburban boy has ridden an interesting roller coaster; no matter what, he always gets off with his head intact. Love you, James.
credits: Kerrang!, A. Magazine, RockLine Radio, AsianWeek. Written by