James Iha finds a sunnier side of the pumpkin patch Friday, February 6, 1998
The Daily Herald
By Mark Guarino, Daily Herald Music Critic

The world is a vampire to Billy Corgan, but to James Iha itís an angel. The Smashing Pumpkins guitarist has stepped away from the bombastic rock drama that the band made famous to record an album of, well, silly love songs.

ďLet It Come DownĒ (Virgin) is a simple strummed affair in league more with George Harrison and Freedy Johnston than Corganís full-blown rock throttle. The sunny and optimistic album celebrates love rather than snarls at it, something that will undoubtedly befuddle hard-core Pumpkin fans.

When Iha, 29, joined the Pumpkins 10 years ago, he joined a band that turned out to be a basically Corganís musical palace. Although the band had previously recorded some of Ihaís songs for B-sides, his place as as a songwriter never been nurtured. To do so, Iha spent the last few years discovering songwriters who, for once, donít cite Sonic Youth as an influence Jackson Browne, Gram Parson, and James Taylor. Iha, who sounds almost identical to Harrison on record, talked from L.A. where he and the band are recording their fifth album, which he simply calls ďfunkyĒ. Itís a long way from Elk Grove Village High School where a once-freshman Iha traded his saxophone for a guitar. ďItís been downhill since,Ē he said.

Q: Why did you feel the need to cut your own album?
A: Well Iíve had some of the songs for awhile now, and Iíve just been building up a catalog and I knew theyíre not going to go on the next Smashing Pumpkins record. One, itís just not going to happen because Billy writes most of the songs and two, I donít think people would expect to hear a whole albumís worth of my songs. And three, I just didnít really hear (the album) in a band context. I thought most of the songs would benefit from my production and my singing.

Q: Was it sort of your own personal testimony that, yes, youíre a songwriter too?
A: Yeah, definitely. I want people to hear the way I sing them and produce them and play them. I knew for people to take me seriously it would have to be good, so I spent a lot of time making sure it wasnít a derivative Pumpkins record I didnít consciously go against musical things just because they were Pumpkins things, but I made sure it wasnít a Pumpkins record.

Q: Youíve never been a lead singer before. Weíre you surprised by your voice?
A: Iíve basically been learning to sing for the last couple of years. I took some voice lessons that helped a lot. Iíve just been trying to sing more I guess I really thought the songs would live and die on the song writing and the voice because thereís not really that hard rock sound or guitar or heavy drums to really make the average alternative listener come along.

Q: Especially since more intimate songs require an honest delivery to ensure that youíre not lying.
A: Yeah, I totally believe in that. Thereís no point in giving a half-hearted vocal performance. Itís the one thing people listen to.

Q: When did you start writing the songs that became this album?
A: I wrote some of the songs, I say about half of the songs, anywhere from a year to two years ago. Iíd say about the other half maybe a couple months prior to recording the record, which was summer 1997.

Q: The songs are so different from the Smashing Pumpkins. Was it a surprise for you to discover that ďhey, I like acoustic music too.Ē
A: Yeah, Iíve always sort of liked the singer-songwriter style that this record is made in. Itís always been something Iíve listened to, but maybe in the last three or four years, Iíve started to pay more attention to other singer-songwriters and drawn more to this style of music more so than hardrock stuff.

Q: Is it because youíve become a big lyric fan?
A: Yeah, I like all the greats like Dylan, the Beatles and Neil Young and stuff like that. I think ultimately when most people listen to a song they hear the sound of the music but they generally remember the vocal. I think the key to a lot of my songs, beside the overall sound and tone, is the conversational quality and sort of intimacy Iím trying to get.

Q: Whatís been the reaction from the Pumpkinsí camp?
A: (laughs) Theyíve been hearing all this junk for years. Itís the best Iíve ever sounded and probably the best of my songs Iíve had for awhile. I think theyíre generally supportive and dig it.

Q: Whiskytownís ďStrangers AlmanacĒ (Outpost) was my favorite record of 1997,and I noticed in a recent Billboard that it was one of yours. Is it a coincidence both of you share the same producer (Jim Scott)?
A: (ďStrangers AlmanacĒ) is a good record. The person who introduced me to Jim Scott was Mark Williams, who actually signed the Pumpkins 10 years ago, and he signed Whiskeytown, too. (Scott) was really enthusiastic about the songs, and he likes things to be pretty honest and cut to the chase. He makes things sound important.

Q: As a songwriter, did you learn anything from Whiskeytownís Ryan Adams?
A: I didnít really know the album that well when I started recording. I like people that he likes, like Gram Parsons and Neil Young. (Adamís) a good singer, and heís a good writer.

Q: When did you get into more country roots music?
A: Itís something Iíve always heard but paid attention to in the last five or six years. The first person I really though of as a singer-songwriter was (Pink Floyd co-founder) Syd Barrett. My music sounds nothing like Syd Barrett. But he was just a great singer-songwriter who had a personal style that, outside of Pink Floyd, was amazing. Iíve gone through the list of your classic singer-songwriters.

Q: What about Jackson Browne?
A: Thatís another person people keep pointing at for me to listen to. I know the obvious songs. Neil Casal, who sings harmony on the record, sent me the first three Jackson Browne records and said ďListen to this.Ē The first one,ďSaturate Before UsingĒ (Elektra) was pretty good. He definitely was pretty cool back then.

Q: What do those songwriters have that those in the arena rock world donít?
A: Thereís a certain song power in the people weíre talking about. Generally, they donít use a heavy, hard rock band to carry it over the top. Itís a real pure song. I donít hear that too much. (laughs) Iím into song power.

Q: Your album is almost blissfully romantic. In other words, Itís not exactly what youíd find on alternative rock radio.
A: I didnít set out to make this big romantic record. I kind of wrote a lot of the songs when I was in this good relationship. That euphoric feeling came across in the lyrics and chord progressions. It just seemed to come to re really naturally. I guess thatís what love does (laughs).

Q: Do you expect all those alternative rock fans to be a little off-put?
A: I donít really know. Obviously, I hope that theyíre not. I know this record sounds different from most peoplesí expectations. Even people I know say ďOh, its so different.Ē Iím hoping its weakness, in that it doesnít have distorted guitars and heavy drums and crazy hip-hop beats, is its strength, too. Itís not like anything else.

Q: I wonder what it says about modern-rock radio when personal song writing is in the minority.
A: I keep thinking as Iím strumming my acoustic guitar at home that Iím hanging onto a dying art.

Q: Yeah, but the radio wasnít always like that.
A: It had it in the í70s with Carole King and Fleetwood Mac. The closest thing we get now is Jewel or the Wallflowers.

Q: After making such a different album, is being in a big rock band still inspiring?
A: I donít know. Itís like a weird thing. Iíve been in the band for 10 years. Itís obviously a huge part of my life. Itís what I do. Surprisingly, Iím still a big fan of music. I still go to record stores and buy CDís. I still think Iím still as enthusiastic about music as I used to be. Itís just kind of different when the band plays (now) because itís such a huge machine We canít just set up and play normally now. Itís always like schedules and managers and getting the crew together. Itís just a whole different thing. I still like playing music. I guess now Iím an adult (laughs). It had to change I canít imagine riding the CTA bus with my guitar in a Hefty bag (anymore). Iím over that. It is different. I still really like it or I would leave.

Q: The tone of this album would require you playing smaller venues like Schubas. Is that even a possibility?
A: The music does require a more intimate setting than the Rosemont Horizon. But without people hearing the record, I donít think I would go into a club because people would just be like ďwhat?Ē Theyíd want to be moshing and all that kind of stuff. I canít imagine anything worse (than) people calling out Pumpkins songs and wanting to throw themselves at other people. It would be whack, for lack of a better term.

Q: What can you tell me about the new Pumpkinsí record youíre recording? I hear itís more electronic.
A: Weíre kind of afraid to use the word ďelectronicĒ because people will be afraid weíre trying to be like the Prodigy. The biggest thing is that we donít have a drummer. (Longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlain was fired in 1996 for drug abuse.) Weíve been using drum machines and loops. Weíre going to get a drummer, but itís a hard road. Thereís been no one immediately yet that weíve seen.

Q: This fall, the Pumpkins opened two shows up for the Rolling Stones. Had you played football stadium shows before?
A: We played bigger shows. There were festivals in Europe with 50,000 people or something like that. (Opening for the Stones) was cool. Surprisingly, a lot of people were into it. I didnít think they would be into it. The first show sucked, but the second show was pretty good.

Q: Any chance to hang out with Mick and Keith?
A: No, not at all. At the level theyíre at, there is no camaraderie. Youíre not hanging out with Keith, throwing TV sets out the window. Theyíre off sheltered in their own little world. Itís like when weíre out touring, weíre in our own little bubble. They came out to do a photo opportunity. We shook hands with them, and that was it. Itís not like they were being jerks. Theyíre the Rolling Stones you know.