Jim Carroll talks to Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, whose solo album is not quite what one would expect . . .
Solo albums by members of groups are a strange beast. In the pop world, they can be the first sign all is not well within the ranks, or that the lead singer's ego can no longer be kept in check by the other band members. And if the solo run is made by anyone but the lead singer, the finished product tends to be simply ignored. James Iha's solo album Let It Come Down may prove an exception.
Iha is the guitarist with the Smashing Pumpkins, one of the most successful alternative acts of the decade: therefore, one might expect Iha's album to feature their trademark distorted guitars, sulky angst and introverted pre-millennium moodswings. Think again. In fact, Let It Come Down is laidback and downbeat, a beautiful fusion of hazy, organic melodies with rootsy country vibes and subtle but mature atmospherics throughout.
Tracks such as Be Strong Now and Beauty are fragile and gentle, the very antithesis of the Pumpkins' Siamese Dream or Gish albums. You could play this alongside the best James Taylor, Nick Drake, Neil Young or Gram Parsons has to offer and it wouldn't be seem out of place. Indeed, Let It Come Down has all the attributes of a timeless classic. Meeting Iha in his London hotel suite, it's easy to reconcile the sound of the album with the quiet chap making a cup of herbal tea for himself at one end of the room. Slight, polite, and initially shy, Iha lights up at the observation that Let It Come Down sounds downright honest. "Yeah, you either like it or you don't," he says.
"With the band, it's a take-on-the-world feeling. This, though, is firmly rooted in the singer-songwriter style, the production is low-key, aimed at the singing and the songs. There are no hard guitars or loud drums or funky trip-hop to hide anything, it's just the songs and the singer. "I like a little bit of angst but I don't have any reasons to write angry songs, I don't have a bone to pick with the world or a person - it's not me." Instead of using fellow Pumpkins, Iha and producer Jim Scott gathered a collective of friends and acquaintances to work on the album, most of the which Iha had already written during time-off from the band.
"It was a very loose arrangement, just a bunch of people I knew, and Jim knew, who had played with everyone from Matthew Sweet and Jewel to k.d. lang and Whiskeytown." This may help to explain the retro 1970s tug to certain songs, which is also helped in no small way by Iha's vocal similarities to James Taylor. "I know someone like James Taylor is not exactly fashionable but his strength comes from his voice and his songs.
His writing is sincere and his songs will stand the test of time because of their quality. They inspire you." It's this timeless factor which Iha believes is most lacking from the genre in which he spends the other half of his life. "A lot of bands miss the boat on that. I don't expect every rock band to make music which is classic and timeless - it's hard to ask anybody to be right up there with all the greats on their first or second album, but a lot of bands just write alternative crap, fitting into a formula - that's what it sounds like to me."
It must be a very Jekyll and Hyde existence for Iha at present, promoting a quiet solo album one week and recording a loud Pumpkins affair the following one. "To me, of course, it's the same person," he says. "In the band, I write or co-write a couple of songs per record. With the band, it's more like being on a team and constructing a record. With a live show, it's the chemistry of the band which works, the arrangements, the way you interact with one another, the energy. With this record, it's very personal, it's from my point of view and it is very close to me.
"And yeah, I'm very protective of it so this is why I'm over, talking and explaining myself. It's worth the jet-lag or the rounds of questions like `why did you make this record instead of an angst record?'." Although the album's downbeat sound could howdy with ease with the new country-rock movement, Iha fights shy of such a tag. "The record has pop, country, folk and just that general singer-songwriter thing, I don't know what you call it - good music perhaps?
"I like that laid back Neil Young feel where it's not straight country but it has a little country mood," he goes on. "It fits a couple of tracks but I don't think I'm that deeply rooted in Hank Williams country. If you played it to Garth Brooks, he'd probably say 'that's not country, boy'.
"I like some of those new country bands like Whiskeytown or Son Volt but I don't think this record is a part of that and I'm certainly not looking to have that tag on me."
As a member of one of the biggest cult groups of our time, Iha realises that fans have certain expectations regarding what he and his fellow Pumpkins do. "I'm sure some will go 'this sucks' if they're expecting a hard record," he says. "I don't expect every Pumpkins fan to like it. It's not aimed at them and it wasn't made with that in mind."
The other Pumpkins, he says "have been hearing my junk for years so they're not surprised by how it sounds". "It's rewarding because I'm no longer just that guy in the Pumpkins who plays guitar and whatever," he adds.
Not that there is much time ahead for any more solo turns. With his Pumpkins hat on, as he pours some herbal medicine into his tea ("this stuff is gross and I don't think it works"), Iha confirms that the group's next album is almost ready. "Flood (producer of everyone from U2 to Depche Mode) is coming in to mix it and to kick it into shape. It is sounding good. It will be less rock, fairly downbeat - with the Pumpkins, you have to wait until it's fully finished before putting a label on it and even then, the label is never quite right. "Everything we have done as a band has always seen us go up another step or another notch. I am surprised in one way but when you look at this upwards curve, it makes sense. It's weird when 50-year-old women approach you and say they love the band, it's not just kids. You try not to think about it too much." Iha and the other band members are all too aware of the perils which come with success.
Alongside personal band tragedies, there was also the tragedy at their show in Dublin's Point Theatre in May, 1996, when a schoolgirl in the audience was killed in the front-stage crush. "I still find it hard to talk or think about that and the other tragedies which have befallen us," he says. "We try to basically make sure that everything which goes on around us is looked after or thought about - but then something happens and, despite all the control, you can do nothing about it. We think we know what we are doing but bad stuff still happens." For Iha, this solo turn has been a largely enjoyable experience and one to which he will return. There may be some solo gigs ("I'd like to do some acoustic shows or put the band together for a small tour") but for now, it's back to that studio in Chicago and the rest of the Pumpkins.
Let It Come Down by James Iha is on Virgin records, price ú14.99