A Smashing Success February 24, 2000 Thursday Volume 21 Number 26 Asian Week
Kimberly Chun

Guitarist of Smashing Pumpkins gears up for world tour, new album

Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha is the highest profile Asian American rock 'n' roller in the world. Providing the visual counterpoint to vocalist-guitarist-band leader Billy Corgan, Iha exudes stylish ennui either onstage, or on the runway when modeling for his designing friend Anna Sui.

As a model with his lanky frame decked out in mod suits, paisley or (in his latest press photo) leather and a hoopskirt, Iha's arty image gets a little intimidating.

But after spending a little time with the 31-year-old Chicago native, he seems more like the Japanese American boy next door -- a little self-conscious, tongue-tied and unwilling to be perceived as pretentious.

Iha does perk up when he talks about his dog, Bugg Superstar (whom he calls “one of my favorite people”), the Scratchie record label he co-owns, and the commercial recording studio that he plans to open with friends in Manhattan. But otherwise, on the road during a promo tour, he kept it low-key for a recent phone interview.

Since he first started playing with Corgan as a duo at one of Chicago's many Polish nightclubs, he has gone on to weather the intensity of pop music success, and all the attendant, tabloid-worthy stress.

After Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) became one of the biggest-selling double CDs of all time and Adore (1998), which sold more than 3 million copies, was nominated for a Grammy, the Pumpkins had to endure the heroin-overdose death of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, the subsequent firing of original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for a similar addiction, the mosh pit death of a fan in Ireland, and the recent departure of bassist D&'Arcy Wretzky.

But the band is still together and perhaps more powerful than ever. The cleaned-up Chamberlin has rejoined, former Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur has replaced Wretzky, the band is preparing for a world tour, and the new album, MACHINA/the machines of God (recorded under the guidance of Mellon Collie co-producer Flood and scheduled to be released Feb. 29), boasts a set of metallic, crunchy and groove-oriented pop songs that tap into the Pumpkins' strengths: muscular rock ‘n' roll fused with airy psychedelia.

Q: You&'ve been in Smashing Pumpkins, working with Billy Corgan for more than a decade. Why do you think you have been able to work so well with him over the years?

A: Well. [Laughs softly] It's been a rocky road, to use a cliché. But I don't know. I guess it's a certain amount of understanding musically about what we want to do and just that interplay of playing over these last 10 years -- and, uh, creative tension, and, I don't know, rock ‘n' roll. [Laughs]

Q: How would you describe the new record?

A: It's all the original members playing together and I think we took a break from being a band on the last record, Adore, so it has a more rejuvenated, energized rock sound. But it borrows some atmospheric stuff from Adore and then some of the same hard rock sound as our earlier albums. So it's an amalgamation of all of our past work -- and future work.

Q: When you say you took a break from being in a band on Adore, what do you mean?

A: Well, we didn't have our original drummer on our last record. And most of that album was not played as a band in the studio. It was mostly the world of computers and overdubs. There was very few things played live or worked out as a band.

Q: How did this record evolve?

A: The band set up in January and just started rehearsing. If there was a song, we'd just rehearse it as a band, and it would get arranged as a band, and it got changed around a lot. We recorded demos of the songs, and Flood, our producer, gave us advice: “good,” “bad,” “change,” “keep.” And you just do that for months and months and [laughs] somehow you get a record out of that.

Q: Is there a reason why the new record is so rockin'?

A: It's probably getting our old drummer back and actually playing as a band. And, I don't know, it sounds like what we do best right now. For me, it was more about making a good record. It was just about sounding cohesive and the songs being good and, generally from the sonic end of it, just to be interesting-sounding and not typical standard rock-cliché guitar playing and arrangements.

Q: Is there anything about the pop or rock music environment right now that's bringing out this kind of record?

A: No, I don't think so. There's always rock bands. We kind of live in a bubble. It's not like we see a Korn video and think, “Oh, we really got to rock now” [in a deader than deadpan voice]. We&'ve been doing it for 10 years, so we're not about to pay attention to what's popular now to change our sound. It's hard enough to make a good song and a good recording of that song. But to try to tailor it to some outside force is just like -- it's never been a factor in what I&'ve done or what the band's done.

Q: I was listening to your solo record [Let It Come Down (1998)] the other day and thought it was full of well-crafted pop songs. Is that what you like to listen to, play or bring to the band?

A: What I do in the band and what I do songwriting-wise are probably different. If you put all the songs together that I&'ve written on band records, and put it up next to my solo record, there's definitely a different kind of feel than Billy's songs. I think my record was probably more pop and singer-songwriter-oriented, and I kind of wanted to strip away all of the band sound I'd been doing for a while. I don't think it's in me to make another rock band record. It would probably be more singer-songwriter-oriented. But I don't want to make necessarily three-minute pop songs…all my life.

Q: Did Let It Come Down get much radio airplay?

A: [Laughs] It did well for the kind of record it was. Compared to the band's records, it didn't do well. It didn't sell millions -- I haven't actually checked on what it sold -- but it did okay. I knew it would be kind of weird to make a record out of this band, for anybody to make a solo record out of this band. So there was something of a learning curve with doing your own thing and people seeing you outside of the band. I mean, people have never really heard my voice before -- or heard a whole record of mine before. So it was a completely new experience.

?Q: What's your experience been as an Asian American rock musician?

A: Well, I always hope that I'm a role model. But, yeah, as far as Asian Americans go, I hope they know they can look at me and see that they can do music on their own, within a band or just on their own, and not feel like there's any barriers. I&'ve never felt any particular barriers myself, being who I am.

Q: Did you ever feel like you were saddled with the typical stereotypes, as being quiet or geeky?

A: Yeah, I'm sure there are stereotypes of Asian people. I&'ve just never even thought of it that way, like I&'ve never even thought, “I'm quiet. I'm geeky.” I&'ve just played my guitar and said, “Hey, do you like this song?” I never thought, “Oh, God, I hope they're going to like it. I'm Asian.” 

Q: Did you ever have to deal with racism?

A: Yeah, you know, growing up, I&'ve been made fun of for being Asian. But I always remember there were African Americans at my school and they got it a lot worse, for where I grew up. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Other kids were made fun of for being wimpy or being gay or whatever. Kids do awful things, and I always just try to put it behind me. I feel like I don't have to say how horrible racism is. But there are so many horrible things out there; it just blows my mind.

Q: What do you do when you're not recording or touring with the Smashing Pumpkins?

A: Well, I'm pretty domestic actually. I walk my dog. I go grocery shopping. I hang out with friends. I'm pretty normal, whatever normal is, on my off time.

Q: How would you say your experience in the band has changed over the years? Did it start out fun and become like work?

A: Well, I think if you do anything this long, it changes from being this hobby you do [laughs], but I don't think music has ever been a hobby for me. I&'ve always been totally immersed in it. Even from a listening end now, I'm still completely a fan of music. But it's a business like any other now, too. There is a lot of work just in terms of traveling and logistics and people and gear and all that kind of stuff. But I never really have problems playing music. That never seems like work.