A Perfect Circle November 27, 2003
Register Music Critic

By Kyle Munson

"Do you want to join and go out on tour for a year?"

An e-mail with that blunt offer, sent in June, was all it took to get James Iha to lend his guitar to A Perfect Circle, the first major metal supergroup of the new millennium.

A Perfect Circle guitarist Billy Howerdel, who fired off the e-mail in question, was familiar with Iha from his work in the Smashing Pumpkins.

You remember the Pumpkins, right? The band from Chicago led by singer-guitarist Billy Corgan that blanketed MTV and radio with songs from its 1993 breakthrough, "Siamese Dream," and 1995's ambitious "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"?

The Pumpkins imploded in 2000 after incidents of drug abuse and infighting began to outnumber its hit songs.

Iha, speaking from a tour stop with A Perfect Circle in Tampa, Fla., said that his former band still casts a "long shadow" over his career - but in the next breath he claimed to never let it burden him.

"I'll never get away from that," Iha said in his trademark monotone. "I was in that band for 12 years. It's kind of difficult to separate it from anything else in my music."

Iha knew what he was getting into with his new, heavier band. The Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle joined up for half a dozen concerts in late 1999 across Canada.

A Perfect Circle first took the stage on Aug. 15, 1999, when Tool singer Maynard James Keenan and his guitar tech from that band, Howerdel, sprang their new side project at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Their debut album, "Mer de Noms," followed in May 2000.

If Tool is the musical equivalent of the Terminator - an unstoppable machine that churns and grinds and crunches anything in its path - then A Perfect Circle is more operatic and adds a touch of humanity, sort of like HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" just before he goes berserk.

Keenan's hypnotic voice is the anchor in either case. He's a master of intonation, sinister whispers and the sharp intake of breath for extra drama. A Perfect Circle's sophomore album released in September, "The Thirteenth Step," is the perfect showcase for Keenan's subtler talents and features another new, high-profile guitarist: ex-Marilyn Manson sidekick Jeordie White (formerly Twiggy Ramirez).

Iha said that he's no longer on speaking terms with his old boss, Corgan, but is enchanted with his new circle of friends.

"They're great," Iha said. "Super-nice guys, great musicians. I've got nothing to complain about."

Iha tends to sound like every word out of his mouth is a burden, so talking in specific terms is the last thing on his mind.

When asked to compare A Perfect Circle to the Pumpkins, he said:

"They both play a dynamic style of rock. The songs are good."

Wouldn't want to get too technical for the kids, now would we, James?

Even when Iha asserted himself in 1998 with his only solo album, the mellow and moody "Let It Come Down," he sounded casual and vague compared to the epic, sweeping rock of the Pumpkins.

"During the time I did it, I was just trying to get away from the Pumpkins sound, write different kinds of songs," he explained.

Between the Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle, Iha kept busy in New York City with Scratchie Records, the label he co-owns with Adam Schlesinger (a member of both Fountains of Wayne and Ivy). They became friends through their mutual connection to Iha's old Pumpkins bandmate, bassist D"Arcy.

As Iha's career is heating up after a lull, his former boss seems to be receding into the background.

Corgan announced in September that he was scrapping his latest band, Zwan, less than a year after it had released its debut album. He's now cultivating the persona of a reclusive poet who rattles on about leaving the music industry behind.

The way Iha talks, his current band is perfection compared to life under the old regime that delivered his fame. That right, James?

"No comment," he said.