Thursday, April 22, 2004
Democrat and Chronicle

Smashing through rock's circle

By Jeff Spevak

It's not that James Iha is a tough guy to talk to. In fact, he seems friendly and relaxed. But Iha has this unnreving way of turning your questions upside-down, like a zoologist flipping over a really ugly-looking roach so that he can examine its reproductive organs. Not salaciously, but in a professional way.
The question is: What's more real, Iha's old band, the Smashing Pumpkins, or his new band, A Perfect Circle?
"The theory would be that if something's more organic, it would be more true," says the guitarist. The Pumpkins would be organic in this equation, since it grew out of the Chicago clubs into superstardom. A Perfect Circle is stitched together from pieces of other successful rock bands, principally the howling man of mystery on lead vocals, Tool's Maynard James Keenan.
"But both bands are valid. The art and passion are all the same. One has the moniker of a supergroup, but it's just as organic as the other one."
A Perfect Circle plays Monday at the Blue Cross Arena at the Community War Memorial. The band has enjoyed much commercial and critical success, principally because of the reportedly eccentric Keenan.
With the artfully manic metal band Tool, Keenan made a name for himself by wearing bustiers, long blond wigs, blue and white body paint, prosthetic breasts or a Speedo. Or wearing the wide-lapelled suit of a televangelist to open a concert as he waved a gold-plated Bible, which he threw into the audience.
"I am told he is a mysterious man," Iha says. "I don't know. I see him every day, so maybe he seems less mysterious to me. He's a nice guy, talented, tells bad jokes."
A few good jokes were evidently enough to get Iha back on teh road after the 2000 breakup of Smashing Pumpkins.
"The Pumpkins were a band for 12 years; we toured and recorded for 10 of those 12," he says, confessing he has enjoyed being a little bit of a homebody since then. "It's nice being in one place and seeing your friends on a day-to-day basis, and not always leaving for two months.
"I'm not trying to romanticize it or be rebellious. It is what it is. I'm just trying to be me."
Just trying to be me? Iha, who seems to be listening to his words as much as he is speaking them, immediately realizes how cliched that sounds. "You can quote me on that," he jokes.
But he concedes that romance of a touring rock band is indeed a reality. "The cumulative effect of being able to travel everywhere," he says. "Meeting so many different kinds of people, going through what a big rock band does, surviving it. Not being in a Midwestern town in America your whole life. People who don't leave their home towns or their own country, they become isolated and very jingoistic. How could you know it's better here if you've never been anywhere else?"
The Smashing Pumpkins had a pretty good ride at the top of the rock world. The cover of Rolling Stone magazine, internal feuds, depression-prone bald lead singer who favors black leather pants, drummer kicked out of the band for drug problems, death of a band member, the whole works.
"We had our moments," Iha says. "Looking back at it, some of it was pretty strange. Kind of like anything that happened a long time ago in your past. I don't know, like you look back at something in high school that was crazy, but doesn't relate to what I do now."
How do you get over it?
"Shock therapy."
That's a joke. As we said, Iha comes at you from many angles. "You mean, like a rhomboid?" he asks.
"I did what every rocker does. Photography, hang out in cafes, play laser tag. Karoake in New York."
Karoake? There goes another cherished rock-star image.
I try to not be jaded about music," Iha says. "I like a lot of different kinds of music. I try not to take it too seriously. It just seems kind of gross to be, like, a lame rock star."
You have to find a way to hang onto that initial joke that led you down the rock-star runway. Or else, it's the real world.
"Maybe a graphic artist." Iha muses of what his alternative fate might have been. "Maybe I'd have a ponytail and I'd have an office in Chicago, sitting behind a computer.
"Working for The Man."