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James Iha Talks The Aeroplane Flies High
December 14, 1996, 11:00 pm

Source: The Sacramento Bee

Roger Catlin Hartford Courant. The Sacramento Bee. Sacramento, Calif.: Dec 15, 1996. pg. EN.5

Let's say you released the best-selling double album of the decade last year. Then your album tour was interrupted this summer when your touring keyboardist died of a heroin overdose, and you kicked your drummer out of the band for drug abuse. How would you end the year?

How about with a new five-disc boxed set?

The Smashing Pumpkins have never been a conventional band. In addition to a big tour that reaches Arco Arena on Tuesday, they have just released "The Aeroplane Flies High," a monument to the band's prolific nature.

Packaged in a box made to look like a case for 45-rpm records, the set is made up of song-filled CD singles spawned by "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," the 1995 double album that sold 7 million copies; its videos won seven MTV Music Video Awards in September.

"It's a neat way to bookend everything," Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, 28, says over the phone before a gig in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"We did that with the B-sides album before," he says, referring to the 1994 "Pieces Iscariot" collection that followed the band's commercial breakthrough, 1993's "Siamese Dream" album, which sold 4 million copies.

"But we wanted to do it a different way," Iha says. "Not every person who bought (`Mellon Collie') will get into it. It's more fan-oriented. At the same time, the songs are good; we put a lot of work into the songs."

Still, he agrees that fans who bought the CD singles of "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Zero" and "Tonight, Tonight" would have a lot of the extra tracks already (the CD single for "Thirty-Three" is being released concurrently with the boxed set). The CD singles have been so loaded with material that some of them, such as "Zero," have appeared on the Billboard album charts because of their sheer length. Even so, "Most of the American singles didn't have all the B sides," Iha says. "Most of them had three as opposed to five."

For all its festive packaging, there is a fire-sale feeling to the set -- as if the Smashing Pumpkins felt they had to empty the vaults to break with the past. The longest cut, the 22-minute "Pastichio Medley," is a scrapbook of discarded guitar hooks from dozens of unfinished songs, clumped in an "all riffs must go" manner.

"We probably wouldn't go back to them," Iha says of the riffs, which not only are interesting but are individually named ("The Demon," "Thunderbolt," "Dearth" "Knuckles" "Star Song," "Firepower," "New Waver," "Space Jam," "Zoom," "Phang" and on and on).

Bandleader Billy Corgan "had this perverted idea of going back and recording all the riffs we had done," Iha says. "It wasn't pristinely recorded."

And the sheer number of riffs and songs (more titles: "Speed," "77," "Me Rock You Snow," "Feelium," "Weeping Willowly," "Rings") simply reminds Iha of how exhausting the "Mellon Collie" recording was.

"Aeroplane" also represents the greatest collection of songs written and sung by Iha -- in a band so thoroughly dominated by Corgan that he dubbed in the guitars and bass on the "Siamese Dream" over the work by Iha and D'Arcy Wretzky.

If any of this overly concerns Iha, he won't say. But there are five Iha songs on "Aeroplane"; only two made it onto the lengthy "Mellon Collie."

"Billy chose most of the songs" for "Mellon Collie," Iha says, conceding band leadership to Corgan. But, he adds, "we talked a lot about sequencing of the album and the balance of the album."

Iha's songs, as they emerge on "Aeroplane," are generally lighter in tone and outlook than Corgan's and make a good contrast to the gloom. "I write mostly from acoustic guitar," Iha says. "They're all recorded quickly, so I keep the songs close to their original form.

"They're a little more upbeat," he says of his own songs. "But they have their own sadness."

Among the box's newest songs, recorded just three months ago, are cover versions of the Cars' "You're All I Got Tonight," Missing People's "Destination Unknown," Blondie's "Dreaming," the Cure's "A Night Like This" and "Clone's (We're All)" from Alice Cooper's new-wave period.

There was no special point in recording the series of songs from a tight period of time -- late '70s and early '80s. "It was just more for fun," Iha says. "We all grew up in the '80s, so we liked those new-wave things." When the tour ends, Iha looks forward to expanding on his own work, but he's unsure what form it will take. None of his "Aeroplane" songs is likely to be performed in the tour concerts, which are still dominated by the "Mellon Collie" tracks.

By now, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin has been gone from the band for three months. Filling in on drums for the resumed Pumpkins tour is Matt Walker from Filter. (Dennis Flemion of the Frogs has taken over on keyboards.)

But none of the Pumpkins expects that Walker will be a permanent replacement.

"More than likely" the Pumpkins will continue as an official trio with hired hands coming in to drum in the studio and on tours, Iha says. It is all still yet to be decided.

"Matt is a great drummer," he says. "But we're a little gun-shy hiring anybody into the band full time now. After eight or nine years going through this, hiring doesn't make any sense right now."

When the Pumpkins formed in suburban Chicago in 1989, it didn't bother with a drummer. It had a drum machine. Mindful that machinery is unlikely to develop bad habits, Iha adds: "There's nothing wrong with a drum machine." Smashing Pumpkins 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Arco Arena; with Garbage opening. $25. 923-2277 (BASS).


The Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 double album sold 7 million copies, and their videos won seven MTV awards this year.
1 Photo

Credit: Roger Catlin