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Addicted to Noise Interview
November 30, 1995, 11:00 pm

Source: Addicted to Noise

Smashing Pumpkin James Iha Speaks His Mind
Michael Goldberg. Addicted to Noise. December 1995. [No Day]


The "quiet one," guitarist James Iha, expounds on classic rock, Nirvana, Chicago rock and the problem with "lo-fi."

He's almost nodding off. James Iha has perfected the art of relaxation. He's lying on a couch at Pumpkinland, Smashing Pumpkins' Chicago studio. He's expending absolutely as little energy as humanly possible while still remaining awake. Yet despite the state of near sleep, his mind is sharp and focused. The rail-thin guitarist, like his former girlfriend, bassist D'Arcy, seemed pleased to be able to talk to the press. Following the release of Siamese Dream, Billy Corgan did most of the talking. This time out, making sure all the members' contributions to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness are acknowledged seems as important to Corgan as it is to the rest of the band. Although it took a little while to get Iha going, it turns out he had plenty to say.

Addicted to Noise: How do you feel about the other Chicago bands that have emerged?

James Iha: I like Urge Overkill. I think they rock. They're nice guys.

Addicted to Noise: Have you heard their new album yet?

James Iha: No, I haven't. I'm sure it's good. Yeah, they're nice guys. I like Veruca Salt. I'm kind of friends with those guys or those girls and those guys. They're real nice. I just have nice things to say about them, about both those bands.

Addicted to Noise: Yeah, the last time I was in Chicago I interviewed them. They seem like they're really cool.

James Iha: Nina and Louise [Veruca Salt] are energy fireballs. Nina has like 20 times more energy than I have. I think they're both really good rock bands. They can both sing, play, they do it all. And they look good. They're proper pop stars.

Addicted to Noise: What about Liz Phair?

James Iha: I like Liz Phair pretty well but it's hard for me to hear all the songs sometimes because her approach has been so lo-fi and it sounds all very much the same to me. It's hard for me to hear the songwriting and I don't know if it's her voice, but her voice kind of becomes monotone after a while to me, I can't really hear the melodies.

Addicted to Noise: There's this whole lo-fi movement.

James Iha: That's kind of come and gone already. Lo-fi is fine. I think the whole movement is based on why go through the hassle of recording in a big studio. I think a lot of the lo-fi movement is just a rebellion against having to go into a studio, making sure the sound is nice, making sure you have the right gear, your guitars are in tune. I think that's fine. For me, it's hard for me to hear the songs sometimes when they're recorded so lo-fi. It might fit certain bands or certain songs maybe. But I can't listen to a whole record of lo-fi bullshit. Because it becomes just that. It sounds like all the same thing. There's no dynamics in the songs. It's not like how I want to listen to a rock band. I like classic rock, so I like the Beatles and the Stones. And they both paid a good amount of attention to the recording. There's just a real fine line between where you want to be lo-fi and high-fi and I think you can do both.

If you're in a studio, you don't have to get the perfect guitar sound. You don't have to have everything just perfect. But at the same time, you don't want to sacrifice the song just for the sake of being cool. I like Lou Barlow's records but after awhile, they all sound the same to me, it's like I can't hear them. I wish he would just go 48-track digital. It would be really cool. Another clear example: I saw Guided By Voices playing Lollapalooza and they played this awesome song called "Gold Star for Robot Boy." Awesome jam. I thought, "this is a great song, I'm going to have to get the CD." But the CD doesn't sound as good as live because live you could hear the bass, you could hear the dynamic of the band and it wasn't this 8-track cassette version where you can't really hear the frequencies of the bass and you can't hear the band really rock. It's a garage tape and I wish they had recorded it high-fi so I could hear everything. Their album doesn't sound super lo-fi but I wish it had been better sounding.

Addicted to Noise: They did do some 24-track stuff for the next one.

James Iha: Right, that's what I heard.

Addicted to Noise: Steve Albini produced some tracks. They recorded with him using 24-track. Then they took some of those things, put them back onto their cassette recorders and re-did the vocals to make them sound more lo-fi.

James Iha: That surprises me.

Addicted to Noise: Pollard was also saying that they were going back into a real studio to record. They were going to try a thing where they would release the album just the way they wanted then they'd go back into a studio and re-cut some songs high-fi for release as singles so they could get on the radio but there would still be a version of it just the way he wanted it to sound like on the album. Did the 70's have an influence? You be the judge...

James Iha: Maybe they do want it sound like that but I can't listen to it. I'm used to listening to Beatles and Stones records. They sound good to me. I'm not going to pass a judgment if they want to record that way but to me, it's always with the song. It's always against the song if you want to do it that way sometimes. FINE LINE BETWEEN IMITATION & THE REAL THING

Addicted to Noise: People have talked about Smashing Pumpkins as being more rooted in '70s rock. You're wearing a KISS t-shirt. It may be what you guys grew up on or whatever and yet to me, when I listen to your stuff, I don't think of '70s bands at all. It doesn't strike me like that. There might be something that reminds me a little bit of Led Zeppelin. But it's become your own thing. It's your own sound. It's not a dated sound.

James Iha: I think the thing about a lot of '70s bands, mega bands like Led Zeppelin, all those bands, is they had a lot of power. The songs they wrote were pretty good. They weren't exactly PC. But they had a lot of power, they knew how to record them and they knew how to get it across. I'm sure we've taken elements of that and brought it to the music. Making sure that what we're playing comes across, that's it's not just a dump. If we have a riff, we make sure it's a good riff, not just some stupid rip -off riff like that Lenny Kravitz song, "Rock and Roll's Dead," which is the ultimate Zep rip or I don't know what it is. There's a fine line between borrowing the sentiment or borrowing some of the ideas. If you're gonna play a rock song, make sure it rocks. "Rock and Roll's Dead," that Lenny Kravitz song, it rocks but it's a rip-off. And who wants to rock to a rip-off? We have some songs on the record that rock but they're not rip-offs. The riffs are good and they have nothing to do with Led Zeppelin. It's not like that.

Addicted to Noise: Is that a real conscious thing? Do you say, "Hey, we don't want to sound like something that's come before?" Or is it more intuitive?

James Iha: Well, it's a combination of both. If you play a riff and at the end of it you go, you know what, it sounds just like this. That sounds just like a Red Hot Chili song, then you obviously go nah. It has nothing to do with the Red Hot Chili Peppers but if it sounds like something, you can't play it. You come up with a riff and then you realize, my God, this is just like this, then you have to make a judgment call whether it's you or whether it's the band. It's really hard to write a rock song with out using the clichés from the past. Because they've been done so well before, you know? Look at the Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones... Every one of those bands has an imitator band in the '90s. You've got the Stones, you've got Black Crowes.

Addicted to Noise: Do you see a specific Zep imitator out there?

James Iha: There are elements that bands take. Like the Stone Roses kind of took that groove on their new album. The blues hard rock kick-ass drum shaman thing. Like on "Love Spreads." To me, there's a fine line between something being a rip, and where it's good, it's using the elements. You can see the reference points but it's not like a steal. It's something the band has done. They're obviously a good enough band to be able to play, use the stylization and write a good song with that power. And that song "Love Spreads" is a really good song. By no means is it a Led Zeppelin song, but you could see Led Zeppelin as a reference. "It's hard to be Led Zeppelin."

Addicted to Noise: I've heard from people more in their late '30s or '40s, this thing of yeah, everything's been done before. It's like the rock that happens now is a variation on things done before. I don't personally buy into that. I wondered what you thought about it.

James Iha: No. I think writing a song, whatever style it's in, it can always be re-done. It can always be re-done, it can always be original because no two people are the same. There are always new bands that still amaze me once in a while. Like Shudder to Think, I think, is a wholly original, amazing rock band. They're a rock band but they're totally different than what you've heard before in the guitar playing, the drumming, the bass, singing, it's all amazing. If you listen to a Shudder to Think record, you might be able to point to a few references but there's no way you could tag that band. And they're good, they write good songs. They're totally original.

Addicted to Noise: So do you think that people who say that kind of thing, it's really that they're not paying attention?

James Iha: Yeah. Generally speaking, it's hard to write a new rock jam. It's hard to be Led Zeppelin. Yeah, in a very general way, it's true. But there are just a lot of specific small bands that are totally original. Nirvana had obvious reference points, power pop. They took so many different elements. They took elements from heavy metal, from the Melvins and the Melvins took from Black Sabbath. And they also took power pop things like the Beatles obviously and Cheap Trick. You get three different bands, the Beatles, Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick and you put that into a mix. I'm not saying that's all their influences and you get this amazing lyricist, amazing singer, front man, the right time and the right place and they're just the greatest rock and roll band ever. So it's like, fuck convention. Anybody who says that who didn't see Nirvana in '89 or '90 or whatever it was, they were the best rock band on earth. It's just a fine line between imitator and the real thing. DON'T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD

Addicted to Noise: Do you feel like Smashing Pumpkins has been misunderstood by the media?

James Iha: The main focus has been on Billy. Yeah, the music's been misunderstood and the band's been misunderstood but Billy caused a lot of those problems with those first slew of interviews he did. Basically the media just played to it and that was the angle on the whole last album. Yeah, I don't think people understand the band dynamic and I don't think people understand the music really well. You just get a dominant front person and you don't ever hear about the band or the records. It's like, what did people talk about Nirvana? They talked about Kurt, they talked about Courtney Love, heroin abuse and smashing guitars and punk rock. They never talked about how good the songs were, how good the lyrics were. Even on the second one. No one talked about how good the record was. So that's the same thing. They have the front person, they did their focus on the last album, that was it.

Addicted to Noise: Do you think, generally speaking, there's something that you guys really want to communicate, whether it's in terms of an emotional quality or...

James Iha: I don't know. Lyrics set the tone of most things for a rock band although it's a combination of music and the lyrics. I don't write the lyrics for most of the songs so I can't really say or expound on the tone of don't write the lyrics for most of the songs so I can't really say or expound on the tone of the band. "...the band's been misunderstood but Billy caused a lot of those problems with those first slew of interviews he did."

Addicted to Noise: But you play these songs and you record them.

James Iha: The music is a lot of things. It's powerful, it's kind of insane sounding, it's kind of poppy sometimes, it's power poppy. A lot of it's overtly dramatic, sad... I don't know. You don't really think about it. You just put it together and throw it out and see if anyone likes it.

Addicted to Noise: If someone said, what's Smashing Pumpkins about, what would you say? What would you tell them?

James Iha: An eclectic diverse rock band. I don't know. I really don't know. I suppose I would use a lot of aesthetic ideas. I don't know. I'm sorry. I really can't think of any adjectives that would do it.

Addicted to Noise: There's a feeling that Billy is a really ambitious force. Do you think overall, all of you...

James Iha: We're all totally different people. None of us are really alike at all. I think we're all ambitious but in different degrees and in different areas, we're ambitious.

Addicted to Noise: What holds you together?

James Iha: The fact that we're still together now and we made a record together and it's good and everyone felt good about it was a big pivotal step. Everyone still enjoys being in the rock band, I guess. There are a lot of things that go with it. Money, traveling, the fact that we can't really have a social life for most of the time. We spent six or seven months just doing this, six days a week. You give up to get something and at the end of it is basically, do you still enjoy playing in a rock band? I guess we've all agreed to it.

Credit: Michael Goldberg