Smashing Pumpkins co-founder James Iha released Look to the Sky — his second solo album and first in nearly 14 years — earlier this year exclusively in Japan. Last week, it finally hit U.S. shelves. Consequence of Sound recently spoke to Iha about the album, the staggered releases, plans for a fall tour, his contributions to The Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle, composing for films, and the possibility of a Tinted Windows return (hint: the odds are good).
When answering the seemingly ubiquitous question “Why so long between albums?”, you have said that the delay was because you “wanted this record to be more eclectic, and reflect all of [your] tastes,” and also that “it was important [for] the record to be multi-dimensional and complex.” From the number of guests on this album (more than 20), perhaps scheduling contributed to the delay as well?
[Laughs.] Oh, no. Not when you’ve had years to work on it. Those are all just friends who I had, at different points in the record, come in to contribute stuff I needed or stuff I thought they were uniquely qualified to do. The reason it took so long is I wanted it to be good, for one thing, and the other things that you repeated about it being a little more complex than my first record. I wanted it to be a little more wide-ranging in terms of the sound. I didn’t want it to be just acoustic, which was more or less what my first album was like. I wanted it to be more full overall in the sound palette.
Do you think that’s an extension of the diversity of projects you have been involved with over the last 14 years?
Yeah, definitely. One reason why it took me so long [was], after the Pumpkins broke up, I started getting into writing songs for this solo record. I was kind of just retreading what I did on the first record, and I think I just really needed to recharge my batteries and go off and do different things like producing, work in a studio, work with different people. I worked on a label for a while. It definitely opened my eyes to a lot of different kinds of sounds that were out there and on different levels. It was really good for me to hear dance music, kind of like that whole next wave of music that kind of came in the 2000′s, and what’s currently going on. Not that I think my record is a current-sounding record. I think that the album reflects a lot of my work history and listening history. It was a goal I wanted to achieve.
You’ve said, “Working with all of these talented people helped the record evolve in great and unexpected ways.” Can you give some examples of that happening?
Well, like, we had Tom Verlaine play on a couple tracks. He’s, of course, the iconic guitar player/singer from Television. The two tracks he played on, I knew I wanted guitar playing on there. I think his style of guitar playing… like on that song “Appetite”, it’s more of a jazz, blues, freak-out, punk rock breakdown kind of thing. It’s nothing I could have ever played, and it sort of shifted the song into even more of a demented cabaret feel that the song has. And the other song he played on, “Til Next Tuesday”, is more pop, more of a ’60s pop song. I think his solo on that kind of gives it, at least to me, a little bit of an edge. It’s an unusual solo. Those kinds of contributions really give you a different perspective on the record.
So, you’re pretty malleable, then, when it comes to the arrangements, accepting suggestions from other people?
For all these known guest people, and unknown guest people, I would just play them the track and generally say, “Do whatever you want to do on it,” and we would just pick the best bits. There was one song, the “Til Next Tuesday” song. It was a lot more keyboard, a lot more New Wave-y. My friend who helped co-write the song, his name is Nicholas Frisk; he’s from Sweden and plays with a lot of Swedish bands. He took the song out of this New Wave keyboard sound and made it more ’60s pop-sounding. He just started playing great guitar stuff, and I was like, “That’s a lot better than the crap I have on there right now.” And it sort of changed the vibe of the song.
With regards to the earlier release you did in Japan… Aren’t you afraid of pirating?
[Laughs.] Well, it just worked out that way, that they were ready to do it. I had a deal with them. Obviously, with the Internet, there’s nothing you can really do about it. [Laughs.] So, I thought it was alright to do it. It’s hard to get record deals and get everything all happening at the same time, unless you get one of the old-school major label deals.
After the Pumpkins broke up, you said that you wanted to do other things besides being in a band full-time, and that’s when you started your label, Scratchie, your recording studio, and producing for other artists. Are you still actively involved with Scratchie, and what about your clothing label, Vapor?
The label got shut down three or four years ago. We had a deal with New Line Cinema, and then Time-Warner just shut down New Line Cinema one day [laughs], so our record label sort of ended that day. The clothing line, which used to be called Vapor, now it’s Vaporized because of some copyright thing. Vaporized we’re still doing in Japan, yeah. It’s still fun and crazy.
A while ago, you collaborated with fashion designers United Bamboo, and you wrote a song with Britta Philips that was released as a single only in Japan. Was that song “Never Ever”?
Oh, I don’t remember what the song title was. [Laughs.] We did it as sort of a fun thing for some friends with the designers United Bamboo.
How come it was only released in Japan?
It was never meant to be released as, “Here’s our new side project, and we’re really going for it.” It was just sort of a one-off, fun, promo project. It’s sort of like Best Coast and Julian from The Strokes; they did a song for Converse, I remember, a while ago. It was just a fun, one-off promotion and wasn’t meant to be, “Here’s our new band.”
You’ve done three soundtracks between the breakup of the Pumpkins and now. Do you find it easier to score a film, where it’s music based on someone else’s work, rather than to write for yourself, where it is all from scratch?
They’re two totally different things. In one way, it’s a lot easier writing music for a picture, but in another way, it’s really hard, because you’re totally subservient to the director, or the producer, and what’s there on film. I really like it, but it’s kind of like music for hire, so it’s like a totally different mindset. I like both. I imagine if I did just one, I would probably yearn to do the other, but it’s good to do both sides.
Your first album was described as a solo album that “explores territory that could not be covered by the [Smashing Pumpkins].” Would you say your first solo disc was a reaction to what you were doing with the Pumpkins?
It was a long time ago [laughs], 1998, 1997. I guess that’s what I was thinking at that time. I think I just wanted to do my own record, and I just had a lot of acoustic songs. That was partly just being on the road and just wanting a different sound and not just to recreate what the Pumpkins do.
The song “Blew Away” was the first Smashing Pumpkins song that you completely wrote. Was it an effort to get that on the record? And after you did get that on a record, was it easier for other songs like “Take Me Down”?
I don’t really remember. [Laughs.] Again, that was a really long time ago. I don’t think I really wrote it for the record [Pisces Iscariot]. I think I wrote it, and I did it as a duet with Nina Gordon, of Veruca Salt at the time. It was this fun, cool, pretty track. That kind of song would have never been on a regular Smashing Pumpkins record. I don’t think [laughs] it would have been on Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie. It’s hard for me to say. I can’t remember; it was a while ago. I really like that song, though.
Regarding A Perfect Circle… Were you serious when you said the auditions came down to you and Yngwie Malmsteen?
I wasn’t serious.
[Laughs.] Okay. I cannot see Rising Force meets “Judith”.
Yngwie is way better than me, so it would have been no contest. He would have blown me out the door. [Laughs.] I’m serious.
But it’s a totally different style. I can’t see his kind of shredding…
No. I know. I don’t think it’d be Yngwie’s bag anyway. He is a “rising force.” He is a talented guitar player.
You are a member of the Perfect Circle touring band. Are you a member of the studio band as well? The reason I ask is, the only credits I have seen regarding you as a member, outside of touring, is playing on the Depeche Mode cover on eMotive and on a couple remixes.
Well, I’m listed as a band member on The Thirteenth Step.
But you didn’t play on the album, though, right?
No, but that is an astute point. The band has always been Billy Howerdel and Maynard [James Keenan]. That’s the heart and soul of that band.
So, when they’re getting ready to tour, they’ll call you up? Is that how it works?
Yeah. But you know, Maynard is a busy guy. He’s got a lot of awesome bands to play with. I’ve been lucky enough that they’ve given me the call a bunch of times. It’s hard for those guys to [have] time to make a record for themselves. It’s definitely on their timetable.
You almost formed a supergroup of sorts with The Virgins, featuring Evan Dando, Ryan Adams, and Melissa Auf Der Maur. That never actually came to fruition. But you did form another supergroup in Tinted Windows [Bun E. Carlos, Taylor Hanson, Adam Schleshinger]. Why did the Virgins never happen, and how did Tinted Windows come about?
Well, that first thing, again, it was a long time ago. [Laughs.] I don’t really remember. It just never happened. We talked about it. I think that was more of a late night talk about starting something awesome, and for whatever reason, it just never happened.
Tinted Windows happened because my friend Adam Schleshinger of Fountains of Wayne, and many other bands, was like, “Do you wanna make a band with Taylor Hanson singing?” And I said, “Yeah, that’d be awesome.” He started writing some songs. He’s been friendly with Taylor for a while, and he emailed him, and it just sort of happened.
Was it always power pop from the beginning, or was that Bun E. Carlos’s influence?
Yeah, we never had a prog rock phase or a neo soul phase or anything like that. It was always power pop, pop rock, whatever you want to call it.
Of all the projects that you have worked on producing-wise, I think the one that’s been jumping out at me the most was your effort on Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, the Serge Gainsbourg tribute album. Was that a fun project to work on?
I like those songs. They’re cool. I think I did two songs.
You produced two and appeared on one.
I produced a song for Michael Stipe to sing on… that’s right, I did three songs. I did the Cat Power song [“I Love You (Me Either)”] and the Michael Stipe song [“L’Hotel”]. I produced those two. And then I did the one [“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”] with Kazu [Makino of Blonde Redhead] as a duet. Serge Gainsbourg is awesome. In some circles, it’s sacrilege to even cover it, but the songs are so great, and they have such a great vibe, with the lyrics and the music, that it was a lot of fun to work on.
In August 2003, you were talking about similarities between A Perfect Circle and the Pumpkins. With regards to the Pumpkins, you said, “We were a great band. I have no idea if we’ll ever get back together.” Then, five years later, Corgan revived the name, and he said that he opened the door for you but that you said you didn’t want to come back. I’m just asking what stopped you from returning…
The quote from five years ago… I was never approached by the band or Billy about returning to the band. That never happened. The Perfect Circle quote, I don’t know the context or what the question was. It’s hard to say without reading the interview. I imagine I was talking about how both of the bands have a heaviness, that big sound, and there’s a lot of drama in the music. I don’t know why I said I don’t know if it’ll ever happen.
Your tour… Considering the vast number of people on the album, do you have a touring band lined up for this new album?
I did some warm-up shows for Fountains of Wayne fairly recently, and I have a very cool, Brooklyn-based rock band together. Steve Schultz is the guitar player. He plays in Longwave and Hurricane Bells; you can Google that. Frank Lacrasta is the keyboard player. Brian Wolf, who plays with My Brightest Diamond and Sufjan Stevens, is the drummer, and Mike Jackson is the bassist.