James Iha is best known for time with alt-rock behemoths The Smashing Pumpkins, but his story doesn’t end there.
But when speaking with him via phone, Iha did not seem particularly concerned with the past. “The Pumpkins is and was a huge part of my life for 12 years. It was my first band, and it was a great band with great records and huge, massive tours,” he explains. “I felt like I should move on, and I hate using the word “journey”, but I had to find out what things work or don’t work.”
Iha’s non-Pumpkins resume is a diverse one. Since the Pumpkins’ 2001 breakup, Iha has busied himself by playing with supergroups A Perfect Circle and Tinted Windows, producing for a variety of artists, and co-owning both a label (Scratchie Records) and a studio (Manhattan’s Stratosphere Sound). He also scored three indie films, which was a refreshing challenge. “It’s a totally different feeling, a different part of your music brain that you’re using,” he says. “I like that you’re not going in with a song, you’re going for a mood, an atmosphere, or a vinette inside of a picture.”
In 1998, while still in the Pumpkins, Iha released Let It Come Down, an album of jangly, country-tinged indie pop that was mostly written on tour in hotel rooms. But until this year’s Look To The Sky, Iha hadn’t returned to the world of solo artistry.
“You know, I haven’t listened to [Let It Come Down] in a really long time. I’m playing one or two songs from it, but I haven’t thought about it much,” he says. “It kinda feels like this record — it’s not my first record [laughs] — but the amount of time that has passed, I kinda feel like it’s my first record, or a more definitive record for me.”
Look To The Sky isn’t just more definitive, it’s also a more expansive, widescreen experience than Let It Come Down. While there is the “stripped down acoustic stuff” that dominated his first album, there is more of everything else: “more electric stuff, more layers, more keyboards, more atmosphere.” Iha explains that he “wanted it to be more representative of not just one tone… more energy, basically.”
The fifteen years between album releases is a musical lifetime, and Iha admits that this one took “way too fucking long” to assemble. For years, he had focused on the label and producer side of the music business, and only felt the motivation to make another record in the last few years. “The older you get, the more time you have for introspection and to perfect something. I wanted it to be right and feel right, so I took my time.”
The long gestation period allowed for a collaborative recording process for which Iha and co-producer Nathan Larson enlisted friends and family. Featured musicians include Television frontman Tom Verlaine, Cardigans’ singer (and Larson’s wife) Nina Persson, and Sara Quinn of sister-duo Tegan and Sara.
In addition, pianist Mike Garson, who has also worked with David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, was “an easy call” for the cabaret-indebted ‘Appetite’, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs members Karen O and Nick Zinner contributed to the bittersweet synthpop of ‘Waves’ and the orchestral folk of ‘Dream Tonight’, respectively. The result is an album of introspective alt-rock and indie-pop that couldn’t be further from the arena-sized riffs and compositions favored by the Pumpkins.
Look To The Sky was released in September, and Iha will soon embark on a “stripped-down, acoustic” tour of Europe. After that, he’ll be rehearsing with a reunited A Perfect Circle for a tour that includes Australia’s Soundwave festivals, before returning to Europe for more solo shows. It appears that after more than two decades in the music business, James Iha continues the journey (as he sings on the album’s lead single) “up the stairs / into thin air / to who knows where.”