James Iha is not a man in any great hurry. After the release of his first solo album, Let It Come Down, he took more than a decade to release another.
Look To The Sky is, in a sense, more of the same – gentle and quietly spoken indie pop that flies well underneath the musical radar. When I ask Iha the obvious question of why this new album took so long to arrive, he just shrugs. “It’s not easy for me to write songs for myself,” he says. “A few years ago, I started a recording studio in Manhattan with some friends. I was doing things with various people, taking my time, but it took a long time for me to feel like I could come up with something good and something different from what I’d previously done.”
In a past life, Iha was the guitarist for The Smashing Pumpkins, and since then he has played with the likes of A Perfect Circle. It seems strange that someone who has stood onstage and shredded with some of the biggest and loudest bands in the world should make solo albums as gentle and unassuming as Iha’s. He once said he wrote his first solo compositions while in hotels on tour, and that he did so quietly in order not to wake sleeping guests in other rooms. Does this approach continue to shape his songwriting?“I don’t know, I tried doing more rock music, and I don’t think my voice really suits an accompaniment that’s super heavy. I also think I can’t try to compete with those two bands, or try to make music that approximates either one, because it’s impossible to do that, so I just go with what comes naturally.”
The recording of Look To The Sky, Iha says, was a fairly relaxed process – it took place over three or so years, with various friends dropping in on him in Brooklyn to lend a hand. “My co-producer Nathan Larson has a lot of friends, and he suggested calling various people up to see if they wanted to contribute. It was very organic and I love all the people on there – Nick and Karen from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who I know through a photographer friend in Brooklyn, both came and did their thing on the album. Tom Verlaine from Television, who’s awesome, came and played guitar. Sara from Tegan and Sara sang background vocals on a couple of songs. They’re all great collaborations that I wouldn’t necessarily think of, but I feel lucky to have them on the record.”
Given Iha is a famous guitar player himself, I put it to him that he’s quite generous to allow two other guitarists as accomplished as Nick Zinner and Tom Verlaine to come and play on his album. For his part, though, he insists that ego didn’t play a part – it was just about getting great people to come in and help out. “If I were just a guitar player, maybe it would be weird,” he says, “but at this point, I just don’t care about things like that. As a solo artist, I think of myself as being more the songwriter. I don’t really care if I play anything on the track; it doesn’t matter to me who plays on it, just as long as it sounds good and it helps the record out. It never really occurs to me to worry about those things, but I know what you’re saying.”
Look To The Sky was a big undertaking for Iha, and the writing process led him to completely re-evaluate how he puts songs together. “When I started the record, something that was holding me back is that I wanted to do it old-school style and have everything written top to bottom before I started recording, have all the lyrics and chords figured out. By the end of the record, I would just go into the studio without anything in mind and put a beat down, or try to think of something on the fly with a guitar. By the end, it felt a lot easier to be able to go in and work that way, so there’s quite a bit of experimentation there.”
Before letting Iha go, I have to ask the inevitable Smashing Pumpkins question. Being a part of something as huge as that band – and then breaking up so publicly – must surely leave an indelible impression. How does Iha reflect on it? “You know, I feel very lucky to have played in The Smashing Pumpkins,” he says, seeming to choose his words carefully. “They were a great rock band during an exciting time in music. It was great to be part of a movement, and it more than a band playing songs, it was cultural. It was exciting – a great band with great musicians and records that stand the test of time. I feel lucky to have played with them, I’m lucky to play with A Perfect Circle. I’m proud of all the things I’ve worked on, but those two things are definite highlights.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Look To The Sky out now through Stop Start/Inertia.