When an artist severs ties with a legacy they helped to create, it can be difficult to build a new identity that works in its own, unadulterated right. Still, James Iha co-founder and former guitarist for Smashing Pumpkins spirits remain defiant to pressure. Rather than letting the seeds of nostalgia engulf him, Iha’s post-Pumpkins story is about perceptive transformation – the ability to find the balance between staying relevant and not outstaying welcome in an industry that’ll churn you out at any open opportunity.
Yet in spite of his longstanding talents, it’s surprising that he has waited 14 years to release the upcoming album Look To The Sky, seeing as his 1998 debut solo album Let It Come Down appeared in 1998. You feel almost hard-pressed to call it a sophomore record; such is the temporal gulf between the albums.
“I wasn’t thinking of what time to release it, I was just trying to get it done! It took me a while after the Pumpkins broke up to get back into solo writing. I started a recording studio and record label with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne in New York City; I started producing bands, and playing with A Perfect Circle, who I still play with. About 3 or 4 years ago I started writing songs for myself again and without a label or management. I didn’t have a deadline so I took my time, went down a couple of different routes musically, and it finally started to come together when my friend Nathan Larson [guitarist of Shudder To Think and film composer] started helping with co production. He was great, giving me an extra objective voice and confidence.”
There are many ways to get involved in the music industry and it seems that during his lengthy break in terms of solo output, Iha had exhausted the different routes and found himself back where it all began – the primal, solitary urge to create music that every artist has at the very beginning.As any musician will tell you, this urge is embryonic and both internal and external forces change it from its initial form. This is incredibly poignant for Iha, having been in the industry for more than two decades. “A lot of life and musical inspirations/changes over the last ten years, New York city, different people, new friends, producing bands, remixes [Ladytron, Annie, The Sounds], playing with A Perfect Circle…”
In terms of new friends and musical relationships, we get to see this come into fruition on Look To the Sky. “Collaborations are the fun part of any record,” he states. “I’m blessed with the people that contributed to this record like Karen and Nick of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tom Verlaine of Television, Sara of Tegan and Sara, Nina Persson of The Cardigans. They’re all top musicians and people, and it’s great to have someone walk in with something fresh and cool like they all did.”
Perhaps most interesting is Iha’s two-fold perception of the World Wide Web. “On one hand the Internet has been a positive force in that bands get more exposure and listeners have more to listen to. The Internet has obviously changed music. It’s more ‘free’, literally, and gets to people faster and without as many filters as there used to be. You just hear so much different stuff than when you used to have to go to a record store to buy it or go to a club. But ultimately, there’s a generation who will never feel the touch of the polycarbonate plastic of a CD. I still miss going to record stores.”
With all this considered – from the influence of people to places to the Internet – how did this reflect on Look To The Sky? “I wanted this record to be more electric than the first one, not necessarily heavier but more electric sounds like guitars, keyboards, synths, drum machines as well as acoustic and organic sounds, hopefully the tunes have grown as well.”
The sound of the Look To The Sky correlates with the music Iha was listening to at the time. Not hell-bent on sticking to modern post-noughties music or the musical identity of the 90s he helped create. Like the best musicians he mixed up his listening habits, citing “David Bowie, Beach House, The Band and Blur” as primary influences.
Having vicariously witnessed changes in the music industry yet still remaining firmly grounded within it, what does he expect from the release of this record? “World domination!” he says comically, before settling into reality. “No, I really have no expectations, I hope it gets out there to enough people in enough countries, I have no illusions of how the music biz is these days, it’s brutal!”
With experience and time comes a certain degree of comfort and settlement, far from the disquiet of youth. James Iha seems to be at this level – releasing music on his own terms, working with only the most inspiring of artists – it’s an enviable position to be in, and one that translates well on Look To The Sky.
“Life affects people’s jobs and work and a lot has changed since I put my record out in 98/99. I’m happier, feel lucky to have been with the bands that I’ve played with and am happy with everything I work on now… It’s a good mix of things in life today.”
Look To The Sky is available now on End Records and Iha will performa at London’s Bush Hall on 04 December.