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Q&A: James Iha

“I really wanted to avoid making a watered-down Pumpkins Record,” says James Iha

Pinkpop festival, James Iha, Smashing Pumpkins

James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins performs live on stage at Pinkpop festival in Landgraaf, Netherlands on June 1st, 1998.

Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty

James Iha plays guitar in one of the world’s most operatically rockin’ bands, and all he really wanted to do was hole up in his basement in Chicago and record an album of sweet pop and spare country tunes. Go figure. The job of Smashing Pumpkins guitarist might be all about rage and rats in cages, but Iha’s first moonlighting gig, Let It Come Down, confines itself strictly to the wonders of the L word, as in “Lover, Lover” and “Sound of Love.” At the moment, Iha is in a Los Angeles studio, recording a new Pumpkins album with band mates Billy Corgan and D’arcy – “Billy was talking about doing a full-on electronic record, but this is more of a hybrid of acoustic and some electronic elements,” says Iha – but he’s happy to take a break to talk about his solo outing. After all, it provides a little peace and quiet.

You play in a group famous for its melodrama. Why didn’t you comment on any of that in your songs?

I didn’t consciously try to write the record the way it is. I’ve had some of these songs for a little while. I guess I didn’t really feel like commenting on anything else but love.

Are any of the songs about your relationship with D’arcy?

[Laughs] Um. I don’t know.

Of course you do.

Songs are seldom about one person. About half the record might be about one person, and the other half is just about other people and situations.

Will the person know that the songs are about her?

Well, the person was there when I wrote a lot of these songs.

Not playing bass, by any chance?

No [laughs]. Me and D’arcy are just really good friends. Back then I was writing instrumental songs. It took a long time before I could really write and sing.

What’s your usual impression when guitarists make their own solo albums?

It always seems pretty dubious. That’s one thing I really wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to make a watered-down Pumpkins record.

So how does a Japanese-American kid growing up in a big city end up loving country music so much?

The older I get, I’m drawn more toward things like Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Neil Young. When the band’s on tour, especially last year, it’s just rock. Twenty-four hours a day. When I went back to my hotel room, I didn’t really want to have a Marshall stack.

You’re also a big Eagles fan. Did you see any of the reunion shows?

No. I do have an Eagles-tour T-shirt, though, but I was shunned by the other members for wearing such an atrocity, so I don’t wear it much.

Are things fairly stable in the Pumpkins now?

We don’t really have a drummer that’s a member of the group. But other than that, we’re fine. We were joking about it because it actually goes back to the original group. We played our first show ever with a drum machine.

All the band troubles make for good headlines, but is the reality harder than people realize?

I don’t want to over-romanticize anything that happens in a rock band, but, yeah, it’s really insane to keep the Pumpkins juggernaut going sometimes. We just thought that we were done for if we didn’t carry on and finish our tour.

Did you record a solo album partly to have a fallback for whenever the Pumpkins break up?

I talked to the band about doing this record, and I knew that last summer was probably the only break I’d have. It was either now or a couple years from now.

You’re also part-owner of a label, Scratchie Records, which you and D’arcy help run. What was the last crisis you had to deal with as VP of A&R?

There’s always crises. The alternative-rock world is a hard road. There are so few slots on the radio and MTV, and in magazines.

Because they’re being taken by bands like the Smashing Pumpkins.

Right. There has to be some new thing to tear us down.

Most of the time, Billy does the interviews. Is there something you’ve wanted the chance to talk about?

I guess you write songs so that you don’t have to tell people what you’re about.

If you end up in a stable, happy relationship, will your songs change?

Probably … I don’t want to talk about my personal life.

But you wrote a very personal album.

Right. I guess that’s why. But I’m in a good relationship [laughs]. It’s just weird. I’ve never had to talk this much just about me.

Well, you’re a hopeless romantic.

Sue me. I’m sensitive.

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