If you couldn't tell former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha is a David Bowie fanatic by listening to his second solo album Look to the Sky, there's no way you'd miss that after watching the video for "To Who Knows Where." A stylized tribute to Bowie's 1976 sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell to Earth, Iha's must-see clip is filled with awesomely cheesy camera zooms and otherworldly Bowie mannerisms.
We sat down with Iha to talk about his homage to the Thin White Duke and how he got Bowie's pianist of 30 years to play on his first solo album in 14 years. Iha also walked us through a killer playlist of some of his favorite David Bowie tracks, from classic hits like "Ashes to Ashes" to deeper cuts like "Boys Keep Swinging." Give a listen to that below.
The "To Who Knows Where" video is a nice Man Who Fell to Earth homage. What made you decide to do that?
I was emailing the video director, Adam Neustadter, trying to come up with a concept. I started YouTubing movie trailers and The Man Who Fell to Earth came to mind for whatever reason. I watched the trailer with the audio off and my song playing and I thought, "Oh, this would work." So we did an homage and recreated some of the scenes. It was very tongue-in-cheek. Some of it was looking at other '70s movies for inspiration as well. I sent him a trailer for the Marathon Man, too, the Dustin Hoffman movie. Not that this video is about being chased by a Nazi dentist, but [it influenced] the way they edited it. Split screen, fonts, that vibe. Seventies movies do zooms a lot—they don’t do those as much in modern films. I was asking Adam why and he said, "Because you notice it." It takes you out of the movie. But it’s a very stylized, cool thing. So if you watch my video, I can guarantee some great zooms.
When you played the Bowie character in the video, did you do anything to get yourself into that mindset?
His character was an alien who fell to earth, so I didn't really have to do too much. I’m glad I didn’t have to act-act, I just had to be deadpan. But I was thinking, "I am the alien" just a little bit.
How did you manage to get Bowie's long-time pianist on your album?
Mike Garson famously played with Bowie in the '70s starting with Aladdin Sane, and he’s played on a lot of Bowie records even through the '90s. So he’s a tenured Bowie sideman. He toured with the Smashing Pumpkins in the late '90s so I emailed him and said, "I have a track for you to play on" and he was like, "Sure, send me the mp3." He emailed his tracks back and we lined it up in the computer. That was that.
Do email collaborations work as well?
No, they don't, but in his case it didn’t really matter. He has a specific way of playing and he’s going to play it that way whether you’re there or not there. So it worked out with him. But obviously it’s better if you’re there in person.
Alright, walk us through your David Bowie Playlist.
"Kooks" from Hunky Dory
I like "Kooks" because it’s a quieter, more personal Bowie. He’s writing it to his son about how his parents are freaks and, "If you stay with us, you’re going to be pretty kooky, too."
"Hang On To Yourself" from Ziggy Stardust
"Hang on to Yourself" is an awesome song from Ziggy Stardust. It just so bad-ass, really glam, really fast. "If you think you’re going to make it, you better hang on to yourself." What does it mean? I mean, I know what it means, but it sounds so cool. I love the whole idea of it and I guess when our band was at the height of its fame, you could see the things he was singing about and compare it to what was going on at that time. I could identify with that song in some ways.
"Boys Keep Swinging" from Lodger"
A slightly deeper cut from Lodger, one of those Berlin records. It’s a weird sound. I remember hearing it when I was 14 and thinking, "What does this mean?" And I watched the video: It’s just a performance video, but he looks rockabilly and New Wave at the same time. He’s rocking the mic really crazy and there’s a homoerotic vibe going on. It just seemed really dangerous to me. I was like, "What is this music?"
"Sound and Vision" from Low
That’s another cool New Wave pop song. There’s a funk element to it: The bass is funky and the vocals don’t even start until a minute and a half. What kind of song doesn’t have vocals for a minute and a half? You go through this whole thing and then these vocals come in and they’re so cryptic and cool. It also has an island, Caribbean feeling. It’s sunny but cold, too. And he’s like, "Don’t you wonder sometimes?" It’s sublime and hard to express why it’s good. I was just reading an article in Mojo about Low. It was a weird time for him and the way they put it together was very experimental. But it has a lasting power. Things just lined up right.
"Ashes to Ashes" from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
"Ashes to Ashes" is great because it sounds very modern. It has that cold, New Wave funk in it. And it has that slap-bass, which is crazy. It’s really ethereal and his vocals sound Gothic. It’s a great, well-written song. The lyrical content is really trippy, too, about a drug addict in outer space. How did he come up with that?
"Drive In Saturday" from Aladdin Sane
I don’t even know what it's about, but it's like this rock 'n roll glamorous life. And the music is cool because it has this '50s, old-timey rock ballad feel. But also the weird synth stuff. And because Bowie sings on it, this song just sounds otherworldly.
"Rock 'n' Roll With Me" from Diamond Dogs
It's very 50s-styled rock, a throwback kind of song. It sounds like an anthem. Will you rock and roll with me? Add the lyrics and weird, too. That’s a great album—all those albums are cool for different reasons. The way he sings it is glamorous and cool and weird. He exudes all that and it comes off in the vocals and lyrics.
For our full James Iha interview, including his thoughts on procrastination and why he might be "doomed to make a certain kind of record," head right here.