Fourteen years after his first solo album, 12 years after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up and five years after he'd begun working on his second solo effort, James Iha released Look to the Sky. Alternately earnest and melancholy, the album is a confident amalgam of the Cure, David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, and yes, the softer side of the Smashing Pumpkins.
Fuse sat down with the alt-rock legend and learned why he's been taking his time on Look to the Sky and what forced him to finally finish it. Iha also offered us his hazy memories of the recently-reissued Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and why hard rock (along the lines of A Perfect Circle, his other famous band) doesn't pop up in his solo music—even when he tries.
You announced that you had started work on this album several years ago. What took so long? Was it lack of pressure? Or were you just not feeling inspired?
It was both of those things. I’m not signed to a label, and I was doing other collaborative stuff and I wasn’t really thinking of a solo record. So it took me awhile to get inspired and motivated to do another record. I experimented with different kinds of songs, and it took me some time to get it right. It’s easy to procrastinate. When I do my own solo stuff I’m so dialed in that it's painfully slow at times.
Do you chide yourself about it?
No, but I feel guilty. I’m like, 'Oh god, why didn’t I do anything?' I procrastinate, but I also wait for inspiration. But [it was] also not having a label telling me, 'You have to deliver it on a certain date.' And actually, the reason I finished the album was that I got a deadline from this Japanese record label who were offering me a good deal. So I was like, 'Oh, I guess I really have to get it done.' That’s the reason I got it done. I don’t want to think about what might have been without a deadline. It’s funny: If you get two weeks, you can get it done. But if they give you two days, you can still get it done. It drives me crazy.
How long did it take you to make your first solo album? Did that go any faster?
I had been writing songs on and off with the Smashing Pumpkins and a lot of them didn’t fit the band. So I just crammed that album [Let It Come Down] in. There was a year or so of writing and the recording process was a couple months. I got it together really quickly because I had to. This one is different. It’s been many years later, many influences later, and a lot of life later. I wanted it to musically be different than the first. I wanted it to be more sonically multi-faceted.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness just got reissued with three bonus discs. Here's a print out of all the demos and bonus tracks. When you look at these songs, do any memories stick out to you?
Well, we did a lot of demos. A lot of rehearsals. Well, obviously, in order to do a two-CD album you have to do a lot of this stuff. It’s hard for me to remember, honestly. Looking at [the bonus track list] and I’m kind of like, hmm. I recognize the song titles and have this feeling of being there and doing stuff but I couldn’t tell you about it. It was awhile ago. Probably '95. You know, we’d be in the studio for six months and then on tour for 14 months. It’s just this bubble, this crazy schedule. So I don’t remember. But I was there. And I was doing… stuff [Laughs].
The Pumpkins started out in Chicago but you've been living and recording in New York for about a decade now. Do you consider yourself more of a Chicago or NYC musician?
Well, when the Smashing Pumpkins first began I was Chicago to the bone. We were friends with all the bands. But once we started touring we weren’t in Chicago very much because we were always on tour or in the studio, like I said. So I lost touch with the scene. Now that I’ve been in New York for like 12, 13 years... Well, I can’t say that I’m a New Yorker because I feel like you have to be born and bred here, but I feel essentially like a New Yorker. My mind has been shaped and damaged by the city.
Do you have any other projects coming up on the horizon?
Mentally, yes. My friend Nathan Larson, who helped me finish Look to the Sky, kicked my ass a little bit. I realized the recording could be faster and more fun and a little more experimental. With him, I was knocking 'em out and getting songs done much faster. It was easier. So in my mind, I want to have another album done in two years. That’s my goal.
Any chance the music on your next album will take on the rockier qualities of your other big band, A Perfect Circle?
I wanted this album to rock more and I did some heavier songs originally. I worked on them for awhile, but they didn’t sound good. They sounded terrible. Something about heavy riffs with my voice sounded weird. My voice is too... something. I don't know. It didn’t work with the rock. I'm trapped by my voice. On "Gemini" and "To Who Knows Where" the music is more electric. Those songs have more of a Pumpkins feel. I can try to go that way, but it won’t be death metal on the next record. But I'll try: By God, I’ll try. [Laughs] I’d like to, but in the end, I write certain kinds of melodies and sing a certain way. So maybe I’m just doomed to make a certain kind of record.
James Iha also gave us a killer David Bowie Playlist and explained how The Man Who Fell To Earth was a visual touchstone for his "To Who Knows Where" music video. Check out Iha talking Bowie right here.