Exclusive: Interview with Co-Founder and Former Guitarist of the Smashing Pumpkins, James Iha



Two weeks back James Iha, the co-founder and former guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins, was in town for the Jisan Valley Rock Festival. Johnny the Greek got a chance to talk with him about music, the best pizza in Chicago, pirating music off the internet, his nostalgia for vinyl and more.


JISAN VALLEY, South Korea -- While covering the Jisan Rock Festival this summer for Haps, I sought to interview as many of the acts as I possibly could, and struck paydirt with a few; James Iha was one of them. 

A second-generation Japanese-American from Chicago, Iha is undoubtedly best known as the co-founder and guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins, with whom he has since parted ways to pursue projects of his own.

In addition to songwriting, performing, producing, and remixing, Iha is also co-owner of Scratchie Records, an independent label based in New York, which was founded in 1995 by Iha along with Jeremy Freeman, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, Kerry Brown of Catherine, and ex-Pumpkins bandmate D'arcy Wretzky .  

His first visit to Korea as a solo artist is prompted by the domestic release of Iha’s sophomore album, Look To The Sky. It comes 14 years after his debut solo release Let It Come Down, and, without question, fans of that album will enjoy the new disk—a superb blend of folk, new wave, shoegazer, country-infused pop that hits more often than it misses.

Iha was gracious enough to oblige me with an interview following his set at Jisan. I was set to start the interview and another reporter waiting there with his questions was visibly shaken with his task while Iha, who is well known for being understated, was cool as a cucumber.  

He lived up to that rep during our talk; he was very soft-spoken, thoughtful with his answers and rarely cracked a smile, but I managed to get few laughs out of him anyway.


What was the first concert you ever attended?

I was a big fan of Iron Maiden in junior high. They were playing at the Chicagofest, which is a lot of pizza and hot dogs. I got my dad to take me, and it was great. It was a weird place to see a metal band, but that was my first concert. They were touring the Number Of The Beast album.

Name the three albums you’d take with you if you were stuck on a deserted island.

That’s hard. I’ll say The Beatles' White Album, Slayer Reign In Blood, and... [long pause] Katy Perry, Teenage Dream.

The correct answer was Bad Brains I Against I.

James: [laughter]

You’re based in Manhattan now, but where’s the best place in your hometown Chicago to get pizza?

I like Lou Malneti’s—there are a bunch of them—it’s deep dish Chicago-style. It seems normal to me, but now that I live in New York, you get thin style, and I prefer the deep dish-style.

A few years back you co-founded a new group called Tinted Windows.

Yeah, it involved Taylor Hanson from Hanson, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick, and it was just a fun power-pop/punk project.

Your resume is pretty extensive: singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, engineer, record label owner and DJ. What would you say is your favorite aspect of the business?

DJing was something I did for fun—I had a label, and that was very much in vogue at the time. I like doing remixes. I like all the things you mentioned for different reasons.

With the advent of file-sharing, how hard is it to get new music out?

Obviously it’s very difficult these days. You used to only be able to copy songs via cassette; now it seems ridiculous—even to me—to buy a song. I buy all my songs on iTunes, by the way [laughter]. It’s almost impossible to have a record label anymore.

I miss the days of going into a record shop and just taking a chance on an interesting looking album. What was the last album that pleasantly surprised you?

God… I’m just like every other person now where I just buy one or two songs from somebody’s record. The last full record I bought was by Kimbra (Vows), I really liked it.

What do you look for in a band that approaches you for a record deal?

Just if they have something special, whatever makes them different from eight million mediocre bands.

The analog versus digital debate: isn’t the song more important than whatever format you use to hear it?

All the formats are cool in their own ways.  Obviously MP3s are the easiest to deal with. I’m a little nostalgic for vinyl, but I would never spend my time building a vinyl collection now.

You’ve got festival and club dates booked from now until September; do you have a preference for either?

I like playing festivals, but at least where I’m at right now [artistically] I prefer clubs.

What prompted you to release Let It Come Down in ’98 at pretty much the pinnacle of the Smashing Pumpkins fame as opposed to later on?

I just wanted to make a record, and at the time we had a break, so that was the time.  Honestly, it was so long ago I barely remember (laughs).

I hear a lot of Slowdive/Mojave 3 and Dusty Springfield influences on your new album, Look to the Sky.

The album has some rock, some new wave, and definitely some country influences; I do like those bands that you mentioned.

And with that, James Iha was on his way.


Photos by Will Jackson.

Will's Photo Essay of the Jisan Valley Rock Festival 2012 is here.

Johnny's overview of the festival is here.

You can check out James Iha's MySpace music page here.



Editor's note: While Haps loves Johnny and is confident in his ability to interview the greats, we'd prefer he wear shoes when representing the magazine. ~Bmc



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