Interview With James Iha, Former Smashing Pumpkins Guitarist

I recently had the chance to talk to former Smashing Pumpkins/current A Perfect Circle guitarist James Iha about his 25 year career in music.  Iha most recently released his 2nd solo album Look To The Sky in 2012 and A Perfect Circle released the live box set A Perfect Circle Live: Featuring Stone and Echo in November.  In this interview Iha gives his thoughts on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame chances, discusses his current relationship with his former Smashing Pumpkins bandmates, remembers co-writing “Mayonaise” with Billy Corgan, and talks about his future plans as a solo artist and with A Perfect Circle.

It’s been a little while now since you released Look To The Sky, what have you been up to recently and what are your plans for this year?

I’ve been working on writing, and co-writing. I have plans in the middle of the summer to play with A Perfect Circle. Basically that, yeah.

So you mentioned A Perfect Circle, I know you guys are doing the Maynard birthday show in May. Are you guys planning to tour this year also?

No plans yet.

Now going back to your solo tour in 2012, after playing for 20 years in big bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle, did you have to relearn the grind of the road after being in those bands and was it also tough in addition to that having to worry about your voice?

I didn’t tour super hard on it like the way those bands used to tour, but it was definitely an adjustment being a frontperson and singing every night. But it was good, I enjoyed touring. It was definitely a learning experience and fun being a singer and putting the band together. It’s a lot of work in a different kind of way, but I liked it.

When it came to your solo tour, a lot of people were surprised and happy to see you play “Mayonaise.” Are there any other old tracks that you’d consider playing from those days? “Go” is one I’d like to see from MACHINA II, that’s my favorite song you wrote in the Smashing Pumpkins.

Cool. There’s no plans of touring right now, I just wanted to do a song from the Pumpkins, a song I had a hand in the writing in. As far as another song, I hadn’t really thought of it (laughs). I thought of a couple songs when I was trying to figure out doing an old song, and I guess I just ended up on “Mayonaise,” probably being the most well known Pumpkins song that I had a hand in the writing in.

You could have always done like a minute of “Mayonaise,” and then gone into [“Bugg Superstar”].

I could have, but I don’t think that would quite translate. It’s funny.

But talking about “Mayonaise” and also your solo songs, “Mayonaise” is one of the songs where you collaborated with Billy Corgan and co-wrote it. So when it comes to your writing process, does the riff or melody come first? How did you know with a song like “Mayonaise” that it’d be something that you’d bring to the band rather than just write yourself?

That was a really long time ago, I don’t remember exactly. The song has a special tuning, or at least the main rhythm guitar does. I think I just came up with that tuning and came up with those chords and did a demo of it, it was an instrumental demo of the song. I played it for Billy and he liked it, he came up with the vocal melody and the lyrics. We worked on the arrangement together. [But] as far as how I write now, it’s different. It depends really, sometimes it can be chords which is what “Mayonaise” was, or it can be coming up with music on the fly in the studio. It can be different instruments, it could be a keyboard, it could be a beat. It happens in all different ways.

Now talking about another major project of yours: A Perfect Circle. You haven’t really had a chance to really write with A Perfect Circle in an album setting. Is that something you have ever discussed with Maynard or Billy? Have you ever talked to them about maybe writing a song with them, or maybe something even outside of A Perfect Circle?

The thing is with A Perfect Circle is [it’s] Maynard and Billy [Howerdel]’s band. It’s possible, but there aren’t too many A Perfect Circle albums out as you can tell, so I couldn’t really say. It might happen, or it might not (laughs). But I always think of it as their band. If they want that kind of input from me I could definitely do it, I’d be happy to do it. But, we’ll see (laughs). That’s actually more of a question for them.

I actually talked to Billy Howerdel a few months ago and he said he’s always writing. He’s been writing a bunch of songs in the last year or two.

Yeah, I know he’s always writing. I’m just saying as far as my input into A Perfect Circle, that’s probably a better question for those guys.

I’ll put in a good word for you (laughs).

(Laughs) Thanks.

But onto the other Billy, Billy Corgan. Billy’s been more positive towards you in the press recently, he actually said that he wishes you two had written more songs together back in the day. He was looking back fondly on those days, which is quite different than when he called you [one of the] worst people he’s ever met a few years ago. But what are your current thoughts on Billy, and have you had any communication with him regarding the Smashing Pumpkins reissues and the inclusion of some of your tracks?

Every couple of years people will ask me stuff about the Pumpkins, honestly I don’t really want to bring out the negative. I’d just like to highlight the positive things with the band, the good things that happened with him. All of the private stuff is private, to me it is. I don’t really feel the need to talk about that stuff in the press. I don’t know what good it does, honestly. That’s all I can say about relations and stuff. I just want to keep people’s memories about the good things in the band when I was in the band. As far as the reissues, I haven’t had much input on it. I was sent some bonus tracks that I wrote just to check out, to see if they were okay for my approval, but that’s about it.

Now when it comes to writing songs, talking about the Pumpkins and now, you wrote a lot of songs back then, some of them ended up on The Aeroplane Flies High box set. How would you compare writing songs now compared to back then?  Do you think the scrutiny of being in that band helped push you as a songwriter, or did it shake your confidence a bit? You did the solo record when you were with the Pumpkins, how would you compare writing to then?

If you’re in a band and you have a place to put out songs, yeah sure you want to do stuff. I think everybody’s creative and wants to do something, but what’s different today? I don’t know, you’re older (laughs) and in a totally different place in your life with different people different work, it’s just different I couldn’t really point out specifics of it that are really obvious.

Now we’ve seen you as the guitarist of The Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle, as well as a frontman as a solo artist. Would you be interested in ever having a band where you would be the guitarist writing most of the music with a different singer?  We haven’t really seen too much of that process with you before. You did Tinted Windows but that was very short lived. Would you ever want to pursue that full time in the future and is there anybody you’d want to work with?

(Laughs) It’s possible, I hadn’t really thought of it. There’s nothing in the works right now, but it’s possible.

Who would be the Plant to your Page?

I don’t know, there’s a lot of talented people out there (laughs). I don’t know, you fill in the blanks.

Speaking of talented people out there today, a lot of people kind of lament the state of the rock scene right now. Are there any bands out there that have impressed you, and do you think it’s possible for new rock bands to come out and shake things up today like what happened 20 years ago?

Of course every era is different, but yeah sure I think there’s still room for a huge rock band to come in and change things up. There have been bands that do that, there’s a cycle of bands that keep coming in every now and then and totally changing the vibe of everything. That hasn’t changed at all. There are some things I like out there, (pauses) I’m trying to think of an alterna band that I like. There is something but I can’t think of it (laughs).

That’s not a good sign for rock music.

Yeah I mean there’s not like any heavy bands playing right now, other than somebody like Queens of the Stone Age who are awesome. (Pauses) I’m trying to think of a KROQ kind of band, honestly I like Lorde (laughs), she’s not really rock but she’s awesome and has a cool thing going.

I’ll take somebody like her over Fun. She has an overplayed song but she’s got talent, but sometimes that one song getting overplayed has a backlash.

There’s a reason that song exploded, and it wasn’t because of marketing. It wasn’t because of her age or whatever. The lyrics are awesome, her singing is awesome, and the track is totally cool. It doesn’t really sound like anything else right now, so there’s a lot of reasons to like her as an artist. I get the feeling that she just wrote all of that stuff in a vacuum, there was no big record company or other huge artist talking her up, it just sort of happened organically.

I remember Courtney Love saying that you did some production work with her in the last year or so. How was it working with her?

She did stuff at our studio before, we were supposed to work on something but it didn’t happen (laughs).

So she said it happened and it didn’t happen? (Laughs)

It’s not to say it won’t happen, everybody’s busy. I know her manager, and we were talking about doing something and it didn’t quite happen, not to say that it won’t.

Now I asked about Billy earlier, but something a lot of people don’t really ask you about is Jimmy, D’arcy, and Melissa. Do you keep in touch with them?

(Laughs) I talk to Melissa once in awhile, I talk to D’arcy once in awhile.  I haven’t seen Jimmy in a long time.

You’ve worked with a lot of great producers like Butch Vig, Flood, and Alan Moulder. What producer would you say has pushed you the most, and what have you learned from them over the years especially getting into production work yourself in the last decade?

All three of those people are really talented producers, they know how to make great records. They know how to get the best out of the band, help the band, and become the 5th band member. They can all see the big picture, every one of those three people that you mention do all of that.

Now kind of a cliche question, but it should be coming up in the next year or two. This year Nirvana are getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so of course that means the GenX bands will start getting in. When the Pumpkins get in, I’m sure they will you guys are a legendary band, how do you think that’ll go? Would you want to show up and go on stage with the other members, or is that something you don’t even want to think about?

I haven’t thought of it honestly, we’ll see what happens, we’ll see if the band gets in.

But would you want to show up to that if you guys get in?

It wouldn’t be something I would talk about in an interview.

We talked earlier about your solo stuff and you said you don’t have any touring plans coming up, so when do you think the next James Iha solo record will come out? Will it take another 10-15 years, or maybe in the next few years?

I don’t think it’ll take 10-15 years. Hopefully in the next couple of years, I’m working on a lot of different things right now. Hopefully within the next couple of years, that would be my best guess.


  • drew

    cool read-saw them in early \’94 at the fillmore in sf-if nirvana, who i love, is getting in before soundgarden, who i love equally, then the hof is surely fucked!

  • The Tricycle Wipeout

    I get the impression he doesn’t like discussing the Pumpkins…

  • no

    He doesn\’t seem to think about much, does he? idiot.

  • fuzzy

    great interview Brett. Great questions and nice flow. You\\’re growing into quite the journalist.I\\’m a huge fan of the Pumpkins up to 2008 (or whenever Jimmy left again) and you asked a lot of solid questions that other interviewers wouldn\\’t think of. Props man.

  • Is he one?

    Very nice Brett. Kudos on asking the questions that we really want to know the aswers to, even though you probably knew you could annoy him with them. Really cool interview! Seems like it went well.

  • Patricio

    Great interview. I think that Iha´s attitude toward his ex pumpkins mates is admirable: he don´t need to talk about that kind of personal issues in press. By the other hand, I see dificult a reunion of the original members in the rock and roll hall of fame because, among other things, the pumpkins are still playing with Cogan and the new guys.. it would be kind of weird..

  • Russ

    Best interview yet!!

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