James Iha Live In Studio

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn retrospect, it was unreasonable to expect former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha to look exactly as he did in the “Today” music video, considering it was nearly 20 years ago. Naturally, the alt rock veteran has aged since the days of passing out ice cream cones with Billy Corgan in the middle of nowhere. He came into the WERS studio sporting full head of grey locks complimented by your grandfather’s reading glasses. His appearance, as well as his unaffected demeanor gave him a sense of wisdom, like an alt-rock sage. After being a key member in one of the most important bands of the 1990’s, playing in rock super-group A Perfect Circle, and scoring several films, he brought all of his experience together to make his recently released solo effort Look to the Sky, then brought those songs to play in the WERS studio for live music week.

The first song Iha played was “To Who Knows Where” and I couldn’t help but think of the My Bloody Valentine “To Here Knows When”, and in a strange way, the thought was only reinforced the further Iha got into the song. It sounded like 90s alternative song that one would expect to be covered in noise and distortion, but was performed with a modern subtly. With Iha on acoustic guitar and one other band mate on a 12-string electric, the song was much more sedated than it was bombastic. His latest record, Look to the Sky, is his first solo effort in 14 years, but the delay should not be confused with procrastination “I wasn’t ready for a couple years,” explained Iha “the stuff I was writing just reminded me of my first solo record, I just needed to recharge my batteries.” Reminiscent of other 90s alt rock gods’ solo records such as Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, the song featured some intricate and dissonant guitar work with relatively straightforward and accessible melodies on top of it. In the true spirit of the 90s, Iha did not sing with in the most traditionally proficient of vocal styles, but no other way would quite with the song the way his voice did. Certain moments were eerily reminiscent of his work with the Smashing Pumpkins, revealing that his contribution to the band’s songwriting may have been more than previously thought.

The duo followed “To Who Knows Where” with “Gemini”, which had a similar kind of sonic atmosphere. The chorus featured some gentle falsettos vocal harmonies, a rather subdued technique considering Iha’s earlier worked. The most interesting aspect of the song was the duo’s ability to achieve a certain level of dreaminess without employing the typical tactics and effects to do so. It served as a reminder that simplicity in music can be just as if not more effective in creating a mood than and studio trickery is. This ability to create mood in music is perhaps attributed to his work with soundtracks for films “Doing soundtrack stuff helped me broaden my musical palate” said Iha ”It’s a totally different feeling writing sound for picture as opposed to writing a song, and it kind of opens you up in a different way.”

Iha closed with an interesting cover of David Bowie’s “When You Rock ‘N Roll With Me.” Iha was so successful in personalizing the cover that, had he not introduced it as a Bowie cover, I would have assumed it to be an original. The song fit right into the set, giving a sense of cohesion between the three songs and the set as a whole. At certain points in the song, Iha shouted into the mic, it was unexpected considering the way he sang in the previous two songs. It added an emotionally intensity to the song, and conveyed a feeling of intimacy and vulnerability. When asked what his plans are for the near future, Iha responded simply, with “Tennis. Lots of tennis.” Despite dismissing it as a joke and assuring a new solo record, it would be hard to blame a man who has contributed so much to music to retire and take up tennis, but lets just be glad that he isn’t.

By Kevin O’Brien
Photo by Maggie Ambrose

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