Pumpkin James Iha Talks About Power-Pop Solo Debut

Nope, laughs Iha, he's not the 'big hair Asian space cat.' He's a sensitive artist.

If you expect Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha's solo debut, Let It Come Down (Feb. 10), to sound anything like a Smashing Pumpkins album, you're in for a big surprise.

The new album sounds nothing like the Pumpkins, and Iha couldn't be happier. "I didn't set out to consciously make a retro record," said the soft-spoken guitarist of his sweet, ballad-heavy pop album. "I just wanted the songs to really stand out and the vocals to be the main driving force instead of heavy-duty alternative-rock drums and fuzz box guitar.

"There's nothing to hide them [the songs]," Iha added. "So people will either love or hate them. There's no alternative rock stomp box things, no trip-hop beats."

Iha is the first Pumpkin to strike out on his own. He said he didn't fill the album with love songs, such as the opening power-pop ballad "Be Strong Now" (RealAudio excerpt) and the Byrds-style "Beauty," to confound people's expectations. The songs that appear on the album are what came naturally.

Recorded in his basement home studio in Chicago last summer, the album features guests such as former Pumpkins touring drummer Matt Walker on drums, Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger on piano and Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy and Veruca Salt singer Nina Gordon on backing vocals.

"In some ways it's sort of a throw-back record," explained Iha. "Everything I used -- 12-strings, acoustics, clean electric guitars and strings, cellos and violin and organ -- were used by bands in the '60s and '70s. And I took a kind of '60s or '70s approach to arranging [the songs]."

Iha said the mellow, singer/songwriter grooves of "Country Girl" and the orchestral pop of "Sound of Love" were inspired by early heroes such as Neil Young and The Band, and, believe it or not, such sensitive late '60s/early '70s singer/songwriters as James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

"People probably have really terrible ideas of what they [Taylor, Browne] sounded like," Iha said. "But when they first came out, they sounded really great, even though they've gotten a terrible reputation over the years."

Even more surprising than the power-pop that dominates the album are Iha's vocals. Who knew that the Pumpkins hard-rock guitarist could sing like, well, a member of the Raspberries, Badfinger or Chicago's own legendary Shoes (who Iha claims to never have heard)? Iha sings in a delicate high and sweet voice that perfectly fits the material he has showcased on the album.

Iha, who has contributed vocals to Pumpkins albums dating back to the 1994 b-sides collection Pisces Iscariot (which includes "Blew Away," Iha's first recorded lead vocal) and 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (with Iha taking a vocal turn on "Take Me Down"), said he spent quite a bit of time learning how to sing before taking this plunge.

"I like the songs that I had [on the Pumpkins albums]," said Iha, "but I never really sung out as much as I do on this record. I knew on this record I had to really work on the singing."

Iha sought out a few vocal coaches and said he spent a lot of time in his home studio working on his vocals. The result of his efforts is particularly evident on the loose, sing-songy track "Jealousy," which features Iha's nuanced "doot-doot-doot"-ing.

Laughing, Iha said he's pleased that the sound of the album will surprise, maybe even shock, those that view him as the nearly silent "big hair Asian space cat."

And is Iha satisfied with how his album turned out? You bet. "I'm happy with how they [the songs] came out," said Iha. "It's nothing to run away from. It sounds cool to me.

"The thing I like is that I wrote good songs and sang great," he added. "That I have a good sounding, feeling record. I wanted it to be a singer/songwriter record, but not an unplugged record. That would have been taking an even bigger risk than I'm taking now."

Maybe next time? [Mon., Jan. 12, 1998, 9:00 a.m. PST]