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Talking Tinted Windows, that elusive second solo album and life after the Smashing Pumpkins with James Iha

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In the years since he walked off stage at Metro on Dec. 2, 2000, at the end of what was billed as the Smashing Pumpkins' final show, Chicago-born guitarist James Iha has guested with other bands, including A Perfect Circle and the Blank Theory; co-owned an independent label, Scratchie Records, with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and tinkered with the long-awaited follow-up to his first solo album, "Let It Come Down" (1998).

Recently, on the same night that his former bandmate Billy Corgan announced that his old band was down to one original member after the departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, Iha returned to the spotlight for a high-profile gig at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference with his new band, the power-pop supergroup Tinted Windows, a collaboration with Schlesinger, Hanson member Taylor Hanson and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos that recently unleashed a delightful sugar buzz with its self-titled debut album.

I caught up with Iha as he prepared to bring Tinted Windows to Chicago next week.

Q. James, let's start with your version of how this unlikely band came together.

A. Well, Adam [Schlesinger] and I are friends, and we have these various businesses together: We have our recording studio in Chelsea, and we had the label together [Scratchie], but we lost the backing from New Line because everyone got fired there. I was talking to him one day and he was friends with Taylor Hanson; they've been friends since Fountains of Wayne's and Hanson's first records came out and the guy who signed Tinted Windows told Adam in the '90s, "You should write with these kids from Oklahoma."

We came up with this idea of Adam and Taylor singing over loud guitars and doing a power-pop record, trying to keep it down and dirty: no keyboards, no three-part harmonies, with references like the Buzzcocks, the Knack and the Ramones--just all things fun and loud. So the three of us all wrote songs that fit that concept; then we figured, "Well, we have to get a drummer." We had a couple of ideas, one of the references I said was, "He has to play like Bun E. Carlos!" Then we went, "Hey, let's call Bun E. Carlos! All he can do is say no." We sent him the demos and he went, "I'm into it!" He came to New York and rocked like no one's business and we did the record in two days.

Q. It's really inspiring, considering how much Cheap Trick still plays, that Bun E. would want to spend his down time playing some more.

A. He is the hardest working man in show business. It's funny, at different points in the tour, I have gone up to him and said, "Thank you so much for doing this!" We're very lucky to have such a journeyman and upstanding guy give us his thing. He plays great drums and has his own style. It was fun at SXSW, because I just looked over and thought, "Cool! I'm playing with Bun E. Carlos!"

Q. So the first time you four played together was when you were making the record?

A. Most of it was Adam and I or Taylor and Adam and I; Bun E. and Taylor actually didn't meet until we started rehearsing. [Laughs] It was a scheduling nightmare for a while. We didn't actually become a band until we started rehearsing to play live.

Q. The record doesn't have that feel; there's this this wonderful, spontaneous "we're playing in the basement!" kind of vibe.

A. Cool! It's not a hard thing to do, but it is hard to make it good when you're trying to keep it from being overproduced or layering too many guitars--just trying to keep the fun and the spontaneity without belaboring it.

Q. It's been almost 11 years since "Let it Come Down," and a lot of fans have been wondering, "When is James going to do another solo album and tour?"

A. [Laughs] I have been working on my solo record for the last year and a half. For a while, I just kept writing the same kind of songs, and I wanted to progress. I guess just being in a band for 12 years... I wanted to do different things, and it seemed like when you do a solo record, you are really putting yourself out there. It always has been easier for me to work on other people's music, so I have just been producing, writing and playing on other people's records. It is only in recent years where I felt like I should do another solo record, and now I am half way through it. I thought I would finish it before "Tinted Windows" was finished, but it didn't work out that way.

Q. Do you see Tinted Windows continuing beyond the initial tour supporting this album?

A. Yeah! I think in some ways it is such a new thing... it was more a concept than an actual band. Now that we are playing, everyone is excited about it. It is just a matter of schedules.

Q. I know your past with the Pumpkins is not something you are eager to talk about, but you have shown a lot of class over the last few years in not responding while you've had an awful lot of crap tossed your way.

A. Well, you know, I have said this before the few times I have had to comment about it: I want to keep it positive, because obviously, the Pumpkins achieved great things, made really good records, toured the world and it was a world rock band and that is great. But I'm not a part of it anymore and I just want to keep my history with the band positive and cool.

Q. You must have to stay away from the Net!

A. [Laughs] Yeah, well, the Internet is a whole other thing. It's weird to think of being a band like we were in the '90s and what happened just four or five years later. It is so crazy.

Q. Are you philosophical about that? Given that the music industry is going to an entirely new model, you may have been in one of the last bands that will ever rise to that sold-out stadium level again.

A. I have had that conversation before: "Yep, we were a band during that time." The budget for Tinted Windows is so low compared to the Pumpkins, but I think it is cool. I don't think that I'm stepping down because I'm playing in a small place with a new band, as long as things feel good and people are excited about what we are doing. The main thing Adam and I were talking about doing this record was, "It's going to be fun," and it has been fun through the whole process. We're not mapping out charts like, "We're going to dominate the pop-rock world." It would be great, but it's not why we're doing it.

FACTS

Tinted Windows

9 p.m. Thursday, April 30

Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee

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4 Comments

Really cool Jim... just like James himself. Let it Come Down was a great album, hopefully his next one will be just as fresh sounding...

I think all of the members of the "original" Pumpkins who have put out solo albums have been pretty decent... Even theFutureEmbrace (loved that tour).

Anyway, good for James, hopefully they'll play somewhere I can actually see them... maybe Lolla?

Adam

Nice to hear from James, and find he's feeling positive and having fun. I really like what I've heard so far from Tinted Windows ... wish I'd been able to get a ticket for the Chicago show before they sold out!

Good interview, Jim. Iha is a classy dude, and he occasionally writes a song or two that just keep ringing in my head ("Believe" and "Said Sadly" immediately spring to mind). But this Tinted Windows project is something else. The record's great, the sound fantastic, kind of an early New Wave-y thing going on. Nice to see/hear Iha's evolution (not to mention Taylor Hanson's -- I mean, when in the hell did that kid get legit?).

Informative article, just what I was looking for.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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