Behind the Release: James Iha “Look to the Sky”
September 23, 2012 by David Weiss
CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: Some people become dazzling rock stars, while other stars rock a little more subtly. James Iha falls into that latter category.
An artist, producer, remixer, film composer, pop culturalist and more, Iha has put his guitar and voice very well forward with his newly-released album, Look to the Sky (out now on Conan O’ Brien’s Team Coco). A deeply musical, engrossing and uplifting new collection, it stands as only his second record, his first being the well-received Let It Come Down – released in another millennium (aka 1998).
It may have taken Iha 14 years to be ready to reveal more about himself, but it was worth the wait. Created in the safe haven of Stratosphere Sound Recording Studios in NYC, which he co-owns, Iha had a host of high-profile collaborators to help him create Look to the Sky’s 13 imaginative new tracks.
Beautiful, bare, lush, acoustic, electric, classic and experimental, the album was co-produced by in-demand composer/former Shudder to Think guitarist Nathan Larson, with guest collaborations including Karen O and Nick Zinner of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara, Nina Persson of the Cardigans, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, Ivy and Tinted Windows, and the legendary Tom Verlaine from Television.
It’s been 25 years now since Iha co-founded Smashing Pumpkins, but it seems like he’s always preferred that his enduring celebrity take a backseat to his music and art. Iha may not always make the headlines, but he’s been a member of two rock supergroups – A Perfect Circle and Tinted Windows – and produced and remixed for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ladytron, Cat Power and Michael Stipe.
It’s about time he rotated around to center stage. To top the experience off, Iha let SonicScoop in on how Look to the Sky was constructed in the studio (and you can visit the Team Coco Website to preview the album in full).
How has your approach to your craft evolved for Look to the Sky, when it comes to recording in the studio?
Crafting a song can be the actual writing of it on a piano or guitar, and it can definitely be crafted in the studio as well. I co-wrote it with my friend Niclas Frisk, who’s a songwriter in Sweden, and he has an appreciation for crafting a song and songwriting.
“Speed of Love” was basically written beforehand, before we got into the studio. It’s more of a rock song, and through the course of the recording of the song, we added a four-on-the-floor beat, which made it more poppy, with that kind of dance element in it. I felt like that helped the song go forward. There’s a lot of cool parts in the song sonically, but I think the main thing is that it has a pop sensibility to it in the production.
To what extent would you say the studio served as an instrument or creative tool for you, in the making of Look to the Sky?
About half of the songs I was ready to go, and half of them were studio creations. Sometimes I was just making chord changes, and sometimes I would go in and make ideas up on the fly. When I wrote “Summer Days” I had some time to kill, and I just came up with the basic music for that on the spot, recording to Pro Tools.
You’re a part owner of Stratosphere, and the album was recorded there. Why is that still the best place for you to work?
Well, that’s where my stuff is (laughs!). And it’s a really good studio. We put a lot of time, energy and money into it. It sounds really good, plus we have all of our instruments and our outboard gear that we’ve collected over the years. And, I should say, we also feel very comfortable there.
Stratosphere’s Neve 8068 is one of my favorite boards in the city. Did you make a lot of use of it for Look to the Sky?
It’s definitely a part of the process. I think when you put stuff through good gear, like the Neve board that we have, it sounds like a record. I don’t know how it does that, but that’s the sound of records that I’m used to hearing.
Which pieces of outboard gear have you personally added to the collection over the years?
I own…there’s some Focusrite EQs, Focustrite preamps. I can’t really remember!
I get the feeling that for you, as a recording artist that the song is the thing, and the technical details of the tracking and mixing don’t weigh as heavily on your mind.
If a song isn’t any good, no one’s really going to care what you recorded it on. If it sucks it sucks. If it’s good, people will want to hear it. It’s a pretty wide subjective area about what’s a good song, but I guess it should just feel right to you.
How did you settle on Nathan Larson to produce? How would you characterize what he brought to the table?
I was working on the record for awhile, and I was stuck in a rut. Nathan is a friend of mine, he played in Shudder to Think and he does a lot of film score stuff now. He lives in NYC, we reconnected, and I just asked if he wanted to hear some of the stuff.
He was really enthusiastic and put his two cents in. After a while he ended up co-producing the record with me. The best thing was that he always told me what was good, and what was not good. He got me motivated to kick it into gear.
Nathan did a lot of string arrangements on the record. There’s a song called “Dream Tonight” with just acoustic guitar, voice, and the strings. That’s an example of where he made it come up a notch.
The vocals come across as extremely present on this record. What kind of vocal sound did you go for, and how did you achieve it?
I have an older Neumann U 87, and I mainly used that for all my vocals. We used a normal kind of chain: We put it through a tube compressor, into the Neve, and we were searching for something that felt warm, but had a little bit of presence on it.
It was recorded well, and it was just a matter of getting it to sit right in the mix to get a good sound. I’m not super-technical. I couldn’t tell you what we did, but I could tell you when it sounded right or wrong.
James Iha’s video for “To Who Knows Where” pays tribute to David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Guitar is your signature instrument, and they’re really woven into the soundscape here. What were some surprising experiments that paid off on Look to the Sky?
On songs like “Who Knows Where” there’s a lot of guitar layering, as well as a lot of delays, reverbs, and chorusing. A song like that is more similar to stuff that I did in the Pumpkins.
It’s fun working with more of a rock sound on guitar, and on “Speed of Love” there’s a lot of cool stuff — a lot of acoustic 12-strings, six-strings, and the guitar solo is a heavily effected, crazy sound that I came up with. There are four or five pedals in the chain — chorus, distortion, delay, a Moogerfooger — it was just fun going for a more wild sound, for a kind of an obvious guitar solo.
I like the way that the experimental guitar solo sound is balanced with acoustic strumming parts in that song.
At some point it was too rock, so we kind of “de-rocked” it, and that made it lighter. It felt better, with more space for the vocal. There’s more space for the top end of the song, but it keeps some elements of rock in there.
Who mixed the record?
Even though you’re in a very public profession, you also seem to keep a low profile. How does recording help you to maintain this balance?
Well, they’re kind of two different things. Recording, you’re in this hermetically-sealed vault, while being in a band — touring and doing interviews – is a totally public thing. I don’t know really how you balance it. I guess if I wanted to not be in the spotlight, I’d be in production more, because there’s nothing glamorous about it.
So you’re glad to be getting out there again?
Yeah, it’s good to have both sides of the coin. If you want your music to be heard by people, that’s what you have to do – but it’s good to go out there.
How long did Look to the Sky take to record?
A million years. On-and-off for four years – definitely on and off.
Lastly, why do you continue to live and work in NYC? What makes this a great place for you to create?
I guess I like New York City. It’s exciting, there’s a lot of great musicians, and the city itself offers everything. It’s a good question, because it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it’s always exciting. I like our studio being here.
– David Weiss