Behind the Release: James Iha “Look to the Sky”

CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: Some people become dazzling rock stars, while other stars rock a little more subtly. James Iha falls into that latter category.

Now you see him: James Iha makes a rare solo foray with “Look to the Sky.”

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.

The song — not the compressor settings — was the thing for James Iha on his latest record.

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.

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