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From Perfect to Deadbeat: An interview with James Iha

James Iha
James Iha
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz

James Iha has quietly been a part of two of the biggest rock bands of the last quarter century, in both The Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle. After a falling out with one and a slowing down of another, Iha is on his own, scoring TV and film, most recently the Hulu original series "Deadbeat." He spoke with me about this new project, working with such big bands, and what it means to be a musician in 2014.

How did you get involved in the “Deadbeat” project?

I’d been looking into getting into scoring TV and film more and I moved out to Los Angeles and this was the first project that came up since I’d been in LA.

Was it you kind of dipping your toe into looking for scoring work or were people thinking of you for this job?

My manager knew somebody at Lionsgate, who are also a part of the project, and I did an audition for the music and got it.

What did you play for the audition?

You just do a couple scenes with a little bit of direction. It was pretty simple.

That must be kind of nerve-wracking.

It felt like what I was doing was good and it seemed to fit the picture, so, you can only do your best and see what happens.

You can’t just walk in and say ‘I’m James Iha, can I have the job please?”

Eh, I don't really expect that. I am obviously known for my previous bands, but, I don't know how much that translates into the scoring world. I guess on some level it gives me credibility but I think in the end it’s really are you connecting to the picture and are you connecting with the directors and the they are seeing what the music can be like.

What are the time constraints involved with TV or film that don't exist when you work either solo or in a band?

Bands do have time constraints as far as trying to hit the release date, finished recording in time to get it mixed, get it mastered, to hit release date. PR companies need three months before the record comes out, so there are deadlines. But I haven't had deadlines like this before where you are doing an episode every seven to 10 days or turning in music and doing revisions and getting it locked and keeping up with different edits of the episodes. It’s the same but it is very different also.

Are there any scores that really stand out to that have either influenced your work or that you’re just a really big fan of?

I like dramatic things, but they don’t really apply to Deadbeat. I like Ennio Morricone. I like 70’s things like Lalo Schifrin. He still works now, but he did The Exorcist, Dirty Harry, etc. I found, at least in doing this project, that doing a minimal amount of things is just as powerful as doing something big.

Another writer told me he once heard someone asked you what instrument you played during an interview. Is that true and have you ever had a dumber question?

I don't really care (laughs). I think at the height of Smashing Pumpkins people used to always think I was the bass player. I don't know why. It’s just one of those things.

When you started doing music 30 years ago, did you ever foresee yourself being the head or co-owner of a company? Did you see yourself being a part of the business side of things?

Editor’s Note: James co-owned a record company called Scratchie Records with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the label anymore, but that’s ok. (laughs) I had a label and I've had a recording studio, but, as you can tell, with the way the music business has gone, it’s hard to do both anymore. Yea, you know, when you’re sitting there in high school playing guitar in your bedroom, it’s not something I ever imagined, like signing bands or having your own recording studio and producing bands. I imagined playing in a band but not like being on the other side. Scoring the TV show, I couldn't have imagined doing that when I was younger. So, yea, it’s been great.

Do you think it’s even possible to just be a musician in 2014? Everyone even has their hands in multiple things, do you think it’s possible to just play guitar or just sing?

I think it’s a combination of things. I think probably before the 2000’s, you could just be a musician and play in sessions or in your own band and tour a lot and maybe you play with another band or did solo work and you could probably do that for the rest of your life if you were good at it or original enough. But, now, it’s pretty hard to do that. So, yea, I think it’s a combination of that and the way that the music business is now and also, after a while, you don’t feel like touring for 14 months out of the year. Everybody has different interests and wants to be creative in different ways. I've definitely played for rock bands for a really long time. It’s exciting for me to score TV and film.

Being a part of a couple of really big rock bands with very iconic frontmen, what’s the differences or challenges with working with leaders that are sort of lightning rods for attention?

Both singers, Billy Corgan and Maynard James Keenan, I mean, you know, are both incredibly talented people, original, and do something that nobody else does. I’m lucky and fortunate to play with both. I’m going to play a couple shows with A Perfect Circle in May and Maynard is an incredible singer, an incredible lyricist, and I’m fortunate to work with him. And he’s a really nice guy, so it’s always fun to play with those guys. How or why I end up playing those bands, I don’t know (laughs). I'm fortunate, that’s all I can say.

You seem like such a quiet guy, so it seems like such a nice balance in the band.

I dont really know, I play the guitar the way I do and it has its place in both bands. I dunno, I've never really thought about that objectively.

After having such volatile relationships with band members in the past, does that give you any pause when deciding to join a new project?

If I think of myself objectively, I think of myself as a working musician. I honestly don't think about...I don’t know, I don’t know how much anyone really does that, sits and thinks about what they did five, 10, 20 years ago. I’m really just trying to move forward with my life and being in a different city. I’m just sort of open to new collaborations, new possibilities, working with different people, so yea, I’m pretty psyched about it. I like LA.

It’s treated you well so far?

Yea, I definitely moved at the right time. There haven’t been any polar vortex in LA.

Although you did move right when a couple earthquakes hit.

Oh yea! (laughs)

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