Those of us who grew up in the early ‘90s know Mr. James Iha as the stylish and talented guitarist from Chicago-born alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins. The growling fuzz of his guitar sound in Siamese Dream helped establish the zeitgeist of that decade. Now, Iha’s recent work on Hulu’s original show Deadbeat and James Franco’s remake of the ‘90s TV movie classic Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? gives us a peek into a different facet of his musical gifts. Iha, who also scored the Japanese comedy Linda, Linda, Linda (2005) and the family dramedy Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), spoke with us about his creative approach to film and TV scoring.
S&P: Could you describe the evolution of your guitar tone in Siamese Dream to the Deadbeat main title?
James Iha: There’s a huge difference, in every kind of way, between being a guy in a band — when you write songs and are jamming with a band — versus creating music for picture. I think in a band you’re always playing for what it sounds like in a practice room or what it sounds like live. When you go into a record you’re creating a sonic palate for what the album is like. I think for something like Deadbeat, it could be a ukulele, it could just be drums on the backbeat or an acoustic guitar, it’s just so different. For a show like Deadbeat that has wall-to-wall music, there are things that you have but then there are things that happen in every episode. You could have mariachi music or Indian music, it could be anything — how do I convey what’s going on inside this rabbi’s mind? It could be any kind of music. It’s much broader and wider when you’re creating for picture, I think.
S&P: Is there any musical color you’d like to bring back from the early ‘90s that is considered “outdated” by current music production standards?
JI: One decade’s sound is totally different from another’s. I think America was still much more into rock bands in the ‘90s. Rock bands could still be in the top 10. I think now the top 10 is mostly pop and hip hop, so it’s just completely different with those kinds of genres. There are still rock bands, but they play differently and their dynamics and songwriting are different. I think rock bands now incorporate a lot more technology, and that maybe the rock bands in the ‘90s were simpler, you know: guitar, bass, and drums.
S&P: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album feels so theatrical. The “Tonight, Tonight” music video felt like an amazing short film, and the song and the video seemed so synced emotionally. How much inspiration did you draw from that album when working on recent projects?
JI: I think for any musician or composer it’s a lifetime of knowledge that shapes and moves what you do, what your instincts are, and what you gravitate towards. Playing with the Smashing Pumpkins influenced what I do today but sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not so much.
S&P: How did you approach the soundtrack for Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?
JI: There are three facets to the score for Mother, May I. There’s a guitar-driven theme, with distortion. It’s aggressive and there are a lot of heavy drums, so you could reference that to my Pumpkins years or my Perfect Circle years. But even then, it’s tailored to fit the picture. I’m not thinking of a band or what other people are playing. I’m just watching the picture and what’s going on, and thinking of how well it matches up with it. There are also sounds that are a lot lighter and softer — some electronic glitchy beats and ethereal vocals and synthesizer pads — that’s another kind of theme. Then there’s another theme where I use a violin made by a man named Jonathan Wilson. It’s a violin that’s like a guitar — six strings, tuned like a guitar — but you play in with a bow. So I was able to do some string work using that. I created a theme using that instrument and using a dulcimer, to make a sort of raw, violin sound with folk instruments, in a kind of a scary horror music way.
S&P: What did you like best about scoring Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?
JI: I like the movie in general. It’s a fun script, it looks great, the actors are great, the directing and editing are great. So it was easy to make music to it. I just had a fun time doing it overall. It wasn’t like a scene would come up and I’d sit there like, “Oh god, what should I do for this?” It was a fun movie to make music for so the score came to me pretty quickly.
I was really happy with the opening theme that was used at the beginning and at various transitions throughout the movie. It seemed to create a heightened sense of evil and energy. It was definitely my favorite and also featured otherworldly types of voices chanting.
S&P: How do you create those first cues that set the tone of a project?
JI: I have conversations with the director, the editor, and the music supervisor, and then just watch the film and see what strikes me. I get a lot of ideas about instruments and sounds but I’m always open and tuned into what the director envisioned. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of music-driven directors and it helps to have someone with a strong musical taste.
S&P: Do you prefer to score any particular genres of film or TV?
JI: I’ve done indie drama, stoner comedy, and horror. It’s been pretty wide-ranging but they’ve all been really enjoyable and artistically satisfying. I’m just interested in working with good directors and good projects. The music seems to come easily from that.
S&P: How does your band experience influence your scoring and, in your experience, how does the music industry relate to film and TV?
JI: My band experience is of course part of who I am, but scoring is a different experience and a different way of thinking about music. You’re making music to fit the picture, not a song or typical song format. You’re also listening to what the director or producer’s vision for it is, so it’s a collaborative experience.
The music and film industries are very different things, but still similar. Whoever’s on the team in a film or a TV show — that’s the band — so everyone gets a say. It’s collaborative in that way. The main difference is in a band, you work with people for years creating a sound. When creating for TV or film, you’re thrown into their universe. You have to make your sound work in their world. I have my own style and sound, but it’s their movie and they have ideas already about what the sound could be.
Photos courtesy of Hulu & Lifetime