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Guitarist James Iha makes a mixtape for dreamers

In I Made You A Mixtapewe ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixer: Though best known for his guitar work in Smashing Pumpkins, James Iha has had an illustrious career since he left the group in the late ’90s. He’s taken up with Maynard James Keenan’s A Perfect Circle, he owns a record label and a recording studio with Fountains Of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger—with whom he’s also formed a supergroup featuring members of Hanson and Cheap Trick—and he’s made two solo records, including 2012’s Look To The Sky. Still, even with all those projects, Iha has always been a bit of a mystery to the public. He’s remained the quiet guitarist in the background of the loud rock ’n’ roll band, or the enigma manning the DJ booth. He generally has some big idea going, though, so The A.V. Club asked him to make a list of songs for people with their heads in the clouds—or more succinctly, for dreamers.

Neil Young, “Sugar Mountain” 
James Iha: “Sugar Mountain” is a song for a dreamer because it is a beatific hippie utopian song, and has a touch of darkness to it as well. It sounds almost like he’s talking about a commune, because he’s saying, “Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain,” and, “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain.” He’s talking about county fairs and your friends are there, and then he talks about all these really kind of sweet, naïve things. I guess I like it because somebody could identify with that dreamy aspect of it. 

The A.V. Club: Do you identify with it? Do you consider yourself a dreamer? 

JI: I guess I identify with the underdog or the dreamer who’s trying to reach something. So yeah, I’ve always identified with that, as opposed to being the hero or the quarterback of the football team, or something like that. [Laughs.]

My Bloody Valentine, “To Here Knows When”
JI: You can’t even really hear the lyrics, but the music is super-dreamy and vague, but melodic and kind of noisy. So just from the sound of it, I thought it sounded very dreamy. And the title of the song, too. With the music, it can also be construed as being very druggy. I guess that’s a different kind of dreamer. [Laughs.]

Blonde Redhead, “This Is Not”
JI: I thought this one sounded like a short story or a novella about, again, the underdog or some sort of unrequited love. She loves somebody and then she met somebody else and everything just started to click in her life, and then by chance “she met you and your brother.” And a lot of lyrics are really dreamy. “Life is like a dream, a series of meaningless movement.” So it’s like a story, but it’s also kind of vague and sort of poetic. 

AVC: It’s a little nihilistic.

JI: It’s pointing out the mystery of life. “Let’s go to the other world / Because we think we are free.” It’s a little cynical, but also kind of dreamy. 

Big Star, “Watch The Sunrise”
AVC: These tracks you picked, in order, could be a good soundtrack for an arty teen movie. 

JI: Maybe a Wes Anderson movie, or something like Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist. To me, this one is more sincere. It doesn’t have any cynicism. It’s just really sincere and on the nose. I also feel like “Watch The Sunrise” has religious overtones to it in some of the imagery. “There’s a light in the sky.” There’s also plenty of stuff about nature, which I guess you could kind of construe to be religious, too, in a way. “Open your eyes, fears be gone.” It kind of strikes me as very hippie, or a little bit religious. 

Big Country, “In A Big Country”
JI: I love this song. I used to watch the video when it was on MTV. When MTV played videos. [Laughs.] The video I remember, there’s a cool-looking girl and she’s sort of being chased by the band, but in kind of a sweet way. She leaves clues for the band, and they find this object that has the band’s logo on it. Then they’re riding on a boat and rappelling from a mountain cliff, and then she meets up with the lead singer and they hug. The music is super-anthemic, the guitars are awesome and bagpipe-like, and it’s somehow incorporating the band’s name, that they’re in a big country and then dreams stay with you like a lover’s voice. It’s sounds like Braveheart or something. I like the idea that the band’s on this scavenger hunt to find the girl. [Laughs.] It’s cute. 

Billy Idol, “Dancing With Myself”
JI: I guess this one is less obvious. I thought this was a different kind of dreamer. He’s a loner, looking for a girl in a crowded city or a crowded night, in a nightclub. And the only thing he can take solace in is in himself by dancing. Just keep dancing and somebody will notice you one night. [Laughs.]

The Replacements, “Achin’ To Be”
JI: This is great, because he’s talking about a would-be artist who’s trying to do bigger stuff. And it sounds like someone everyone knows. Like he or she is an artist, but nobody really takes them seriously. So he’s talking about her. She danced alone in nightclubs. She’s a poet, she’s an artist, she’s like a movie, but at the end of the song, he’s like, “I’m like that, too. I’ve been aching for a while and I’m aching to be.” The narrator reveals himself, like, “I’m just like her and I don’t have the courage to go up to her.” Maybe I read too much into it. [Laughs.] But that’s how it reads to me. 

Phoenix, “Honeymoon”
AVC: The record this is off of, United, is so good, but it’s not what Phoenix fans who got into them with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would expect.

JI: It’s amazing. I forget what year this came out, but they emerged a fully formed band that anticipated a lot of what’s going on in indie rock now. And the music’s dreamy. They have a breakdown toward the end where a harp’s playing and the organ comes in, so it’s kind of anthemic in a really quiet, sincere way. And lyrically, it seems to be about some sort of shut-in loner kind of person who maybe goes to see movies, and that’s how they define happiness, these movie fantasies. “Every Sunday I go to Hollywood,” and “every Sunday I live my honeymoon.” “There’s no ending / Light fades in my eyes / I don’t want nobody to burn my Hollywood.” That’s great. 

Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man” 
JI: This is the granddaddy of them all. Dylan is an amazing lyricist and icon. And I thought this one was a stream-of-consciousness song about some sort of pied-piper kind of man. [Laughs.] It could be drug-related, it could just be a shaman-type person, a ’60s type of icon to lead the way to a new consciousness, or a new kind of society. And the lyrics are amazing. 

AVC: Why did you pick this one over the Byrds cover, or any of the other versions? 

JI: I love the Byrds cover. I honestly think of The Byrds cover before I think of the Dylan original. The Dylan original is obviously great, too. 

Brian Eno, “Deep Blue Day”
JI: It is an amazing song. Most people think about it because of the famous scene in Trainspotting, the worst toilet in Scotland. There are no lyrics. I like it because it’s just this spaced-out, ambient country score kind of music, and I read that it was originally done for a documentary about the Apollo space mission. [Laughs.] It works for both somebody looking for drugs in a toilet, or spaceships flying around in outer space. And I think it’s genius, because there’s pedal steel or lap steel in it, and it’s such an unusual choice for ambient music to add a country-ish touch to it. 

Depeche Mode, “But Not Tonight”
JI: This is sort of the Hot Topic gothic love song. I think it’s the last song on that album [Black Celebration]. It’s a really upbeat song for Depeche Mode. I like it because it’s just happiness for one night. The narrator is saying, “Oh God, it’s raining / But I’m not complaining.”

AVC: It’s a different dreamer message. It’s more finite. They’re saying, “Today’s great, so we’ll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow.”

JI: “Let’s live for tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be sad again, because we’re gothic people.” It’s a really great song. The music’s awesome, and Dave Gahan’s vocals are really incredible. There’s the line “Just for a day / On a day like today / I’ll get away from this constant debauchery.” [Laughs.] The fact that he throws in “debauchery” is really great. That’s just bold. 

Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
JI: Great lyrics. Elton didn’t write them; Bernie Taupin wrote them. There are a lot of incredible lines, and it’s a dramatic, huge, epic song. It’s not necessarily the dreamer who’s like the underdog, but it’s something a dreamer could identify with. Here, the protagonist is saved from a doomed marriage with the help of beer and a person named Sugar Bear. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of great imagery. “One more beer and I don’t hear you anymore / We’ve all gone crazy lately / My friends out there rolling ’round the basement floor.” So it’s not totally a dead-on dreamer song, but there are great things about it that a dreamer would like. 

The Flaming Lips, “The Spark That Bled” 
JI: The music is really elliptical and trippy. Also, that part comes in where he’s like, “And I stood up and I said, ‘Yeah…’” It’s so anthemic. I don’t really know what the song is about. It sounds like maybe a bad trip, or some sort of Cold War nightmare or something. But l like that this person who’s maybe incapacitated or downtrodden stands up and says, “Yeah.” 

Blake Babies, “Out There” 
JI: Throwback track. I’ve always liked this band. I’ve always liked Juliana Hatfield. I think this song is totally the quintessential dreamer song, because it’s the tale of two people in love, and at least one of them doesn’t know it, or both of them don’t know it. It sounds like an introverted version of “Born To Run.” “You know it’s stupid / I see you when I pass you by / I’m afraid to meet your eye.” Then the narrator says that he or she doesn’t use their body or their brain, and they’ve got to get out of this shitty town. That seems like what a dreamer wants or identifies with. They don’t understand what’s going on with themselves. They want to get out of where they are. “I’m gonna leave this town / Gonna leave it like I found it / Gonna turn myself around.”

The Cure, “Charlotte Sometimes”
AVC: This one’s based on a children’s book, so that’s perfect for dreamers.

JI: Oh, is it? I didn’t know that. The music is super-Cure-dreamy, slow and mournful, but melodic, too. It’s trance-y, gothic, doomed romance. The lyrics are poetic, but vague. The person could be in a nightclub, where all the other people dance, or just walking around, where all the voices blur. It sounds like somebody who doesn’t get what’s going on or doesn’t know how to handle it—or maybe they’re psychotic. 

AVC: The video was filmed in an abandoned sanatorium. 

JI: Really? I didn’t see the video. When I was in high school, I would listen to this song, and it was such a rewarding thing for a sad person to listen to, if that makes sense.

AVC: Yeah, it totally makes sense. That’s why a lot of people like The Cure.

JI: Yeah, it sort of rewards their unhappiness, or their imagined unhappiness. And obviously, they’re a great band. Great band, great songs. That’s the feeling.