Jack Irons: Interview
Recounting the ever-changing, illustrious career of drummer extraordinaire Jack Irons is an open book, almost a look back in the who’s who in music history for the past twenty years. Having been there from the inception of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the introduction of Eddie Vedder to Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready – who would later become Pearl Jam, and who Jack would later play drums and write songs with. Irons also graced the stage and even wax with legend Joe Strummer and recorded and toured with Eleven.
Accomplishments notwithstanding, Jack Irons has brought his talent, experience and friends along for an unspoiled ride through the waves of a new ocean of excitement, in his solo work, Attention Dimension.
A tribal-organic swell with an electric charge, Attention Dimension ebbs and flows with instrumental jams, a cover of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and rock gems that defy a pinpoint label. At times grooving, at times bounding to a world beat, and at all times freshly meaningful. In other words, this is composition at its heart, not songs that scratch at the surface. These tracks dive deep into the depths and a multitude of color and texture is familiar to each one, teeming with character.
Music from a drummer’s point of view. Almost a whole new perspective. A new take on things. A unique page to a book usually written by different authors. Irons takes a beat-driven idea and molds the other colors around it, in most cases.
Some tracks are straight forward indie rock tracks, sung by Irons himself. Others have one or two words painted atop wondrous compositions that can can be as mystical as they can be infectious.
Brotherhood (and sisterhood) in music goes a long way and old chums from his musical past slide into position on Attention Dimension. Flea, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Natasha Schneider, Alain Johannes and Les Claypool all make up an all-star band of brothers and sisters on Irons’ new release.
Irons has not only the chops and wisdom of a rock drummer who has toured the world, but he is the living experience of being subject to learning what he calls ‘right living’ to attain happiness and balance – all in the name of being one with himself and the world. Thus allowing him to, in his words, “find the right relationship to all of it,” music and family.
Me: How have you been?
Jack Irons: I’ve been good. It’s a totally different process, of getting this record out there and working it from a how a business point of view is, is a whole new challenge. It’s not as simple as like before. I was spending like a half-hour, forty-five minutes playing to some music and I go, “you know that’s so easy.”
Me: Trying to pigeonhole the sound of this disc is pretty tough, but if you were charged with the task, how would you classify the sound of Attention Dimension?
Jack Irons: I don’t have that answer, I really don’t. I need to come up with some sort of slogan. Certainly, when the Chili Peppers came out with theirs it was so easy. They said it was this. This is, Jesus, I don’t know, let me think about it for the rest of the interview.
Me: Your press kit calls Attention Dimension “a work of a lifetime,” how is that so?
Jack Irons: Well, I think it’s part of the story behind it. In other words, I originally started doing drum music in 1994. It’s the first time I did it. I got really into it and I worked all through the years I was in Pearl Jam. I had tons of recordings that are just drum music. They’re not in forms that I’m going to be remixing or anything. They’re pretty much, you know, I don’t know where all the masters are, but I have the stereo mixes. You know, I just did it throughout all those years so, on one end I was playing in a band and doing that with some regularity for a long time. But on the other hand, I was always working on this. When I sort of stopped playing and stopped touring and all that, this record was like a very big therapy session, to work my way back to wellness.
I didn’t come up with that saying, but the whole journey is in this record. Everything I could do musically, I brought everything to the table that I was capable of musically at the points when I was making this. And it took so much. For one person, for me, for my person anyway, to do this, to complete it. It took every bit of five years and a lot of work and I think that’s what it means.
Me: You started playing when you were 13, is this something you planned to do, to make a solo record at some point?
Jack Irons: You know? I never really thought like that. When I did my very first piece of drum music I was really stoked. You know, what you could do creatively on your own. I definitely have, or did have anyway, a real manic side about what you create if you just let yourself be free of perceptions and other peoples’ opinions and the business and formats or anything. Like if you said, “Well, what do I want to do?” Within sound, say. So that’s what this record was like for me. It’s really like, “Well I’m gonna do anything I feel like wanting to do until I can’t do it anymore.”
That feeling didn’t really come to me until 1994, in terms of music.
Now, there was a period in 1986-87-88 or something like that. I had this crazy car. I had this old Chrysler Newport. I realized that I could could just rip it out, gut it, and I put like black lights in it and black light murals. I did crazy stuff to it. And I was so thrilled by it! Of course I was crazy. I had friends that would come over and say, “Dude, you gotta eat!” “I can’t eat, I gotta work.” That was a little bit of my manic side that I’ve learned to hone in now so that I can live healthily. That’s sort of the excitement behind it.
Me: Did you focus that manic side for this record?
Absolutely. It’s where it came out. I can’t say I had to focus it, it was like this record was a process where when I started I wasn’t feeling good, a lot. I started in ’99, I stopped playing in Pearl Jam in ’98. That year from ’98 to ’99 was just awful. Awful fight for survival is what it felt like to me. Eventually it was like, “I’m getting a little better, I’m getting through the days a little easier, what am I going to do with my life? I’m not just going to keel over here.” So, I started working on the music. It was a whole new gesture too, I had to order equipment, I had to consider it, what gear, hooking it up, something’s wrong, blah blah blah. The whole process was a great challenge for me and I do believe it really helped me to getting into balance. It did take a long time.
Me: What are your feelings about the finished album?
Jack Irons: I’m really happy about it. There are more challenges ahead. It’s not so simple.
Me: Did playing with different types of bands and different types of musicians influence the solo work in any way?
Jack Irons: Yeah, I couldn’t say specifically. I got into song writing in Pearl Jam and they were real receptive to that. That helped me to feel more free. There’s one song on there (Attention Dimension) called ‘Come Running’ that I sang and wrote, and I never did anything like that before Pearl Jam. I did one song with Pearl Jam, The Whale Song, I actually remade The Whale Song for this record, it’s just that the record was just too long. I figure another day maybe. If this record means something to people and people like it, maybe I’ll get that other thing out someday.
Me: In this musical age that we live in of the pop-artist-flavor-of-the-week, what kind of audience is Attention Dimension best suited for?
Jack Irons: Definitely more musician type folk. Also, what I found, I swear to god, really young children, it’s just sort of fun for them. And also, people that are over forty. I mean I’ve got to say, I’m over forty, but I’ve given it to the most unlikely people and they’ve just enjoyed it. They put it on, it just gives them a good feeling, you don’t have to focus on it, it’s not the best thing since sliced toast, you know? You put it on, it’s nice to listen to. If you’re a musician you can go deeper into it and wonder about the process a little more. In terms of the actual teenage record buying audience and the whole thing, I don’t know where something like this would stand with them.
Me: What about the whole jam-band crowd that’s really big these days and would really get into this?
Jack Irons: I think I agree with you, but I think I need to prove some live worthiness. They need that. The jam-band crowd is about the live scene and the record and I’m still putting that together.
Me: What was the typical writing process like?
Jack Irons: This was more real experimental, where I would sit down on the drum set and it started with, usually, some drum grooves. And I would go and I would get something I liked. Then I would just record for a long time. Eventually I would have a track of something. There was basically no format. No order, no nothing. I went with complete feel. So, 7 minute songs, 15 minute songs, whatever. I didn’t care. That’s how I started it. Eventually, I started working in more of a structure.
Track number two, Suluhiana, that was the second track I did. The first track I did was the basics for Water Song. That was 15 minutes, then was 7 minutes, eventually I was going, “I should do it with a structure.” Eventually I started working that way.
Then, when I’ve got a drum track, based on how the drums sounded, I might pick up another instrument. Organ, synthesizer, keyboard, percussion, whatever and go like that. If it sounds right over it, okay. I might take a kalimba and run it thorough an effect and hit with mallets. Eventually, years later, multi-layers, a creative piece was done. I’d listen to it from the point of going back to the beginning, and sometimes that was along process, and say “okay, something needs to change here.” It’s creativity for it’s own sake.
Me: It’s nice to hear that it went by feel and not necessarily “I’m going to do this here and do that there.”
Jack Irons: The only song that was like that was Come Running, where I wrote it on guitar. There’s definitely a way to present a song on guitar that works for me and for everybody. The rest of the music was all about going wild. You could call it music gone wild.
Me: As for the guest artists, how did you get them involved?
Jack Irons: Everybody on there are my good friends. But the reality of it is I did think of that for a while. When I got closer to being done, what I told myself is that when it’s to the point that I feel like I can do more, I thought what would be really cool, I thought to myself, would be if I could get some friends to play on it. The only musicians I know are the people I’ve played with. I barely know anybody else. So that’s sort of how that happened.
It meant a lot to me because I had been out of touch with all of the guys in P.J.
Flea and I kept in touch through the years, but you know, he’s on the road a lot.
Of course Alain and I hooked back up in Eleven again. This record definitely brought me together with everybody.
There was a gig that Pearl Jam played at the Irvine Amphitheater a couple of years ago, and I hadn’t seen those guys, I barely spoke to them in like 5 years. I was on my path, they were on their path, there was just sort of a necessary break, I guess, in our friendships. I showed up to the gig and it was great to see everybody and everyone was happy to see each other again and they were so happy that I was doing well now, because when I left I really wasn’t. When I was there I proposed it to a few people and there were like “yeah, definitely.”
The music dictated. I would think of a song and go, “You would be great on this.” And that’s how it went.
Of course Alain, because he mixed it, he’s my long time musical friend and partner, I just said, “Whatever you feel.” If you feel like doing your thing, just do it and we’ll just be free. The same with everyone else.
Flea came over and threw it down. Eddie took it a little more formally, took it up to his studio and did it there. He loves the version that came out. And that was great. That version that came out, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, I did that in 1995. It just sat. I then did a gig with Les Claypool and he was starting his Frog Brigade. I said “Check out this thing.” He said “Whatever ideas anyone has” and I brought him that and he dug it. He ended up doing his own version on his record and called it the “Jack Irons Version.” That’s how it all sort of came together. I asked Les when I got mine together, would you bust down. He said “Of course.” I had the basics. I sent it up to Les and he sent it back with his bass parts and Alain put the guitar on and Natasha put the keyboard on and we said, “Wow, its a track. It really sounds like a song.” Eddie and I, you know, I just knew that he might enjoy singing it. That’s the way it worked out.
Me: Is it strange sending music back and forth and not actually being there?
Jack Irons: You know, it was sort of fun. Everyone did it that way. Jeff Ament did it at his house. Stone did it at his studio. I think it was fun. Everyone could just listen to it and go “This is what I’m coming up with.” No sort of pressure, in their own place, in their own space, in their own time. Timing turned out to be perfect, in general. There was some waiting involved here and there, but there was no rush. I think everyone had fun that way, you know?
Me: Are there any running themes? A lot of the feelings I got from this, or textures, had to do with water.
Jack Irons: That’s a good one. Originally I was going to call it Underwater Circus Music. But, there’s this band ‘Underwater Circus’. So I was like, I don’t want to name it that when there’s this band called the same thing, so I got away from that. I’m a watery guy, I take a lot of showers, I love the sea, I have tattoos of whales and dolphins and sea creatures all over me. I think it was because I was a dolphin in another life or something like that. I have other thoughts of that, and who knows, but the music somehow definitely reflected it. I don’t know that my future music will be all like that, but who knows.
Me: How do you come up with the instrumental track titles?
Jack Irons: Well, you’d have to go song by song. Some of them Alain named. Suluhiana, that was something that was something that when we entered the war with Iraq. ‘Suluhiana’ that’s a term just that means ‘make peace’. He had some tribal ideas how he would instrumentally improvise with his voice and he goes, “Maybe a word or two would be nice” and he said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, how about just something about peace? Maybe you could find a word.” And he found it.
Water Song because it just sounds like water.
Me: How about Breaking Sea?
Jack Irons: Well, there’s a little bit of a lyric in there, it’s very [backgroundish]. It’s sort of based on that. Everything has a little bit of meaning. The only one that was named without any sort of reference to the song was Jackie Groove. Alain named it, in other words, when he put his sax solo on it or something, he would upload the file so I could hear it, he said Jackie Groove. That’s how he just thought of it. That track actually, the drums were recorded at his studio at a soundcheck I was doing for the Eleven record.
Me: Where does the title Attention Dimension come from?
Jack Irons: I was thinking about this record and there’s a lot of focus, you know, a lot of attention on many things. This universe we live in, wherever you focus on, is sort of where you’re at. It’s sort of a spiritual matter. In other words, you put your attention on something, that’s where you’re at. That’s what you’re doing. It’s the universe we live in, it’s an attention dimension.
Me: What is the ultimate goal of Jack Irons, personal and creative?
Jack Irons: It would definitely be higher evolution, so to speak. I’ve come from a certain extreme point from my own emotional disposition and I realize that, over time, that reacting to things all the time, sometimes, most of things that I react to, in some ways, I have reacted to it is right. But it doesn’t serve. It doesn’t serve your growth as a human being and understanding your own transcending your own difficult emotions. So if that was my goal, it would just be attaining higher levels of cognoscente of my own being, so to speak.
Me: How about creatively?
Jack Irons: I would love to see myself playing in a good band. But, really interesting. Maybe take the approach of making this music and now have that approach in a band with a lot of people. Yet it would have to be organized. The other goal is a much longer and harder achievement, my creative goal is more immediate.
Me: In the ever-changing career of Jack Irons, what are you most proud of?
Jack Irons: I never even thought like that. I’d have to say, and so I don’t pick one thing over the other, I’m proud of the fact that I have had a great opportunity to play with a lot of really good musicians. They’ve helped me and I’ve helped them somehow and somehow that connection happened. For one reason or another, who knows how things are and why people get along with some people, I’m proud of the fact that I have a lot of friends that are great musicians.
Me: If you weren’t a musician what would you see yourself doing?
Jack Irons: Is that the question you ask me now or the question that I had when I was eighteen?
Me: How about both?
Jack Irons: When I was eighteen there was nothing else that I could conceive of. Absolutely nothing. There’s no doubt. I had thoughts of buying an old limo and putting a mattress in it and living out of it until someone told me that you can’t sleep at the beach in L.A. They’ll just kick you off. In fact no one told me that, I found out myself.
Me: You always find out the hard way right?
Jack Irons: You find out with a policeman shining his light saying “You can’t park here!”
I had no other concept, really, of what I wanted to do. I tried college and I was a good student, but I lost the feeling for all that.
Me: So how about now? What could you see yourself doing other than being a musician?
Jack Irons: Well, I could be a good tour-guide at Disneyland. As long as people were willing to walk around a lot, I could do that.
Me: And not dress in the Mickey costume?
Jack Irons: No, no, no. I don’t think I could deal with all that. But if you had a small group, like me and my family, I’m good at that now. I kinda like it.
Me: It says in your press kit that you always wanted to finish your own album, what’s next?
Jack Irons: The ‘what’s next’ is I definitely have more music in the works. I’m always doing that. I’m hoping the live thing comes next. Even if it’s like four shows, I want to get that in my body again, you know? I always enjoy when I’m playing with people, I just don’t get to do it that often enough. That might be next. I’m always going to work on music. I definitely think there will be more music and probably other records somehow. It won’t take as long and won’t be as in depth, I might tend to get things done a little quicker and get more people’s participation on it next time. I see it like that.
Me: So then, what would you consider ‘right living’ to keep yourself healthy?
Jack Irons: Diet is a big thing. It’s a huge thing for anybody. As I move away from the years and grow more and more, the better days just keep coming. I try to eat organically and a lot of raw stuff. I’m not a vegetarian, but I used to be. Funny enough, part of my healing was getting away from being a vegetarian for a long time and it helped my nervous system to ground out by eating heavier foods. Right living is an approach to diet and there is no such thing as ‘a’ diet for me. Not yet anyway. I wish there was, it would make it so much easier. So, I always have to feel in to what my needs are, rather than just going for what I want. So that’s a huge part of it. It’s about being happy and learning to deal with difficulty, negative situations, stressful situations and resolving them positively and not getting worked up about it. Learning to be happy even in difficulty. And of course exercise, but I always do that. And respecting my sleep schedule. That’s it.
Accepting my priorities. I am a father and a husband, first. My career isn’t the first thing anymore. There are times when I’m frustrated with that. The reality is that’s my reality. There’s no way around it. There’s certain priorities and certain things and so the right living is the right relationship to all of it.