Jack Irons: Changing Channels
I wanna go rock again,” Jack Irons boasted to DRUM! in 2010, eager to emerge from his decade-long absence from touring. He has since made up for that break: backing the Wallflowers on the road, joining Red Hot Chili Peppers in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and releasing an album with Arthur Channel, the four-piece group Irons was just forming when we last checked in with him.
“We didn’t go into it with any real intention of, ’Okay, we’re going to now go be an official band,’” Irons said in a phone interview in October, days before Arthur Channel released its self-titled debut. “We were really just wanting to make music as friends and enjoy it, and see what could come of it.”
Arthur Channel was born in August 2010, when an unheard-of singer/songwriter, Jon Greene, sent Irons a demo. Several of its songs, including “Ripple,” “Vapor,” and “Lighten Up,” would later wind up on the record. But first, Irons and Greene met and spent time playing together at the drummer’s California home studio to test their chemistry. Things clicked. A month later, Greg Richling, Irons’ friend and the longtime bassist for the Wallflowers, joined them. Rounding out the lineup was guitarist Alain Johannes, Irons’ close friend since the two met in junior high homeroom in the mid-’70s. Their musical history together began in school, when they and classmate Hillel Slovak formed a loose framework for the band that eventually became Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 1987 the original lineup – Irons, Slovak, bassist Flea, and singer Anthony Kiedis – released its only full-length together, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
That album inspired a wave of musicians, including Primus frontman Les Claypool, who today praises the powerful, yet sparse, technique Irons brought to the funk-metal dynamic. “He’s a genius,” Claypool said.
“He was a big superhero for all of us. When I hear Jack, it’s such a unique sound beyond anybody else of our era.”
That era also marked Irons’ first departure from fame. He quit the Chili Peppers in 1988, following Slovak’s death. A decade later he would leave Pearl Jam, exhausted after three albums and three years touring the world. “He’s one of my favorite drummers,” said David Abbruzzese, whom the band fired and replaced with Irons in 1994. “But it seems as though he was struggling to drive that stuff live.”
The touring had become a struggle for Irons, who by then decided to confront the bipolar disorder with which he was diagnosed after losing Slovak. Irons took the rest of 1998 off. He traveled with his family to Greece and amassed a trove of instruments, and returned home to embark on what turned into a five-year-long venture. It became his first solo record, Attention Dimension.
“He never stopped,” said bandmate Johannes, who has also played guitar with Queens Of The Stone Age. “I don’t think there was ever a time when he didn’t play drums. As I’ve noticed him grow, the depth of his taste and his musicality has grown, too.” Irons’ next two experimental efforts, No Heads Are Better Than One and Blue Manatee, reflect as much, with flamenco, synthpop, and Indian classical influences among the global rhythms Irons picked up in his travels.
These three solo albums, made at home far from the demands of the road, rejuvenated Irons and sparked his interest in recording with a band again. “I needed to go back to work,” he admitted in September before an afternoon rehearsal with Arthur Channel. They spent more than a year writing and practicing before playing their first show, in Los Angeles, in October 2011.
A few months later Irons joined the Wallflowers on the invitation of Richling. By the time they hit the road, it had been 14 years since Irons had experienced the rigors of a full-time touring regimen. One day, while supporting the Wallflowers’ Glad All Over, he got a call from his old Chili Peppers bandmate Flea: Would he consider joining them onstage at their Hall Of Fame induction?
“I feel like I was a significant part of the beginning, the thrust, the brotherhood that formed that band,” Irons decided. So on that night in April, for the first time since 1988, Irons was a Chili Pepper again. “Thanks for having me, guys,” he told them during his brief speech; he was flanked by past and present drummers Cliff Martinez and Chad Smith.
In August 2013, three years after forming Arthur Channel, Irons and Richling left the Wallflowers to focus on their new band. “Just getting together in a room and creating – that was the point of this project, was to not look beyond that,” Irons said. While the bandmembers’ name recognition might have helped them secure a high-profile deal, they decided to pursue an indie, The End Records, based in Brooklyn, home to bands like the Lemonheads and Fear. “We thought, Arthur Channel is a new band. We’re not going to go and try to sell it to all the big, major labels that are basically making all these changes anyway, and looking for sure fixes and big pop acts,” Irons said. “We wanted to make this as organic as possible.”
Arthur Channel was indeed a do-it-yourself project from a newcomer and three rock veterans: Richling produced, Johannes mixed, and Irons engineered the album’s basic tracks. “It’s a real trial-and-error process,” he said. “But you trust your ears.” The result sounds little like Pearl Jam, The Wallflowers, or Queens Of The Stone Age, yet it incorporates flourishes of all three.
Irons’ ability to subdue his strokes and complex rhythms behind a band has come full-circle. On “We Are In It” and “Vapor,” listen for the hi-hat, which he plays in straight four time over a 6/8 feel. “He never tries to show off,” Johannes said. “He just wants to make the music come alive.”
The album art for Arthur Channel is a collage designed by a friend of Greene’s, months before his band discovered it. It depicts the backs of three people and a dog, their faces obscured as they walk toward the great unknown of a flooded horizon. The message appears to reference the band’s first steps, but the bigger statement seems to be Irons’ own outlook: “It’s nice to be healthy. That’s not something I could have said long ago.”
The End Records
On Arthur Channel’s eponymous debut, Jack Irons’ well-oiled pocket proves a perfect match for singer/ songwriter Jon Greene’s soaring, Jeff Buckley-esque vocals. The venerable drummer’s deft touch and relaxed feel also mesh nicely with the ethereal guitar leads of studio great Lyle Workman – see album stand-outs “Vapor” and “Thirst Of The Universe” for evidence of this chemistry. On the former, Irons’ takes a backseat, his steady 6/8 groove anchoring his bandmates’ swirling sonic tapestry. The latter finds him driving the group with propulsive snare rolls and creative, triplet-based fills that increase in grandeur towards the tune’s epic close. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Irons’ performance is the pleasing tones he coaxes from his kit. His toms are warm and fat; his snare wide open and sensitive, expressing every nuanced ruff and ghost note. Ride cymbals sizzle; crashes explode and decay ever so slowly, creating a palpable feeling of space. One actually gets the sensation of being in the same room as the drummer – a rare treat in the impersonal digital age.
Jack Irons is an iconic rock drummer who has landed some of the coolest gigs any drummer could dream of. His latest venture is Arthur Channel and their song “16 Children” features an eighth-note tom groove over a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern. His snare accents on the (2) & and 4 and occasional drag on (4) ah all serve to suggest a lazy Latin feel that’s perfect for this song.
Band Arthur Channel
Birthplace Los Angeles
Influences John Bonham, Keith Moon, Max Roach, Jim Keltner, Ringo Starr, Clyde Stubblefield, Stevie Wonder
Current Releases Arthur Channel (Arthur Channel); Glad All Over (The Wallflowers); Blue Manatee (solo)
Drums Masters Of Maple