It may sound hyperbolic, but without Jack Irons, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam may never have come to exist. The 59-year-old drummer was key to the formation of both of those Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bands, thanks to lifelong friendships with musicians such as Flea, Anthony Kiedis and Alain Johannes, and to his chance handoff of a 1990 instrumental, pre-Pearl Jam demo tape to a then-unknown San Diego singer named Eddie Vedder, who was afterward invited to join that band within a matter of weeks.
In recent years, Irons has released a host of largely instrumental music on his own, boiling down the essence of his rhythmic prowess into tracks that at times recall the spookier side of trip-hop, the precision cool of Kraftwerk and the spaced-out syncopation of Can. On March 4, Org Music issued a 12-song 12-inch vinyl featuring Irons’ new EP Koi Fish in Space on side one and his 2019 EP Dream of Luminous Blue on side two. A video for the former’s “Epic Battle of the Elements” was directed by Irons’ daughter Amalia.
SPIN spoke with Irons by phone to discuss how he’s been approaching his new music, finding the right home for a special piece of his vintage gear collection and the enduring power of connecting the dots.
SPIN: How do you actually make this music? It’s often hard to tell what instruments are being played in your songs.
Jack Irons: Well, that’s a good question. Back in the early 2000s when you and I were first talking, I was into coming up with drum arrangements, and everything started with the drums, like a normal song. I’d build on it in more traditional ways — with keyboards, sounds or whatever. At this point, I’m less interested in fumbling around on a keyboard, because I’m not a keyboard player. I’m less interested in looking for something rather than taking the percussive elements and creating some sounds with them. On this record, I had some drum tracks around from other things that I just started to go somewhere else with. I’d take it and start twisting it in all kinds of ways, and turn it into something completely different. That’s what I love. I’m always trying to create something that can be a tune I can present, that has an arrangement and a way of listening to it that makes sense, but it starts very abstractly. I create from sound. I’ll get a drum track I like, and then here I go. Koi Fish was finished about a year-and-a-half ago. My head is in a lot of places right now.
Let’s take a specific track from the new EP as an example — “At the Coral Reef.” How do you begin putting something like that together?
That started as a drum track I already recorded for another artist. The advantage of that is having an inspired track to start with. I created a new soundscape from that, turned it into something unrecognizable and then added melodic elements. The finished track sounded like good music for looking at a coral reef to me. “Epic Battle of the Elements” started in a similar way. When I can feel creative and have good days, I start creating something, and something happens, and I keep revisiting it. Think of me as a guy who, when I do this stuff, I just start going. I can work for hours. I work way past the point of mental well-being, a lot, to find something that works. Once it works, I do it, and I say, that’s cool. That sounds right to me. And then I move on. If I use drum triggers on a few of the drums, and I go into keyboards and pad sounds, every tempo, every dynamic, every sort of soft and hard hit, every combination of all those things on particular sounds yields different melodies, like, wow, with that tempo and playing this beat, I hear this melody. Now, let me add a second melody. What happens if I do this? It’s really very experimental. Once I have an arrangement and lay it down, that concept is somewhat lost, because I’m not rehearsing it, and I’ve moved on.
There are themes about the environment and how we treat animals on Dream of Luminous Blue. Were those same subjects on your mind with Koi Fish?
Dream of Luminous Blue, I did in Northern California. It definitely had a vibe up there. The album cover itself is me drawing a dream. I dreamt I was floating in space. It was very real. I literally thought it was real, it was so vivid. I turned around, and there was this giant koi fish standing up looking at me, like, what are you doing here? It wasn’t the easiest environment for me to create. We spent a few years back up there between 2017 to 2020, and that was the only thing I did in that three years there. Since then, I’ve been back in Southern California and I did Koi Fish right away, which was surprising, because we’d just moved again. I don’t have those crazy, wild dreams here, but I’ve made more music. I love animals. I love my dog so much. What we do to animals is terrible, as a human race. I have feelings. I look, I see it and it affects me. All those stuff goes into whatever I do, but I’m not a songwriter-type, where I have a feeling and put words into it. I wouldn’t honestly know how to do that too much. I’ve only dabbled, on something like [Pearl Jam’s] “The Whale Song.” There’s a certain intimacy to having a guitar and writing words and melodies, and I didn’t like that as much as being really experimental and going weird. I’m also not a great singer or instrumentalist on a melodic instrument, so I might as well do what I think is weirdly me.
Your longtime friend Alain Johannes mixed Koi Fish. How cool is it that you’re still finding new ways to collaborate with him after all these years?
Alain gets what this is all about. He gets the song in a rough form and makes it sound good and big. I’m trying to get better with mixing. The more instruments I put on, the more I need a mixer. The more I create from abstract sounds, which is the direction I’ve been going lately, mixing becomes more of an important issue. Alain and I have a language and a connection from all those years of playing together as kids and in Eleven. Growing up and having all those similarities, or learning to play together, it’s always there when we get a chance to do it.
You’ve played on a lot of Josh Klinghoffer’s Pluralone releases of late. I understand he is now the owner of the drum kit you played throughout the ‘90s on albums like Pearl Jam’s No Code.
Yeah. That’s Josh’s kit now. Me and him made a deal [Laughs]. Josh is a collector. I don’t collect drums. Through the years, I’ve had many sets, but I end up selling them off. I don’t like to collect and store things. My family does that enough already. Moving with garages full of stuff bums me out. As time goes on, I just love my Masters of Maple drums. They sound so much better to me than any kit I play. That kit was the old No Code kit, but it never sounded as good to me recording it at home as the years rolled by. Josh was really dying to have it. He became the owner of the kit when we were doing To Be One With You up in NorCal. We recorded it at Prairie Sun Studios up in Sebastopol. That was a really cool session — one of my favorites. He was over at my house and saw the kit in the garage. When he wanted to go into a cool studio and re-do the Mother Nature songs, we said, let’s do that. We brought the kit to the studio and had fun with it for a day.
Have you worked on anything else of late?
I played on a few of Josh’s songs for the Pluralone album I Don’t Feel Well. We did that remotely. I’m really excited because I played on four or five songs with my son Zach’s band, Irontoms. We haven’t had that kind of collaboration before. They’re working hard to finish their new record. I also did four songs for an artist Alain was producing that I don’t want to name just yet, because it’s not finished. Alain is the one that brought me into the fold with Mark Lanegan on the Blues Funeral album. Interestingly, I didn’t know him at all. We never spoke, but that was one of the most fun things about working with him. Alain said, “Hey, I have these tracks. Let’s see if Mark will like what you do.” I think this was in 2012. I played on them and sent them back, and Alain said, he loves it. I thought, ok, great! As he did more records, I got these opportunities to keep playing. It was kind of cool because it all went through Alain and there wasn’t much back and forth. We shared a sweet email once and said, let’s keep doing this when it works. It’s kind of cool to have an ongoing collaboration with a musician without sharing any actual dialog. We shared that connection with Alain. Mark loved working with him. And if you love working with Alain, there’s going to be some connection to me, because of the language of music Alain and I share.
Hardcore Pearl Jam fans got a kick out of your recent Facebook video showing you warming up to the drumbeat of ‘In My Tree’ from No Code.
I do my best with social media in representing myself as a drummer. I just want to share my music. I’m not working out there in the world too much, so when I’m at home, I like to share. That “In My Tree” video came about because I’d just watched Get Back. Ringo Starr was big on putting dish towels on his drums. How they mic’d those drums created a sound I’d always loved. I learned about the towels years ago, but I’d forgotten about it. People moved on to putting tape, tissue or gels on their drums to make them sound better. Everything is so big and loud now, so you wouldn’t do that. I saw ‘Get Back’ and put some towels on my drums, and all of a sudden, I realized that sound would lend itself to a representation of “In My Tree.” I literally put my phone up and recorded it in all of 10 minutes.
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Did you use towels on the original session?
No. The original session is a funny story. When Pearl Jam played Soldier Field in the heatwave in ’95, I was still new to the band. Those guys worked really hard. They had all these shows lined up and then immediately had studio time the next day. I was always really tired from these long sets, and the next day, I was like, gosh, don’t we get a day off? They were already in there, but I was fried. I was cranky. I had a little practice drum kit with small rototoms and a teeny bass drum that was eight or 10 inches wide. We put it in a vocal booth with barely enough room for me and the kit. I was in there and I think [producer] Brendan [O’Brien] had an old mic set up. I was like, why are we here? Why are working so hard? I went into the room wanting to take out my frustrations on the drums, and I came up with “In My Tree.” I think they heard me doing it and Brendan turned up the mic and went, that sounds really cool. They were very accepting of my creative side. I was starting to do a lot of drum music, and I wanted to bring that element to Pearl Jam. I always want drums to do a little bit more. They embraced it and it helped those sessions. I do think we used towels on No Code songs like “Habit.” That’s probably the only session where I used it, because Brendan knew the tricks.
It’s also amazing to see the continuing growth of the musical lineage that you helped start, with Klinghoffer now a touring member of Pearl Jam and Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers drumming in Eddie Vedder’s solo band.
If I look back at my life, everything really did connect. Me and Hillel Slovak started to play music, and we met Alain. We were really intent on it. We developed ourselves. Then, we started playing with Flea, and that became the Chili Peppers. There were some troubles and I moved on, but then I ended up in Joe Strummer’s band. From there, I met Eddie. Stone [Gossard] and Jeff [Ament] came to me with a demo tape, and I suggested giving it to Eddie [Laughs]. It just kept going. Josh was very influenced by Pearl Jam growing up and apparently was at a lot of shows when I was in the band. That’s already 26 years ago when we were on the No Code tour. Josh was a teenager then, which is why that drum kit was so fun for him. He’d seen me play it. I just think it’s cool, really.