Since joining synth-indie meets alt-dance outfit AWOLNATION in 2015, Zach Irons has injected dissonant doses of atmospheric pressure via distinctive gear choices, a craving for vintage tube amps, and a burning love for a vintage Strat gifted to him by John Frusciante.
But it doesn’t hurt that Zach is the son of former Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons, who has traversed all of rock’s sonic spectrum. All that is to say that Zach Irons refuses to stagnate, instead basing his young career upon perpetual forward motion.
And that same mindset has Irons exploring even greater sonic ground on his latest project, IRONTOM's debut, GEL pt.1: "This is the first time I've produced a record on my own," Irons says. "And it's the first time I've owned a computer, other than when I was very young."
In an age where tech reigns supreme, Irons' revelation that he's lived a primarily computer-less existence is shocking. As for how it affected the guitars on GEL pt. 1, he says, "I learned how to engineer and produce while making this record. A lot of my guitar playing has to do with the sounds I was getting while learning to do that.
"I was trying to get sounds I'd never heard before. Some of that is inspired by not wanting to be self-indulgent. The guitars on this record are a product of letting it flow, and not overthinking them."
Zach’s dad, Jack, taught him to follow his gut. And he’s done so, damning fads, while his instincts pulled him down roads less traveled.
"There is a lot of self-indulgence out there on guitar, and there's also too much self-indulgence in the world,” he muses.
"There's too much social media, and that's not a diss: it leads to overthinking. I'm the type of person who tends to overthink things, and I have in the past on records. So, with this one, I wanted not to be too precious and only focus on things I loved."
IRONTOM is yet another bout of reinvention for Zach Irons, whose musically nomadic ways are signaling that what’s to come might be guitar’s most exiting era yet.
When asked how he’ll continue to push the envelope, he says, "I like the idea of getting even more organic. I'm conceptualizing songs that present as vague ideas of what I think they should sound like, but they never end up sounding that way. That’s led me down the path where I’m a hybrid version of raw and organic, mixed with someone who loves sonic manipulation."
"I can't be sure," he concludes. "But I'm looking forward to trying it out."
As I understand it, you've been computerless for a long time, but reintroducing them into your life helped shape GEL pt.1 in a big way.
"That's true. I grew up with my dad being a musician, and I had a sheltered mindset regarding how music is made. I had this idealist mindset that you learn your instrument, get in a room, and keep it organic. I held that ideal close to me until I realized that music didn't sound like that anymore, which was confusing."
"I would think, 'I'm hearing this band, but I can hear computerized elements,' which I found to be not as raw. But now my ears are trained to where I want to hear computerized sounds, but I didn't used to be that way; I was like, 'I don't care about that,' but when I joined AWOLNATION, I started recording that way, and that changed the way I looked at it."
Was GEL pt.1 a major departure from your approach with AWOLNATION?
"I have a lot more space to explore. I've always wanted to do pitched things because I'd hear things with a lot of stereo choruses and stuff that was sped up, and I liked it. I liked half-speed and twinkly things and found them brilliant, almost like a keyboard sound, but with a guitar. I'm attracted to sounds that spin like a carousel, and I've been seeking them for years."
Is there a track from GEL pt. 1 that best exemplifies what you're looking to accomplish?
"The last song on the record, Stick Figure Attack, is special. It has elements from my favorite bands and genres, and it came together in a way that I felt good about. I played acoustic on it but did an extended solo as the outro that was soft, clean, and very sincere. That's the one I've been telling people about; it's not a loud rocker, but I'm super proud of it."
Tell me about the gear you used – especially during that solo.
"Well, I played a lot of acoustic but wrote it on my electric guitar. I used a [Roland TR-]808 drum machine and then live drums, which led me down a Zeppelin path. It's an obvious thing, but I'm always trying to recreate John Bonham’s sound, even if it's not possible.
"And that led me to want to do a Jimmy Page thing, so I pulled the acoustic out and did a Stairway to Heaven style thing where the acoustic is in one ear, and the Strat is in the other. It's basic, but I love it."
Did you use your trusty Japanese Strat or the '61 Strat that John Frusciante gifted you?
"No, I don't use the Japanese Strat much anymore. I stopped using it and never used it much on recordings. I mostly use the '61. But I only use the '61 in the studio and never take it on the road. It's too sentimental."
What led John to give you the '61 Strat?
"I first met John in 2009 or 2010, when I would go to his place and learn songs. He would teach me things, and at the time, I was only 16 or 17, so it was amazing. One day, I went over there – and I'm such a fan of his, which I'm open about – and I was talking to him about guitars. I'd ask, 'What did you use on this song?' and pick his brain.
"And then, I looked around and said, 'Hey, where are all your guitars?' because I'd noticed that there weren't many around. John was like, 'I don't know…' and asked his assistant, 'Hey, where are my guitars?' And the assistant says, 'Oh, they're in the backroom, and I said, 'Can I pull some out?'
"So, we pulled a few out, and the '61 Strat was one, and I loved it immediately. Eventually, John said, 'I want you to take that guitar with you; it's yours.' It was an amazing thing."
Have you discovered the secret to that guitar's magic?
"For me, it has a ton of sentimental value. But at the time in my life when John gave it to me, I was so malleable; my brain was a sponge. And I looked up to John so much, which is interesting because initially, I wasn't really a fan of his playing. I was more into flashing stuff, like Eddie Van Halen, when I was a kid.
"That changed after seeing John the Troubadour before Stadium Arcadium came out. He actually played my '61 Strat that night, and I could see how amazing he was. I always thought, 'If there was one guitar I'd want of his, that would be it,' and it's the one that ended up being mine."
If you don't take the '61 Strat on the road, how do you recreate its sound on tour?
"I have an '81 Fullerton reissue. I'm not sure how many people are familiar with the Fullerton reissues from the early '80s, but they're close to those sick guitars from the '60s. It's another reason I don't use the Japanese Strat because I was always bummed out when I compared it to the '61. But when I got the Fullerton reissue, I didn't have that problem. I never feel held back."
You and John jammed out on Led Zeppelin's Presence, right? How did that go down?
"I was at a BBQ with Flea when I was 14 or 15. So, Flea said, 'Dude, you have to sit down with my guitar player, John; he's the best.' And then he was like, 'There's Hendrix, there's Cobain, and then there's John.' I was like, 'Okay,' but wasn't a fan yet, so I didn't know what to say, but said, 'Cool. Let's do it.'
"So, John invited me over and said, 'I'm gonna teach you the whole record [Presence],' but we only did Achilles Last Stand the first day because it's so long. That started our friendship, and later, he taught me the rest of the album. We jammed on the whole thing one night live, and I've been considering resurrecting that idea because it was awesome."
Did your dad's work with the Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam influence you?
"It impacted me for a long time. My main outlet was the idea of getting into a room and feeling the energy of unspoken and unseen things like he did. That was the credo in my house with my dad, playing together and having camaraderie. It was the name of the game, and it influenced me a ton.
"It was a massive part of my life to the point where it almost held me back. I was closed off to doing things and had complicated feelings about drum machines and loops, which I thought, 'That's not okay to do,' because my dad was a perfectionist drummer. But now I'm figuring out how it all works together."
How do you approach effects?
"I love the EHX POG and can't play a show without it. It's got that pitchy thing we discussed earlier, and it's otherworldly. It allows me to bring in different octaves, which I'm developing. But I yearn to write songs that don't turn anything on other than a boost or a chorus. As much as I love effects, I always want to be simple and basic. But I do love using a wah, too."
Do you have a wah you're partial to?
"Because of John, I love the Ibanez WH10. He influenced me, and I couldn't escape using his gear. I would want to do my own thing on principle; I don't want to do everything he does, but he paved the way there. I've tried other wah pedals, and I hate them. The Ibanez is a staple of John's sound, and I can't get away from it. I had a pre-Reverb.com obsession with finding them because they used to be very hard to find and super-expensive."
Do you get into vintage tube amps, or are you more of a solid-state guy?
"I just bought a '70s Marshall [JMP] 50-watt Bass. I’ve played through other amps, but that’s the best one. I also used some Fender stuff and went direct. When I was younger, I would have been like, 'We absolutely cannot use fake amps,' but I'm over that. I love my Marshall stuff, but I'm fine with onboard stuff because it’s easy."
How has the making of GEL pt.1 changed you as a guitarist?
"I took a crash course in engineering and production, and now I can see the session in my head and go, 'This should be here,' and put audio to that visual. My playing is constantly evolving, and I'm excited for the future of melding old-school ways with how I did this record. I'm always looking to the future, saying, 'What's next?' That's just how I roll, I guess."
- GEL pt.1 is out now.