This summer, thousands of Red Hot Chili Pepper fans will be introduced to Irontom. The Los Angeles-based indie group secured an opening spot on RHCP’s latest arena tour, which starts May 11, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Their debut record, Partners (produced by Aaron Bruno of AWOLNATION), was released May 5.
Like their tour’s headliner, Irontom provides a wide range of twists and turns that stretch the rock genre not only into something less defined, but something more exciting. Album opener “Live Like This” launches listeners into space with pulsing synthesizers, biting beats and robotic vocals—the sonic coloring reminiscent of ‘80s new wave, though perhaps a few shades darker. “Brain Go” is about as straight forward a feel-good pop-rock song gets, with bright, pounding keys, dirty guitar tones and a memorable hook in the chorus. “Be Bold Like Elijah,” the album’s lead single, has all the ingredients of an arena rock anthem.
On the eve of their album release, Behind the Setlist spoke with Irontom guitarist and founder Zach Irons. Irons grew up in the epicenter of L.A.’s music industry. His drummer father, Jack Irons, performed on and off with Pearl Jam for years, not to mention co-founded RHCP and one of L.A. scene’s cornerstone rock groups, Eleven. Irons also has a close friendship with former RHCP guitarist John Frusciante, who mentored Irons when he was a teenager. In our interview, we discussed all this and more, including Irontom’s new album, the upcoming tour, and the pressure that comes along with having to win over arena-sized audiences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the basics. Is there a story behind the name Irontom?
There are a few different layers, but the main story comes from this actual guy named Tom. He was in a motorcycle accident, two accidents actually. Both times my grandpa was on the scene and saved his life. The second time they had to put a metal rod in his leg so he could walk, so we named the band after him because the whole thing is such a legend to us.
So your grandpa was an emergency responder, or he just happened to be there both times?
No, not at all. He was just driving by. My grandpa is just a stud—the man. Now, he actually owns a metal fabrication business. He made all of Irontom’s stuff. He converted our bus (a former airport shuttle), which now has six bunks. He made our onstage sign. He’s dedicated to Irontom and helping us get off the ground.
Give me a quick rundown of your band’s history. How’d it all come together?
I’ve known the members for a long time, longer than when we’ve been a band. The singer and I have been friends since we were young teens; the drummer is actually my cousin. It was just a good combination of people who were close to me through my childhood and teen years that eventually became this group. I’d say we officially formed in 2012. That’s when we first started taking it on very seriously.
Talk to me about the writing and recording of Partners. Did you bring in finished songs or were you writing while in the studio?
A little bit of both, actually. There were some songs that were “right there” when we started and pretty much ready to be recorded, but there were others that were conceived in the studio, taken from ideas that had been floating around for awhile. Overall the process didn’t take too long, maybe four months. Something like that. We worked with Aaron Bruno of AWOLNATION, who produced the record.
What did Aaron bring to the album?
He brought out a lot in us. We’ve worked with some other people in the past—Alain Johannes [Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age] and even my dad, Jack Irons—but it was more of a favor from them. They were very good and inspiring and helpful, but they didn’t really challenge us. Aaron was the first person to really come in and challenge us and get inside the music. We’re much further along as musicians today because of working with Aaron.
Which song would you say Aaron made the biggest impact on?
Well, every song he did, but I always like to point out “Live Like This,” which is our first song on the record. He really brought out—what I like to say—hip-hop, or Irontom’s version of hip-hop, anyway. Hip-hop through Aaron Bruno’s eyes. It was something we had wanted to explore for a long time, but we couldn’t really figure it out. Aaron brought it to life.
I wanted to ask you about genre. Irontom has this genre-bending sound, which is good for rock ‘n’ roll, I think. What are your thoughts on genre?
I have a hard time with genre. As a musician, I have never really understood it. I’m starting to now, I think, the more I get involved in the industry and the more I learn and the less I’m thinking like a young punk. I can kind of start to see why genres exist, and why they are what they are and why they’re called what they’re called.
But yeah, why put a label on something that comes from the heart, that comes from a true place? My working motto has been to just flow with wherever the creative process takes me, allowing it to unfold naturally and be what it is, instead of it being this idea of what I think it should be.
Irontom has a huge tour coming up. How excited are you guys to join Red Hot Chili Peppers on the road?
Very excited. It’s been a childhood dream to do something like this. We’re just really grateful to have the opportunity. Now, we just need to make good on it and get out there and be the best we can be—take advantage of the opportunity to play with one of our favorite bands in some of the most legendary venues. We’re very stoked.
It can be intimidating, I imagine, being an opener on a tour like that. We’ve all been to big shows and it seems that openers have to work the hardest in an arena setting. Are you nervous about having to win over such big crowds?
Yes and no. Irontom has gotten pretty good at being an opening band. We did a lot of touring with AWOLNATION and other bands, but rarely have we been the headliner. I think the last couple years have prepared us for this. We’re very used to the idea of having to win over people.
To me, it is nerve-wracking in a sense. We’ve never played venues this size before and we’re playing with our heroes. But there’s the other side of it: excitement and fulfillment. We’re stepping up to the next level and it feels like a good omen. We just need to make sure we’re rehearsed and prepared.
How has being an L.A. band served Irontom? The setting has got to be both rewarding and discouraging for an indie band.
L.A. has been a great place for me to meet some of my partners and to be connected to people who are in high places. I’ve made friendships with people like the Chili Peppers, and I couldn’t have done that while living in any other town.
With that being said, going out on the town and throwing down bare bones at the bars, working from the ground up, can be brutal. For the most part, everyone out here is trying to make it. It’s a cool thing, but it’s also a hard thing when you’re one of so many. We’ve found that audiences in towns outside of L.A. are more receptive to us, willing to let loose a little bit. So, yeah, it can be hard here. But like I said, we wouldn’t have had all the opportunities we’ve had without [being in L.A.].
I read that you took guitar lessons from John Frusciante. Is that right?
To some extent. We met when I was younger, when I was 14 or so. We shared the bond of a love for the guitar and our friendship grew from there. At the time I met him I wasn’t necessarily a fan. I didn’t really know his work or his playing. Flea had told me that I should sit down with him; he said that he was one of the best. So we set something up and it worked out. We just kind of hit it off.
I had such passion about the guitar, and seeing his ability at such a young age—I was at that age when my brain was like a sponge. I was so lucky to be there and be up close to his playing like that, and see his level of skill and professionalism and creative ability. It really helped form me into who I am today as a musician because of it.
And your dad being a professional, working musician. That must’ve set the bar pretty high for any of your music projects.
Yeah. I was born into the industry and I didn’t know anything else. I’d go on tour with my dad and I thought that was the normal thing. I didn’t know that was an abnormal life until I got older and started meeting other kids. I just thought that was “what happened.” I thought that was what bands did: you played in massive venues with adoring fans. I knew I wanted to do it, always, but I didn’t understand that there’s this phase where you have to work and fail and earn it and pay your dues. That was not something I understood at first.
As we finish up, what else do you want people to know about the album?
The record as a whole is a really good listen. It’s not too long, and maybe some listeners will want to listen all the way through and hear the whole flow and narrative. It’s not necessarily a concept album, but it was born a particular way and each song has meaning to the time of life we were in. Our single “Be Bold Like Elijah” is one of my favorite songs on the record. I usually show that to people first when I introduce Irontom.
Any insight you can give into “Brain Go”?
That was the first song we recorded with Aaron [Bruno], the first thing we worked on together. We were just getting started, getting the wheels spinning. That one almost has a different vibe, a different sonic characteristic energy to it. But it’s great. It really rounds out the album, I think. Having a song like that.
Partners is available now. For a full list of tour dates, check Irontom.com.