James Williamson of Iggy & the Stooges
Greg Prato (Songfacts)
When guitarist Ron Asheton passed away in 2009, many fans figured that the Iggy & the Stooges reunion had come to a close. But what some had forgotten is that the band also contained another exceptional guitarist in their ranks at one point: James Williamson, who provided the over-the-top six-string work on the band's 1973 proto-punk classic, Raw Power
, an album that a gentleman by the name of Kurt Cobain once listed as his all-time favorite recording.
So with Williamson back on board, the Stooges (which also includes singer Iggy Pop, bassist Mike Watt
, drummer Scott Asheton, and sax-blower Steve Mackay), continued with roadwork, and 40 years after the original release of Raw Power
, comes an all-new Williamson/Stooges effort, Ready to Die
Williamson spoke with us about a variety of subjects, including being invited back into the Stooges, setting the record straight about what happened on Iggy's Soldier
sessions (which Williamson was supposed to produce), and the stories behind several punk rock classics.
: Let's talk about the new Iggy & the Stooges album, Ready to Die
: Well, we got back together, this lineup, in 2009. And with me having been out of the music business for so long, the first order of business was to actually be able to play a professional show. And so the better part of 2009 I spent doing that, getting my chops together and then we started touring and getting the band pretty cracking.
And so 2010, 2011, we were fully up to speed. Nobody wants to be a jukebox, so we started talking about, "Well, it would be kind of cool if we did something, too, and we could always add new songs from our repertoire or our earlier periods and so forth." But I kept thinking it would be interesting to find out whether or not we could still write songs or not anymore.
So I started that process on the road in 2011. We'd sit down, Iggy and I, when we had a break somewhere, and try to write some stuff. And it turned out that it was pretty easy for us, just like it always has been. We just have a certain chemistry, a certain similar perspective on songwriting, so those things went pretty well.
And then in 2012 we decided, "Let's try to get a record deal and make a record." So we ended up doing that and wrote a bunch of new stuff in earnest in 2012, and then ended up recording it towards the fourth quarter.
: You are also the album's producer.
: Well, I produced the Kill City
album for Iggy, so I have experience doing it. But I had forgotten just how much work it really is. It's kind of a thankless job, really, but I felt like it was the only way I was going to be able to get the sound I wanted, which was basically to sound like us. That was the most important goal of the album, other than the writing itself.
So I took it on and I was very fortunate to be working with a couple of engineers that are really top notch; Jesse Nichols from Fantasy Studios in Berkeley was my primary guy and also a big Stooges fan, so he had a pretty good handle on what I was looking for. And then, of course, Ed Cherney in the mixing stage down in LA at Village Recorders. Between the two of them and myself, we mixed the album when it was finished.
: And how did the songwriting work for the album?
: Well, as always, it kind of worked both ways. But generally speaking, and this is historical, as well, it starts with a riff. So I'll come up with something that I feel is cool and that I like, and then I'll take it to him and try to get him enthusiastic about it. And then see what he can come up with as far as a melody line and so on. Then we kind of reiterate back and forth until the song takes shape. A lot of times we'll work on stuff for quite some time.
Sometimes a song has promise, but it just never really comes together, and there was a number of those on this album. We probably had, with the ones that were abandoned early on, probably 20 songs that we thought had promise, and then whittled those down to 15 or so, and then 10 ended up on the album.
: How would you compare the recording and writing of Ready to Die
to Raw Power
: It was an interesting mix. The writing of Raw Power
was very, very similar. On that one, I would write a riff up in my room and get Iggy interested, and it was the same kind of process that we used this time around. But the recording was quite different in that Raw Power
was my first real album, so I really didn't know what to expect. I didn't have the same level of control or understanding of the process at that point in time.
What happened on that album was that the management team that we had over in England was distracted by [David] Bowie breaking in the US, and they kind of left us alone. So we went into the studio to make the record that we owed CBS and we basically had no adult supervision - we just essentially went in there and did whatever we wanted to.
Consequently, there are some technical problems with that album, and I won't belabor that. But moving to this album, I wanted to be sure that we didn't have those types of things, so I was very, very meticulous about how we recorded the album and what kind of sound we got on it. It's interesting, because in those days, of course, it was all analog, and really that's what I learned on. So coming around some 40 years later and going to the studio, that's essentially digital these days. But the studio that I used, Fantasy, up in Berkeley, had a very wide range of analog stuff as well, and some old consoles, so we used an SSL console.
We had a hybrid approach so I could get the tape sound that I like, but at the same token we would dump it all back into digital for editing. So it was a mix, but it was maybe the good part of that evolution of technology.
: Did you have any idea that the Stooges were creating such a special album when you were working on Raw Power
back in the early '70s?
: Well, we hoped so. Because we wanted to be successful and feed ourselves and all that sort of thing. And in those days making records was the only game in town. I mean, you made records to make money and you toured to support the record - there wasn't money in live performances like there is today. We had high hopes that our record was going to be a smash hit, and I guess eventually it was. If you look at the overall sales for the last 40 years, it's held up pretty well. But when it first came out, of course, it just went straight into the bargain bins.
You can count just a handful of people that some 40 years later have records with that kind of lifespan. So we couldn't possibly have known that.
: I also realized that you played with Ron Asheton as a co-guitar player when the Stooges had the two-guitar lineup and also with him on bass. How was it playing with him in both of those settings?
: Well, we played in the two-guitar lineup very, very briefly. That was about when I first joined the band. The band was like musical chairs at one point in 1970 - they started out with two of the roadies playing bass and rhythm guitar; Zeke Zettner on bass and Bill Cheatham was the guitar. He really wasn't a very good guitar player, so that's why they got me in the band. And then Zeke left and we brought in another guy, Jimmy Recca, briefly. But we're talking about a matter of months. Even though Iggy and I were starting to write new songs, most of the songs were there from their first two albums at that point. So that material's kind of simple and it lent itself to two guitars just fine. Whereas when I started writing new tunes, my style is lots of chords, very fast. The intervals between the chords can be quite fast, so for a second guitar player to try to synchronize with that and keep up with that is almost impossible. That's why we just went with one guitar. I was making plenty of noise for everybody [laughing].
But Ronnie, you know, I always knew Ronnie as a bass player from when I first started out. He was in a band that I had co-founded called the Chosen Few. That's when I first met him, he was a bass player and he had been a bass player in another band that Iggy was in called the Prime Movers. So he had a long history of being a bass player and he only switched to guitar when the Stooges were formed. He sort of learned to play the guitar.
He's a good guitar player in his own right, but it just didn't fit with what we were trying to do. I think he did a fine job in the Stooges, but he always resented that, even though it wasn't really my idea, per se. I don't know if you know the background on that, but essentially, Iggy and I had gone over to London to start a new group and we couldn't find a rhythm section. And ultimately we just said, "Hey, we know one [Ron moving to bass and drummer Scott Asheton reprising his original role] and so let's bring those guys over." That's how it happened.
: Do you know if there are any good quality live recordings of that era of the band or any good quality demos of that material? All I've heard are poor quality bootlegs.
: I believe there are. I don't know about good quality, but I heard something years back and I forget the title of the song, actually. But I do believe there are a few things out there. If you look hard enough you'll be able to find them.
From 1973 through 1980, Iggy Pop's albums ran the stylistic gamut, as these releases touched upon raw and raging proto-punk (1973's Raw Power), Stones-y rock n' roll (1977's Kill City - which was originally recorded in 1975), experimental electro-rock (1977's The Idiot), intoxicatingly melodic hard rock (1977's Lust for Life), and new wave (1979's New Values and 1980's Soldier). Williamson was involved in the creation of three of those recordings (Raw Power, Kill City, and New Values), and nearly a fourth (Soldier).
: Some people think that after Raw Power
, you didn't work with Iggy anymore, but that's not the case, because you worked again on Kill City
and then you also produced the New Values
: After Raw Power
we went through a series of management changes and finally ended up with a management team that just toured us like crazy. Eventually, we were hand-to-mouth and could barely go on. I think everybody kind of got tired of it and the band broke up. That's memorialized with the infamous Metallic KO
album. That's our last show as "Iggy & the Stooges."
But after that, Iggy and I were thinking we'd like to get another record deal. And of course, had we got another record deal, we probably would have re-formed the Stooges again. But anyway, we called upon our friend Ben Edmonds, who was a writer for Creem
magazine, who had lots of connections, to see whether or not he would help us to do a proper job with the demos. And he did. He lined up Jim Webb
, the guy who wrote "Wichita Lineman
" and "Galveston
" and all those hit records - "MacArthur Park
" and all that stuff. Quite a successful songwriter. And Jimmy Webb had his own studio on his property in Encino. So anyway, he told us he'd let us record up there if we used his brother as an engineer and gave him a bag of weed every night. We said, "Yeah, that sounds like a good deal!"
So we did Kill City
up there and that album is a particular favorite of mine, because it's lots and lots of little vignettes, these little stories about this and that. I'm quite proud of it. It wasn't ever intended to be a commercial album. It was just a demo. But later, after we had almost finished it, Greg Shaw offered me to go in the studio and finish it up, so I did that, and we released it.
One of the beauties of it, actually, is that it's kind of rough. It doesn't really sound super-produced or anything like that. I think it's one of the first indie records there ever was. It's a little gem of an album that people discover and they still love it to pieces. I remixed it a few years back with Ed Cherney and I think it sounds much improved.
But then beyond that, Iggy came back to me during his solo career in about 1978 and wanted me to produce his album that became something called New Values
. We did that in LA and I think that's another one of his better efforts. I'm quite proud of it, too. We finished that up and then he asked me to do his follow-up album, which was titled Soldier
. But by the time that came around, we started having some artistic differences, so about a third of the way through that album we acrimoniously split company. That was the last album I did with him until this one.
: I've always heard rumors that it was because he tried to get David Bowie involved in the production of the album or something like that?
: No. No, not at all. Our tempers did come to a head after David came up - he only came up for one day. But I don't think that that had anything to do with it. David wasn't going to have anything to do with the production. He came up and he was going to try to sing a few things on the album and so on. I'm not a big David Bowie fan - as an individual, not as an artist - so I wasn't real happy with that. But, you know, people have their friends and he's friends with Iggy. So that was fine. That was not our problem.
Our problem was that the methods I was using were pretty advanced. I was going to 48 tracks, so there were some issues in those days with doing synching up to 24 track machines and lots of submixes in order to work with all those tracks. This is way back when those kind of things were groundbreaking. There were a lot of arguments about how to go about that and so on.
So ultimately, Iggy went on and made that record and you judge for yourself the quality of that session. But my involvement was finished after about the first third.
: Who would you say are some of your favorite rock songwriters?
: Well, you shouldn't put the caveat "rock," because my #1-absolute-without-a-doubt-favorite-songwriter is Bob Dylan. To me, there's no comparison with anybody in the current era of songwriting. But, that said, I have lots of others. I came up in the '60s, and of course I refer to a lot of those people. Dave Davies... I mean, I've never heard a bad Kinks song, let's put it that way. I think those guys are great songwriters. Hard to beat the traditional Stones and Beatles as far as songwriting for a while there, but they were terrifically prolific with really high quality songs.
Joe Henry is a multi-talented gentleman - in addition to being a singer-songwrier and guitarist, he is also a Grammy-winning producer (for Henry's work on Solomon Burke's 2002 album, Don't Give Up on Me
). Releasing his own solo albums since 1986, Henry has also produced a wide range of artists throughout the years (John Doe
, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Loudon Wainwright III, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, etc.), and co-penned the tune "Don't Tell Me
," for his sister-in-law, Madonna.
Today I would say somebody who stands out as a singer/songwriter is Joe Henry. I think he's an outstanding songwriter. His style wears on you, maybe, but his actual writing is quite spectacular. Old standbys, Neil Young is very good. I love Randy Newman
- I think Randy Newman is an amazing songwriter from during his heyday. The list is very, very long.
: Let's talk about your memories of writing specific songs. Let's start with the title track from the Kill City
: Okay. That song, we had been working up demos in my living room in Los Angeles, North Hollywood, and several of them had come together by that point. But the album didn't really have a couple of real standouts that were rockers and hooks to sort of pull the album together, and so very late in the process, I came up with that riff. And then later, the lyrics and the song. And I think that that's what really put it over the top with Ben Edmonds [former editor of Creem
Magazine, who financed the recording], who then went the extra mile to get us to record all the album.
: And what about "Gimme Danger"?
: Not everybody knows that in those days I almost exclusively wrote songs on acoustic guitar. I'd sit up in my room with a little acoustic guitar, because I didn't make a lot of noise and disturb the neighbors. I also liked the tonal qualities of the acoustic - you can really hear the notes quite well.
So anyway, I was fooling around and just came up with those chord patterns - the beginning patterns of that song - and fleshed it out from there. It was a very convoluted process of actually stringing all that stuff together, but once it did come together, immediately it was like, a song. It was very quick from there on out.
: And what do you remember about writing "Search and Destroy"?
: Well, I had come up with kind of that "bum bum bum bum bum bum bum" a little bit, but it was more in regard to imitating a machine gun, if you will. Because this is the era of the Vietnam War. And so we were kind of screwing around with that, and that's where that figure comes from. Then the rest of the song was around that. But I think the beginning, the "bum bum bum bum bum bum bum, bum bum bum bum bum bum bum," that part was the thing that really kicked off that song.
: And the last question I have -- is there any chance of possibly the Stooges re-recording some of the material from the early '70s that was never officially released? Songs such as "Heavy Liquid" and "She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills," among others?
: Well, unlikely. But I will say that we have discussed it. I think that if the Stooges did it, it would inevitably be sort of a comparison between us 40 years ago and us now, as far as how the rendition of it went. We rejected that idea when we started back to do the songwriting. That would have been an easy thing for us to do in one regard, because the songs were already written. But on the other hand, you've got to perform them the way you did 40 years ago, and Ig's voice has changed, my playing has changed, so it just didn't make any sense.
That said, I feel like I personally have another album or two in me. Who knows? But I might consider recording a couple of those songs properly, but with a different singer. I just don't know whether or not that's a useful exercise or not. From the purest perspective, from the fan perspective, it's not the Stooges. So it kind of is like, "Well, what we wanted was the Stooges to do that," and I don't think that's in the cards.
July 15, 2013.
For more info on James, visit straightjameswilliamson.com.
And for Iggy & the Stooges, visit iggyandthestoogesmusic.com.