MAY 2010 COVER STORY – The Stooges Guitarist James Williamson Talks Past, Present, and the Future

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The Stooges may have only had three albums to their name before imploding in 1973, but the band inspired hundreds of groups in the decades since.

Everyone from The Sex Pistols to Kurt Cobain –  and pretty much any decent band in between – cited the Michigan band as musical inspiration, in particular, the group’s final album of the ’70s, Raw Power.

Raves for Raw Power, considered a flop at the time of its release, still surprise The Stooges.

Not long after the band split up, front man Iggy Pop headed into rehab. Guitarist James Williamson went back to school and ultimately ended up in Silicon Valley, working in the tech sector for Sony Electronics, his rock star past kept in a closet along with his guitars, untouched.

The passing of a fellow Stooge, guitarist Ron Asheton, finally got Iggy and Williamson talking again, but it was the recession that hit the tech industry that actually gets credit for getting the original band back together.

Williamson spoke recently about mending fences with Iggy, the band’s final induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and transforming from The Stooge to The Suit and back again.

Innocent Words: I wanted to start off by congratulating you on getting the band back together. I was pleasantly surprised to see the re-release of Raw Power comes with a live set from a club in Atlanta.

James Williamson: Yeah, that was a fun show actually.

IW: Let’s start off with how you and Iggy started talking to each other again. It’s kind of music lore now that the two of you did not split on the best of terms.

Williamson: Yeah, well, you know we had spoken with each other over the years from time to time, mostly about business-related things like publishing. But yeah, we weren’t real tight, and I had run across him a couple of times and gone to a few shows over the years, but that’s about it.

You know it’s funny when somebody dies; there’s something about it that makes you brush all that aside and start talking. He called me up when Ronny died. I had already heard, but he was going to tell me if I hadn’t heard yet. So we started talking about this, that and the other thing, and it just went from there.

IW: When he started talking again about the idea of getting together to play music as a band again, were you hesitant at all?

Williamson: Oh yeah, I had no intention of playing music at that point because I was still working for Sony, so I had a day job, and I wasn’t going to start playing anymore. I told him if the band got into the (Rock and Roll) Hall of Fame I’d come play, but other than that, I didn’t have time to do it, for one thing.

The second thing is I hadn’t played in 35 years virtually, not that kind of music anyway, so we left it at that. A few months pass and Sony, not being immune to this economy, was handing out early retirement packages, and I looked it over and decided I couldn’t afford not to take it, so I did. So now I’m thinking to myself, I’m available and these guys really can’t go out without me because they were fresh out of Stooges. So, I said, I owe it to this guy, so I’ll do it. I called (Iggy) back and told him I’d do it, and we chatted a little more and decided it was something everyone wanted to do, so here we are.

IW: So what was that first rehearsal like when you were all standing around looking at each other and starting to play? Did everything come back instantly or was it rough at first?

Williamson: I started rehearsing by myself pretty solidly in June of last year, and I was fortunate because I knew some local guys through the music store, and they offered to rehearse me as a band. It’s one thing to practice on your own; it’s a whole other thing to play with a band. I kind of told this band – The Careless Hearts – I want to pay you back, so I did a gig with them in early September and that went over really well.

In late August, the Stooges got together, but not with Iggy, just the band. We did about five days in Los Angeles, and some things were rough, but it was rough on everybody. They had just been playing the stuff from the first and second albums. The new material we were working on was all kind of new to everybody, and we worked real hard for those five days and pulled it together pretty well. Later in September, we got together with Iggy and played. It was pretty magical at that point, having everybody clicking… and playing this material that was revamped, but fresh. We got a gig in San Paulo, Brazil, and that kind of solidified everything. We’re in pretty good shape now.

IW: Congratulations on the Hall of Fame induction, by the way. Did you think they were just going to string you guys along forever?

Williamson: At this point, none of the band members thought we were going to get in this year. We thought, we’re going to have to settle for taking pride in setting a record for never having gotten in. We didn’t have to, and we’re in, and I think everybody’s really happy about that. It’s just human nature; you want to be appreciated for what you’ve done. It’s a really gratifying thing.

IW: What do you remember about the recording of Raw Power? Working on it at the time, did you think this is going to be a classic, one of those albums that people cite again and again as an influence?

JamesWilliamson_081309s_RobWilliamson: Not at all. In fact, I personally was not accepting of that acknowledgement even 15 years ago. Of course, I was out of the music business by then, so I was out touch with that. It just seemed incredulous to me that an album that seemed such a flop in its day, to be so important in the history of rock and roll.

You asked me about the recording of it. We were all really young, early 20s. Iggy and the other guys had made other records before, but Raw Power was my first record ever. I had been in the studio a few times to cut one-off demos, but making a record was actually so exciting to me. Everything was new, certainly for me anyway. I was excited to go in every night and just play my heart out in there and see what happened. It was just a really special experience.

IW: It’s kind of one of those gateway albums that you discover and then really start to get into punk and hard rock.

Williamson: Yeah, I’ve heard that before and that’s great. You’ve got to have records like that. The other thing about recordingRaw Power is that we didn’t really have any adult supervision. We were in there doing it on our own. We didn’t have a producer. All we had was an engineer from CBS Studios and us. That’s what allowed us to lay those tracks down because I don’t think any self-respecting producer would have let us do those because who could relate to that music? It was completely brand new at the time, and if I had any sense, we wouldn’t have laid them down, but we liked them and that’s how it happened. There’s an authenticity about that music that is rarely captured on record.

IW: Your post Stooges career, living and working in Silicon Valley at Sony, did most of your colleagues know about your garage/punk rock past?

Williamson: No, almost none of them did. It’s funny because I did an interview with Fortune magazine and the take of it was kind of The Suit and The Stooge, and they talked to a whole bunch of people who had worked with me, traveled with me, but never had any idea about The Stooges until recently. Everybody probably knows now. The Internet is pretty open, but back in the day they didn’t know at all. It was quite a shock for some people, but they got over it, and they kind of like it because it’s unusual.

IW: You had mentioned the local band that helped you prep for the reunion. Had you been playing with local bands since leaving The Stooges?

Williamson: No, I had pretty much put the guitar down, and only a few years ago, I found this marvelous guitar that was built in the 1920s that really kind of inspired me to play again. So I hadn’t played really rock ‘n’ roll for 35 years. In fact, my son wrote a kind of humorous essay when he was in college called “Coffins in the Corner,” which were my guitar cases sitting up against the wall, never being opened.

IW: You’ve got two kids, right?

Williamson: Yeah, both out of college now, and they’re really loving this. My stock went up.

IW: Now that they can go on YouTube and pull up old footage, have you had to explain that those clothes and hairstyles were actually in at the time?

Williamson: (Laughs.) My son is more into the music scene. He’s a little older and likes some of the bands that I like. My daughter has a completely different sensibility, so the only good I’m doing with her is that her friends recognize (the band).

IW: Is there any chance for some new music out of The Stooges now?

Williamson: Absolutely. We’re working on about three of them right now. There are couple things we’re kicking around. One of them is trying to redo some of the old stuff that never got recorded properly and I have mixed feelings about that.

On the one hand, you’re always compared to how you were then, but on the other hand, you do the music justice by doing it properly. There’s that, then the new stuff. I think for sure you’ll see a single or two out of us this year. We’re pretty busy with tours, so it’s not so easy to get into the studio, but we’re working on it. Once we feel pretty good about the music, then we’ll go in and cut some tracks and get some things out there.

There really isn’t a market for albums anymore, so whatever we can get out there will be fine. Also last week, I finished mixing Kill City (the album Pop and Williamson recorded in 1977), and we’re going to release that this year, as well. A friend of mine is a really good engineer, Ed Cherney. He went in and mixed the album with my help. This guy has done records for everybody, and he just made this record sound, well, like it should have sounded all along. It has finally reached its full potential, and that’s exciting. We’re now going to remaster that and do all the artwork, and Pop is going to re-release it probably late summer/ early fall.