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INTERVIEW: James Williamson – October 2014

| 7 November 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW: James Williamson – October 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

James Williamson 03

As the foil to Iggy Pop’s drug-fuelled mayhem in The Stooges James Williamson survived the early ‘70s proto-punk years, blazing a trail across the United States and into the hearts and minds of a million teenagers with his revolutionary riffs and song writing. The Raw Power album – featuring the title track, Search and Destroy, Gimme Danger, Shake Appeal and more – has stood the test of time, but upon its release in 1973 the album and band were all but ignored. It was just all too much for an America in the throughs of the Vietnam war and they were just too anti-conservative.

That didn’t stop them writing for the follow-up that never came, though: and in true Stooges obstinate fashion they started playing the new songs immediately – Open Up And Bleed, She Creatures Of The Hollywood Hills, I Gotta Right, Rubber Leg, Heavy Liquid and even the establishment-baiting Cock In My Pocket have all gone down in arcane rock n’ roll history as subverted classics through their appearance on countless illicit bootlegs from the tail-end of the bands life, despite never having been officially recorded.

Guitarist James Williamson dropped out of the music business, learnt electronic engineering and enjoyed a fruitful career in that field for a quarter of a century before reuniting with Iggy & The Stooges after Ron Asheton’s death in 2009.

With The Stooges taking the year off the road and out of the studio after a busy four years, Williamson leapt on the opportunity to realise a long-held dream: he’d finally record the follow-up to Raw Power. Iggy Pop wasn’t interested in revisiting the past, so Williamson got The Stooges touring band together to start recording these forty-year-old tracks and invited a diverse range of singers into the fold to deliver the tracks. When band members had other commitments, he brought in some other friends and they finished the sessions.

“I did about 8 tracks with [Mike] Watt and Toby Dammit and [Steve] MacKay, and then Watt had to go off and play – you know, they have their own bands and side projects and things. Watt was touring Europe, then Toby was [busy], so it didn’t work out where I could use them for the whole thing. Then I was lucky enough to get Simone Marie Butler, the bass player for Primal Scream: she’s amazing. She came in and Michael Urbano, another amazing drummer came in, and Gregg Foreman from Cat Power is playing the keyboards on there. Those guys came in and really brought it. They were amazing to work with.”

Finally, Re-Licked is finished and Williamson couldn’t be happier.

James Williamson - Relicked cover

“Yeah, believe me. I am!” he sighs with relief. “I’m getting down to the little minutia. I’m just about to approve the vinyl and all the manufacturing stuff. I’m very, very happy. It’s been a very taxing experience, but I’m quite proud of it.

“You know, the people that played on it were fantastic to work with. They all are – everybody was – big Stooges fans. They came having grown up with this material really. They all came knowing what the context of everything was and they were having a great time playing it. I think that comes across.”

When it came time to record the vocals, Williamson started with a visit to Austin, Texas to capture the soulful blues voice of Carolyn Wonderland on two tracks: Open Up And Bleed and Gimme Some Skin. Most of the other vocalists made their way to him.

“It was a mixture, but mostly it was live in person,” he explains. “They came to me in LA. In fact, Alison Mossheart even flew from London to come and do those two vocals. She was hardcore, man. She was like, her comment was, ‘I don’t know which I want to do more: to sing on this album or to hear it.’ She came in to really rock it, and she did. She was great.

“I think the only two that I needed to ship off files for was Bobby Gillespie [Primal Scream] which was no problem because Bobby knows those songs. He lived those songs. I think he did his vocal in just a few takes, maybe one, I don’t know. Then Nicke Andersson [The Hellacopters] in Sweden – the same thing. But mostly they were done in L.A. I did a couple of them up here where I live in Northern California in a studio I like to use in Berkeley and that’s where I mixed the album, but mostly in L.A.”

James Williamson 02

Williamson goes on to say he gave each singer free rein to do what they do best.

“My approach is to make a structure for the singers so that they know what the lyrics are that you want to use,” he says. “I had already cut the tracks for them, but in terms of their vocal performance, I really wanted them to bring their own style and their own talent to the songs. I mean, they can’t help but know what Iggy did when they learned the track or just from having heard the tracks over the years. I didn’t want them to try to be Iggy. That’s why I had them – to be themselves. I think they did that very effectively.”

Re-Licked may feature songs co-written by Williamson and Iggy, but Iggy declined the offer of performing on one. In truth the album works better without him casting his shadow over the rest of the performances.

“Yeah, you know what? I [think so] too,” agrees the guitarist. “I think, his voice has changed a lot since the days when we wrote and performed these songs. I just don’t think that it would have added anything. It would have probably just been a bare source of criticism, unnecessarily. Who’s to say what the future holds. Let’s not count him out because of course, I hope we can do some live performances with this stuff. You never know whether what we’re going to do and the band. Just like with Kill City [the Pop/Williamson album of demos released in 1975], we incorporated a lot of that stuff into The Stooges set.

“We’ll see what happens, but certainly for this record I think [with] the singers on there, there’s no need for Iggy. It’s all there.”

Williamson goes on to say he’d love to do a one-off live show with all of the singers taking part.

“I would love to do that. It just comes down to finding the promoter who is going to step up and put it together. 14 singers is a pretty daunting task.

“It’s not cheap, you know? It’s got to be a showcase type thing and in a major market no doubt. Promoters are very ingenious. If the album’s doing okay, they’ll figure out a way.”

By now you’re getting a handle on the people involved in Re-Licked. Nicke Andersson from Swedish sleaze-rockers The Hellacopters. Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie. Garage rock queen Lisa Kekaula. Alt-blues star Alison Mossheart from the Dead Weather and The Kills. Former Screaming Tree and minor legend Mark Lanegan. Ron Young from soulful hard rockers Little Caesar. It’s an eclectic mix of very cult performers, and Williamson is adamant that he did not want to just mirror what The Stooges might have done in 1975.

“Oh yeah. I really didn’t want to do that,” he says emphatically. “First of all, I wanted to make an album that I was happy with – and I’ve changed a lot since 1973 or ‘74 or whatever. I wanted to bring what I learned from life now. Those people are all wonderful artists. Every one of them just comes across so enthusiastically and so happy to be on the album. You can’t argue with that. When I listen to the record – and I hope you too – feel like, ‘wow, these people are really having a good time with this.’

James Williamson 04

Once word got out that Williamson was making Re-Licked, he says a few people came a-knockin’, wanting to be involved, which led to a few alternate versions being offered as bonus tracks on the record.

“I’m not all that easy to get a hold of,” he laughs, “but I did have a few and I certainly didn’t have anybody who I contacted that rejected me. It was certainly something that most of the people, by the time I asked them they had already heard about it and they were flattered to be asked. So much so, really, that I was really surprised. It was a good surprise. I think if anything I might have had maybe too many singers. You hear those alternate tracks on the album, but I kind of made it my philosophy that if somebody’s going to come and step up and offer their vocal onto my record, then I’m going to use it. There’s a couple of them that are quite different from each other, but they’re all on there.

“Like Cock In My Pocket. Nicke [Andersson]’s and Gary Floyd [from Texan hardcore punk band The Dicks]’s versions are totally different from each other, but by the same token it’s funny that different people like different ones better than the other one.”

Having been back with the Stooges for roughly five years now, Williamson says he is still excited by it and enjoys being back in the band, especially given the long-overdue respect that has finally come their way.

“You know, I am. The Stooges have been a lot of fun and very, very gratifying at this point – in that we, when this album that we’re talking about tonight was created, nobody liked us and we couldn’t even get a record deal. The record label that we already had [didn’t want] to pick up the option to do this album, which is what would have been after Raw Power. That’s the kind of challenge where things were at, at that point. But now, where we are, it’s amazing how well known we are and well respected we are. For me, having lived all of that previous time, it’s very, very gratifying. But yeah, I’ve had a good time doing it.”

With most of the original Stooges members now gone, and different players coming into the band for touring and recording, Williamson is pretty sure that when either himself or Pop go to the great gig in the sky, the band will cease to be.

“Well, I hope [the music will live on]. I hope we made a big enough contribution. [But] if there’s no more Stooges it’s pretty hard to be The Stooges. I mean, I guess there’s tribute bands and things like that. No, I think that once we hang it up I think in terms of the band itself touring and things like that, I think it’s over.”

Transporting Williamson back to the chaotic last days of The Stooges, I ask if they deliberately wrote to bait the mainstream – after all, Cock In My Pocket and Wet My Bed, they’re not exactly Billbord Top 10 material for 1974!

James Williamson - Iggy and the Stooges

“No, you know, in those days especially, we didn’t even consider things like that,” he says wistfully, “because we really only wrote songs because we liked them. By the time we would be playing them in a set live or anything, they were things that we actually liked. Yeah, it was outrageous to sing those songs and it was a hell of a lot of fun too. Wet My Bed, and all of those songs absolutely just made people crazy and they still do. They’re just fun songs to listen to and to play.”

Listening back to the infamous Metallic K.O. bootleg of The Stooges last ever show in Detroit in February 1974, and you can hear the hostility and hatred towards the band as they play Head On [performed by Jello Biafra from punk legends The Dead Kennedys on the new record] and Cock In My Pocket, as the crowd pelts the band with eggs and beer bottles. I’m not alone in wishing we had a time machine to travel back to that show and be a fly on the wall. It sounds chaotic and mad and insane.

“Well, it was. I mean it WAS,” declares Williamson, obviously still shell shocked by it forty years later. “It was a little bit dangerous too.

“The lucky part of that show was that from about 30 yards away, it’s pretty hard to kill somebody with a bottle – otherwise we wouldn’t have survived!”

Scary stuff indeed. Getting back very briefly to Williamson’s 25 year career as an electrical engineer, he says for the most part his co-workers didn’t have a clue about his past.

“Not until towards the end. [Much of] that was before the internet, so it was not that easy – the access to information was really a lot more sparse. Whereas after the internet, after a while, there became a tremendous amount of information and as we became more and more and more popular, I think then there was more and more written about us.

“Eventually people started hearing about me and stuff… the odd person would come up to me and say, ‘are you James Williamson from The Stooges?’ Yeah, you know? It was fine, but yeah, it was a long time before that happened. A lot of people were quite surprised because they had known me a long time without really knowing that particular fact. I think there was a VH1 Behind The Music show that they did of Iggy and I was on that as well. People were having their dinners watching TV and all of a sudden they’re going, ‘holy shit! I know that guy.’ That kind of thing.”

Re-Licked is out on 29 October in a variety of formats, including a 24-page booklet and a bonus ‘making of’ DVD. The album cover features an extremely striking image of Williamson in neo-Mexican skullface makeup, which he says might ring a bell with early Stooges fans.

“Well, it was a combination of things. When I was in my 20s, I was quite skinny. I got the nickname, ‘The Skull.’ I don’t know if that may have been lost to the sands of time except for the really hardcore fans, but I thought that would be a fun thing to do, to be a skull. I had met this wonderful body art person Prima Mary who actually painted me – when you see the actual album and the inside cover art and so forth, you’ll see there’s a real live leopard lady. Her dress is painted on – she’s actually got no dress on, it’s just painted. Anyway, I had her do that for me – it’s also very timely for Halloween time release.”

As our time runs down and talk turns to future projects, Williamson admits he is too focussed on Re-Licked to consider any other bucket-list projects he may have.

James Williamson 03

“Yeah, I just got to get out from under this first. But I do think I have more music in me. What form it will take and how I’ll deliver it to people is all stuff for the future. I’m certainly not willing to completely call it quits here once this is out and in people’s hands. I’m really looking forward to that happening and it’s going to happen pretty soon now. I was just approving the vinyl test pressing today. It’s coming along now!”

Re-Licked is out now in CD, vinyl and digital formats via Leopard Lady Records worldwide.

Track Listing:

01 Head On The Curve (w/ Jello Biafra)
02 Open Up And Bleed (w/ Carolyn Wonderland)
03 Scene Of The Crime (w/ Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream)
04 She Creatures Of The Hollywood Hills (w/ Ariel Pink)
05 Til The End Of The Night (w/ Alison Mosshart from The Kills, Dead Weather)
06 I Gotta Right (w/ Lisa Kekaula from The BellRays)
07 Pinpoint Eyes (w/ Joe Cardamone from The Icarus Line)
08 Wild Love (w/ Mark Lanegan & Alison Mosshart)
09 Rubber Leg (w/ Ron Young from Little Caesar)
10 I’m Sick Of You (w/ Mario Cuomo from The Orwells)

Bonus Tracks:
11 Gimme Some Skin (w/ Carolyn Wonderland)
12 Cock In My Pocket (w/ Nicke Andersson from The Hellacopters)
13 Heavy Liquid (w/ Lisa Kekaula)
14 Wet My Bed (w/ The Richmond Sluts)
15 Cock In My Pocket (w/ Gary Floyd from The Dicks)
16 Rubber Leg (w/ J.G. Thirlwell aka Clint Ruin, Foetus)

An edited version of this interview was first published in X-Press Magazine’s 21 October 2014 issue

Category: Interviews

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