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INTERVIEW: JAMES WILLIAMSON, THE STOOGES – April 2014

| 18 April 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW: JAMES WILLIAMSON, THE STOOGES – April 2014

With The Stooges taking the year off from recording and touring, guitarist James Williamson tells SHANE PINNEGAR it’s given him the chance to revisit some of the songs that the band never got the chance to record before they broke up in the early Seventies.

James Williamson

With a full album coming later this year featuring different singers featuring on rare Stooges tracks, Williamson is excited to be releasing Open Up & Bleed and Gimme Some Skin as a vinyl single featuring Texan blues guitarist and singer Carolyn Wonderland for Record Store Day, this Saturday 19 April 2014.

“It’s been something I’ve wanted to do ever since we wrote the material back in the Seventies,” explains Williamson. “That was meant to be a follow-up album to Raw Power on CBS and they just didn’t pick up our record contract and so it just languished there. We played it live for a year or so, and lots of bootlegs were made of it, but [the songs] just languished there without ever being recorded. So I felt like the material was strong enough that it deserved to get a day in the sun. I just decided this year, we took the year off touring, so I got the time and I’m doing it.”

Williamson said that he and Stooges singer Iggy Pop considered recording the material, much of which has only been available on average quality bootlegs and pirated demos, as an official Stooges album, but opted to go against the weight of expectation upon the band.

“Originally, before we did the last album, Ready to Die, which was about a year ago,” he summarises, “we discussed it and considered it carefully. Because the fans wanted us to do that, so we thought ‘hey, you know, we can give them what they want.’

“On the other hand the obvious comparison between the young Stooges and the old Stooges would have been there. So it just didn’t seem like a good idea. We figured, ‘let’s just do new material with The Stooges.’

“But on the other hand,” he goes on, “I still wanted to do it: it’s always been on my bucket list. So I came up with this concept of putting different singers on it, and I think it avoids all that. It’s a fresh look at the songs, and the singers are people who are really into the band, they are fans if you will. Really, I think it’s turning out to be quite an enjoyable listen, and I think more than anything else it’s more of a tribute to the songwriting of Iggy and myself, than it is an attempt to redo those songs.”

James Williamson - Open Up And Bleed single

Wonderland lends both songs a hitherto unheard depth with her amazing, soulful voice, making the new tracks sound particularly vibrant and – perhaps surprisingly – very now.

“Oh yeah,” Williamson agrees. “You know, she’s actually one of the reasons that I continued to pursue this into a full album, because I started out really with the idea, ‘well okay, let me just try this one.’ Open up and Bleed has always been one of my favourites and so I thought , ‘let me try it.’

“But I needed to find a female vocalist who I thought who could really belt the song out, like a Janis Joplin or something. I looked, and I looked and I finally found Carolyn and tracked her down. She was so cool about. She just said, ‘Yeah let’s do it!’ So I went down to Austin and you know ‘BANG’: that girl can sing. I was in there for half a day, four takes, done! She just… well you can hear it, it’s just amazing.

“So I continued on with record. I found Lisa Kekuala is the same way – she just completely nails I Gotta Right. The whole stable of singers [which includes some luminaries as The Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra, Mark Lanegan, Ariel Pink and more to be announced] has turned out to be just this incredible group of people that are into the music and really, really, really putting down tracks.”

Iggy Pop & James Williamson in the mid 70's

Iggy Pop & James Williamson in the mid 70’s

If any band are out there carrying on the garage rock aesthetic of The Stooges, it’s The Bellrays, so enlisting Kekaula for a song makes perfect sense.

“[She’s] unbelievable, unbelievable,” Williamson stresses. “Put yourself in my shoes. You got the first two people in the box here, [and] just completely – your jaw’s dropped. They are just so good that it’s like wow. Yeah, Lisa’s totally cool.”

Iggy, the only other surviving member of the original Stooges after drummer Scott Asheton’s death of a heart attack last month, is unlikely to make an appearance – though Williamson said he’s invited his old sparring partner and bandmate along.

“I’ve offered him kind of an open invitation,” he says, “if there are any of them that he does want to sing on, he’s welcome to do it. Frankly, I doubt that he will. He’s kind of taken this time off and taking it easy and stuff. This is my project really, more than his so it’s not something he’s likely to do. You never know, because it’s a fun project and there’s still plenty of time before Re-Licked is released [late in 2014].”

Iggy Pop & James Williamson - Kill City cover

Recalling the time these songs were written, 1973-74, Williamson recalls that amongst all the madness and chaos, dysfunction and drugs that are now part of rock n’ roll folklore, The Stooges was actually his first job out of school.

“Well yeah, it was my first job. Yeah it was fun. We were in our early twenties and it was everything, we were doing everything except for being successful!” he laughs.

It’s a travesty that a group so iconic as people, as trend setters and as a band, were so resolutely reviled and ignored at the time.

“You know it!” agrees Williamson, wistfully, acknowledging that the iconic and influential status of the band didn’t happen for a long time after they’d split up. “Yeah, yeah, yeah exactly. I think the way Iggy puts it is correct, there really wasn’t any vocabulary for what we were doing at the time we were doing it. So people just didn’t know what in the hell to make out of us, and it took many, many years for other bands to emulate what we were doing in certain ways and to bring the audience along into that sound. Now, you know, everybody likes The Stooges. It’s been assimilated into mainstream culture almost. It’s a long way from where we started.”

James Williamson 03

The guitarist says there were probably other tracks written at the time which haven’t ever been heard, but doubts they will get resurrected.

“Ohhhhh, I’m sure there are, but I don’t know what they would be,” he muses. “Because we typically would play the songs as soon as we had written them because we were pretty bored. We weren’t really very good entertainers in the sense that when you make an album you’re supposed to go out and play it to audiences so that people might buy it. After we finished the albums we didn’t want to play those songs anymore so we’d write some new ones.

“These songs, this particular batch of songs, was for what we thought was going to be a follow-up album on CBS after Raw Power. But it wasn’t to be and so that’s why you hear all those bootlegs just because we were out touring it.

“[Then] Kill City was yet another attempt to get a record deal and so those were demos. I doubt whether I’ll go back and redo those because I think they sound pretty damn good the way they are, especially the new remixed versions. But there’s one or two that could come out as something else. I don’t know, that’s too far down the road for me to think about right now. I’m just head down doing this record.”

James Williamson 01

Talking of Raw Power, the 1973 album that flopped on release but is now held up as one of the most important pre-punk albums of all time, Williamson recalls some of the problems associated with its creation.

“We didn’t have a producer – that was one of the problems!” he laughs. “David Bowie wanted to produce it, but we wouldn’t let him, so we produced that ourselves. Iggy was in charge because he had actually been in the studio before which is more than I had been.

“That’s one of the problems with that record – there are some technical issues that we didn’t know anything about. We made the engineer do stuff he shouldn’t have done, and so at the end of the project we had Bowie mix it because we couldn’t mix it properly. Anyway, he did get involved in the end, but to his credit he didn’t have much to work with. We gave him some tracks that had some real, real technical problems. Anyway, he made me sound good so I guess I am forever indebted!”

The Stooges broke up early in 1974, surrounded by drug madness, financial & management chaos, a resounding lack of success and an inability to get a record deal. Williamson recorded the demos which became Kill City with Pop in 1975, worked on a couple of Pop’s solo albums before falling out with the singer and turning his back on rock n’ roll. In 1982 he earned an electrical engineering degree and went on to a stellar 25-year career in corporate electronics with Sony.

When offered early retirement by the electronic company in 2009, he grabbed it with both hands and by November of that year was back on stage with the reformed Stooges, who had found them without a guitarist following Ron Asheton’s death at the start of the year.

I ask Williamson if he felt rejoining the band at that point felt like coming home or if it was more a matter of, ‘hey, it’s retirement, I get to have a playtime now.’

“Well, you know, a bit of both.” He admits. “I never regretted going into the electronics industry. It’s been a fabulous ride. I got to witness the emergence of the PC and the Internet. I was here when all that stuff happened and I met and worked with the people who made it happen. So it’s really been an amazing thing to be a part of.

Iggy and the Stooges 01

“But by the same token, I started out as a musician and it’s kinda cool that I’m able to end up as one. I’m certainly having lots of fun, taking some victory laps at the end of the game like this. So here we are, and who could possibly have imagined that a bunch of old guys would be drawing crowds of twenty-somethings and this kind of adulation with forty, fifty thousand people coming to see them every night. It’s like, ‘really?’

“We’re having a good time!”

With only a handful of studio albums under his belt, James Williamson has directly influenced tens of thousands of musicians and fans, and found himself in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as well, as well as having a separate corporate career for a quarter of a century. That’s pretty exciting, no matter which way you slice it.

“Yeah, yeah that’s right,” he agrees humbly. “So it’s like okay, you know, what can I say, I mean I am deeply, deeply grateful and very, very lucky so it’s been a great sense of joy for me to come back and see and feel that people finally do appreciate what we were doing back then. And what we do now, I mean we can still rock pretty hard.”

Time’s up – but I have to ask one more question. Will there be another Stooges studio album of new material?

“I can’t say at this point,” he says plainly, “because it’s just, I can’t tell you really what’s going to happen after this album, just because we’re so old really. It’s just every year we ask ourselves, ‘do you really wanna do this?’ And especially Ig has got a really tough job, think about doing what he does, at sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight years old. It’s like you’re out there stage-diving at sixty-eight! It’s tough.

“So I can’t really say, I think anything is possible at this point. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. But I’m thrilled to death that this album is going so well. I’m working hard to make it as good as I possibly can.”

Open Up & Bleed/Gimme Some Skin is available on vinyl from independent record stores this Saturday, 19 April 2014. Re-Licked will be released before the end of the year.

 

Shane

Category: Interviews

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