Open Up And Bleed… The Stooges Interview w/ James Williamson
Originally published in Rhythms magazine.
The James Williamson story is a cracker…
The legendary Stooges guitarist’s first attempt at making a record was Raw Power (1973). Despite now being haled as one of rock’s great albums, upon its release it sold poorly and The Stooges broke up shortly after. James did some great stuff with Iggy Pop throughout the mid 70’s (Kill City, New Values) but with no money in the bank, James left the music business to pursue a career in electronics. With rock and roll behind him, he spent the 80’s and 90 climbing the corporate ladder at Sony, where he ended up as VP of Technology Standards.
Fast forward to 2009… around the time Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton passed away, James was offered an early retirement from Sony. It had been 30 years since Williamson had picked up his Gibson Les Paul, but with a year’s worth of Stooges gigs booked in, he was drafted back in and was a Stooge once more.
After touring the world a couple of times (including a headline spot at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest), perhaps most unbelievably, there’s a new Iggy & The Stooges record; Ready To Die.
Congratulations on Ready To Die, the first Iggy & The Stooges album since Raw Power. Does it feel like 1973 again?
Not exactly. In some ways we wanted to recapture that feeling and by the same token try and advance things a little bit.
Ready To Die sounds like a classic Stooges record, but is there anything here you think will catch a Stooges fan off guard?
We’ve made the album topical and addressed current issues like immigration and gun control as well as traditional issues like sex and money. I think maybe the thing that will stand out most when people first hear the record is the change up with a few ballads.
I saw you in Melbourne the other week. Mind-blowing – a show I’ll never forget. I loved hearing the new songs, too. How does it feel putting new stuff up against the killer old stuff? Do you search faces in the crowd for reactions?
The thing that really is the witness test for whether or not we’ve succeeded in sounding like us on this record is when we play it live – it’s more or less seamless with the other material. It’s not the same as the other stuff, but it’s consistent with it. I feel comfortable that we did right by the body of work.
When I listen to Raw Power I still can’t believe it was recorded in 1972. How did you know that what you were making was even any good?
We just believed in ourselves and we believed that the music we were making was good. We even had delusions that it would be so good that we’d sell tons of records and be rock stars. In those days it was all about Mark Bolan and T-Rex; screaming girls, massive shows – we wanted some of that. It was the first album I’d made and so I didn’t really know what to think. It had some technical flaws, but I think that over all it’s lasted the test of time.
When the record came out it was a commercial failure. That must have been hard to take at the time…
Ultimately it broke the band up. Back then you had to sell records or you couldn’t survive. It resulted in our label Columbia not picking up the option for a second record. We got toured mercilessly for about a year and a half, and finally it ended up at that infamous Metallic K.O. show where the audience threw bottles at us. After that the band just didn’t have the stomach for it anymore.
I love that Metallic K.O. bootleg. It’s a prime example of how Iggy would feed off an audience’s hostility. How would you react when the band went down so badly at shows?
We were ridiculously stupid. We would just defy the audience, myself included. I’d be right at the front of the stage, legs spread and a complete target. I didn’t care.
Are the early 70’s a period you look back on fondly?
Everyone likes to think back about their youth and I’m no different. I guess we had the luxury of being in a rock and roll band; there’s always lots of women and there’s always lots of trouble you can get into. Sometimes I wonder how I made it through.
I heard a rumour that in those days Scott Asheton used to sell off bits of his drum kit to make ends meet.
I don’t remember that, but I do remember when we were living in Hollywood and the band split, Scott had to sell his drums to pay for the plane ticket back to Michigan. There’s definitely been periods of time during the band’s history when equipment sold off for drugs and so on, too.
Kill City is one of my favourite records ever. How do you think it stacks up against the other stuff you’ve done with Iggy
I think it’s a remarkable record. It’s quite different in that it’s a bunch of little vignettes – kind of like a book of short stories. I love that record. It has a lot of dimension to it. I often play it from time to time myself. I really think it’s special.
Were you and Iggy born to play music together?
I don’t know how that works but we certainly have a very natural ability to write songs together. What was really shocking to me when I got back with the Stooges wasn’t learning how to play like I used to, or if I could get the sound that I used to get, because it’s me – I couldn’t do anything else. The shocking thing was the writing – I didn’t know if we could do it or not. But it just came right away; we knocked out a whole bunch of songs. I don’t know what it is with Iggy and I, but between the two of us we come up with music and lyrics that I think are special.
How have you changed as a Stooge?
As a guitarist I feel I haven’t changed at all… Because I didn’t actually play over that time,
I was able to pick up where I left off. On a different level, as a person I think I’ve changed quite a bit. Maybe I’ve gotten smarter? I don’t try care about showboating on the guitar or doing anything super fancy. What I want to do is convey the important parts of the song to audiences and not get distracted with all the other stuff. Some guys think they’re hot guitar players and they have to show you that they’re good. I don’t care about that. I want the music to come across well because that’s the most important thing.
When I was 16 all I wanted to be was a successful businessman. I’m now 24 and all I want is to be a massively famous musician. For someone who’s experienced both, tell me, which is really living the dream?They both can be. I think if you’re a creative person then it doesn’t really matter because you’ll be creative in whatever you do. I think both worlds can use people that are that way. It’s whatever makes you happy – that’s what it comes down to.
The greatest rock and roll bands always had tension… how did tension impact The Stooges?
To begin with, after the very brief two-guitar line-up in 1970, we moved Ronny (Asheton) over to bass and he never got over that.
The other thing, of course, as Keith Richards says, there’s the “lead-vocal syndrome”. Lead vocalists are always… their personalities are pretty big. The Stooges are like a family. Everyone wants to be first! There’s tension but we work within it. Iggy and I did have a major falling out in the late 70’s when I was producing Soldier but we don’t want to do that anymore because we don’t have enough time to go another 25 years not talking.
Classic Williamson Moments… A Rhythms Selection!
1. ‘Open Up And Bleed’ from (Various Stooges compilations and bootlegs)
“One of my favourite compositions ever. We still play it live and it’s always a crowd-pleaser. I think it’s just a great moment of music. We wrote it during the post-Raw Power era while Scott Thurston was in the band. I have very fond memories of that.”
2. ‘Johanna’ from Kill City (1977)
“Johanna is… or was… I don’t know if she’s still alive… Iggy’s girlfriend and drug connection. She was a Hollywood, groupie-type girl that he ran into. She was quite a figure earlier on when we came to Hollywood after recording Raw Power.”
3. ‘Gimme Danger’ from Raw Power (1973)
“It was combination of acoustic and electric guitars, but I think it’s the song itself that really sells it. It’s just a really melodic, beautiful chord sequence – the other stuff is just window-dressing. I love that song.”
4. ‘Burn’ from Ready To Die (2013)
“The song was inspired by a request from a film prouder we know. She produced this documentary about the Detroit fire department and how 90% of the fires they fought were arsons… people burning their houses down to collect insurance money. She asked us to do a song for the film. We were too late in getting it to her, but the song evolved and ended up on the new record.”
Wes Holland, 2013.
Ready To Die is out now through Fat Possum.