It’s two days following the death of Stooges drummer Scott Asheton and James Williamson has a full day of press ahead of him. Our interview had been booked two weeks prior but who knew a tragedy would strike someone close to him. Williamson, however, didn’t want to cancel. “You know, it’s not going to be any easier next week either,” he theorized when I offered to postpone. “We’re all sorry to hear the news.”
Williamson joined The Stooges in the latter part of 1970, in time to record one of the most influential albums of the punk rock movement, Raw Power. Not a success at the time, it took a few years before the world would pull this extraordinary group of songs to their heart and make it a classic. By that time, the band had moved on, Williamson especially. Following it’s release and some touring, the guitar player gave his instrument to a friend and became a whole new person – a businessman in a suit and eventually a VP. After the death of Stooges bass player Ron Asheton, Scott’s brother, the Stooges reunited, played some shows and recorded Ready To Die in 2013.
Still feeling the thrill and excitement of making music again, Williamson has a new project in the works titled Re-Licked, which comes out swinging via their lead single “Open Up & Bleed”/”Gimme Some Skin” on Record Store Day, April 19th. Featuring the extra-sultry, super sassy vocals of Carolyn Wonderland, it’s a great introduction to Stooges songs that Williamson has reworked and re-recorded with special guests such as Mark Lanegan and Jello Biafra.
Williamson was excited to talk about his new music and his days with Iggy Pop in the Stooges. But first he wanted to share a few words about his old friend and bandmate, Scott Asheton. “He seemed a little young for this to happen but you don’t get to pick your time,” he began somberly. “There are so many happy memories with him. I used to be his roommate back in Ann Arbor. We shared everything together … but I’ve had many, many good times with him and he was certainly a drummer that was unequaled in his own style. Stylistically, I think he was totally unique. It was truly a pleasure playing with him and we all will miss him.”
When was the last time you had played with him?
I think the last time we played [together] was when we made the record last year, Ready To Die. I produced that record and so I had him in the studio doing drums so I played with him quite a bit during that record.
And now you have a new album coming out featuring old Stooges songs re-recorded with a new vibe and new singers. The first single features Carolyn Wonderland and her voice is remarkable and gets into your soul in a good gut-wrenching bluesy way. How did you hook up with her?
Well, you know what, she is amazing. Here’s what happened: I was sitting around, and you know that’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever been a part of writing, so we played that song live in the last couple of years in our set and I always felt like it could benefit from a rearrangement and it could benefit from a female vocalist who could really belt out a song like Janis Joplin could. But the thing was, Janis wasn’t available (laughs) so I started looking around. I talked to my wife and she agreed with me and we started looking around for people and the first one we found was amazing. She was actually doing A Night With Janis, which was a show that was around, still is actually, and went to see her live and she did a really good Janis. But she was so good they picked her up for the Broadway show so she became unavailable. And in a way it lucked out. So I continued looking and found a few people that I considered but when I contacted them and stuff, I just wasn’t feeling the love.
I had put out a lot of feelers amongst people I know and my old buddy from high school, boarding school in upstate New York, Mike, lived in Austin and he shot me a YouTube link of Carolyn and I just said, that’s my girl right there. So I had to track her down, which wasn’t all that easy, but I have lots of friends that had worked with her and so all of a sudden, she’s out on the road and she gets about ten different emails from all kinds of people all over the world saying, “Check your email. This guy wants to get a hold of you.” (laughs) So anyway, she did, she got back to me, and I described what I was interested in doing and she said right away, “Let’s give it a whirl.”
She’s just a wonderful person, she’s game for anything, and I went down to Austin, I’d already had the tracks, and I went down there and recorded them at her local studio, which was Bismeaux Studios, and that’s Ray Benson’s place. And she just killed that song. I think she took maybe three or four takes and that was it. So I’m down there, used to singers that, you know, take a while (laughs). I had booked extra days and I had to cancel them cause I didn’t have anything else to do. She was just too good. I’ll tell you, to be quite honest with you, we’re talking about the new album but I’m not sure there would have been a new album if it hadn’t been for Carolyn because she kind of really inspired me to, “Wow, this could be great.” And it is. It’s been fantastic.
I didn’t realize she’s been around for a long time.
Yes she has and that’s the thing. I think, for some reason, she has not gotten the exposure that she deserves. I mean, anybody who knows music that has ever heard her sing is floored. I know that, for example, Bob Dylan has seen her and just completely was head over heels. And the same thing with, oh, I forget his name, wool cap from the Monkees.
Yeah, yeah, Nesmith. All these people. All you have to do is hear her and you just go, WOW (laughs)
When did the idea come along that you wanted to do these songs again as a new record?
Well, like I was just saying, I think that the first single with Carolyn really got me fired up about it and then I started thinking, ok. I mean, before we did this thing, I kind of had sketched out the idea but then I was really encouraged to do it because I felt like we could really make it special. So then after that, I went down to LA and cut six more tracks with the rhythm section and put a few more vocals on it and one of the vocals came from a girl by the name of Lisa Kekaula, and I don’t know if you know who she is but she’s another one. She’s in a band called the Bellrays. Check her out. That’s the next single and she’s going to blow you away. Just unbelievable. So now, here I am batting a thousand (laughs). At this point, I have a lot of singers who have jumped on board this because they’re excited about doing it. I think I’m going to be able to put out a record that people really like and that is a tribute to the Stooges and to Iggy and my own writing because it’s all about the songs, really.
Do you have an actual release date?
Not specifically. I had to delay the recording because Mike Watt is on tour. He’s in Europe through the end of April, so I couldn’t get back in the studio until May. The only firm schedule I have is that the first single comes out on Record Store Day, on the 19th of April, and then the second one I want to put out in June. Then I’ll be head down mixing and going through the whole process of pressing the records and getting them out there and so on. I’m guessing that September is probably a realistic date for the release.
You’re a Texas guy and I hear you began playing when you were in seventh grade. Who were you listening to at that time that made you want to pick up a guitar?
Well, when we were in San Antonio, my sister had one of those little portable record players, you know, self-contained boxes, and she started bringing home these Elvis Presley records and I’d hear those and they sounded great. Then all of a sudden, he started going on Ed Sullivan and everyone was huddled around the TV when he would come on and do his thing and all the girls were going nuts and I started thinking, hey, that looks kind of cool (laughs). That’s how I got the idea. The image was really cool to have a guitar so my uncle worked for Sears and I talked my mom into getting the discount from my uncle, which wasn’t much of a discount (laughs) but it worked. By then we had moved to Oklahoma but on a trip down to Texas I got it. And it was an old acoustic F-hole kind of guitar, terrible old thing but it did the trick and I started taking a few lessons in Lawton, Oklahoma.
And my teacher, oddly enough, was a guy named Rusty McDonald and I didn’t know this, in fact it wouldn’t have meant anything to me at the time anyway, but in going back, some of my friends on Facebook researched all this stuff and Rusty McDonald was the vocalist for Bob Wills. So all of those really popular Bob Wills songs were all Rusty McDonald doing the vocals. He’s a pretty famous guy and he got sick of the record business, music business, so he did a little bit of this and that and he had his own TV show down in Lawton and as soon as he taught me how to play “Good Old Mountain Dew,” he brought me on the show to sing and play it. So there I was, and that would have been in sixth grade, and I started getting phone calls from the girls so I figured, Hey, you know what, I like this show biz (laughs).
You guys are all the same
(laughs) Well, you know, whatever works (laughs). Everything else I was doing wasn’t working.
When did you realize that you had your own unique sound? Or did you ever realize that?
You know, I didn’t. What had happened with me was then we moved to Michigan and I didn’t know how to play guitar at that point but I lucked out and moved next door to a family of musical people and the son, who was maybe a year or two older than me, was really quite good on the electric guitar. And so here I am, I got nothing to do in the summer and I just kept hanging out over at his house and he taught me how to play the bar chords and all the things you need to know to play the instrument. I did learn how to play some stuff. I was way into the Ventures, surf music and things like that so I learned how to play “Pipeline” and those kinds of songs. But I very quickly learned that it was easier for me to make up my own stuff than it was to learn somebody else’s stuff. So my style kind of evolved in my own way and I used it quite a bit as an emotional outlet. You know, being fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, you need that kind of stuff. That’s how it evolved. I think people seemed to like to play with me in the bands that I was in. The Chosen Few was my first band and we did a lot of covers of Rolling Stones and Them and so on. But I was also writing at the same time. In fact, the first time I ever met Iggy I showed him a song that I had written and he took note of that and we remained friends from there on out. So I think he wanted to tap into that cause he wanted to write too and that’s how we got going.
You’re still a Gibson guitar guy, right?
I am. Well, I’m a lot of guitar guy now but the thing is that nobody wants to hear my other guitars. All they want to hear is that Les Paul sound that I have. So you got to please the people who are buying your stuff. At home I play a lot of different styles and a lot of different sounds. I like to play lap steel guitar and all kinds of stuff but for the Stooges there is only one sound so that’s the Gibson Les Paul.
In your opinion, what makes a guitar solo into a great guitar solo?
Oh gee, I think that there’s so many facets to that but I think the fundamental thing that makes it really different is when a guitar player can put the feel of what he’s doing into the instrument and transfer it to you. If you can feel what the guy is doing, and he’s not just technically adept, you know, but really is playing with feel and has a way to make you feel that way, that’s a great solo.
You had known the guys in the Stooges when you were younger, before the band had started, correct?
Yeah, that’s right. You know that band I was telling you about, The Chosen Few? I co-founded it but I was only in it for a short time, then I got sent to Juvy (laughs). It really was for a stupid thing too but anyway, when I came out, I would visit and the band was still going on and they had some line-up changes and one of the changes was that they had added Ron Asheton on bass from up in Ann Arbor. This was a Detroit-based band. I went up for a gig they did at a frat party up in Ann Arbor and met both Ronnie and Iggy at the same time. Iggy was just about to leave the Prime Movers. He was the drummer for the Prime Movers, which was a blues band, a really good one. Ronnie had been in the Prime Movers; maybe he was still part time in them or whatever as a bass player. So I met them both and then from there on out we stayed in touch and I would come up now and then and eventually when I finished high school I moved up to Ann Arbor to live cause there was more going on in the college town. I moved in with a couple of the guys in the band and then one thing led to another and they had had a rhythm guitar player that wasn’t very good (laughs) so they kind of parted company there and added me.
Had you secretly wanted to be in that band or did it come more as a surprise when they asked you?
Well, you know, when you’re a musician, half of the battle is to get anybody to care (laughs). So as a young guy, I had played in a few bands already and first of all, it’s really hard to get a good frontman. That’s the key to any band. If you want people to pay attention to you, you need a good frontman. And Iggy was a great frontman and still is, in fact. I had seen them play. I was around when they did the first two albums too. I was in New York when they finished mixing the first album and I heard the playbacks and stuff. I had seen the band evolve and they were good, simple but good, and they were very, very effective on stage. So I thought that was pretty cool but I hadn’t really thought that I would ever be in that band. So when it sort of happened, I was a little taken aback but I was into doing it. And it turned out really good.
What do you remember most about recording Raw Power? Because that was your first time in a studio, correct?
Yeah, that was my first record. I had been in a couple studios to do demos. We did a few demos of songs that we brought over to London with us but management didn’t like them. And they were great songs too. One of them I’m actually going to release as the next single, “I Gotta Right.” But Raw Power was kind of my first full record and so I really didn’t know much about the studio. I kind of deferred to Iggy because he had done two records before so he had some experience and we wanted to produce the record ourselves. I think there were pluses and minuses to that. The pluses – we did what we wanted to do and we got a record that was game-changing; but by the same token, there are technical flaws in that record, mainly because of both of our lack of technical expertise. So we made the engineer do a bunch of things he didn’t want to do and, I guess in a way, what I am doing is getting to do it over now (laughs). But normally, you don’t get to do do-overs so we live with it but I think the bottom line with that record is that the songwriting is so strong that mixes or who mastered it or whatever just don’t really matter. You can have a crummy mix and it still sounds great.
Do you remember what the so-called surprise song may have been on that album – the one that came in at the last moment or the one that completely changed from it’s original version once you went in to record it?
Hmm, you know you’re asking me a forty-some-odd year old question (laughs) but I think it might have been “Penetration.” We had worked it up in a different way and I think at the very end we sort of just threw out all the other parts cause they weren’t really developed that much and we just kept the real simple repetitive riff, which actually is hypnotic really. I think that people really, really relate to that song.
I love how your guitar seems to race underneath Iggy’s vocals on “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell.”
Yeah, yeah, I did. I just let it rip in there and that song definitely is kind of crazed but there is so much going on in there and just playing it like crazy.
How did you create those songs?
The way we write is that I generally, in fact, I can’t think of any exceptions, but I write the riff, start out with the riff, and then play it a lot to see if I can live with it for a few days without getting bored with it. Then generally I’ll show it to Ig and if he relates to it too then we’ll kind of work it up from there and I’ll expand on the music and he expands on the lyrics. Especially on that album, he was involved a little bit in some of the arrangements because I was less experienced than him, in songwriting too. But not so much. I mean, if he wanted some other parts, I’d come up with them. So you can kind of split it as I did the music and he did the lyrics. But there’s some interplay in there too.
What was it like working with David Bowie?
Well, we didn’t work together that much. I, personally, and I’ve probably made too much out of this over the years because everybody asks me (laughs). The reason why is probably cause I’m kind of well-known to not have liked David Bowie that much but the thing is it’s not really that. You know how it is when you meet people, there are some people you like and some people you don’t? I just didn’t particularly like him but I give him credit for he is a brilliant musician and certainly lots and lots of great songs and very successful. He wanted to produce Raw Power and we declined on that so as I’ve often said, we got lucky because the management groups started breaking him in the US and didn’t have time to meddle in our stuff so they left us to make Raw Power without any adult supervision, you know (laughs). I just did a talk at SXSW about my life and one of the moderators was Buzz from the Melvins. He quipped right there, he said he just loved the fact that David Bowie was described as the adult (laughs). Everybody just cracked up because he’s absolutely right.
In terms of working with David, the only thing that I was involved with was when he mixed Raw Power. I think that a lot has been said about his mix, you know, being flawed and so on and so forth but I think given all of the flaws of the recording of Raw Power he did the best he could do and, yes, he did a kind of arty mix but I think that it actually has merit and in hindsight it certainly made me sound great. The guitars are like right there. You can almost not hear anything except for vocals and guitars. And you know what, he’s spawned Jack White’s entire career, certainly with White Stripes (laughs). I don’t know, he’s an interesting guy and he has lots of good ideas so let’s leave it at that. He did me a big favor, let’s put it that way.
What was the most unusual thing you saw Iggy Pop do onstage?
(laughs) Oh, there are so many of those but I’ll tell you this one cause it’s relatively clean (laughs). When my wife was first introduced to me by our roadie, who had worked together with her in New York City; he had worked at Albert Grossman’s office, which was Bob Dylan’s manager in those days, and she was in New York, so she knew him from back then. So when he came out and he ended up being our road manager, he wanted to introduce us. So we’re at the Whisky A Go Go in probably 1973 or 1974, I can’t remember, but at the Whisky the second floor is where the dressing room is. From the second floor, there is kind of a ramp that is covered and it goes from the backstage on to the stage. So you kind of enter through that ramp. And here she is coming to meet me and I’m in the dressing room with my hair sticking straight up in the air, six different colors and everything, and then it’s time to go on stage and, you know, she’s witnessing all this, and Iggy’s got to go to the bathroom. So we’re walking down the ramp and he just lets it rip all the way down (laughs). And she’s looking at that and I swear to God, she wouldn’t go out with me for another seven years after that (laughs)
How long have you been married now?
As of the 27th of this month, we’ll be married thirty-three years.
Ok, what was the most unusual thing YOU did on stage?
Oh gee, I’m just thinking back to the first show that we did after we came back from London recording Raw Power. It was at Cobo Arena in Detroit. We were fresh from ground zero of glam and here we are, we come over to Hollywood and go out and buy a bunch of custom clothes, we’re all tricked out, and one of my ideas was I would get some really long boots made that would come all the way up to mid-thigh. So I got this custom boot maker to make them and it took forever. So we are two weeks away from the gig and these things were great looking but I had just sort of tried the foot on to make sure everything fit and hadn’t really did the whole thing with them. So here I am, first gig and I’ve got my new boots and then come to find out there’s a reason why women have some give in the knee on their boots, and that is because when you have them mid-thigh, I found out I couldn’t sit down when I had them on (laughs). So here I was, going to the gig and they had to lay me out on the floor of the car cause I couldn’t sit down. Then they had to prop me up to get out of the car. And then I couldn’t sit down all night. That’s all I could do was play standing up and I never wore those boots again. It was the one time they were ever worn but that was probably the too-dumb-to-live stuff (laughs)
When you did Ready To Die last year, your guitar playing sounds like it never aged.
Thank you. I’m very proud of that album. I really feel like it accomplished what we were trying to do, which was sound like us.
When you moved in to your so-called “business suit life,” had you been playing the guitar at all around the house?
No, I hadn’t. In fact, I gave my guitar to my friend Scott Thurston who used to play in the band with us and I just put down the guitar all together for thirty-five years. I did, however, just before all this stuff started happening, oddly enough, I did find a guitar at a swap meet that sounded really good to me. It was a real old guitar and the guy that was selling it at the flea market didn’t really know what it was. It was made by a guy named Hermann Weissenborn and he was from the twenties and a really great maker but not well known – and I didn’t know who he was either – but I got it cheap and brought it home and found out more about it later. So I really got a great deal on it. But it just sounded so good so I started playing that acoustic and just kind of dinking around. It wasn’t anything kind of what the Stooges would be but it wasn’t all that long after that that Ronnie died and I got the call from Iggy. My circumstances were such that I had taken early retirement so once that had happened I was free to do whatever I wanted to and I felt like they needed me to step up so I did. Luckily, it took six or eight months before we actually played our first gig so I had time to kind of get going.
It’s funny how life kind of does things like that…
It is. What is it they say, life happens when you’re making plans for other things (laughs)
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Well, I guess this would count as a rock star. The first one I ever met was Little Stevie Wonder. He used to play at our Michigan State Fair back then, and you’re probably too young to remember “Fingertips,” but that was his first big song and he would be right there up close and personal. He would be standing at the edge of a stage that wasn’t more than two feet high and he would have four guys around the four corners, the four sides, to make sure he didn’t fall off. He’d play those songs and I got to meet him and everything afterwards. He was a young person. I was probably fourteen and he probably was twelve. He was really young.
What was he like?
He was always really nice, just a friendly guy, a happy guy actually. That was really pretty cool. Of course, I didn’t know anything. Who knew he was going to be a megastar.
What is the most interesting piece of memorabilia that you own from your career?
I guess I’d have to say it’s my original Raw Power guitar. I gave it to my friend but then when I started back up he gave it back to me. It’s kind of a unique instrument. It sounds a certain way like no other guitar I’ve ever played and I own lots of them. It’s the original one that we recorded Raw Power and like you say, on Ready To Die you can hear that sound and it’s partly me and it’s partly that guitar.
Since this is a big Beatles anniversary year, their 50th anniversary of coming to America, in your opinion, what song was their most jaw dropping song?
Well, I don’t know. I have to admit to you that I wasn’t a huge Beatles fan. Although, by the same token that if I’m honest with you, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” I was just gobsmacked when that came out, cause I had been listening to like surf music and the Kingston Trio and the folk music was quite big then. Then all of a sudden, bang, The Beatles, and that changed everything overnight almost. So those songs were huge. Stuff like “Help,” those were great songs. Their songwriting was almost unequaled, even though I feel like it was a little bit too, I don’t know, song-y, I guess is the word. I felt like some of the alternative bands like the Rolling Stones, Them and so forth were more attractive to my ear. But in hindsight as an older person, they’re unparalleled in terms of songwriting.
Do you think there is anything left for the young punk guys that are playing today to surprise us with?
Oh yeah, I think there is always room for that. But I think the problem with it is that somehow they’ve lost the feel for the music. I’ve said this before, I go out on tour, the last four and a half years we’ve been out, people are still rocking out to what we do and I look at these bands and they just don’t know how to rock. They know how to emote but they don’t rock. I don’t know how to tell them how to do that but it’s a part of what really attracts people to this type of music. I don’t think there’s any reason why they can’t do it but I just get the feeling that they don’t want to do it and I don’t know why.
What still excites you about playing music?
Well, you know, it’s funny. First of all, I really, really like to write songs, so that’s probably the most fun that I get about the whole thing. And I would do it whether I was going to benefit commercially or was just doing it for my own sake cause I like to hear new stuff. But in terms of touring, it’s kind of like, partly because for so long we couldn’t get arrested. Nobody wanted to know about us and we couldn’t get record companies interested and we had very small audiences. Now, all of a sudden, we have these mega concerts and the fans are totally with us. So the adulation is there and we’re reaching audiences that are a couple generations younger than us, in their twenties, and they’re a very large part of our audience now. So I feel like we’re a bunch of old guys at the end of the game kind of doing victory laps but by the same token I think people appreciate that we’re still doing it. There’s kind of a give and take between us and the audience and that’s exciting. It’s always gratifying to be recognized by people and we’re no different from anybody else in that regard.
Are you playing any shows anytime soon?
I just played some shows down at SXSW but not with the Stooges. I played the single with Carolyn Wonderland and I sat in on her shows and actually there’s some YouTubes of that and you can hear her do it live and she’s just as good live, if not better. That was fun. I sat in on the Austin Music Awards. We did “White Light/White Heat” from the Velvets. I did it with Cheetah Chrome. Then I sat in for a couple of songs with the Austin School Of Rock kids. So I’m playing a little bit.