[interview] James Williamson of the Stooges talks violence, Bowie, and Raw Power

To a generation of rock dorks, misfits, punkers, fiends and losers, Raw Power was the blueprint -- 8 songs, 34 minutes, full-on annihilation. In this week's Phoenix I featured the most recent Stooges reunion, which hits the House of Blues on Lansdowne Street tonight, but below is the full transcript of my conversation with proto-punk guitar legend James Williamson, wherein he details his recent detour from retirement to join Iggy Pop in a full on Raw Power re-enactment:

Daniel Brockman: So you were a driving force behind the Raw Power album -- but as awesome as that album was, it was not successful during its time. I've seen interviews with Ron Asheton from the first Stooges reunion a few years ago where he described the Raw Power period as being bitersweet for him -- in part due to the album's lack of success, and in part because he wasn't playing guitar. Do you find that period to be bittersweet, in retrospect?

James Williamson: No, I don’t think I look at it that way at all. I mean, the band was basically dissolved in 1971 and at that point in time, I was back in Detroit and the Asheton brothers were in Ann Arbor and Iggy went to New York to try to get some kind of a record deal and get something going. And we had had some discussions and our plan was to form a new band. So when Iggy finally did get a record deal, he called me up and we went over to London. And, you know, he was signed with MainMan management and so it wasn’t until a couple of months over in London that we determined that we really didn’t want to work with the musicians that were available. I suggested to Iggy that we bring the Asheton brothers over and have them be the rhythm section. And I know that with Ron, you know, in later years this didn’t sit well with him, but I think at the time he was very happy to get the job. So “bittersweet” is not a word that I would use. I think we all thought it was very sweet: we were working, we had a record deal! I see those times as being very special because, you know, it was my first album and I was able to make up music of my own and work with Iggy and make that album.

When you started working on the material that became Raw Power, did you have a trove of riffs that you had collected, or did you kind of start from scratch?

I had been writing my own music since the beginning, when I first started playing guitar, and I think that’s one of the reasons why my guitar style was distinctive, because it was my natural way of playing. And I found out quite early going on that it was easier for me to write my own stuff than to play other guy’s stuff. In fact, the first time Iggy met me was at a gig where my old band was playing -- and Ron Asheton was playing bass in that band!

Was that The Chosen Few?

Yeah, The Chosen Few. Iggy was at the gig, and I played him some of my own material on guitar and I think that that kind of stuck with him -- and later on he tapped into that. Even in 1971, I was writing songs with him for the band, although not much of that was ever recorded. So it wasn’t all sort of brewing up inside of me, it was just a continuous effort.

Your time in the Stooges was incredibly prolific, although only eight songs made it onto Raw Power, and the rest has had to make do with being bootleg material.

Yeah, we were very prolific, because we always thought that we would make another record, so we recorded a lot of other songs, wrote a lot of songs that only were played live. So yeah, we were prolific, but we were also very impatient, so as entertainers we would always tend to play the new stuff and not play the old stuff, which is not a very good formula for success because nobody who came to see us ever knew what they were listening to!

James Williamson, circa 2009 (photo: Robert Matheu)

What were Stooges shows like? I mean, for someone my age, we’re used to punk and metal and all -- but back when you were doing it, it was somewhat uncharted territory. Who was coming to your shows, and did you guys see what you did as just a variant of rock music?

Well, to us it was rock music, but we had a different sound and a different style. We felt that it was really important, and we felt that we liked it so other people ought to like it too -- but it wasn’t like that. There was a hardcore group of people who did like us, and were almost kind of a cult. But outside of that, there was very little acceptance of us, but we just went out and did it anyway. So we played to some pretty hostile crowds -- quite often, really, which was really captured on that live album, Metallic KO. Which I’m not really that proud of, I have to say, because I kind of feel like we contributed to some degree to the violence and whatnot that went on in the punk scene, that everyone kind of romanticized. But by the same token, that kind of thing was probably going to happen anyway -- after Altamont, everything got kind of... dark.

It’s interesting that you put it that way -- a lot of people would probably see The Stooges’ music as dark, but really it’s kind of just life-affirming rock music, even if there are songs like “Death Trip”!

Yeah, I don’t really see what we did as being dark. I think that what The Stooges were about was playing our brand of music and not completely annihilating ourselves in the process. We were more successful at some of those things than in others.

Even though you joined the band after their second album, you knew them from the beginning, back when they were known as the Psychedelic Stooges and were even more primitive than the sound on the first album -- what were they like back then? And what was it like joining them and fitting your style into what they did?

Well, you know, I did know The Stooges in the early days, back when Ronnie was in the band I was in, The Chosen Few. We all knew each other when we were in high school and all that, and I had a pretty continuous relationship -- well, I didn’t live in Ann Arbor, but I was at their house when they first started the band, and so I’d come sit in on their practices and hear them, and that was the Psychedelic Stooges. Which was just a really really bizarre art thing. I mean, Iggy played a vacuum cleaner and an Osterizer blender, mic it up -- he’d do anything to get across to an audience. He was just -- the band was like nothing else I’d ever seen before, some kind of weird combination of Sun Ra and, I don’t know, John Cage and god knows what. But then they slowly learned to play their instruments a little bit, and I think it was this showmanship that first attracted Danny Fields, who was the A&R guy for Elektra. When he came to town to sign the MC5 he saw The Stooges and he was just bowled over by that.

So they got an album deal, and you’re right, they played very primitive stuff because they were not that technically proficient on their instruments. But they always had a unique style to it, it was always rhythmic, and a lot of that material was really groundbreaking in it’s own way -- so I don’t want to minimize in any way what they did on those first two albums, they really changed the kind of music that people were listening to, and every kid that was trying to playing guitar, it was the first thing that they would learn, because it was something that they could actually play. So a lot of people came up playing that stuff. When I got involved, when I was asked to join the band, I came in with more technical skill. I had been playing guitar a lot longer and I think I had a certain style that appealed to Iggy, so it’s almost like its two different bands, because like I said we were gonna start a different band.

So when we worked up all this new material, it didn’t sound anything like the previous band, even thought the singer was the same and the drummer was the same, and with Ron on bass. It was the same bunch of guys, but all of the sudden, a really different sound.

You and Iggy went to England to find a rhythm section, but you didn’t like what you saw. Why is that-- it seems like there was so much awesome rock music coming out of England in those days?

Yeah, we didn’t relate to what other people were doing, we played our own style of music and you know, part of being in a band is being in a gang or something. It’s a family or a gang or a group of people who can relate to each other on a whole bunch of different levels and can stand to be around each other. I mean, you really can’t play music that’s any good with people you don’t like. That’s just a fact! So, you know, everyone in those days was all flowery shirts and poofy frilly big hair and all that kind of stuff, and I just couldn’t relate, personally, to any of these guys that we were auditioning. I think Iggy might have viewed it a little bit different from me, but in the end I just wasn’t having it and I said “I think we oughtta call up Ron and Scott”. And he didn’t disagree with me -- if I wasn’t around, he might have picked something differrent, I dunno. You’ve got these guys like Trevor Bolder from Bowie’s band with the big jowels and all this stuff and -- it’s hard for me to explain, but this was a much better choice for us.

When you joined the band, during the Raw Power era, it seems that the power dynamic had changed, and Iggy had a lot more control -- or at least more focus was on him. Is this the way you saw it?

I think it’s more of a perception thing: you know, the fact is that Iggy has always been a dynamic performer. And really from when I was involved in the band, whoever was managing us or whoever the record company was or whatever, they always wanted to make Iggy a star, and the band was kind of like -- oh, I don’t know, like Big Brother and the Holding Company or something. They really wanted to make the singer the star. And that ruined that whole situation and it would have ruined us too, but that’s the way it was. And so even though we never called ourselves Iggy and the stooges, we started being called that by external forces, because it was easier for promoters to promote gigs and all that sort of thing. So even though it was Iggy who got the record deal and got signed to MainMan, that is what MainMan wanted him to be, a David Bowie singer with some side guys, and Iggy never looked at it that way until much later. So I think we were able to survive that, and the unfortunate part of the whole equation is that no one bought the record. It didn’t matter what we wanted to call it, if you couldn’t sell records back then, you couldn’t survive.

But even though the album didn’t sell, you must have known when you recorded it that the album ruled, right?

Oh, we did, we loved that record. But the thing is that we were completely delusional! I mean, really, that record was so far ahead of it’s time that it really literally is pretty amazing to me to see how many people sort of imitated the style and the sound enough so that it now sounds contemporary. Because the sound has been established by so many bands, but in those days it didn’t sound like anything, and actually there’s never been anything that sounds like it before or since, even though there have been many who have tried. So it’s satisfying, at least we get recognition at some time in our life. I like to say that the album was a success, it just took awhile!

It was your first experience in a big-time recording studio, right?

Yeah, Raw Power was the first time I went in for an extended period of time and made an album, so it was very exciting for me. But the only reason that the album sounds the way it does is because by the time we got to that point, MainMan was busy breaking David Bowie in the U.S. and they weren’t paying attention to us, so we got to make it without any adult supervision!

The sound of the album is distinctive in The Stooges’ catalog because of your lead work, and the way it pierces through the mix. What were you going for with the layering of guitar tracks and whatnot?

Honestly,I was just trying to make the other guys happy. We’d go in there, and after the rhythm tracks, I’d be overdubbing solos and just keep doing it until everyone was nodding in the control room, and that meant that it was time to quit and move on to the next one.

How did the situation come about where Bowie was brought in to remix the record -- and what was that experience like?

Well, what happened was that we did the album ourselves, and we made lots of mistakes because we were inexperienced in the studio, and Iggy was pushing the envelope with the mix. I didn’t have any frame of reference -- like I would now if I was trying to mix that album take a different approach. The engineer, you know, his hands are tied because we’re the client telling him what to do: so we made a mix, and we liked the mix, but MainMan didn’t understand it and couldn’t relate to it and they thought “This is never gonna fly”, so they brought in their golden boy in hopes to salvage it, because we owed the album to CBS. So on some days off from his U.S. tour, David Bowie came over and did it in L.A., and you know, it was a really really bizarre approach to the mix that he did.

But I have to say that if we had actually had something that we thought should have been done differently, we should have spoken up, because we were both sitting there in the mixing room for the whole thing. And secondly, a lot of times you get in the studio and you think “Oh man, that sounds great!”, and then you get outside and think “Oh my god, this is awful!” And David Bowie, he’s very stylized, everything he does -- and the thing about the album is that it sounds really different. But ultimately, the beauty in that album is in the songs and the performance, and so no matter how you do it, it still comes through and sounds good.

It must have been weird for you in the ensuing decades to watch the endless debate about the mix of the album, with superfans passing around bootlegs of the alleged original rough mixes, that sort of thing.

You know, it is kind of weird, and frankly I’m happy that Sony/Columbia has re-released the original mix, because I think historically that’s an important thing. But if it was up to me, I’d just release all the tracks and let the guy who buys it mix it for themselves. I mean, it’s like “why are we arguing about this for 30 years?”

How does it feel to be playing those songs now?

It feels great -- we’re, I think, all in our 60’s, and I think that there’s an opportunity for a little bit of closure and we’re having fun doing it. I mean, how many victory laps can we do? I don’t know. But we’re having a good time this year and I guess we’re going to see you guys pretty soon in Boston.

Do you think you’ll end up doing a new Stooges album?

We’ve all kind of agreed that we’d like to only release new material if we all really like it. So, you know, The Stooges bar is pretty high, and we don’t want to put out material that isn’t of that kind of quality. We’re working on it, and even if we don’t put out an album, but put out some singles, I’d love to do it, but only if it’s something that we all feel is in keeping with the level of the quality that we’ve done before.


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