Ahead of the release of his new album Behind The Shade we tell the story of this rock god as he opens up about Iggy, Bowie + the commodification of punk rock
Dom Gourlay
12:25 12th June 2018

As the guitarist and co-writer of The Stooges seminal classic from 1973 ‘Raw Power’, James Williamson’s status as a rock icon is safely secured. Although the band broke up the following year, Williamson carried on working with Iggy Pop culminating in 1977’s revered ‘Kill City’. However, by the turn of the next decade he became increasingly disillusioned with the music industry for a career in IT and software development. After becoming vice president of technical standards for the Sony empire in 1997, another decade would pass before Williamson finally returned to making music. Joining the reformed Stooges in 2009, he stayed with the band until the passing of drummer Scott Asheton brought about their reunion to an untimely halt seven years later. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, Williamson has been a prolific recording artist ever since. Having released a number of solo records and collaborated on a number of others, this year has seen him put together a new band called The Pink Hearts, and next week they’ll release their first album, ‘Behind The Shade’.

Gigwise caught up with Williamson during rehearsals for The Pink Hearts forthcoming live shows back in California, and found the 69-year-old reenergized and looking forward to taking his band out on the road for his first batch of dates since the final Stooges tour.

“I’m so geared up for these live shows” he remarks with the enthusiasm of a teenager. “If there’s enough interest in the record we’d like to put together a tour around it later in the year. I’d love to get over to the UK with it. It’s one of my favourite places for touring. Mainly because the audiences over there really appreciate what I do.” It’s refreshing to hear someone with such an illustrious past so excited with the future and when questioned about the beginnings of The Pink Hearts, he’s equally buoyant.

“It evolved from a whole bunch of stuff. I played a live show for my previous album ’Re-Licked’ three years ago, and that album had 14 singers on it so it was pretty impossible to tour. When I did have some of the singers in because we were taping for the Carson Daly TV show, I asked if they’d like to play a live show so at least we were able to have some of them involved in one way or another. When some of them said they would, I then had to find substitutes for the ones who weren’t there and Cheetah Chrome suggested Frank Meyer for one of the songs. I was pretty impressed with his singing and stage performance so kept that in mind, and over the same period of time I’d also worked with Petra Haden quite a bit. I had her on our album ‘Ready To Die’, had her on ‘Re-Licked’ and made some singles with her so was quite familiar with Petra. Then last year I felt like writing some more music. The only thing is, I can’t write lyrics. I’m really awful at it!” concedes Williamson. “So I had to find someone I knew that could write lyrics. At first I tried with a guy I know called Paul Nelson Kimball. He was in the band Careless Hearts who I first rehearsed with when I was coming back to music in 2009 and he wrote a beautiful song, ‘Destiny Now’ which is on ‘Behind The Shade’. By the same token I also tried Frank (Meyer), and he was very, very prolific. He was turning songs around in a day, so we just continued along in that vein. Once I had four songs ready, I decided to record them and see where we were at that point. Then I brought Petra in to see how it would work out and it was magical hearing their two voices together. So from there we just decided to roll with it.”

Those initial recording sessions kickstarted a prolific spate of writing and recording culminating in ‘Behind The Shade’. And as Williamson is only too quick to point out, there’s plenty more in the locker where those came from.

“There’s a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto the record. We were writing constantly throughout the spring and summer of 2017. Songs are funny things. I’m always trying out new things and if they make it past my musical tolerance I’ll share them with Frank. Even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll make the grade! There’s at least another album’s worth written but in the end, these are the ones we liked the most.”

One of the stand out cuts from the sessions was a cover of Alejandro Escovedo’s ‘Died A Little Today’, which is only available on the bonus edition of the CD release. It represents something of a mutual appreciation society between the two artists and came about after a friend showed Williamson a video on You Tube while also being something of a first, as he is quick to point out.

“Last year when I was looking around for musical things to do, a good friend of mine showed me a video of Alejandro playing that song in Austin, and I absolutely love that song. So I kept it away in the well until now and thought it would be a great song for Petra to sing. The way she delivered it was phenomenal. That’s the first time in my career I’ve ever covered somebody else’s song. It turned out Alejandro used to come to our shows at the Whisky-A-Go-Go back in ’74 or whenever it was and just stand there. He went to every single one of them, then later on formed The Nuns and played in a lot of different bands. He’s had a long and distinguished career, and I’ve just played a solo on one of his new songs which should be on his next record.”

The album’s first single ‘Riot On The Strip’ came out last month. It’s the kind of defiant, ballsy rock n' roll anthem you’d expect from someone with the pedigree of James Williamson. While its lyrics, penned by the aforementioned Frank Meyer, sticks two fingers up at the LA music scene’s obsession with combing the underground to find the next big thing only to push it into the mainstream and as a result, turning it into the same old generic, standard fare as what’s already there. Williamson takes up the story.

“Just like so many other things there was a little bit of serendipity when we recorded it. I think it was Petra who said we should put it out as the first single and everybody agreed with that. It’s upbeat and expresses a certain type of mindset so it made sense. I’m very happy with the record so there’s a couple more I’d also put up there as potential candidates but that’s a perfect opening statement.”

When pressed on ‘Riot…’’s controversial subject matter, Williamson is understandably reticent.

“I didn’t write the lyrics but I think there’s a lot of people in bands in LA having very little recourse to playing venues and doing what we used to do in LA. We’d just go out and play. It was such a wonderful time and place. Nowadays, the business part of the music industry has made that very difficult for bands to be able to do. Not just because fewer people buy records these days, but also because the whole showbiz aspect has turned it into something lesser than it was.”

He makes a valid point and one that’s easy to relate to, especially with the advent of reality television shows enticing ordinary members of the public to chase an unattainable golden rainbow in the name of fame and celebrity.

“I haven’t got a clue why these kind of people are making music, other than because they feel they have to,” admits a despondent Williamson. “I guess this is where we’ve evolved to. Music should be fun and something that you have to do, but at the same time it also has to be in your blood. You have to suffer too much for your craft to do it otherwise. What’s changed is the mindset. Nowadays, people are forming bands because they see it as being cool with a two-year plan or whatever and if they don’t make it, they just get another job.

Of course it would be churlish not to mention The Stooges when talking with James Williamson. In 2010, the band were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after being nominated seven times and while many leftfield artists are quick to reject such accolades, Williamson takes an opposing viewpoint.

“Everyone in the band was so happy about it, because The Stooges were never part of the mainstream so none of us ever expected to get any kind of recognition from the music industry. It felt like a vindication of sorts. By the same token I have to admit it’s also mostly bullshit because there are so many people who should be in there that aren’t. So it’s a mixed bag for me. You take your accolades as they come. I’d never say I don’t want that like the Sex Pistols did.”

How does he feel that The Stooges have become something of a brand, particularly over the past two decades with their t-shirts on sale in high street fashion retail outlets to teenagers who probably have no idea of the band or their music?

“If you do something long enough and enough people recognise you they’ll eventually assimilate you, so now they’re doing car commercials with our songs. The next thing you know we’ll be the elevator music too!”

James Williamson, of course, is mainly renowned for his work on ‘Raw Power’, an album that’s been widely lauded as the greatest and arguably most influential rock album of its generation. At the time, the sound on that record was markedly different from anything The Stooges had released previously. Williamson looks back at those days with fond memories.

“It evolved pretty naturally, and the reason for that was because the band broke up. The Stooges were over, so Iggy and I decided to make a new band. When we get the record deal with CBS, Iggy and I went over to the UK to make that album and find some English musicians to play with us. Only we couldn’t find any musicians that we liked, so we basically brought the Ashetons over, moved Ronnie onto bass and continued on. But the songwriting was just Iggy and I, and my songwriting is very different from what Ronnie would come up with which is why there was such a vast difference in musical styles. I think it worked really well!”

It didn’t just work really well. It went onto inspire pretty much anyone who’s anyone that’s picked up a guitar since. Although Williamson is unsurprisingly modest about his and the record’s legacy.

“I’m always flattered at how many people in bands from the eighties and nineties cited that early era. So it’s quite an honour to not only have influenced them, but also validate what our views were at the time. Which no one else did.”

There’s always been rumours that David Bowie’s growing influence on Iggy Pop was one of the reasons his and Williamson’s relationship broke down, something the legendary guitarist is quick to dispel.

“I wasn’t a big David Bowie fan from a personal standpoint. Some people you like and others you don’t. I don’t know what it was? Just something about him I guess. I’m sure he felt the same way about me. But I don’t think that had anything to do with mine and Iggy’s relationship. Our relationship was based on the band, and we couldn’t make a living from music. We tried as hard as we could. We made ‘Raw Power’, we made ‘Kill City’. But it just wasn’t working, and Iggy was in really bad shape at that point so Bowie wanted to take him under his wing. Which actually turned out to be good for him. I was happy to see that as I didn’t know what I was gonna do!”

Which in a way meant the reunion in 2009 ran a lot smoother than many would have expected, even after three decades of being apart.

“It was fine. We were different people by then. We were much older and had a definite purpose, which was to go out and do some victory laps around the world to show off what we’d done when we were young. However, I do think we lost the esprit de corps of being in a band in your twenties. So on the other hand, we were very comfortable by then because we were drawing large crowds. To sum it up, the first couple of years were fun because I hadn’t done that for such a long time. But at the same time arena rock kinda sucks really. You become a jukebox. Every night you’re playing the same songs so end up losing that loving feeling.”

So as someone considered to be among the most innovative scholars from the original IT boom period of the eighties and nineties; Williamson graduated with an electrical engineering degree after turning his back on music the first time around then spent the next fifteen years designing products for one of the world’s leading software companies in San Jose. How does he feel about the advent of the internet (not to mention social media) and its influence on modern music as we’ve come to know it?

“I was able have a front row seat and witness the whole change in technology all over the world so consider myself fortunate enough to be in that position. But then everything has a cycle and I’m sort of full circle now with music. It’s wonderful that I can now get music straight out into the market place and luckily I have very good musicians to do it with. However, the internet has democratised music but then you’re also completely overwhelmed by so much crap. I feel for you guys in the writing business. I’ve been so consumed with my own stuff recently that its distracted me away from all that stuff, but at the same time I’ve heard a lot of crap! There’s a formulaic mindset of the young millennials that I really don’t get. I can’t say I’m a good judge. What really matters is whether the audience likes it.”

Indeed, Williamson has a few words of wisdom for those trying to succeed in the music industry. “If you’ve got it, do what your instincts tell you to do. And if you don’t, I don’t know how you get it? People are either born with talent or they’re not. Some just want to play in a band, which is fine. But if you want to write new music, you need to feel it and not care what other people think. It was very difficult to get a record deal back then. Now the whole game is on playing live so you’re competing with a lot of other musicians. It’s a tough game.”

The album ‘Behind The Shade’ is out on Friday 22nd June via Leopard Lady Records.

Photo: Heather Harris