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Godfathers of Punk, Iggy and The Stooges, are currently on tour promoting their latest album ‘Ready to Die,’ released last April on Fat Possum Records. The Toonari Post had the chance to attend one of the band’s shows during its European leg of the tour, and sit down and have a talk with guitarist James Williamson, co-author, along with Iggy Pop, of the glorious album ‘Raw Power’. During the interview, James Williamson talked about the past and present as a Stooge, but also about his experience as business man in the music industry, in between the two Stooges eras. Below you will find the first part of the interview. To read the second part click here.
Toonari Post (TP): What is the main difference for you between being a member of The Stooges now and back then in the ‘70s, when you made Raw Power? What do you think is the difference in the perception people have about it?
James Williamson (JW): So many differences and so many similarities too. We don’t play much different, maybe a little bit better now [Laughs]. The experience of being in a band was really tough, we had almost no money and nobody liked us, except for some people on the fringes of society that could relate to the sort of down and out nature of the band. We just weren’t well accepted, even our album, that had been my first album, the third one for the rest of the band. I thought I was gonna be a rock star, and it was nothing further from the truth.
We sort of had been living in high style, we had David Bowie’s management, you know, treated like we were rock stars and we make this album, even the record company didn’t know what to do with it, it just fell right off the charts like a rock. The interesting thing about it though, is that we are here forty something years later and people are still buying it, I mean, how many records can you say that about? And now, in today’s band, we’re playing these huge audiences, I guess we’re vindicated from those days: we really were right, we are rock stars, but it took a really long time to get there.
TP: When you made the record Raw Power, were you aware of the freshness of the sound? Could you realize, back then, that you were creating something so innovative?
JW: I have always written my own music, as a guitar player, coming up learning, I used the guitar as kind of an emotional outlet since I was a teenager and stuff. I didn’t really ever learn that many other band’s songs; I was in a band, briefly, where we played covers of the Rolling Stones and that sort of stuff. I played some covers, but mostly I just played my own stuff, it is easier for me than it was to learn somebody else’s stuff. So, on Raw Power what you’re hearing is essentially original music coming from me, and then of course Iggy’s great lyrics, and the combination of that.
Fresh is a nice word for it, other people just thought it was awful. I think Iggy says there was no vocabulary for that music, and it’s true. People just couldn’t hear it, and it took quite a few bands and musicians who could hear it, and started imitating it, to sort of honing in people to the sound. This is my theory, that’s why people can now go back and listen to the original and say “yeah, I want that,” but at that time and for a long time nobody wanted it.
TP: Of all the bands which say they have been influenced by Raw Power, which is the band that makes you proudest?
JW: You got one right there! [Pointing the finger at the interviewer’s t-shirt, featuring Nirvana] I think Nirvana was a great band. [Red Hot] Chili Peppers, when they had John playing guitar… they did a terrific cover of “Search and Destroy.” I thought it was right there, it sounded almost like I was playing it, which is great, that’s a real tribute. There’s lots of them but I think the main thing is that they are the ones that really kept this music alive. We owe a lot of debt to them, just as much as they owe a lot of debt to us.
TP: Talking about the other side of your story: after The Stooges disbanded in ‘74 you went working in the business. How was the transition from rock musician, even rock star in your mind, to business man and then back to rock musician? Was there something particularly hard to conciliate among those two souls of yours?
JW: It was something I wanted to do. By ‘74 I had completely given up, the band was broken up and then Iggy and I made one more attempt at an album with ‘Kill City,’ and then we couldn’t get a record deal with it, and so basically I had it with it. I wanted to do something else but I didn’t know what it was, and I started out thinking maybe I wanted to work at a recording studio as an audio engineer. I started doing that, I got a job to learn how to do that, I got a job doing it, but I didn’t really like it. As I say frequently, there’s only one thing worse than being in a band that you don’t like, and that’s recording bands you don’t like every day. I just wasn’t cut out for that. It took me a year or two to figure that out.
In the process, I got quite interested in electronics, because there is really a lot of electronics in that environment. What really got me excited was when I just happened to be in an electronics store and I saw my first personal computer. I didn’t know what it was, I thought “What on earth are these guys doing?” ‘cause they were playing around with it, programming it. it was very rudimentary in terms of what is available today, but it was like “Wow, this is entirely new!” It excited me in a way that rock music used to excite me, and that was really cool. I ended up going to school, I guess that was a though transition for me. Being a Stooge, the lifestyle was not all that disciplined. We were a rock’n’roll band, we’d go around all the time, you don’t have to get up and go to classes. Especially in engineering school you gotta do like calculus, and differential equations, all this stuff, and I was like “really?” I wasn’t the greatest student, but I had an attitude for it.
I slowly made the transition and eventually I became quite excited by the whole thing, because there are so many ideas in this world and brilliant people. There are so many people that are so important in the world, and I got to know some of that, and then when I finished that I got hired into a company in the Silicon Valley called Advanced Micro Devices, my wife and I moved to the Silicon Valley and we’ve been there ever since.
I really have no regrets for doing that, the experience of working with these people that have changed the world has been astonishing. Just being around them, being exposed to these brilliant people, working with a lot of them was fantastic. Eventually though that ran its course, and I’m not getting any younger. I was an Executive in the end, and when they had an early retirement buy out, it was completely optional but I decided “It’s good, I’m gonna take it,” and along comes Iggy at that same time, it was kind of providence in a way. When he came around, you know, Ronny died, and Iggy wanted to see if I wanted to play. At first I didn’t really wanna do it, ‘cause I didn’t know if I could, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but then I felt like I kind of owed it to him. We go back a really long way, you know, sometimes you just need to be loyal to people, so here I am.
TP: Your time to finally be a great rock star!
JW: That’s right! I had no idea actually how gratifying it would be to really see these many people now. I’ve played hundreds of hundreds of gigs since I came back, and well at least, I don’t know, dozens of times of the gigs more than I ever played in the first wave of The Stooges. I guess on our last year we might have played fifteen or twenty shows around the U.S. in total, and we do maybe double that every year now. It’s a lot more exposure than I have ever been used to.
To read the second part Click Here
Photo Courtesy of Heather Harris