10-12-2009, 08:56 AM
Kill city dreaming
Iggy Pop and James Williamson talk Raw Power, their rift and reunion, Ron Asheton and the glory that (still) is Detroit
By Bill Holdship
Here's yet one more example of so many things that demonstrate just how far and full-circle the Iggy Pop story has come over the years. The opening credits to Michael Moore's brilliant new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, are accompanied by Iggy singing "Louie, Louie." And at the end of the movie, Mr. Pop is also featured predominantly on Moore's "Thank you" list — which, once again, just goes to show how mainstream Iggy Pop has managed to become while, at the same time, never associating his name or image with anything that isn't "cool." No small feat in this day and age! The grandest irony here, however, is that it was a different, obscenity-laden version of "Louie, Louie" that effectively ended Iggy & the Stooges' career decades ago, as the band crashed and burned in front of an audience during a show that was recorded and released years later as the now-legendary Metallic K.O. album.
But almost 35 years after that final performance, here in Detroit, at the now-defunct and appropriately named Michigan Palace, Iggy Pop and guitarist-songwriter James Williamson — the two main creative forces behind Raw Power and what some consider to be one of the most important periods in the history of rock — are joining forces for the first time since 1980, when the two had a falling-out while working on Iggy's solo Soldier album.
The next six months promise a lot of activity from a lineup that most people viewed as dead and buried even a year ago this time. Things kicked off last week with the publication of The Stooges: The Authorized and Illustrated Story (Abrams, $35) by rock photographer and archivist Robert Matheu, a former Detroiter and Stooges aficionado who can safely brag that he really was at every legendary area show that Iggy and/or the Stooges ever performed, both then and now. The book is an excellent and often beautiful visual and written documentary (as every project by Matheu with art director and designer Greg Allen has been to date) of the band's entire career, including the individual members' time apart from the group, featuring photos from Matheu as well as other lensmen (including Mick Rock and Richard Creamer) who captured one of the most colorful and photogenic rock bands of all time. (The photos in this feature are all taken from the book). And the band's history is then told via essays on the group's respective albums, from The Stooges through The Weirdness, by a series of rock critics and writers, including past MT contributors Brian J. Bowe, Jeffrey Morgan and Ben Blackwell, as well as an introduction by Matheu. Iggy will be at a Barnes & and Noble in New York City next week to sign copies of the book with Matheu, if there were any doubts as to the authenticity of the tome.
There is also a deluxe version of Raw Power due next April from Sony Legacy, featuring David Bowie's original mix (which, interestingly, has been out of print since Iggy's last remix in the 1990s), as well as a book (executive producer Matheu says he envisions something like the recent Miles Davis Kind of Blue set) and a board tape of an October 1973 show from an Atlanta club. The inclusion of the second document also serves as a reminder as to how closely tied to the Stooges' legacy the spirit of the late Ron Asheton — the band's original guitarist and Raw Power bassist, who passed away early last January — remains. It was Ron, after all, who first brought the Atlanta tape to the group's attention, just as it was Ron who first brought his friends James Williamson and Jim Osterberg (aka Iggy Pop) together here in Detroit all those decades ago.
But the most exciting development of the reunion — especially for those who were either too young or just missed them the first time around for whatever reasons — is the news that Iggy & the Stooges will be playing U.S. shows again in 2010 with a lineup that includes Iggy, Williamson, original drummer (and Ron's brother) Scott Asheton, saxophonist Steve MacKay, and Mike Watt, the latter once again filling in on bass, only this time, sadly, for his dear departed friend Ron. In fact, there is already an overseas shows planned for this November.
And Metro Times was thrilled to be able to exclusively talk to both Iggy and Williamson by phone on the Monday and Tuesday, respectively, following the newly reunited lineup's first rehearsals together in Los Angeles two weekends ago. No more editorializing is needed from us then, not when you have the two musicians themselves willing to do the talking.
Metro Times: So, how did the rehearsals go this past weekend?
Iggy Pop: Oh, you know about that, eh? It was really good. Really a pleasure — hard work and really a pleasure. The band had been there all week and I practiced two days with them. I flew in Saturday. I took an early morning flight from Miami, got off the plane and spent from noon to six with them. Slept, did it again the next day, and caught the red-eye and I'm home now in Miami.
MT: Wow. That was in and out.
Iggy: Well, you know, they were prepared. We did about 100 takes, so it's amazing what you can get done.
MT: How did it feel? Was the flow good?
Iggy: The flow was real, real interesting, and often incredibly slamming. Fucking slamming, you know? And then the other half of the time, it's a rehearsal, so it's not about flow. There's that too. Some of the stuff we were instantly smooth on. And some of the stuff, you're working it up. It's like that.
MT: Is it just Raw Power material you're working on? Maybe some Kill City?
Iggy: No, no, no. It's Raw Power. ... Well, it's stuff from The Stooges, the first album — the stuff I authored with Ron. It's credited to the group but, really, it was Ron and me writing the stuff. And we're doing stuff from Fun House. And James has been using . . . James is doing them in the most respectful manner in which I've ever heard Ron covered. He's using the Strat. First of all, people never use the right damn guitar when they cover us [laughs]. So he was using the Strat on those songs, which he normally doesn't play. And he was using the wah-wah, and he's keying in on Ron's style. And, of course, the rest of us got to be a powerhouse on those songs in the last few years. So those sounded great. And then we're doing stuff from Raw Power. And we're also doing stuff from the period between Fun House and Raw Power when we were doing a lot of that stuff that was bootlegged. Like "I Got a Right." And we're also doing stuff from the period when we were sort of the wandering lost tribe of rock 'n' roll [laughs]. Which was about six months after Raw Power when the management suspended us and we were public enemy number one. We went out and did those tours, but we never stopped writing. So there's a lot of good stuff there. We're doing "Cock in My Pocket," for instance. "Heavy Liquid" — stuff like that. Things for the more fanatic fans, you know? And then, finally, we're doing stuff from Kill City, the album I did with James — which would have been a Stooges album had we still had the band.
MT: Before the Stooges reunion, James was probably your longest collaborator before you split up after the Soldier album. I was wondering how your reconciliation came about and why there was a falling-out in the first place?
Iggy: You know, it was funny. It worked out like a lot of things that happen in life. It really wasn't willful because both of us had a lot of bad buffalo chips about each other. But when Ron passed away, the group had five confirmed engagements for this year that we'd had since the fall of 2008. So we had obligations. And I thought, "Jesus, what do we do?" I haven't canceled anything in over 20 years. I had never done that. I didn't know how to think that way. Sometime in the '80s, I sort of went on a mission, you know? And I couldn't bring myself to stop, full-tilt, when we were going 120 miles per hour. I thought, "Who is the only credible guitar player for this group?" And that was James. I also called another guy who would have been a different way to go if we were just going to do those shows as "fill-ins" and not go any further with it. He's a very nice guy and a good guitar player named Deniz Tek. He has a band called Radio Birdman. They do the Stooges, and I thought, "If we're just going to do those five obligations, then maybe it's better with him." But if we wanted to do something more, maybe we should do it with James. Anyway, I called James. And it turned out he was trying to get ahold of me that day anyway. We spoke. "What have you been doing?" This and that. We spoke about Ron for a while and about the group as people. He turned me down to do anything this year with the group because he was winding up his career with Sony and also because his chops weren't ready then.
Deniz was willing, but after I came down from the tension I felt over Ron's death, about a week later, I realized — obviously — it was perfectly alright for me to cancel. But that process put me in touch with James again, basically, and so that's what happened. We began to talk, you know? And we each had a nice long list. "Here's five things I don't like about you. Can you roll with that"? [laughs] That sort of thing. He's led a good life and had a good career in a related field, which I helped get him into, I think. His profession is electrical engineering on an executive level, and after the group finally deep-sixed in the '70s, he started working nights and putting himself through school as an engineer. He did some engineering on a couple of my solo records at one point. Then he evolved into a career in the Silicon Valley. And he retired this year as a VP for Sony America Electronics. He travels all over the world on their behalf and also serves on honorific boards of international electronics. Very interesting.
MT: You have to wonder if the business associates he came in contact with during all those years knew that he played on Raw Power.
Iggy: This is hilarious. He belongs to one particular organization called the International Institute of Electronic Engineers. They publish a newsletter and they just published one with the headline: "IE Member Joins Iggy & the Stooges." It goes on and on, like, "Some of us wouldn't have suspected that this reasonable, mild-mannered man sitting across the board table from us played guitar in what is considered the most violent and loudest punk rock ever made," you know?
MT: When might you start the tour? Or play a debut show? I'd heard [Britain's] All Tomorrow's Parties [festival] or Coachella. Is it too soon to know yet?
Iggy: No, not at all. All Tomorrow's Parties is a definite on May 2 and 3, in London at Hammersmith. We are also appearing on Nov. 7, in São Paulo, Brazil, at a stadium.
MT: So Coachella's not confirmed yet?
Iggy: We were sitting around, just this weekend, in California. [Bassist] Mike [Watt] hangs with those guys [that book Coachella].The general discussion — while the group smoked cigarettes and I didn't [laughs] — was "Yeah, man, we should be playing Coachella." That would be ideal. But they haven't asked me yet. Go ask them. [laughs] But that would be good for our schedule and an all-around good thing to do. So I'm up for it.
MT: Do you think you might record any new material with this lineup? And you've mentioned material that Ron left behind that you'd like to finish.
Iggy: I revisit them [Asheton's recordings] about once a month and I'm still scratching my head as to what to do. There are five or six jams with Ron playing guitar and over-dubbing himself on bass with Scott playing the drums. I've written a few lyrics to a couple of them, and I actually demoed one. [laughs] But the demo was religiously controversial. The rest of the guys in the group — I mean, it's a rock band. The strangest things upset them. [laughs] It would be OK if I said something — I don't know — like "I'll stick a flaming bottle up somebody's rear." That's OK. But nothing controversial about religion. But I'm digressing. I really don't know what to do with them yet and I've had all sorts of ideas. But I want to complete them. They're long. Ron and Scott have a way of locking onto a riff like a pit bull and they get into a trance. So, I've thought of everything, from chopping them up into songs to passing them all around to different players who have something to do with our group, stylistically, to kind of make a jam, like a giant musical pizza out of it. I might try to sing an oral history of the group. No one's ever done that. Some of the tracks are, like, 23, 24, 32 minutes long. So I'm thinking about that.
And there's a lot of stuff I wrote with James that was never well-recorded or was never recorded at all, except from bootlegs from our shows. But we never did them in the studio. I'm real interested in recording those, because, 30-some years later, we never got around to it. It would be a lot easier on my mature brain than writing new shit, man. [laughs]
MT: This past weekend would have been the first time the Stooges played without Ron. I was thinking that must've been emotional, especially for Scott. It's the first time he's played Stooges music without his brother.
Iggy: I think Scott said at the services — which were private and just a closely knit group of people — he mentioned how weird it would be, for instance, to start "I Wanna Be Your Dog," which has a very particular start where the guitar player and drummer start it alone without the bass and they have to look at each other to do that. So for Scott to look over and it wouldn't be [Ron]... He used that illustration of how he was feeling, you know? This was when we were talking about the gigs with Deniz. But I think, since then, you adjust a little — but it takes a long time. I know I've had a whole roller coaster of reactions and emotions. But the fellas had already done about 14 or 15 rehearsals by the time I got there. James and Steve had also done four or five on their own. So, I imagine Scott went through more emotions before I got there. The first day there, about 40 minutes into it, we hit "I Wanna Be Your Dog." I put it in a key place in the set. It was interesting. I was curious how it would flow with stuff from Raw Power and Kill City. And it really re-established to me that Ron wrote romantic riffs. He wrote something that's better than "Louie, Louie." He wrote a magic riff and played it in a magic way that is still ahead of its time in many ways. Society and technology are just now catching up. And I've been really happy to hear it. It's getting exposed now, more through TV and cinema. And that in turn is making it alright for radio programmers to play it as well and they are playing it a little bit now. It's real popular on the Internet; it gets a lot of hits. So when we played it, it just had this power — just this very, very elemental sort of prehistoric feel to it. That's the best way I can put it.
MT: I'm very excited about the reunion since Raw Power is one of my favorite albums of all time. But on the Internet, you see a few naysayers posting that it isn't the Stooges without Ron. How do you feel about that?
Iggy: Well, first of all, this isn't the Stooges. This is Iggy & the Stooges. What we're doing is a particular group that was associated but was organized differently, with different people on different instruments. But it's something that grew out of the Stooges. I would never go out with a group billed as "the Stooges" ever again. If I was ever going to do anything inappropriate with the group's name, it would have been during the 30 years that I didn't play with the band but never traded on the name once and had the balls to do it alone — unlike every fucking modern group, which is really just one guy with a brand name and a bunch of guys who work for him. I never did that. I went out and I said, "OK, I'm not the Stooges. This is me." And I took my knocks, you know? It's absolutely and clearly valid only if ... how should I put this? The core validity of identity in popular music since the advent of recording — of records — has always been who made the record and who was in the group. That's where it all comes from and that's what it's about. So anybody who objects to this, I guess I would say to them, "Well, if you want to plug your ears and blindfold yourself and pretend that there was never a record called Raw Power, or even if you want to listen to it and make a sour face and keep telling yourself, ‘it's no good, it's no good,'" then fine. But neither of those things are true.
But there was a record called Raw Power. And, yes, Ron played on the record and he played magnificently. He would tell me many, many times — he would call me in his last few years, late at night, at 3 or 4 in the morning, just to let me know, "You know, Jim, I really am my own favorite bass player." [laughs] He loved to play the bass. He loved his own bass playing. And anyone who knows music well or even people who don't but who have a good ear can immediately pick out what his bass playing on that record did for James' guitar playing. Because James does not sound as good without those parts. And Ron wrote every damn bass part on that record. You know, once rock 'n' roll put on cowboy boots, the bass player got this quote-unquote "demoted" position. Which is completely bullshit. Complete bullshit. But you do get a lot of these guys, they put one finger on the thing and string along on the riff — dum, dum, dum — and that's it. But that's not what Ron did. The patterns and the nimbleness, the way he played it, the way his tonality complements the tonality of the guitar and the brutality of the drums. It's an incredible achievement. It's in a direct line from Bill Wyman and Dick Taylor, people like that. Also Paul Samwell-Smith from the Yardbirds. And before them, from the great blues and early rock guitar players — all those licks, like Bo Diddley licks or Jerome Arnold from Billy Boy Arnold. Billy Boy was the drummer; Jerome Arnold was the bass player in the Butterfield Band. So, no, I don't buy that. Raw Power is a particular thing that came out of the Stooges. If somebody doesn't like us, it's a free world, and they can tell the world. But I'll play whatever damn gig I think is good and I want to and I'll answer you right back with some music, you know?
I thought a lot about this. And when the group first got back together, I thought about whether we should do it with both guys and have them trade off playing bass and guitar. But I didn't do that because I thought that would make it's just a reunion tour and nobody's really got a position. What we did instead was what we did. But, you know, when we started, the same sort of people — just different individuals — but the same sort of people that are mumbling this sort of thing now were saying "This isn't the real Stooges. They don't play ‘Raw Power.' They don't play ‘Search and Destroy.'" We got a lot of that. And during the first year, critics would even describe us as "a group calling itself the Stooges, although they do not contain everyone from the Raw Power era, blah, blah, blah." But we went out there and proved ourselves, beyond words, by just going out and getting the job done night after night for years. We were a great group before Raw Power, and it does not distinguish that group at all to ignore the idea of completing the work and to ignore one part of the work or what has grown out of that work. So, now, this opportunity has come up. And I believe this is the thing to do. We don't plan on going out and doing 200 gigs. But this part should be covered also. It is to the credit of the group. If it's professional and if it's really artistic — if it's both of those things, then it's not a personal thing. That's what I would say.
MT: In addition to the reunion and Bob [Matheu]'s book, there's also a new deluxe version of Raw Power due next year.
Iggy: Yeah, Columbia Legacy is putting out a two-disc reissue edition in April. It will be the original mix, remastered, which is basically what I was trying to do when I remixed it. [laughs] But it will be a remastered version of the original Raw Power, mixed by David Bowie. And along with it that will be the first proper live recording of the group at that time from a show in Atlanta in October of 1973. Which I call, the in-house name for it is "Georgia Peaches." It's the group in a little club. And it's slamming.
MT: What do you think of Bob's book?
Iggy: I like the book. It's very funky, and I expected as much. I was particularly happy that it shows a lot of Ron. And it shows a whole lot of what was going on in the Detroit area with the group, when we were a Detroit-area band. So I feel great about it and I'm just very happy that it's available. There were already coffee-table books — or whatever you call them, photo history, story, whatever — but they're coffee-table books. There was already an Iggy & the Stooges picture book. So this captures more. It was really interesting for me to be involved with.
MT: Did you ever read [British author] Paul Trynka's biography of you from a few years back?
Iggy: Well, you could say so. In a manner of speaking, I read it. It's not like reading something about somebody else. [laughs] Yeah, put it this way: I stuck it in a place I have, a property I own that I don't go to very often. It spent a few years on a shelf there and from time to time, it came down. I took it in bits, you know? I kind of left it and last year, I picked it up again. And I went instead to the index and I was like, "Wait a minute. Who said that? When did they say that?" That sort of thing. So I peeked at it a little bit and that's about it, you know.
MT: I've heard some talk over the years. Have you ever thought about doing a documentary about your career? Like the Ramones one? And there's been talk of biopics.
Iggy: We've been approached by quite a few people. There were some very good ones by some very good people. Some aren't as good. The key problem I have with all of them is that all those movies seem to be post-mortems. And I'm not dead. And they always boil down to somebody saying "I'm interested in documenting a particular thing or particular time." But a dramatic film would also be interesting, I guess. There were a couple of those around. There was one that was going to be about me but I put them off because I felt guilty to exploit the group for an Iggy Pop movie. And then there was one about the group that was just hair-raising and just an absolute debauch. It was poorly written, and, well, the producer was a loser. So, you know, I sort of lost interest in that. I'm still open but, at the same time, I actually have a gut feeling that the worlds of film and television as they relate to music are overrated at this point and I don't think it necessarily confers stardust on anybody. I think you're better off doing three yards in a cloud of dust.
MT: Yeah. When I saw [Todd Haynes'] Velvet Goldmine, I thought, "Well, the true stories of Iggy and David Bowie are much more interesting than this fictionalized fantasy is."
Iggy: I never saw it. Doesn't some guy snort coke off my ass in that? That's what I heard. "No, I don't think I'll be going to this movie," you know? [laughs]
MT: The biggest rumor I heard was that Elijah — I can't think of the guy's name. The kid from Lord of the Rings. I heard he was going to play Iggy.
Iggy: Yeah. Frodo. I saw him interviewed about it. And he's not a bad person. In fact, he is very intelligent. He's just an actor. And he should take whatever job he wants to take. I have absolutely nothing against him. Maybe he could do it, you know. It's none of my business.
MT: Metallic K.O. is now thought of as this classic album and it is. But how classic did it feel at the time to someone whose life it actually was? Was it depressing at the time?
Iggy: Well, if I could refer to myself in the third person for a moment, I take a perverse pride in the little guy. I kind of like him. But if you get that part over with, it goes on and on, you know? There's too much, I think. There was too much monkey business that got in the way of the music. But, for monkey business, it's pretty interesting.
MT: When I first read Lester Bangs' review of it, I thought it was a joke. That no such album could exist. So when I could finally buy it, I was blown away.
Iggy: It was a "stolen" album. I think James probably stole it. He probably sold it to four different people when he was broke. It worked out in the funniest way, though, because there are some people who are interested in that sort of thing and that's OK.
MT: Well, nobody in the band has a monkey on his back this time and that should make everything, including the music, all that much better.
Iggy: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I can't tell you how many times I heard in 2003, 2004, 2005, about the first three years when we had the core band up and running, with Ron and Scott, people would say over and over again, "I don't get it! They're better now than they ever were." Everybody said that. "They were never this good," you know? That, to me ... well, I'd really prefer to promote sensible drug abstinence through example as opposed to confessions on the Oprah show, you know?
MT: When you were playing in Detroit at the Grande Ballroom and the Eastown, did you ever have a sense that the world would someday discover your music, that you'd someday be looked upon as a legend?
Iggy: I never foresaw it as a fame thing, but I totally and absolutely foresaw it, intellectually and logically, from the beginning. I said to myself, "What you need to do here is something you think is the greatest." I always had the confidence, frankly, in myself, and if I thought something was great, then I thought other people would too. I just didn't know it was going to take 40 years! When we would do something that I thought was great, I would think: ‘This is this best thing there is right now; we're the greatest." Whether it was when Ron came up with the riff for "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and then there was a couple of months of near-panic on my part. How am I going to come up with a lyric that is equal quality and how are we going to shape it into a song that makes it memorable? Then when we got it, I was like, "Wow, this is good." There are moments when you record a track and you realize the track is very, very good. You know, you've got to try for something that is as close as humans can get to a little invitation to immortality. On the other hand, everybody was basically telling us, "You're shit, you're fired, don't come back, we dropped you, we don't want you, we own you, we use you," on and on. "We won't do anything for you but don't try to get anybody else to help you," etc. On top of that, everybody was ill at the end. So, yeah, I didn't think about it really at the time. I just understood that I had to keep going.
MT: Was it weird going from a solo career for so many years back to a band situation, where things are more democratic?
Iggy: Well, things were never that democratic. [laughs] But everybody had their areas, and I had mine. In an odd way, I always had more freedom in the group artistically. Being solo, I had the misfortune to go solo during the period where the record business went digital and became big business. The weird crooks who used to run it got accountants and lawyers and started putting them in charge. So the whole thing became sensible and I soon realized that the struggles were constantly with the record companies. Whereas when I was in the Stooges, I just scared everybody. I mean, I terrorized the managers, the A&Rs, the quote-unquote "producers" on our albums. I was just crazy and I would just terrorize them. "Leave us the fuck alone, I said!" And then we'd get what we wanted. So there kind of was a return. But when Ron was still alive, in this century, I still had my areas, and everybody knew what they were, and he had his areas and he took care of that. Scott had his areas. We had very little disagreement. It was usually very easy to get somebody to just say "OK." You know, there's that comedy show called The Young Ones in Britain. They had one skit where this band was going to their 93rd gig and a couple of guys in the van had some new ideas about being modern and artistic. And so the bass player says [in British accent], "Just pull off the road, and let me out. I'm not getting back in the van until you say we're a metal band." [laughs]
We never really had those problems. Everybody's pretty tolerant. Ron did the guitar, decided what he was going to play on his solos, and I did the set lists and song forms and presentation. I taught Scott five or six basic beats back when I was a drummer and he wasn't, and since then, he writes all his own beats and they're real good.
MT: So you're nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet again. It really angers me that the Stooges have been nominated so many times and they've yet to induct you. It's absurd!
Iggy: [laughs] It's one of those things. It comes up to remind me; "Oh, the holidays are coming." [laughs] I really never think about it until someone says, "You were nominated." Again? I try to just...you know, it's none of my business. It's their thing and it's nice to be nominated for anything.
MT: Finally, as a band and performer so closely associated with Detroit, how do you feel about the ways the national media has been portraying the city lately — the recent cover of Time magazine and all?
Iggy: It's reverse hype. That's exactly what it is. But there has been a genuine problem in the auto industry, and that has caused people to focus on Detroit in a negative light. But that sort of energy is never good. I was actually asked to participate in a documentary feature film, for the BBC, called something like From Riches to Ruin. It's a film about Detroit by the fellow who made the Sex Pistols films.
MT: Julien Temple?
Iggy: Yeah. And he's talented but he also has a particular style. And so I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I just wasn't a part of that. Not that I object to his expressing himself. But it's a great place. Michigan is a great, great place. It really is.
Metro Times: So, how did the rehearsals go?
James Williamson: Excellent. Yeah, once Iggy joined us, we started sounding like ... well, like the Stooges. The band rehearsed for the first time about a month ago, and then we rehearsed about five days before Iggy came into town this last weekend. So, we were pretty much there already. But without a singer, it's just not the same.
MT: Last time we spoke, you said you hadn't played rock in years; that you've been doing jazz and a lot of other stuff. Did it take long to get your chops back?
Williamson: Yeah, it took some work. That's easy to say, but it's not so easy. [laughs] The style of the music, especially my songs, is quite physically demanding. And there are lots and lots of very quick chord changes. So it just takes some time to get back into it. I forget exactly when we talked last, but I played a live gig since then and that helped me to get it all together for this past weekend. So these rehearsals were basically the final touches.
MT: Yeah, we posted that video of you playing with [San Jose band] the Careless Hearts over Labor Day weekend on our music blog. And I have to say, it didn't sound like you were ever away. Your guitar parts sounded just like the ones on Raw Power.
Williamson: Yeah. Well, luckily, my style is me, you know? I don't generally have to play anybody else's stuff so it's always sounds like me. [laughs] Those are my tunes. It's kind of a unique sound.
MT: How did that Careless Hearts thing come about?
Williamson: I've become friends with them. They're a lot younger than I am, of course. I met one of the guys, Derek See, at the music store I go to here in California — Griffin Instruments. He was working there and I went in there to buy a certain kind of Martin guitar. They didn't have it in stock. So, I asked him to call me if they got one in. He took my information and asked, "You're not the James Williamson?" So we got to talking and he's also a journalist. He wrote an article for a magazine called the Fretboard Journal last year. So, over time, I got to know him. And then another guy who also works at the shop is very, very talented and it turned out that he's in that same band. So when I decided to rejoin the Stooges and was talking to these guys about it, they offered to help me rehearse with a real band because I hadn't played with a band in 35 years. And, long story short, I wanted to reciprocate by offering to sit in on a gig with them and that's what we did.
MT: I imagine after you left the music industry and then were with Sony all those years, you must have had people you worked with — or even neighbors — who had no idea what you did in your past life.
Williamson: Well, it's suddenly become less true. [laughs] I've had a good run at being anonymous, but it's pretty hard to hide from the Internet, especially now with those gigs coming up. I was in the local paper and Rolling Stone and blah, blah, blah. They kind of all know now. Yeah, so the neighborhood is now all atwitter.
MT: Did I hear somewhere that your own kids weren't really aware of it and then when they got to college, they discovered who you were?
Williamson: Not exactly. They knew I had been in the music business but they really hadn't paid any attention to the Stooges and they had never heard me play. I mean, my wife only heard me play once. But after they got to college, my stock went up because a lot of their friends were into it. So then they started having people asking them to get their dad's autograph. It was great because my son and my wife got to come to that Labor Day gig and hear me play. I got lots of strokes and stuff. It was good.
MT: All of a sudden, Dad has a new hipness in the eyes of his kids.
Williamson: Exactly! [laughs]
MT: Before the first Stooges reunion, you were probably Iggy's longest collaborator. So how did the reconciliation come about? I know there was a falling-out at some point. Do you remember what that was all about in the first place?
Williamson: Yeah. Anytime you fall out with someone, it's usually more than just the one thing that triggers it. The final straw, though, was when we were recording Solider. We just had huge differences of opinion about almost everything. Basically, as I like to say, I quit and he fired me all at the same time. [laughs] We just thought it was time to give up on that. And then we didn't really talk to each other for about 20 years. We did talk to each other over the past 15 years or so, though. After Ronnie died, I got a call from Jim [Iggy] and he wanted to know if I would consider playing again. At first, I didn't give him an answer because I wasn't really planning on doing it. I had told all of them before [Asheton's passing] that if they ever got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that I would do that with them. But lots of things happen and, not long after that call, I decided to take early retirement from Sony. So, all of sudden, I was available. And I had the flexibility to do it. So I just started thinking, "Hey, the Stooges can't really go on without me because there just aren't enough Stooges left." So I essentially said, "I can do it. Why not? What the hell ..." So, I called him back and told him I could do it and here we are.
MT: All those years that you were working at Sony, did you ever think that you would come back and revisit that part of your life again?
Williamson: You know, I never did. I just didn't see as a viable direction for me to take. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I rekindled an interest in music at all. And that indirectly led to where we are now. But I'm trying to keep in touch with the music but not get too wrapped up in the music business.
MT: You mentioned the Solider album. I remember that you also produced New Values, which many people thought was one of Iggy's best solo albums. I take it that was a good experience, putting that album together.
Williamson: Yeah, it was. I think that was part of the reason why Soldier was so disappointing. Because, essentially, we really put a lot of work into New Values. And it's one of the things that I'm most proud of because I think it holds up extremely well, even today. I think it sounds good. Most of the material is solid. No album is perfect, but that was a pretty good effort. Whereas Solider, I think, was poorly conceived. The material wasn't there. I didn't like the studio. Just very unhappy with the whole experience. It didn't work whereas New Values had worked extremely well.
MT: I'm really glad you guys got back together. As much as I adore the first two Stooges album, for me, Raw Power was the one. Iggy mentioned, though, that you'll be playing more than just Raw Power material on this tour.
Williamson: Everything is up for grabs at this point. But, yes, we are including tunes from Kill City and Raw Power, unreleased stuff — really all kinds of stuff. We're including material from the entire career of the Stooges.
MT: Are you going to record new material? Or it is that up in the air?
Williamson: You know, it's probably too early to say. I would put money on it, though. I think we'll do some recording of new stuff we've been kicking around. But there's no definite timeline on any of that. Right now, hands down, it's trying to get this gig taken care of because we got an overseas gig coming right up in November. There is a tour being planned, but it's not finalized yet. We really hadn't planned on playing any gigs this year. But the offers came in and we decided, "What the hell ..."
MT: I'd heard rumors about the debut gig being at Coachella next spring, but I guess nothing is in stone yet. Iggy told me he would like to do it, but I guess they haven't planned things yet.
Williamson: Well, that's where the band started things off the last time around, so we'd like to get that one. At least, I'd like to get a West Coast gig, for sure. And an East Coast gig and a Midwest gig.
MT: Oh, well, you have to come to Detroit. I'm sure you've seen Bob [Matheu]'s book by now. What are your thoughts?
Williamson: I think he did a fantastic job. I mean, the pictures are good as are a lot of the little tidbit stories and things that are in there. As a coffee-table book — which I kind of view it as — it's the best one on the Stooges that I've seen. Mick Rock did one on just the Raw Power era. But I think this one has a wider scope to it. And I think it looks beautiful.
MT: So many of us have been fascinated over the years by the Metallic K.O. record. That's now looked at as a classic live album. But since you guys actually lived it, how "classic" did it feel to you at the time? Was it a bit depressing to watch the band disintegrate?
Williamson: Well, you have to have a little bit of a sense of humor about all that stuff. I have to be honest: I don't really listen to Metallic K.O. much. But I have and it is what it is. I was talking to [original Stooges and current Tom Petty keyboardist] Scotty Thurston and we were just talking about how, before that night, to our knowledge, there had never been that kind of overt violence at rock shows. And after that, I think it started to become a staple of those kinds of shows — with everybody starting to spit on each other and throw stuff and break stuff and bang each other's head. I'm not sure I want to be responsible for that. [laughs] But it is what it is.
MT: It was sort of the birth of what would become "punk rock" shows for years to come. On that same note, when you guys were in Detroit playing the clubs, did you ever imagine that the world would someday discover your music and you'd end up as legendary as you are now?
Williamson: I can only speak for myself, but we were so hand-to-mouth back then that I didn't know how much we could. I mean, the Stooges always had a sort of sense that we were doing what we wanted to do and we thought that was important. Later, we got more of that entitlement thing going on because, really, that was the only thing that kept us going during that final year tour that culminated with Metallic K.O. We were just like, "We have to do this." But that was not enough.
MT: Kill City came out as an Iggy Pop/James Williamson album. But was that originally going to be a Stooges album?
Williamson: No, we wrote the material after the Stooges. We were trying to make a demo for a record that never materialized. Had we not screwed the band up and had the band stayed together, it certainly would have been a Stooges album. But, as it was, the band fell apart. The Asheton brothers went back to Detroit. And Iggy and I were still in California so we just decided to try to get a record deal. And who knows? Maybe we would've invited them back if it had happened. I don't know.
MT: Well, you guys are all cleaned up these days. So I imagine that alone will make touring a much better experience.
Williamson: Let's hope so. [laughs] I mean, we're having a lot of fun doing it. And at this point in our lives, it's more about trying to have fun and get some closure. So, that's what's it's all about right now.
MT: This Stooges tour will be the first time that Scott will playing Stooges music without Ron. I know you can only speak for yourself, but were the rehearsals an emotional experience because of that?
Williamson: It's very hard for me to read that. I mean, it had to be. I know Scotty has had a lot of time and that's good. I mean, that was one of the main reasons the band has been staying off the road. These guys are grieving and they have to go through that. By the same token, I think that Scotty knows that Ron would not have wanted him to quit. And so, I think he takes some comfort in that.
MT: So, the Stooges are nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet again. Congratulations, I guess. But how fucking long is it going to take for them to put you in? How do you feel about that? Have you guys ever thought about just telling them to go fuck themselves at this point?
Williamson: [laughs] I don't know. I guess we could say that. But that would be kind of like a taking my ball and going home. Nobody has ever gone past eight times and not gotten in. So, if we do, it will set a record of a sort.
MT: I think you've beaten the Velvet Underground. It took them five times.
Williamson: I think with Lynyrd Skynyrd, it took eight years.
MT: Bob [Matheu] told me that you recently went to see a Stooges tribute band — a Raw Power tribute band — in L.A.
Williamson: That's true. The Raw Rower Rangers, man! They were great. They were hysterically funny. The guy doing Iggy was really good. He did impressions of Iggy. He didn't look anything like him but he did an amazing impression of him, including all the off-handed comments in between songs and the whole deal. And the band played good, and they sounded good and knew all the tunes. It was hysterical.
MT: Did you guys introduce yourselves to them afterward?
Williamson: Oh, yeah. I got pictures with them. They got a real kick out of that.
MT: The last time we talked after Ron's death, you told me that great story about the knee-high boots and how you couldn't sit down or even bend over in them. I don't imagine those boots will make a reappearance on this tour.
Williamson: No. [laughs] After that first gig in Detroit, they were confiscated by MainMan [management company]. And I was out of the band in less than three weeks. Thank God, they were, though, because they were unusable for almost anything. They can stand up all day if they want to.
MT: So, November will be the first gig and you don't think you'll be touring until 2010 then?
Williamson: Yeah. Those are it for this year. But it's a big one. I'm going from the last gig I did on Labor Day weekend playing to 200 people to 20,000. So that's a big jump.
MT: When you worked for Sony all those years, you were an electrical engineer? I've never been exactly clear on what you did there.
Williamson: At Sony, the last job I had was vice president of technology standards. That was an outgrowth of my being an electronics engineer. But my career in electronics has been as an engineer, then management and so forth. So, does that help?
MT: Yeah. But was music involved or was it more technologically involved?
Williamson: Oh, it was technology. Although in my last position, in standards, I did get very involved with Sony Pictures and Sony Music relating to digital rights management and things like that. But, primarily, my focus was electronics — for my whole career, really. Because that's what I essentially left the music industry to do and that's what I've done for the last 28 years.
MT: Did you miss the music business at all when you left?
Williamson: Well, especially in the beginning, the computer industry was far more exciting. That was the beginning of the personal computer and that was like what rock 'n' roll used to be like for me in the beginning. It was just really new and stuff was happening. I haven't regretted it, ever. I think now, once I rediscovered the music, I would have to say I did miss some aspects of doing it. There are quite a few things I didn't miss, though, but you have to take the good with the bad.
MT: And looking on the bright side, not many people get to retire and then get to go on tour with Iggy & the Stooges.
Williamson: Yeah. Beats the hell out of working at Wal-Mart for a retirement job!
MT: Yeah. A greeter at Wal-Mart or a tour with the Stooges? Gee, that's a tough one. Finally, I wondered if you've you been following all the recent negative press about Detroit. It's like we're the butt of all these bad jokes lately. And there's the cover of Time magazine.
Williamson: I haven't heard the jokes. But I have been following about how bad it is there, watching the automobile industry completely disintegrate. What happened with Time? I didn't catch that.
MT: It was a cover story last week. It was like, "The Tragedy of Detroit." When you're actually living in the place, though ... well, it's almost like you guys reading stuff about the Stooges. When you actually lived it or are living it, it's always like, "Well, it's a little bit different than that." I mean, it is bad but it's not as bad as they're making it out to be.
Williamson: I think there's a lot of opportunity. My niece, for example, can get into a house there for $50,000. You know, where else are you going to be able to do that? But I have a lot of confidence in the Detroit people. They're tough and they're going to reinvent themselves. Yes, the automobile industry is what began Detroit as a city. But I don't think it needs to be totally dependent on the automobile industry anymore.
MT: Do you still have family in Detroit?
Williamson: I do have a niece. My sister was the last of my direct family there and she moved to Texas. So, I have one person still there.
MT: So, you probably haven't been back in a long time, I take it.
Williamson: I think that last I went back was in the '90s sometime.
MT: Well, you better bring the tour to Detroit. I'm sure everyone in Detroit will be very happy about that.
Williamson: And the thing is, we're not just back together to go through the motions. It's a freakin' rockin' band, I'm telling you. You're really going to like this!