James Williamson and Mike Watt muse on the latest album.
BY TIM STEGALL
“You can all go home now,” I told the readers of The Austin Chronicle the night Iggy And The Stooges debuted their new LP, Ready To Die – the 40-years-overdue follow-up to Raw Power – at the first night of SXSW 2013 in March. “The conference is over. The world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band has played. No one else matters.”
I meant it then, and I mean it now. I’ll mean it 40 or 50 years from now, when I’m long gone and buried, if anyone still cares to go back and read this. I’ve seen Iggy Pop maybe 15 times by now, twice when he first reunited the Stooges in the early ’00s with the Asheton brothers (Ron and Scott) and Mike Watt on bass, where he belongs. But seeing Iggy &The Stooges with errant Sony executive James Williamson – the Stooge who got away – manning the Les Paul is an even more ferocious beast with a far more feral beat.
The Mohawk is a cozy-ish venue on the Red River strip which is truly the hub of happening Austin rock ‘n’ roll venues most think 6th Street is. Iggy & The Stooges are playing the patio area, outdoors. But even that area’s ability to accommodate the crush of humanity snaking around the block and overflowing into the street in front of the club was easily questioned.
Iggy Pop – the prototype punk rocker, the Stooges’ leader/singer/visionary, possessed of legendary vision, grace, and physicality – was insistent the Stooges debut the then-yet-to-be-released Ready To Die at SXSW. Iggy even talked Stooges bassist Mike Watt – a punk legend in his own right, courtesy of the Minutemen – back to the States, postponing a series of Watt European road dates he was in the thick of. He did it. Watt may have his own career, but he’s a Stooge. The boss called him in on his day off. Still retaining a blue collar ethic as a musician, Watt came in to work.
Amazingly, the Stooges’ set-up time was minimal – 10-15 minutes’ tops, maybe? As amp heads were stacked atop speaker cabinets and cymbals were mounted on stands, some portion or other of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana suite wafted over the P.A. The drama built….
Then, without warning or fanfare, various Stooges walk on…except the star. James Williamson, looking less like the spike-haired SciFi hooligan in a weird Star Trek uniform of 1973 than like the retired electronics executive he is, straps on his Les Paul Custom and unleashes 100 watts’ worth of the riff to “Raw Power.” Iggy comes RUNNING from the back of the stage, past the drummer – Wait! That isn’t Scott Asheton up there! - and LUNGES at the vocal mic! It’s ON!!!
This is rock ‘n’ roll as a full-contact blood sport, no holds barred, no prisoners taken, no mercy shown. Iggy And The Stooges explode off the stage and out the PA, spilling over into the audience (as Iggy has done his entire career, save for maybe that brief time he was Detroit’s best teenage rock ‘n’ roll drummer….and you can blame that on having to sit behind a kit). There’s James Williamson, riffing like a hyper-thyroid Dave Davies! Grey boiler-suited Mike Watt and drummer Toby Dammit deputizing for brotherly rhythm section Scott and the late Ron Asheton, perfectly capturing the aural pressure drop! Funhouse saxman Steve MacKay is now a full Stooge, honking and droning ala Coltrane beside Williamson! Iggy charging hard at the mic stand, a Tasmanian Devil uncaged and unleashed! “Raw power got a healin’ hand,” Iggy snarls, “Raw power can destroy a man/Raw power is more than soul/Got a son called rock and roll….” No, Iggy, it’s not the son – this is rock ‘n’ roll! Unfettered, unhinged, untamed…definitive!
“Gimme Danger” follows, doing little to cool down the adrenaline. Them, ready? Aim? FIRE! “Burn,” the opening track to Ready To Die and the first single, is next. It’s got a thick James Williamson riff, all drive, edge, and crank. Iggy presides over the lyric. There’s no fat, just a single every bit the equal of Raw Power. “This,” I would write later that night, “is a gift.”
The next hour sees a mix of Stooges classics, old and new, delivered seamlessly. The emphasis is on “deliver” here: Iggy & The Stooges phone nothing in. “Iggy is visibly pacing himself,” I wrote for The Austin Chronicle,”not quite the manic hellion of old. But… he’s only slowed down in comparison to his own past. He is concentrating on delivering that death-house baritone, then giving the popping eyes and flashing feet, still occasionally falling into the audience (to be dragged back by overzealous roadies), not quite delivering the old human missile forays of 1973-to-just-a-few-years-ago. But compared to you and me? He’s still a force of nature.”
The band is lobbing one great new one after another: Relevant tunes like “Sex & Money” and the working class anthem “Job,” with its hilarious fist-pumping refrain, “I got a job/But it don’t pay shit!” (“I haven’t had a job in years,” Iggy smirked, introducing it. “Who’d hire me now, anyway?”) There’s also “DD’s,” a typically smutty Iggy lyric about that which obsesses men from Iggy to Russ Meyer….
“Iggy walks offstage a second,” I continued, “a pedal steel player sets up next to Mike Watt, looking straight out of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, Williamson moves to lap-steel. Iggy walks back, and The Stooges deliver a somber new tribute to the fallen Ron Asheton, “The Departed,” complete with an atmospheric rewrite of the “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and funeral march drums. Then a trifecta: ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog,’ ‘Search And Destroy,’ and an encore segueing ‘Fun House’ into a “No Fun” that resembles more the Sex Pistols’ power-slam remake. And they’re off, the band downing instruments, Williamson’s Les Paul howling feedback, Iggy staying on a few minutes more, mugging and vogueing, soaking up the overwhelming love the crowd gives him….”
And it was over. Adrenaline was overloading my system. My brain was buzzing, LOUDLY! I needed to write, had to communicate this experience. This was fucking intense….
In a matter of weeks, Ready To Die would be in my hands, likely the most misleadingly-titled rock ‘n’ roll record in history. The only way this record’s title could have been more disingenuous would have been to title it 10 Mellow Melodies From Iggy And The Stooges. The other thing immediately sticking out is the Fat Possum imprint. Isn’t this the first time Iggy’s been an indie artist?
“Not true,” James Williamson reminds me by telephone a few weeks later, “because we did Kill City with what may be the first indie record label…”
“…on Bomp! Records,” I slap my forehead. I wrote liner notes for the 1992 reissue for that Iggy/Williamson collaboration. My memory’s clearly failing me.
“Yeah, on Bomp!” James affirms. “So, he was – although reluctantly,” James laughs, indicating that record’s original release was not exactly Iggy’s idea, “an indie artist.”
Iggy Pop, incidentally, was also reluctant to be interviewed for this feature. Guess he’d rather add to the workload of James Williamson, a man already enjoying a most unusual “retirement….”
“Well, I’m working on making it better!” Williamson laughs. “It’s been a challenge in some ways. But still, it’s a lot of fun. You’ve gotta keep doing things, or you kinda fall apart. So, I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.”
One intriguing thing, however: Williamson completely walked away from everything and went into the computer world and Vice President of Technology Standards for the Americas at Sony Electronics. It’s just interesting that he went right back to The Stooges. But it is a different situation than the old days, I would take it?
“Well, yeah, totally different” Williamson agrees. “When we called it quits back in the ’70s, it was something we just couldn’t make a living at. All these years later, of course, it’s a thriving enterprise and it’s kinda cool I could to jump back in and see what it’s like to actually start taking victory laps.”
Yeah. You now actually play for the large audiences The Stooges didn’t exactly enjoy in the old days, don’t you? “I never played for much of an audience,” he says. I believe 2000 people may be the largest audience we ever did. And now? The first gig we did with me (returning) was 40,000 people! And we’ve played to as many as 300,000! It’s a whole different scale!”
I am curious about one thing, though: Over the years, did your co-workers at Sony ever wake up and ask, Wait! He used to be one of our artists, right? “Oddly, not that way. The Sony business units are quite separate and distinct from each other. So, the music business and the movie business and the electronics business are pretty separate from each other. Although I did interact with all the different businesses. But, at least as far as I know, no one put the dots together on that. What did start happening was the internet caught up with me, and lots of writers like you tracked me down. Occasionally, we’d do an interview and the word gets out because you can’t hide from the internet. So, this guy or that girl would start finding out, and they’d start asking me ‘Are you the James Williamson?’-kinda stuff. So pretty soon, the word got around.”
Well, I’m guessing because of the legend of The Stooges, the band eventually did sell significant amounts of records, eventually. I’m guessing you would have been classic catalog artists, right?
“Oh, that’s right,” says Williamson. “I often joke about us being unsuccessful and thinking we were going to sell a lot of records with Raw Power. But the truth is, we have. It just took a really long time. It went gold or platinum in some countries. In France, it’s platinum. And I believe it’s also maybe platinum in the UK, or gold. I’m not positive. The US is a pretty high hurdle, but I think we may be close in the US, as well. So, it is a successful record. It’s certainly got legs, for sure.”
That happens with a lot of people we love. The Sex Pistols’ album didn’t go gold in the US until 10 years after it came out. “Yeah. Well, that’s the thing. It’s a good thing this is how it happened. Because now we’ve had this long career we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
And now? Raw Power has finally been followed-up properly, and Ready To Die is a strong effort for sure. Had you and Iggy been working on these songs awhile, James?
“Well, no. When I got back in the band in 2009, all we cared about was touring. So we just had to get the band to be a crackin’ band and tour. But it took a couple of years before (Pop and Williamson) started sitting together and trying to write new material. And frankly, I wasn’t sure we could. It was a long, long time ago when we wrote the last song together. But it turned out we could write as quickly and as well as we ever did. So we got started on those things.”
The one exception Williamson will note is “The Departed,” originally entitled “Ron’s Tune.” “We came up with that in 2011, so that one goes back a ways. But most of the tunes actually were mostly (written) last year, maybe a little bit at the end of the year before. I started putting them together as demos and stuff, and they started coming together pretty well. Then last year, we spent the year really making songs out of them. So, we came up with about 15 that we recorded fully. From that, we got the ten on the album and a couple of bonus things.”
Definitely, “The Departed” is one of the high points of the album. I thought it was even better as it was played it SXSW, honestly.
“Well, Bob Hofner” – the aforementioned steel guitarist - “was playing with us,” Williamson says. “He’s just fantastic!”
Even without Hofner on the LP, “The Departed” is such a great, atmospheric song. It’s a very, very heartfelt song, as well.
Williamson agrees. “Definitely. I swear, I was crying just writing that music. It’s a really sad song.”
It doesn’t hurt that Iggy Pop completely stepped up to the plate, vocally and lyrically, a point Williamson eagerly concurs: “I was very proud of his vocal performance through the whole album, and the lyrics, too. Like you say, he stepped up and did what he needed to do.”
This point is one of the hallmarks of the LP: Let’s face it – many times across his later solo career, Iggy Pop could seem indifferent and perfunctory, especially in his lyrics. There’s no such slack in anything Iggy writes or sings on Ready To Die. This is the most engaged Iggy Pop has sounded in years. He sounds like a man who has showered, shaven, and had a fresh pot of espresso.
“I think the secret with Iggy,” James reflects, “is he’s got to get excited about it. I think once the stuff is coming together, he certainly did get excited and he did step up. I think we’re happy with everyone’s performances. Overall, they were really good.”
And what of Scott Asheton? He is on Ready To Die, and drums in his beautiful, idiosyncratic way across the record’s length and breadth. Yet he was notably absent at SXSW and through Iggy & The Stooges’ recent live dates, with Toby Dammit deputizing. Is Scott Asheton still a Stooge?
“His health is not quite strong enough to go out on the road. We play so much in Europe and stuff, and it’s a big schlep. It’s just not something he’s up to right now. We had him on the album, and he sounded great on the album. But it’s different to be in the studio, where you could stop and start and so forth. But he’s still in.”
Plus a lot of people don’t realize that drummers have the most physically demanding job in the band. So he would have to be in tip-top condition just to be Rock Action.
“Yeah, it’s a really tough job. The guy we’ve got right now, Toby Dammit, he’s 25-30 years younger than Scott. And he gets his ass kicked every night!” Williamson laughs. “So I have to say my music is demanding on me, but it’s really demanding on the drummer!”
Well, Iggy remarked in that documentary that accompanied the deluxe Raw Power box set that you played guitar like you had a thyroid condition! “Well, I do have a thyroid condition!” Williamson acknowledges. “But it’s the hypothyroid condition, so I actually have to take thyroid. It’s a little misplaced, but I understand what he means!
Did I understand correctly? Did you not pick up a guitar for many, many years before you got back in The Stooges?
“That’s right,” Williamson says. “When I put it down, I put it down. So it didn’t get picked back up, basically, until about a year-and-a-half before I got a call from the Ig. I happened to run across a guitar in a flea market that was a real old guitar from I didn’t know when, but it sounded amazing. I didn’t know what it was, and neither did the guy who was selling it. So I got it cheap, and it turned out to be a Herman Weissenborn Spanish guitar. It was just an amazing instrument, and it kinda got me excited about playing it. I was dicking around with that for about a year-and-a-half. So I wasn’t completely without playing, but it wasn’t the rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar style that you hear now.
“Really, the only thing that saved me was that after I decided to rejoin the band, I had about six months before our first gig. So I tried to woodshed, and I played with a local band and got to do a gig with them and stuff. So I had some idea about it, and we started rehearsing pretty intensely. It all came back, but it was a lot of work.”
Well, you could have fooled me. Because even from the footage of that first gig, you were playing like James Williamson!
“Well, the lucky thing for me is that’s my job, is to play like James Williamson!” he laughs. “So, I can do that! They’re my songs, for the most part. So once you go through them a little bit, it all comes back to you. If I have to play like somebody else, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it.”
How were the songs for this album written? Were you two getting together in a room and writing like you did in the old days?
“We did a mixture of stuff. When we first started, occasionally we’d get together when we were on the road somewhere and dink around with stuff. That’s kinda old school for us. Then I went to Miami and we did sit in a room for a few days and also work on stuff. Once we got rolling with all that, we know each other so well and the communications are so good these days that we can do it also remotely. What difference does it make? The way we write is, typically, I come up with a riff. If I like it well enough, after awhile I send it to him. If Ig likes it, then he starts working on the words. Then we go back and forth. You can do that anywhere, whether you’re sitting in a room or across the country.
“Burn” was a perfect choice for a first single. That is easily the equal of anything from Raw Power.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Williamson audibly beams. “The genesis for that song is this producer named Brenna Sanchez who produced the DVD for the Raw Power re-release and had done a number of other films. She did a documentary called Burn, which is about the Detroit Fire Department. Pretty much what they do there now is 9 out of 10 fires are arsons: People burning their houses just to get the insurance money. She was doing this documentary, and she asked me if we would do a song for the movie. So, I said, ‘Sure!’ So, I started working on it, and of course it took us way too long to get this thing done!” He laughs. “So the documentary was long out, and of course the song evolved from there.”
I don’t hear much about arson in the song now. It just sounds like Iggy tapping into general modern desperation. “It’s a crazy song! If you listen to it very carefully, it’s very hard to discern a pattern in the song. It goes four times and six times and two times. It’s kinda challenging to play live, because we had to get all these things down to play these shows live, and the band was just having fits with that one! Because you’ve gotta remember the exact sequence. It keeps you a little bit off-kilter. And then there’s all this crazy guitar going on in there and stuff.”
The Watt Effect
I ask Williamson how it is working with Mike Watt as opposed to working with Ron Asheton on bass.
“Well, it’s great!” Williamson enthuses. “Watt is an entirely different character, and I guess his place in the sorta progression of The Stooges is quite different. Y’know, he was coming in after being a fan of The Stooges. But the thing about Watt is he’s a really, really hard-working guy. He will always practice and he will always be the last guy to wanna get out of doing anything. So, it’s great having him, ‘cuz he’s willing to work. And actually, everybody in the band now is willing to work. So, we work very diligently to keep the band ready to rock!”
Mike Watt approaches things from a very different angle. He’s very much a master musician: I always say he really is the bass player everyone thinks Flea is. He also comes from MY world, the indie punk rock world. Like Williamson says, Watt comes at it from being a Stooges fan. It’s amazing that he’s able to accurately reproduce Ron Asheton’s bass lines on the old stuff. But he’s definitely making a good contribution towards the new stuff.
“He has a little different style than Ronnie did,” Williamson reflects. “There’s some subtle things – Mike doesn’t use a pick, and Ronnie used to. So there’s some things that jump right out as far as style, technically. But the things that Mike does, like you say, he’s a master musician. He can come up with parts that are really interesting. So, we have to kinda keep him in check sometimes. He will kinda want to go off into that Chinese jazz sometimes,” he laughs.
The most interesting thing about Mike Watt is his completely blue-collar approach to playing music: He looks at it as he’s a guy doing a job, punching a clock and working his shift.
“Well, that is kinda what he’s doing in this band. But he really enjoys it. He’s so enthusiastic about everything that you can’t repress any of it. He’s the first guy who, if he (hits a bad note) at a gig, he’ll admit it. He remembers every single one!”
And how is it for Watt? Having joined The Stooges from the moment they reformed ten years ago, the ex-Minutemen and Firehose icon has now held The Stooges bass slot longer than anyone, including predecessors Dave Alexander and Ron Asheton combined. How does working with James Williamson on guitar feel, after having worked with Ron for six years?
“Ronnie, James… both have different styles, y’know?” Watt muses, speaking from his San Pedro home a half-hour before driving to a Stooges rehearsal in February. “Both are guitarists that didn’t copy people. They didn’t copy off records. You can tell they have their own style, their own way of playing. So, in a way, they’re both originals like that. But they’re also different from each other. Different from other people. And yeah, they’re different as people, but it’s different in respect of music. They’re not like sidemen who ask, ‘What do you want? I’ll do that.’ They play from how they are.
“Personally? They’re a little different, of course! But both guys are very kind to me. I respect them and their stuff, so I try to play it good for them. Yeah, it’s different, but they’re both guitar slingers, they’re both songwriters. There’s a lot of common ground, but they’re both different. The kinda players they are, they’re not imitators. They come from finding their own way of doing rock ‘n’ roll. They listened to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and that kinda thing. They’re guys from the ’60s. They’re not from the world of hackdom, where they learn things from some school of music. I think that’s why The Stooges were so important to the punk scene. It’s like, ‘This is how I play, this is how it comes out.’ That’s how Jimi Hendrix can be Jimi Hendrix, and Pete Townshend can be Pete Townshend: ‘This is the way we play.’ Now, I know they respected those guys, because they talk about ‘em all the time. That doesn’t surprise me. But that goes for the way Iggy sings, too. The whole thing about The Stooges is in the way they express themselves. So in a practical sense, as a guy playing with these cats? There is a difference. But the whole thing is rooted in honest expression.”
Asheton tended to be more free form, more like a jazz player, while Williamson is pretty tight, pretty composed. He definitely writes power chord riffs and solid solos, and tends to write more traditional songwriting structures.
“Mmmm….yeah,” Watt agrees. “Sometimes, there’s strange structures (in Williamson’s songwriting), except he doesn’t really think about it. They just come out. There’s little twists and turns here. Like when I do this stuff, I write charts out. The worst thing I think that anybody can do is try think their fucking way through The Stooges. You’ve gotta learn this shit. This is so much about life and people: They try to get away with what’s minimal. You can’t do that with this music, in my opinion. So, I have to chart these things. And a couple of ‘em, I’ll definitely have to follow right now. Because things can get trippy inside the structure.
“Both guys are kinda masters of The Monster Riff, if you think about ‘TV Eye,’ if you think about ‘Shake Appeal.’ Those are Monster Riffs. But they’re different: There’s a Ronnie way, and there’s a James way. Both got blues in ‘em. To me, they’re just honest expression of their own individualism as persons. James added some embellishments, like slide, lap steel, little bit of things that are particular to him, on Raw Power. I think ‘Raw Power’ is electric and acoustic. And this baby? He brought some other stuff, too.
“James made the (new) record. He’s the producer, in a lot of ways. He really did a lot. I wonder what people will think about it. It’s hard to hear when I talk about it. You’ve gotta hear it and then let me know what you think. I think me describing it? I don’t know how to describe it! Except that it’s The Stooges! That’s what I would say. You’ve gotta let it live its own life. You don’t need me stuntin’ it with my lame ass proclamations!”
Fair enough, Watt. Ready To Die is here, and it’s a solid, worthy addition to The Stooges’ canon. It’s 12 meaty slices of industrial strength rock ‘n’ roll that shames anything attempting to pass itself off as “rock ‘n’ roll” nowadays, and shows every punk rocker worth his or her salt where this noise originated and how it’s supposed to be done. Iggy, James, Scotty and Mike can walk tall and proud over this one.
And does James Williamson see any further records from Iggy & The Stooges?
“Well, y’know, I don’t know. I can’t speak for everybody else. I feel I have one or two left in me. I produced the album, so I had a big learning curve in terms of the new technology and everything. Because I’m super old school….So, now that I have one record under my belt, I kinda feel like it would be a shame to stop here.”
James Williamson, The Stooge who got away and came back, ultimately has to laugh: He does not know if Iggy & The Stooges will record again, really. “We’ll see,” is the only answer he can honestly give.
[Stooges photos credit: David Raccuglia]