Many rock reunions have an air of inevitability about them and Iggy Pop’s reactivation of his legendary late-’60s band The Stooges in 2003 was no different. When, after six years of high-energy, extreme-volume touring, their guitarist Ron Asheton passed away unexpectedly in 2009, many justifiably thought, that was that.
Iggy’s subsequent decision to reconvene the band’s second line-up — and coax legendary guitarist James Williamson out of retirement — was less expected. While the original combo had never enjoyed any success during its fleeting existence, the infamous second incarnation of The Stooges, born circa 1972, was doomed from the outset and soon became a byword for druggy self-destruction. Although all just about escaped with their lives, this was the unlikeliest reunion.
Back in the day, The Stooges Mk 2 were augmented by James Williamson, a fabulously talented guitarist, whose savage, mangled riffing on the band’s lone album, 1973′s Raw Power, was a perfect foil for Iggy’s incandescent lyricism. Their brutality was way ahead of its time: only once they’d imploded, and Iggy had checked himself into a Californian psychiatric unit, would both incarnations of the band become a key influence on punk rock.
Their story is singular enough, even without the added spice that Williamson quit music altogether circa 1980, and spent the intervening 30 years working successfully as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley in California. His return in 2009 couldn’t have been less foreseeable, but subsequent tours showcasing Raw Power and 1975′s Pop/Williamson collaboration, Kill City, found his playing remarkably unspoiled — and undiluted.
It remains as such on Iggy & The Stooges’ remarkable comeback record, whose title, Ready to Die, is a fittingly gnarly statement from unrepentant rockers in their mid 60s. Its 10 tracks balance swinging riffage with near-the-knuckle balladry, while Iggy holds forth on gun control, underpaid labor, abundant female breasts and, indeed, death. In exclusive conversation with eMusic’s Andrew Perry, these legends are implausibly invigorated.
For a peek into the Stooges’ record collection, click here.
Iggy, how did you persuade James to rejoin the band, after so long out of the game?
Iggy Pop: After Ron Asheton passed away in 2009, I talked to James about possibly coming in for some gigs that we had booked already, and I also talked to a friend of Ron’s who was in a Stooges tribute band, [Radio Birdman's] Deniz Tek. I ended up canceling the gigs, but James and I stayed in touch, and toward the end of that year, I had an offer that was too good to refuse. And James was up for it.
James had to do a lot of rehearsal to relearn how to play the guitar after 37 years, and in the course of doing so he sent me a very nice piece of dobro blues music — he called it “Ron’s Tune.” And he began and ended the tune with a slide-guitar rendition of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which is Ron’s greatest and best known riff.
James, you’d not been playing in public for all that time, but had you been doing music privately, just for your own enjoyment?
James Williamson: Not really, no. I wrote one song when we were doing New Values [Iggy's 1979 solo album], and that was it. After the really bad experience we had on Soldier [Iggy's 1980 solo album], I just said, “Screw this, I’ve gotta focus on technology.” I just put the guitar down. There was the odd time or two, when I’d pull it out and try and impress my son, but by then I was pretty rusty, so he was kinda like, [skeptical] “Really, dad?!” So I just stopped altogether.
But then, about a year and a half before I got the call to rejoin the band, I happened to be at a flea market, and came across this old guitar. I didn’t know what [brand] it was, but it sounded amazing, and I bought it for a song basically, because the guy who was selling it didn’t know what it was either. It turned out to be made by a guy from the 1920s and ’30s, named Hermann Weissenborn. He made Spanish-necked guitars, as well as lap steels, back in the heyday of Hawaian music, and was really a master.
So that inspired me to play a little bit. Granted, that was acoustic, so it was not the same as playing in The Stooges, although I wrote most of the songs [for The Stooges] on acoustic.
So did it take quite a bit of practice to get “match fit” for those first shows in ’09?
Williamson: It’s funny, if you ever could play guitar in the first place, you have the same synapses and muscle memory and all that stuff — it all comes back. I did have to work pretty hard to get it up to a kind of professional level, but I had six months to do it. We rehearsed a lot, and I did one show with a local band, just to get the feel of it. Almost all of our set is my stuff, and then the earlier Stooges stuff is pretty simple.
But in terms of writing, I had not done that at all, so going into this album was a little daunting at first, but then things got going so well, you couldn’t hardly stop it.
Some reactivated bands, like the Pixies, believe that it’s okay for them to play shows for people to enjoy the old material, but that they shouldn’t make new records, because they can never match up — they can only tarnish their own legacy. You obviously disagree…
Pop: My motivation in making any record with a group at this point is no longer personal, it’s just a pigheaded fucking thing I have, that a real fucking group, when they’re an older group, they also make fucking records. They don’t just twiddle around onstage to just make a bunch of money and then go, “Oh, it wouldn’t be as good.” This is not the fucking Smashing Pumpkins, you know? No. So this is the key, the only thing I really have left to say is, The Stooges are a real group.
Williamson: The first priority when we reformed was to get the band cracking, and in tour shape. And I think you saw the results of that. Then after about 2011 or so, we started thinking, Well, you know, shouldn’t we make a record? But we weren’t sure we could do it. The previous album, The Weirdness [released by The Stooges Mk 1 in '07] didn’t come out too well, or at least the critics didn’t like it much, and so I was determined that we would make a record that we felt was really representative of us, and that we liked.
So I started writing with Ig, and that was the first revelation — it’s funny, but we have some kind of chemistry, for lack of a better word, where we can actually write songs fairly quickly. So we started doing that when we had time, and little by little some of them started sounding pretty good. It took quite a long time, because we were still touring, but we made a concerted effort in 2012, and eventually we came up with 15 songs, and then pared them down to 10 that went on the album.
Were there any ground rules for making it? Anything you wanted to avoid? Or was it just the music that came out?
Williamson: It was pretty much just the music that came out. We really were keenly aware that, this being the 40th anniversary of Raw Power, all this stuff would get compared. So we didn’t wanna write in the rearview mirror, if you will. If you fall into that trap, you start to be a caricature of yourself. We wanted to be authentic, as we are now, and that’s what you’ve got — songs about today, and I think it ended up being some very topical material, that covers gun control, immigration, sex, money — you know, all the keen topics. And the music sounds like us. I think we couldn’t help but be us really.
We kinda still maintained the old school way. We used tape on a lot of stuff, and a lot of analogue outboard equipment, like Neave 10-73 pre-amps. That’s the killer sound, maybe a little bit of a throwback to the ’70s, but I think Ig stepped up and really sang his ass off. And I played hard.
Have you felt any obligation maybe to reinhabit your state of mind as you remember it from the early ’70s, to be true to the original Stooges, to be the “streetwalking cheetah” from the classic song “Search & Destroy,” but updated for today? On several songs you actually seem in quite a dark place: on ‘Unfriendly World’, you sing, “Fame and fortune make me sick, and I can’t get out.” In short, not the streetwalking cheetah…
Pop: Well, unfortunately for me, I’ve hit a point in my life where I’m kinda famous, and I’m not used to that, ’cause I couldn’t get arrested my whole fucking life. Nobody knew who I was, except for a few crazy people. So I got to be like 50 and still living like outside of crappy areas in New York City, and nobody knew who I was. I got used to that, so, no, I’m not used to who I am now, and it’s not in my interest to express myself, some days. I’m not like most people, I don’t share the acceptable thoughts on society; mine are unacceptable. So it’s become harder and harder for me to give in a lyric. Also I may just be out of things [to say] — as you get older you notice your vocabulary stays the same.
So I have to be careful because if I say what’s really on my mind I might get laughed at or locked up, or cause other problems around me. And the world has changed and I’m a person who’s very fortunate to be walking around healthy, free, and respectable; in terms of what I did, way back when, and I know it, I have this mentality.
Looking back at Raw Power, it was always doomed to commercial failure, at the time at least. You came in on guitar, James, and Ron Asheton came back in at the last minute, but relegated to bass, with his brother Scott on drums. Any human resources manager would’ve told you, that’s not a band that’s going to thrive and conquer the world, there will be arguments…
Williamson: And that’s exactly what our management thought! [The Stooges were signed up by David Bowie's management company, at the behest of Bowie, who was obsessed with Iggy. —Ed.] Going over to London, just me and Iggy at first, at that particular time — it was sort of ground zero for the glam thing, and here we are, some midwestern US guys who’d never been out of the US before, and we got parachuted in to Bowie’s world, and T Rex’s world — Marc Bolan was on fire when we got there.
We’d never seen anything like that since The Beatles. The girls were flinging themselves against the chain-link fences, and crying and screaming, and we were thinking, “Wow, okay, this is pretty cool,” but when we went to find musicians, it was like we just couldn’t relate to the guys. There was guys ruffled cuffs and collars and flowers and stuff, and it wasn’t us.
Our management wanted us to be like pop stars, like Bowie. That was the model they had, and in fact they didn’t even want me to come over. They just wanted Iggy, so they kind of begrudgingly let this surly-looking, pimply, long-haired guy come along with him, and then pretty soon there were four of us [when the Ashetons arrived], haha! So every time we’d bring a demo to MainMan, the management, they would reject it. “I Got A Right,” “I’m Sick Of You” — all those great songs were done before Raw Power, and they didn’t like them.
So our job was to try to come up with some material that they would like, but the real break we got was that David Bowie suddenly started getting very popular, so that took all the focus off of us, and they just didn’t have time to deal with us. But we owed an album to CBS, so they let us just go in the studio on our own, and make it. I don’t think Raw Power would’ve been made otherwise, or at least it certainly wouldn’t have been the same.
In the end, though, MainMan, took Bowie into the studio to remix the album, in the hope of making something palatable out of it, and the released version came out pretty tinny. Did that upset you?
Williamson: The good news was, we were left alone without any adult supervision. The bad news is, this is my first album, so I assumed Iggy knew what he was doing, but Iggy’s not a technical guy, and so I think we made the engineer do a lot of things he didn’t really wanna do. The basic tracks — bass and drums, and probably some guitar — were all done live in the room together, so the isolation wasn’t very good, so there’s a lot of bass in the drums.
It’s a mess really, in some ways, so I think when David Bowie went to mix it, he didn’t have much to work with. He probably had to take the bass and drums down quite a bit, like he did, in order not to hear all that stuff. But of course he made me sound great, because basically it’s just guitars and vocals — which is what Jack White has made a career out of, by the way! So it’s not all lost.
Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols always says he learnt to play guitar by playing along to Raw Power in his bedroom (on speed!). When you first heard British punk rock, did you think, “Hang on, they’re ripping us off”?
Pop: Williamson has such a strong energy, he’s a Scorpio, and he has powerful waves of negative repellent energy in his playing. So it’s no accident that it was his playing that ignited certain sparks that led to English punk rock, no accident at all.
Williamson: I hear him say that, and I’m like, “Really?! Because I consider myself a positive force.” The only way I can interpret that is he’s saying I’m like a bad-ass guitar player, in which case I consider it a compliment.
Pop: Someone put it this way in a recent book, that the original Stooges with Ron, Scott, myself and Dave, were like lone artisans, working away in isolation, crafting away the templates for the content of punk rock. But nobody knew the tree was falling in the forest. It took a combination of James Williamson and David Bowie. They both served similar roles in my life and it took the platform that we got from Bowie’s people, and the negative waves from Williamson, to put us in touch with the generation that really articulated punk.
So did it feel like a vindication?
Williamson: By the time all that stuff had started happening, I was pretty much out of music, so I wasn’t really paying much attention to it, but of course it was hard to miss The Sex Pistols, so I did notice a kind of similarity, and I thought to myself, “Good for these guys, they were able to put it together, and market it successfully.” They were doing stuff right. That was one of the regrets that I think I’ve always had about the early Stooges — we were just too fucked-up to be successful [laughs]. We just didn’t care about that kind of stuff. In the end it broke up the band, because people just couldn’t go on.
Iggy, your lifestyle problems ran on well into the 1990s, as has been well documented over the years. But James, how did you manage to extricate yourself, straighten up and hold down a challenging, cutting-edge job for so long?
Williamson: I think he has a different kind of vulnerability to these things than I do. I wasn’t as bad as people make me out to be in terms of drug usage and debauchery and all this sort of stuff. I always had girlfriends who were usually pretty clean, and so once I stopped doing music it wasn’t too hard for me to get cleaned up. That’s not the hardest part, though. The hardest part is getting your mind wrapped around different concepts. It was a rather large existential gap, between The Stooges and calculus, for example.
Where exactly did you work? Legend has it you ended up working for Sony in computer programming.
Williamson: No, no, I went back to school, to become an electrical engineer, because I was fascinated by the personal computer. It was the very beginning of that, and it was much more exciting to me than what rock ‘n’ roll had become. It was really tough, but when I was finished, I got hired to a company called Advanced Micro-Devices up in Silicon Valley, which is where I still live, and from there I worked through a succession of jobs. It was a really exciting run — the PC, and eventually the internet, waves and waves of different technology from brilliant people that I got to work with. So I never really regretted any of it.
Is it true you’d been presented with a retirement package just around the time you got the call from Iggy?
Williamson: Yeah, the timing of it was just unbelievable. For all its success, the company was not immune to this current economic situation, so they were handing out those packages. I looked at the package, and at first I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it, but eventually I thought, “You know what, I can’t actually afford not to take this.” So coincidentally Ig had called, and initially I just told him, “No,” but then a little while went by, and I decided to take the package. I had also given Ig’s call a lot of thought, and soul-searching, and I felt like I kind of owed it to those guys. We went back a long way. They were fresh out of Stooges — I was kind of the only one left, so I called him back and said, “Let’s do it.”
Was there some patching up to do between you? Iggy, you’ve said that you hung up the phone after James accepted your offer, and suddenly panicked, “Hang on, but James is the devil!”
Williamson: I don’t know where all that devil stuff comes from exactly, but yes we did have some patching up to do. The thing is, when people die, there’s also this funny thing that happens, and a lot of stuff suddenly isn’t that important, that has been going on all those years. We didn’t really talk much after Soldier for 20, 25 years. Only the odd phone call for publishing or whatever. After Ron died, we got together down in L.A. when Ig was doing a benefit show with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We chewed the fat for a little bit. It was no big deal, but I think it made it easier for both of us to go forward from there.
Your lives have been so different in the intervening years. Does that give an extra frisson to The Stooges now?
Pop: To deal with him, the bar was higher. And it was also higher for me because this has got my name on it — it’s Iggy & the Stooges [just as the band was billed for Raw Power], so I had to live up.
Williamson: The thing is, you can’t help but be who you are. The first two years of touring together, we covered a lot of ground about different experiences we’d had over the years, but basically the two of us know each other since we were in our 20s, and so we go back a long way, and I don’t care what you do in your life, there’s some things that never change about people. That person’s personality was developed early in life, way before your 20s, and they’re pretty much always that same person. When you know somebody for that long, you dial into the commonality, rather than the difference.
Is it an odd feeling to be a celebrated guitar hero now, James, when all you’d ever known before was being in that loser band from Detroit all those years ago?
Williamson: It’s just unbelievable. I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like now. The largest show I ever played in the five years I was first in The Stooges was less than 2,000 seats. The first show I played back with The Stooges was 40,000 people in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Just, what?! People are crazy about us. Twenty-somethings are out there in the audience, and we even got in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The last four or five years have been like victory laps. And we’ve made a new album which was really a defining full-circle moment for the band. I’m very proud of it.