Let The Music Do The Talking #5 : James Williamson

#interviews #the-stooges

"There's only one thing worse than trying to play in a band with guys you don't like and that's trying to produce guys you don't like"

1. Almost as soon as punk "officially" emerged at the end of the 70s, people started trying to trace it back - as far as they could - to bands and artists like The Velvet Underground, MC5, The Sonics, The Modern Lovers, The Pink Fairies, Gene Vincent, Link Wray and of course, The Stooges (in particular your work as guitarist and composer on 1973's Raw Power), so much so that it seemed as if punk had always existed and was just another name for (true) rock 'n' roll. Well, so much for rock's circular history. As for you, you said that during the Raw Power sessions you didn't have a clue what you were doing, just laying tracks down and developing your innovative style as you went along, without any supervision (an engineer from CBS was present but there was no actual producer). You were just enjoying your first recording session. So today, almost 40 years later, as everyone hails Raw Power as a landmark in punk rock and you as one of the very first iconic punk musicians, do you consider yourself a punk guitarist or do you think it is just a convenient way of pigeonholing your style? What does punk mean to you anyway?

Well, like it or not, we and I are viewed as proto punks and perhaps "The Proto Punks"... However I have never viewed music very categorically. Yes, of course it's impossible not to use terms like "Classical Music", "Jazz", or "Blues" but these types of terms describe the genre whereas "Punk" more describes the attitude or approach. An attitude is not a genre so I can't really relate to that category very well. I just view what I do as making "Rock and Roll" music... that's a genre.

2. Let's talk a bit more about your style. It's very distinctive and it seems as if everyone has had a go at describing it. So I'll now try myself, for our readers. Let's say something like: loud, raunchy, violent, slightly vicious, downward-picking, straight-through-the-amp rock riffs... and many - many - complex chord changes. In addition to this - and I don't want to over-interpret or over-intellectualize your work - I've always thought that what also characterizes your guitar parts, in particular on Raw Power, is their intertwining dynamics within a song. They seem to form a kind of story with twists, sudden climaxes etc. like, for instance, on "Search And Destroy" (as opposed to, say, Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" where riffs, brilliant as they are, seem to come one after another). Does this description tally at all with the way you wrote songs for Raw Power? In other words, did you compose your riffs (mainly on your Gibson B-25 acoustic guitar, if I'm not mistaken) bit by bit, naturally, almost on the spur of the moment as you went along, or did you consciously try to build a whole sequence of interacting riffs?

As a songwriter, I'm very conscious of the overall composition, so yes, I begin the writing process with say a stand alone riff, but then I elaborate on the riff and search for bridge and the outtro parts and try and find the transition chords into and out of these. I think that's what you are referring to in my writing.

3. I've always cherished the ill-fated Kill City LP, obviously an album that was very difficult to record as you had to look after Iggy Pop, who right in the middle of the sessions checked into a mental hospital. You said that during these very difficult sessions, you would go to the hospital every day, pick Iggy up, drive him over and once his vocals had been recorded, take him back to the hospital. On a more artistic level, you also said that it corresponded to a period, just after the demise of The Stooges, when you wanted to evolve, be a better musician, write even better, be both more professional and more mainstream. In short, to play things that people might like and try and make a living out of music for a change! As far as I can gather, you found the resulting album - a kind of high-quality demo album if I may say - rather disappointing. But what I find fascinating is the evolution of your style, still unmistakably yours on these 11 tracks. Your guitar parts seem to "interact" more with the other instruments as if the songs no longer rely just on your guitar dynamics but on the interaction between all the instruments. All in all, a widening of your musical scope, I suppose. And yet you once said that you "have a unique sound that's exclusive to The Stooges" and that no singer other than Iggy "would be able to come up with lyrics to that crazy music". Does it mean you've always had a "once a Stooge, always a Stooge" mindset? Have you never wanted to work with other singers, to mingle or confront your style with other genres? Is it something you would think of doing now?

Well, your observation is correct in that although we initially recorded Kill City with only guitar, bass, drums and keyboards... even then I tried to put the song first and not be overbearing with the guitars as on Raw Power. Eventually, when I finished up Kill City and added the saxes and synths, etc. it was even more so than that. Regarding working with Iggy, despite our ascetic differences from time to time, we work together very well. Every decent song I've ever been involved with has had his hand in it in some way or another (usually lyrics, but sometimes arrangements, etc.). So, while I'm not fundamentally opposed to using another singer, I've yet to find one that I could work with... of course I also haven't tried much either, I'm busy getting the one I have to keep working with me.

4. You seem to have mixed feelings about producing records, which you did at the end of the 70s, in particular Iggy Pop's 1979 album New Values and then some of the tracks on Iggy's next album Soldier. Is it because of the experiences of working on those albums, or did you find out along the way that you just wanted to play and write, and that production just wasn't really your thing? Is it something you might do again in the future?

Yes, I found out along the way that there's only one thing worse than trying to play in a band with guys you don't like and that's trying to produce guys you don't like... very painful... I guess the bottom line is that I really am not cut out for it as I can't be objective and professional about it... I have to invest my emotions in the product and so it's by definition something that I don't want to do that often. That's not to say that I wouldn't produce anybody anymore, but rather that I am so super selective that I most likely won't get that opportunity. At my age, life's too short for bullshit.

5. You once referred to your "double life" as your "Spiderman years": early retirement from rock at the beginning of the 1980s and an electronics degree leading to engineering work at Sony Electronics as a Vice President of Technology Standards, your past unbeknownst to your new colleagues. In a famous quote, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr said you sound almost "how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band". My last question is very simple, for a change: are you a superhero or an arch-villain?

Regarding your question of whether I'm a super hero or an arch-villain, I'm neither one, I'm just a guy with an extraordinary gift for imagining new musical patterns which get turned into songs sometimes. And, I'm a father and a husband and a friend to some and an enemy to others. In short, I'm your every man... at least that's what I strive to be.

James Williamson's official website: straightjameswilliamson.com