Thursday, March 6, 2014

Still Bleeding: James Williamson Adds Raw Power to Long-Lost Stooges Tunes

Photo by Tanya Alexis

It only took one album to make James Williamson a Rock legend.

In 1973, Williamson was an integral part of the creation of Iggy and The Stooges’ Raw Power, one of history’s greatest Rock albums. With Williamson on guitar, Iggy Pop on vocals, the late Ron Asheton on bass and Scott Asheton on drums, this incarnation of the band blazed the trail for Punk to come with tracks like “Search And Destroy,” “Raw Power” and “Shake Appeal.” An absolutely bulletproof release, Raw Power still sounds as fresh and aggressive today as it did 41 years ago.

When the always-reckless band imploded in 1974, a number of songs written by Williamson and Pop were abandoned without receiving proper treatment in a recording studio, surviving only in an ever-growing series of bootlegs of dubious quality and origin. Fast-forward to 2014, and Williamson is resurrecting and recording a number of these songs (including “I Got A Right,” “Rubber Legs,” “She Creatures Of The Hollywood Hills,” “Wild Love,” “Heavy Liquid” and more) for Re-Licked, the debut release on his own Leopard Lady label. These new recordings will be fronted by a wealth of talented vocalists such as Jello Biafra, Mark Lanegan, Ariel Pink, the extraordinary Lisa Kekaula of The BellRays and others to be announced soon. In addition to Williamson, the music on Re-Licked is supplied by his current Stooges bandmates – bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen/fIREHOSE), saxophonist Steve Mackay and touring drummer Toby Dammit (Iggy Pop/Swans).

Fans will get a taste of the upcoming album next month when Williamson releases a limited-edition vinyl single,“Open Up And Bleed”/“Gimme Some Skin,” at independent record stores worldwide on Record Store Day, April 19th. Both songs feature the outstanding talents of Texas-based Blues belter Carolyn Wonderland. The album’s next single, “I Got A Right” / “Heavy Liquid,” will appear later this summer and feature vocals by Kekaula.

Re-Licked is the latest story in Williamson’s whirlwind second life as a working musician. After retiring from the music business at the dawn of the ’80s, he became a Silicon Valley executive thanks to his work in the electrical engineering field, eventually landing a position as vice president of technical standards for Sony. An early retirement buyout from the company in 2009 coincided with an invitation to re-join The Stooges, who had initially reformed in 2003. Before long, Williamson was onstage with his guitar for the first time in decades – and that sound was back. Last year, the Williamson-produced Ready to Die – his first album with Iggy And The Stooges in 40 years – was released on Fat Possum Records.

Williamson’s enthusiasm for Re-Licked was impossible to ignore when I phoned him earlier this week for the inside story on the project.

I’ve been listening to the single for the last few days now, and it’s been blowing my mind. To hear those songs in this light is really something else.

I’m just so psyched about this project so far! Its bringing new life to these tracks; its really great.

How did the idea to exhume these songs come about?

It’s been something we’ve been kicking around for a lot of years. We were originally going to record those songs back in the day because we had a deal with Columbia and were assuming that they were going to renew our contract. We were out on tour and writing all this new material and performing it, so that’s what you get on all those bootlegs that are out there. Of course, Columbia didn’t renew our contract. We didn’t have a record deal, so we never recorded them, but the fans have always been saying, ‘I wish they would re-record those songs.’ We hear that, and Ig and I were talking about it before we did the last album...I think that the conclusion we came to was, ‘No, let’s do new stuff. They’re always going to compare the young Stooges with the old Stooges’ version, and it probably wouldn’t be so great.’ So we didn’t do it. We’ve been touring steadily for the last four, four-and-a-half years. We announced at the end of last summer that we were going to take all of 2014 off, so that kind of gave me the time to go back and say, ‘You know what? This is on my bucket list and I want to get it done.’ We already had a touring band – Mike Watt, Toby Dammit and Steve Mackay – who already knew a bunch of these songs. We’re very tight after having toured so much, so I just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go in there with these guys and try one.’ That’s how the first single came about.

I love ‘Open Up And Bleed;” it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever been part of writing in my life. My wife and I were thinking and talking about it, and [I] said, ‘You know who would sound killer on this song? Janis Joplin.’ Of course that wasn’t an option, so I went through a lot of different channels to try to find somebody who could sing like that – a woman who could really belt out a song. I found a couple of them, but I really wasn’t feeling the love on it, and I kept searching around. My old buddy from boarding school in upstate New York, Michael Adams, is in Austin, TX and shot me a YouTube of Carolyn Wonderland singing, and man…I talked about it again with my wife and said, ‘That’s my girl!’ I tracked her down through a whole bunch of different sources, and she was totally cool in doing it. She just kills that track.

You have some other singers in this project who are equally mind-blowing – like one of my favorites, Lisa from The BellRays.

Oh, man, yeah! Once I did [the first] single with Carolyn, then I was really encouraged that this was going to be a fun project. I went back in the studio and cut another six tracks with the band. At first, [the idea] was [having] one or two singers, but then once the word got out, like everybody wants to sing on this record! I had to pick from a really good roster of people. Mainly, we’re tracked down at Dave Grohl’s studio in Northridge [CA]. They have an old Sound City Neve console down there; the stuff sounds really good. I also got plugged into this guy Joe Cardamonewho’s from Icarus Line. He’s been very helpful to me in a number of ways, one of which is he’s got a little inexpensive studio. If I’m doing vocals and stuff, I can go in there. I’m kind of bankrolling this myself, so it has been very helpful, but he also came up with Lisa. So we got Lisa in there, and she just floored me…I mean, really unbelievable. Wait ’til you hear her sing!

The cover of the single is very striking. What can you tell me about the artist involved in that?

On the last song of our last show in San Jose at the end of last summer, all of a sudden, onstage comes this whole group of girls – good-looking girls at that – who were just painted. They’re like nude, and you can kind of tell that they’re nude, but you kind of can’t because they’re painted. I was just struck by what a spectacle it was because they looked eerie in a way and they brought so much to the party. We didn’t know they were going to come onstage; the promoter set all that up with the artist, Trina Merry. She does body painting; that’s her deal.

After that, I [contacted] the promoter and wanted to know who that [artist] was. I got in touch with her and started going through all the various different things that she’s done. Check her art gallery out; it’s just amazing.

For the first [single], I didn’t have enough time, so I selected a piece that she had already done. That thing is amazing! I believe it’s derived from a Salvador Dali piece or something similar to that with bodies, but she had her painted people in there, and that’s an amazing photo. I used that, but moving forward you’ll see a bunch of stuff from her. In fact, in the teaser [video below], she painted the face that I have on. I’ve got a bunch of stuff that you’ll see moving forward that she was involved with because she’s just so talented and it’s so much fun to work with her. I’m really happy about that find.

This new record is a further chapter in your second life in the music industry. What was the most surprising thing for you when you got back with Iggy in ’09 and stepped into that role again – whether in the music business itself or as a musician touring after all that time?

It was a couple of things that struck me right off the back. Number one, that the audience approval for us was just off the chart. I had never experienced anything like that in my life because back in the day, we weren’t very well liked at all. There were a few pockets of fans and so forth, but the biggest show I might have performed at might have been 2,000 people. But my first show [back with The Stooges] was 40,000 people going crazy. It was a whole different deal. The next thing that struck me right away was how professional Iggy had become. Back when we were doing it [in the ’70s], you never knew what you were going to get on a show night. We might not [have been] able to show up, or we would be late. We certainly never did more than about a 20 or 30-minute show. So, yeah, he had become very, very professional over the years. Even though he’s still very spontaneous, he’s always there on time, is prepared and knows what he’s doing. That was a big change.

The last Stooges album [Ready To Die] has been out for about a year now. Of course, that was the first one that you worked on in some time. Looking back on that record now, what are your thoughts on that music? If you had a goal going into that album, do you feel it was reached?

I do. I feel very proud of that album. I know that the reviews on it were a mixed bag, but the whole spectrum was so great. On one hand, some people were panning it or kind of badmouthing the Ig, like he’s too old to be doing this, or that talking about tits and stuff at his age was kind of creepy. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some gushing reviews of that album, including [from] the guy I’m doing SXSW’s speech with next Friday, Buzz from The Melvins. He went apeshit over that album. It’s never been something we put too much stock in because we’ve never really gotten really good reviews on albums, but they stand the test of time. So [with] this one, I felt pretty good, [and] it’s selling pretty well – for these days, actually very well. So I think the fans like it, and that’s what we’re doing it for.

What does the future look like for The Stooges?

Well, you never know at our age! (laughs) I can’t worry about it too much. We announced at the end of last summer that we’re talking all of 2014 off, so that’s what we’re doing and that’s why I have the time to make this project that we’re talking about. The plan is to go back out in 2015, but that’s a long way away. I’ll just take things as they go. Right now, just getting this project out is consuming my time, especially when you’re trying to do everything yourself like I am. It’s a bigger role than I had planned on, to be honest with you (laughs).

I was one of those kids who bought a vinyl copy of Raw Power and was hit by the lightning bolt. It’s 41 years since the release of that album. As someone who was partly responsible for that album’s creation, why do you think that particular recording continues to resonate for so many people?

First of all, there’s great songs on it. It’s just like saying, ‘Why does everybody keep playing these Stones, Led Zeppelin and Beatles songs?’ It’s because they’re great songs. I think the songs on Raw Power are so great that no matter what anybody did to the mix and how mishandled it was over the years, it still sounds good. Of course, it made me sound good because practically all you can hear is the guitar and vocals on it (laughs). It’s just a cool album, and it was a historical album. Certainly, it had broken some ground at the time.

I think that now, the kids going back - the twentysomethings and so forth - are doing kind of what we used to do when we were their age. We would hear the English guys come over and play the Blues, like Cream and Jeff Beck and all that stuff. We thought, Man, these guys are fantastic’ until we figured out, ‘Hey, those aren’t the real guys. These are the real guys,’ and then we’d go seek them out and listen to them. I think we’re kind of like the old Blues guys of these days.

Read a followup to this feature HERE

James Williamson's Official Website


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