Sunday, December 21, 2014

Stooges Re-Vitalized: James Williamson on Iggy, Scotty and the Year's Best Album

James Williamson. Photo by Heather Harris/Courtesy of Pavement PR

What's it like to release the year's best album more than four decades after performing on one of the greatest records of all time? Ask Stooges guitarist James Williamson.

As discussed at length on this website several times throughout 2014 (see links at the bottom), Williamson spent the last 12 months creating and promoting Re-Licked, a collection of tunes he co-wrote with Iggy Pop in 1973/1974 as the follow-up to 1973's iconic Raw Power. With the band falling apart before this collection of songs could be immortalized in a proper recording studio, Stooges fans were left to spend the ensuing years experiencing these sounds on a slew of often-crummy bootlegs culled from live recordings and rehearsal tapes. With Re-Licked, these extraordinary compositions were finally given the justice they deserved.

Of course, Williamson had plenty of help making Re-Licked a reality. If this feature is your first introduction to the album, brace yourself for this list of contributors: Lisa Kekaula (The BellRays), Carolyn Wonderland, Gary Floyd (The Dicks), JG Thirlwell (Foetus), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys/Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine), Bobby Gillespie and Simone Marie Butler (Primal Scream), Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees/ Queens of the Stone Age), Joe Cardamone (The Icarus Line), Petra Haden, Ariel Pink, Ron Young (Little Caesar), Mike Watt (Stooges/Minutemen), Alison Mosshart (The Kills), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), Steve Mackay (Stooges), Toby Dammit (Stooges/Iggy Pop/Swans), Mario Cuomo (The Orwells), Nicke Andersson (The Hellacopters/Entombed), The Richmond Sluts, Michael Urbano (Smash Mouth) and on and on. Is it any surprise that Re-Licked will be named Album of the Year when I publish my Best of 2014 feature at the end of the month?

In addition to being a gift to my ears, Re-Licked was a tremendous boost to my site. My interview with James from March of this year was easily my most-read piece of the year - a feat surely helped along by a nod from The Guardian. With Re-Licked finally out and Williamson's intense 2014 coming to a close, I reached out to him to reflect on a musical journey that gave already-timeless tunes a new home in the present tense.

When we spoke back in March, you mentioned that this album was really a bucket list project for you. Now that it's a month or so since the release of Re-Licked, what would you say is the most satisfying aspect of finally reaching this point and getting this into listeners' hands?

It's satisfying on so many different levels. I think that the first thing that comes to mind is just the very, very strong acceptance, not only just with new people – which is wonderful, and I would expect some of that just because of who's on the album – but from the hardcore Stooges fans. I'll never be able to please everybody with [something] that doesn't have Iggy singing on it. Even with Iggy singing on it like I had on the last [Stooges] album, Ready To Die, if you don't have both the Ashetons, you can't please everybody. That's just the way it is, and I guess I don't feel concerned about that so much, but I'm quite happy to hear so many people who are pretty dyed-in-the-wool Stooges fans are thrilled about it. This album brought these songs back to life, if you will. Most people had kind of given up and just said, 'Well, okay. The bootlegs are what we get, and that's the end of it.' And you giving me the accolade of Album of the Year is very high praise!

It's an amazing record; I'm so happy to see it finally here. Our initial conversation about the project was even before the release of the first 45. I know you were working with Toby Dammit and Mike Watt at that time. As time went on, you brought in Michael and Simone. How did that change come to be, and what did Michael and Simone do to affect and re-shape the proceedings along the way?

This record really had a life of its own. What really got the thing off dead center was 'Open Up And Bleed' with Carolyn Wonderland. But once I kind of had established that, then I felt like, 'Okay, this is doable.' I had Mike Watt and Toby Dammit, and I knew those guys had played some of these songs live with me. They either already knew them or they knew me well enough that it would be easy [for me] to work with them. We did eight of the songs with that lineup. After that, Watt [went] off to Europe to do a tour, and then Toby got engaged to a girl to Norway and moved off. Peoples' schedules started to interfere with me finishing up the rest of the project. I had a guy up in Berkeley, which is where I record a lot, who had been dying to play drums with me, Michael Urbano. I just said, 'Okay, I'm going to try this guy out because I need to get the record finished.' It turned out that his schedule was free, so he was on board. I asked the guy who was playing keys for me, Gregg Foreman, about a bass player. He recommended Simone, who happened to be in LA at the time. It kind of just came together. But what was cool about it was that not only were both of these guys really good players, but they also brought this whole new energy and enthusiasm to the whole project.

You know, you get a little jaded...I've been out on the road for four or five years with Watt and a couple of years with Toby. We know each other well, and it's business as usual for us. But these new people don't know me, but they know the songs. They just brought this energy with them. If you watch the DVD [included in the Deluxe Edition of Re-Licked], you kind of see some of that. I think it kind of took it to the end zone.

Simone Marie Butler. Photo by Heather Harris/Courtesy of Pavement PR

You also ended up with more tracks on the album than you originally thought you would.

That's right. Part of that was just that I had these various different people doing alternative versions of the songs. I didn't want to throw anybody off the record; it was too hard to figure that out. What I decided to do was, 'Hey, there's only 10 songs that will fit on vinyl, but I can put a lot of songs on CD.' I just decided to keep everybody who wanted to be on the album on it and just put them on as alternative tracks and b-sides and stuff. I think that worked out really well because I found that there's always a whole segment of the listening population out there who are going to like a certain style better than another. There are guys who like Nicke Andersson's version of 'Cock In My Pocket,' and there are a lot of guys who like Gary Floyd's version a lot. It's the same thing with JG Thirlwell; he's got a huge following, so it's impossible to pick these things. I'm just glad I was just able to give people what they wanted.

I know it's probably very difficult for you to choose favorites for singers on the album, so I'll phrase the question this way: Which singers do you feel really elevated or maybe brought the song to an entirely different place you hadn't thought of, and which singers really maintained and celebrated the original spirit of how Iggy would approached that material?

Oh wow! (laughs) I really can't answer that in any honest fashion because I'm thrilled about everybody. I wouldn't have put them on the album if I didn't like what they were doing. Why the record sounds so good is because everybody just brought their A-game when they came to sing on it. I didn't have to coach them or prod them to get a good performance; they're just good. Some of them were good performances in only a couple of takes, just really strong. They came prepared.

Along the lines of your question, there were guys like Bobby Gillespie, who's a dyed-in-the-wool Stooges guy. He knew all the lyrics to that song ['Scene Of The Crime'] before he even set eyes on it. He just did his version of what he felt like Iggy would have done, and it's definitely very reminiscent of what Iggy would have sung on that. Similarly, [that happened] with Joe Cardamone. These guys aren't parodying Iggy per se, and they're obviously not going to have that baritone almost that Iggy has, but I think they know the attitude. I think they brought their version of that to the songs and did a great job, whereas the girls wouldn't even try to sing like Iggy. First of all, I told them not to anyway. Every one of them was exceptional in their own way. Carolyn floors me every time I listen to her; I think that's kind of universal from what I've heard from writers and so on. The same holds for Alison Mosshart; she was just chilling the way she sang 'Til The End Of The Night.' That was a song we tried back in the day that we wrote. I always liked it, but we tried it and it just didn't work for us. I was so happy that she made it her own and really brought it home. It was the same with 'Wild Love.' That was absolutely killer with her and Mark Lanegan. Finally, Lisa Kekaula many times can I say it?...She's a force of nature! (laughs) It's ridiculous. I think all of those people were inspiring, not the least of which was Ron Young of Little Caesar. Both JG Thirlwell and Ron took a crack at 'Rubber Leg,' and I was astonished by what those guys were able to do with it. They were all good.

A couple of days after I posted our previous interview, there was some back and forth in the media about statements that Iggy had made about the project at that phase, and what his thoughts might have been on that. Now that the album is out, have you heard any feedback from him? Where does he stand on things at this point?

I haven't. As a matter of fact, I just sent him a copy not all that long ago. I didn't get any feedback from him, but I would expect him to listen to it – which I'm sure he has or he will. But by the same token, it's not him on it. It's gotta be a little odd for him, but it's not meant to be anything other than a tribute to our songwriting. I think that's exactly what that album is. It represents that in a very positive way.

Yeah, there was that odd thing...It surprised me as much as it surprised anybody. I've worked with Iggy now probably 10 years at least in music, if you count the five in the beginning and the last five. I know him quite well, and I certainly would not have launched something like this without having let him know that I was doing it – which I did. That's why it was so surprising. But I have a feeling that, frankly, he forgot about it...Then he had a kind of knee-jerk reaction initially. Once we went through it again, I think he sort of started backpedaling. If you see subsequent press, you notice that he's sort of giving everybody his best wishes and all that sort of thing.

The Stooges, 1973. Photo by Heather Harris/Courtesy of Pavement PR

Unfortunately, something else happened just a couple of days after our first talk...

Yeah. Scotty. Of course, that's unrelated, but very sad.

When you look back at your work together, what do you feel was perhaps Scott's greatest contribution to The Stooges? What did he add to the mix that made The Stooges the band that we all love?

It was so many different things. That's like asking what Charlie Watts brought to The Rolling Stones. It's a feel, it's an attitude and it's a sound that is kind of the backbone of that particular band. I don't think you can separate The Stooges from Scott Asheton per se – especially the early Stooges, with things like 'Dirt' and so forth. That's all him. That band was very simple and played simple tunes. It was really the drums that were really pulling the weight on the songs most of the time. I think later, things got more complicated and he still was able to sort of bring forward that Stooge sound. Maybe my songs from Raw Power and onward...even this stuff, had we recorded it as an album...really wouldn't have been as Stoogey sounding without him there. Of course, I just finished this album without him there, and it sounds like me and I was part of the Stooges. But on the other hand, I think the drummers who played on it also used a lot of his original style from the bootlegs that we had to work off of.

James Williamson & Petra Haden. Photo by Heather Harris/Courtesy of Pavement PR

This past year was all about the Re-Licked album. What are your plans moving forward into 2015?

I'm still right in the thick of the promotion of this album. Really, it's only been out now for about a month. I know everybody is instantaneous these days (laughs), but I'm like the record company and everything on his record. I have to stick with it a little bit. We're going to do a live show coming up in January. I've got most of the singers; we're going to be doing a TV thing. Once I had almost all of them together, we decided, 'Hell, let's just play a live show,' so we're gonna do that. Beyond that, I'm going to see what I can do to relax for a little while. It’s been a very, very hard year on me because of having to not only play on this, but to produce it, be the record company and basically the one-man show on this. It's been a lot of work. I was happy to do it and I'm quite proud of it, but by the same token, I'd like to hang loose for a little while and then see what happens.

I've got a couple of little projects I've put on the back burner that I think I'll start on. I've always wanted to record Petra Haden on lead vocals instead of backing vocals, so I may do some of that. I don't know what I'll do with that kind of stuff; maybe I'll just give it to people just because she's such a great singer and I'd like to have people hear her. She's amazing; she is incredible. The way her vocals are, you have to get just the right material for her. I think I have at least one or two songs I can do with her, and really would like to, so that's one of the things I'd like to do moving forward.


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