James Williamson may not be a name that’s instantly recognisable around the globe as say Iggy Pop, but whisper “Raw Power” at a music venue and there would be a few heads turning very sharpish. You see James Williamson had the magic fingers that created that sound on the Stooges “Raw Power” album, and was a musical force behind one of the most influential albums of ……. well all time. He is well known for creating a musical style of his own, with a multitude of artists sighting him as an influence. He took time out to talk to Ten-Midnight.com about his early experiences in the Stooges, Iggy Pop, leaving it all behind for the Electronics world as well as his new band James Williamson & the Pink Hearts releasing their first album “Behind the Shade”.
You will always be known for the unique sound of your guitar on the Raw Power album no matter what you do, is this something you are immensely proud of today or are you someone who looks only ahead?
While I use a variety of styles according to the song, I’d be pretty much out of luck if I wasn’t proud to play with the growl and bite that you are referring to. It’s my style on uptempo songs. I kind of created it as I was learning the instrument. As a teen, it was an emotional outlet — its part of me and how I play.
Mainstream recognition was late in coming to The Stooges, but after Punk they became a starting point for most bands musical influences. Did you know at the time of recording Raw Power that it was something special, or was it something that took you by surprise later on?
At the time we made Raw Power, the band felt like it was something special — that we were going to rock the charts with it. Of course, we were sadly delusional since it was so different. Very few people at the time could relate to it. Fortunately, fellow musicians could dig it, and because it slowly became a touchstone for so many bands, eventually more mainstream audiences started to relate to it.
The breakdown in relationships or chaotic lifestyles of band members is often referred to as the catalyst for great music, do you think there was an element of truth in this with The Stooges looking back to that time? How difficult was it to put these famous songs together?
I don’t recall it as being all that difficult to write the music for Raw Power. It was my first real album so I had no history to overcome or any preconceptions. I just worked on these tunes in my room in London with my acoustic guitar and when I felt like I had come up with some good riffs, I’d play them for Iggy and he’d come up with some lyrics and off we’d go.
Play: THE STOOGES | RAW POWER
Some great songs have emerged from your songwriting partnership with Iggy Pop over the years, how was he as a person to work with day to day considering his extravert behaviour verged on him being out of control at times? How did you both go through the process of writing together?
Well, as mentioned above, and in fact to this day, I write songs by coming up with guitar riffs and sometimes whole songs. Then I take them to Iggy or whomever I’m working with and have then gin up some lyrics and work out a melody. It’s never the reverse although I know a lot of people work that way.
You left the music business and gained an electrical engineering degree, while Iggy went on to be globally recognised as a solo artist. Is this something that you are very proud of achieving, or do you look back and think you could have achieved even more recognition as a musician over that time?
I am enormously proud of my achievements in the Electronics world. I wouldn’t have traded that for anything. I was able to witness the creation of many world-changing events in Hi-Tech — the creation/emergence of the internet and its underpinnings in wired and wireless networking. In fact, I was in Silicon Valley as the personal computer evolved. It was an amazing and gratifying time for me. That said, I was very happy to rejoin the fray with Iggy and the Stooges once I was finished with my career in Hi-Tech and felt like I was able to pick up where I left off. I never regretted any of it.
You have returned with your new band James Williamson & the Pink Hearts. Joining you are Frank Meyer and Petra Haden. How did this collaboration start to come together, as it could be said you all come from slightly different musical backgrounds to form a band?
I first became aware of Petra Haden through the bass player for the Stooges at the time, Mike Watt. I was looking for a backing singer for our upcoming album Ready to Die and he suggested I check out Petra and he mentioned her work on an a cappella version of The Who Sells Out. I was very impressed. I contacted Petra and had her come down to work on a demo and I was floored at how much talent she had — not only on vocals but also on violin. From there I worked with her on Re-Licked and a couple of other projects. So it was natural for me to bring her on board this new band.
Frank was a little different in that the first time I met him was in 2015, after I had finished Re-Licked. My band at the time had performed live on the tv show “Last Call With Carson Daly,” which meant we had several of the singers in the same place at the same time. Because of the timing, I also decided to do a live show at the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles. Cheetah Chrome and his band the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs would open and when I needed a singer to fill in one or two of the songs, Frank was happy to do it. He was the singer for the Cheetahs. I was impressed with Frank’s vocals and stage presence. Now fast forward to 2017. I was in the mood to write some more music and wondered if Frank could also write lyrics. In fact, he’s great at it and very fast. We wrote some songs and I took them down to LA and brought Petra in to see how the two of them would sound together. Turns out they have a unique magic together as their voices are just such a special blend. We wrote the rest of the songs, recorded them, and named the resulting album Behind the Shade.
The new album “Behind the Shade” is due for release on 22nd June 2018. There seems to be a real positive mix of the band’s musical backgrounds coming through in each of the 11 tracks, was this something that came naturally or did you purposely look to create that sound?
It comes very naturally. We found a comfortable give and take in the process. Everybody is equal. It’s a pleasure working together.
The highlight for me on the album is the opening track “Riot on the Strip”, which is up there with anything released today as a piece of angry in your face Rock ‘N’ Roll. Is this where James Williamson is most comfortable as a musician as it seems very natural, or do you limit yourself to occasionally return to that great Stooges sound?
I like all of the tracks on this record. Sure the uptempo tracks like “Riot on the Strip” and “The Revolution Stomp” are pretty classic James Williamson. But remember, I wrote and played stuff like “Gimme Danger” and “No Sense of Crime,” so it is all part of me and I’m delighted with how it came out.
What are the qualities that you feel Petra and Frank have brought to the album, they seem to compliment your harder edge guitar with their own styles?
They can both sing their asses off and play their instruments and know their music. They’re a pleasure to work with.
What would you say was your own personal highlight from “Behind the Shade” and why?
Perhaps the way the album evolved. Behind the Shade was the first song Frank and I wrote and at first, of course, we loved it, but as the album came together I was concerned that it might be a little plodding and perhaps a bit long. However, the vocals were so great that I hung with it and once it was mix time, the song really came alive. It’s one of my favorites now. But I guess, the real answer to this is that I love this entire album and I never get tired of it.
What is your favourite song of all time by any artist and why also which song you are the proudest to have been involved in musically and why?
I have no honest answer to that question. Too many to pick just one. Of course, I’m partial to some of mine like “Search and Destroy” and “Open Up and Bleed,” etc.
What are the plans for the year ahead for yourself and the band?
By the time this feature runs, we will have announced several concert dates. As long as everybody is having fun, why not share it with others?
Latest tour dates: TICKETS HERE.
June 29 2018: El Ray Theater, Los Angeles, California
June 30 2018: Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, California