JAMES WILLIAMSON (THE STOOGES): “DAVID HASSELHOFF Was Kind Of A Weird Project But It Appealed To Me For That Reason Alone”

IGGY AND THE STOOGES (Live at the Evolution Festival, Newcastle, U.K., May 28, 2011)
Photo: Mick Burgess

As guitarist with Iggy and The Stooges, James Williamson created one of Rock ‘n’ Rolls most exciting moments in Raw Power, an album that influenced generations that followed. Mick Burgess called him up to talk about his latest album Two To One, a collaboration with Deniz Tek from Radio Birdman, appearing on David Hasselhoff’s last album and also a look back on those wild days with The Stooges.

2020 has turned out to be a rather strange year. How has Covid 19 impacted on you?

All things considered as far as the new record is concerned, we’ve been quite fortunate because the work for the record was done last year and I mixed it in February and we’d just started the mastering stage when the shutdown came. Fortunately, Cleopatra Records had a mastering guy working during the shutdown and the pressing plant was working a bit so it worked out for us, so here we are.

Has the lack of touring opportunities opened the door for you to do other things with the time that you now have?

Well it’s certainly given us more time to do interviews like this. It’s hard on everyone to be couped up at home but I have to say I’ve been pretty fortunate.

You have recently released a new album, Two To One with Deniz Tek from Radio Birdman. Are you pleased with the reaction it’s received so far?

I am yes, but first of all I’m pleased with the record and that’s the main thing. So far, the responses have been good. We’re not exactly in our 20s anymore and we’re not a hot radio commodity but people who like what we’ve done before like this record.

Deniz lives in Australia and you in America. When did you first meet Deniz?

Deniz is not Australian, he’s American. He came from Ann Arbor, Michigan and that was a common background that we had as I’d lived there too and Detroit, Michigan. He grew up in the neighbourhood with the Asheton’s of The Stooges, although he was quite a bit younger than them so not a contemporary, he was certainly very aware of them. His Dad, who taught at the University of Michigan, took a sabbatical to Australia and that’s when Deniz went over to Australia so he’s not Australian but he’s spent a lot of time there. He’s in Hawaii at the moment and that’s how I really got to know him. I didn’t know Deniz at all until 2011 when we did the memorial for Ron Asheton. Because he was a friend of Ronnie’s and he could play all the old Stooges songs, he was invited along to play the part of the set where we played those old songs. I got to meet him for the first time and at that point I came to realise that we’d both spent a lot of time in Hawaii and that we didn’t live that far from each other so we got to know each other quite well after that.

Had you been talking about collaborating for a while before you did the Acoustic K.O album a couple of years back?

I was looking to do that album and I don’t sing so I thought it’d be a good idea if I asked him to do that, so we did Acoustic K.O which I think came out really well. In between then and now, I’d been doing several different sessions for Cleopatra Records, like Mitch Ryder’s “Devil With A Blue Dress On” and Cherie Currie so last summer Matt Greene from Cleopatra, suggested that I do an electric album of originals with Deniz. We kicked it around a little bit and said, yes, let’s do it.

Did you have any songs to kick start the writing with or did you start from scratch?

We didn’t have any songs at the time although Deniz may have had one as he writes all the time. We basically started from scratch. We recorded the basic tracks in December then did the vocals in Hawaii in January. I then did my overdubs in San Francisco and mixed the album so here we are about a year later.

What about the songwriting. How did you do that?

We did the writing separately apart from a couple of songs. The way he likes to write is that he writes a complete song, music, lyrics and everything. I only do music as I’m not very good a lyrics. I’ve done that my whole career so Iggy wrote the lyrics in The Stooges, that’s how I’ve always done it. For this record I started writing my music independently and worked with a couple of guys I’d worked with before, Paul Nelson Kimball and Frank Meyer.

What did they bring to the writing sessions?

They brought the lyrics. Two of my favourite songs on the record are “Jet Pack Nightmare” and “Stable” and they are Paul’s lyrics on there.

What about the rest of the band. Are these guys you’ve worked with before or are they local musicians?

Yes and no. The drummer, Michael Urbano, I’ve used on everything I’ve done since Re-Licked. Personally, I think he’s the best drummer I’ve ever worked with. He fantastic. Michael Scanland, the bass player, I met when I guested at the Burger Boogaloo Festival with Cheetah Chrome last year and he was the bassist in Cheetah’s band. I needed a bass player and he was good so I asked him and he jumped at it. It turned out to be a great choice as he was quite easy to work with and was very motivated. You never know with a bass player but he turned out great.

There’s 10 songs on the album with an extra bonus track on the CD. Is this all you wrote and recorded or do you have some songs left over for a possible follow up?

No, I think we had a few more songs along the way but rejected them so the ones we went forward with were the 11 songs that ended up on the album. We didn’t have the budget with this record to be extravagant with extra material. We had to get the ones we liked and do a good job with them. Vinyl was the target with this all along and if your album is too long you can’t get the maximum volume out of the vinyl and there’s lots of other complaints that I’ve got of people writing songs that are too long. I come from an era where 3-minute songs are what you did.

You acted as producer. Do you prefer retaining control of the creative process rather than bringing an outsider in?

I’ve always been that way and have definite ideas of how it should be put together and how it should sound. I don’t think I’d respond well with an outside producer telling me what to do.

You recently provided guitars for David Hasselhoff’s cover of the Lords of The New Church classic, “Open Your Eyes”, on the album of the same name. How did you get involved in that?

David Hasselhoff was kind of a weird project but it appealed to me for that reason alone and it turned out good. What can you say? I was doing several sessions for Cleopatra so they got their producers to call me and see if I wanted to do something. Initially on that one I was scratching my head but once I got into the song, I came up with a part that I liked and thought, yes, let’s do this. It worked out really well

One of your label mates, William Shatner has just put out a Blues album. Were you asked to play on that?

Ha, no I wasn’t but I’d loved to have played on that album.

A couple of years before this you put out Re-Licked. These were songs dating from your time in The Stooges. Many of them were heavily bootlegged over the years, is that why you decided to put out official versions?

This was a collection of the bootlegs that we’d done in The Stooges after Raw Power that were never properly recorded because of the record contract being dropped so I was tired of hearing them as bootlegs so decided to record them properly.

Did you ask Iggy to be involved?

It wasn’t a good project for Iggy to sing on as his voice had changed a lot and he couldn’t hit the high notes. When you do a project like that people judge it as well wishing he’d done that 20 years ago and it just never works so instead I had a lot of different fans come in and do the vocals, kind of like a tribute to the songs themselves. We were doing some TV around that record and there were about 15 singers involved and many of them were in town to do the TV recording but we couldn’t get them all who did the album. I decided to have a live show while they were in town and since all of them weren’t there I was looking for people to fill in and Frank Meyer, from the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs got volunteered and did a great job. We ended up doing The Pink Hearts album after that

Did you use any of the original demos for this album or did you record everything from scratch?

Everything was from scratch. They weren’t so much demos they were more live recordings. They were new songs that we were working on that we played at our shows which were bootlegged and then released numerous times over the years.

Did the songs come back to your fairly quickly or did you have to go back and relearn them?

I had to relearn them as I hadn’t been playing them for so long although there were some that I have played over the years. I wrote them in the first place so it does come back to you.

There’s an incredible array of guest singers on the album including Jello Biaffra, Mark Lanegan, Nicke Andersson and Lisa Kekaula. Did you draw up a wish list of people you thought would suit each individual song?

It turned out to be a big undertaking and what encouraged me is when Jello came to one of our shows he’d heard I was working on something and he demanded to be a part of it, so I thought if he wanted to be part of it that bad, then come on down. Once we had a few recorded they came out really well. With some of the singers my engineer might make a suggestion or in the case of Alison Mosshart, my publisher at BMG had suggested that she was a pretty lively performer and a big fan. We approached her and she was delighted to be asked, it was one of her check off boxes ticked.

Did different people try the same songs before you finalised it?

I actually did that but I’m not going to be specific as there’s some hard feelings there. What happened is that I recorded a song then I got lucky and found Lisa Kekaula who is just a force of nature and she came in and did “I Got A Right” and a couple of other things and she just knocked it out of the ball park so I sort of dropped the other version and he was hurt. Lisa is such a nice person and easy to work with. That was special.

Has Iggy passed any comment on Re-Licked?

I know he’s listened to it. He’s been back and forth with it. Iggy has some pretty wild mood swings and I think at first, he was taken aback although I filled him in all the way through to let him know what I was doing. Initially I got his blessing and then he got whacked about it as I think that people gave him some different feedback but, in the end, it was all fine.

Talking of The Stooges, you joined the band in 1970 not long after the release of Fun House, how did you end up in the band?

I’d known those guys for a very, very long time. I started my own band called The Chosen Few with a guy named Scott Richardson who later shortened his name to Scott Richards who had some local fame in the Detroit area in a band called Scott Richards Case or SRC. I wasn’t in the band that long but there had been a line-up change and Ron Asheton became the bass player and we had a gig up in Ann Arbor for a fraternity house and Iggy was there too. We hit it off pretty well and I stayed in touch with them and whenever I was in the area, I made a point of going to see them so I knew the guys pretty well. I ended up living in Ann Arbor with a couple of the roadies who had become part of the band, Zeke Zettner on bass and Bill Cheatham on guitar and I think Scott Asheton had moved into that house then too. Bill Cheatham was a hell of a nice guy but he couldn’t really play guitar that well so at some point they decided to bring me into the band as they knew that I could play.

Were you disappointed when the band folded a short while later?

Well yeah, there were a lot of disappointments in The Stooges. The thing is that it was very chaotic at the time and drugs had entered the mix in a big way. Then one of our roadies got hepatitis and then I got it from him so it was one disaster after another and finally we called it quits and I had to go back to Detroit anyway due to the hepatitis and it was all I could do to recover before the whole next thing started unfolding.

How did the band end up getting back together?

About a year later David Bowie had wanted to meet Iggy so he’d flown over and Iggy got signed to CBS and I got this phone call saying that he’d got a record deal. The next call I got was that we were going to London and to get to get my guitar and let’s go. It was very short notice. I’d been staying on my sister’s couch and I never even got to say goodbye to her. We flew into London and none of us had ever been out of the country before and there were lots of things we needed to adjust to but it was an exciting time. We were planning on starting a brand-new band with an English rhythm section but we couldn’t find anybody that we liked. I mentioned that Ronnie Asheton was a bass player when I first met him and a really good one too and he and his brother, Scott, made a great rhythm section so why didn’t we just get them over. Everybody was happy about that at the time. Once they came back it made sense to call the band Iggy and The Stooges.

What was the writing process like in the band?

I wrote all the music and Iggy wrote the lyrics. The way that I like to write is that I write the riffs first and if I can stand to play them for more than a few days in a row then I’d share them with Iggy and see what he could come up with. It worked really well that way.

What was David Bowie like as a producer?

He didn’t produce our album, that’s a misconception. He just mixed it. He wanted to produce the album but we didn’t want him to do that so we did our thing and we made some mistakes for sure in the recording of it but in the end, it turned out to be too much mix to handle. We brought in golden boy, the main man, David and he mixed it. I’ve complained about his mix for a long time but honestly, given what he had to work with, he did the best he could. There was a lot of leakage into the drums and different things where he had to keep those tracks very low in order to make those tracks anything.

Iggy famously remixed the album in the ’90s. Were you disappointed with the original mix?

I know that Iggy’s rationale was to get the record back on the market as it went off catalogue. Iggy is not a technical guy, that’s all there is to it and he just went into the studio and faders up Mr Engineer and everything was digitally distorted and lots of things that were noises to me were coming through although I think they fixed that in the mastering stage later on. I personally don’t think that the world needs another mix of Raw Power. I think the original mix, the Bowie mix, is the historical mix and that’s what people listen to and I think that’s the right way to go. I would have taken an entirely different approach if it was me working on it but I didn’t so that’s it. I think with modern technology and if I could have got the right engineer, like Ed Cherney, who’s not with us anymore, a lot of it could be salvaged but I don’t think I’d take this on as a project, so I’d let it be.

Do you wish you’d had the chance to do the follow up album?

Of course yes, and that’s what I ended up doing with Re-Licked but I do wish we’d have done it at the time. I think it would have been a fabulous album and it turned out that way with Re-Licked but it would have been the real Stooges.

Raw Power is considered one of the pivotal albums in Punk history but wasn’t appreciated at the time in terms of big sales. How do you view the album, looking back on it now?

It was something that at the time when we recorded it, we thought it was going to be a hit record and we were very excited about it which means we were delusional as nobody liked that album at all as it was so unusual. I came to realise that people need context in music as not everyone has a musicians ear so what happened with us, fortunately, is that a lot of musicians did like the record and they copied a lot of the sound and approach in their own bands such as Sex Pistols, Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses and they helped to popularise our sound and once people got back into listening to The Stooges, then we got pretty well accepted. At least we got there in the end.

Looking to the future, you have a new album out with Deniz Tek and seem well in demand as a guest on other artist’s albums., what plans do you have over the coming months?

I don’t really know at this point with Covid going on what will happen. Any idea of playing live is gone. I think I’ll just have to see what comes up. There’s a couple of things that Cleopatra want me to work on so I’m keeping busy but I have no real solid plans at this point and I kind of like to keep it that way.

James Williamson’s new album with Deniz Tek, Two To One is out now on Cleopatra Records.

Interview and Live Photos By Mick Burgess


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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