The Stooges' producer James Williamson on Iggy Pop's new album: Exclusive Interview
When guitarist James Williamson left Iggy and the Stooges in the mid-70s, he never thought he’d reunite with charismatic front man Iggy Pop and drummer Scott Asheton, but following bassist/guitarist Ron Asheton’s death in 2009, Iggy called Williamson and asked him to rejoin the band. “They were fresh out of Stooges,” Williamson grimly jokes.
Post-Stooges, Williamson, who called Iggy “Ig,” had become an electrical engineer and was Sony’s VP of Technology Standards. Though he initially declined the offer, he eventually said yes and has been touring with the Stooges again since the fall of 2009.
Williamson produced Iggy & The Stooges’ “Ready To Die,” out today, which reunites the same line-up (minus Ron Asheton, of course, and with Mike Watt on bass), as Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 proto-punk masterpiece, the David Bowie-mixed “Raw Power.”
Williamson talked to HitFix about recording with the band for the first time in decades, what it takes to produce Iggy Pop, and what it’s like to be on stage with the band.
Is there any way you could have imagined that you would be making a new Stooges record in 2013?
No, no idea.I had given up on The Stooges by the time we broke up [in] ’75. Ig and I did a demo album [in 1977] called “Kill City” after the band broke up. I produced “New Values” for him a couple of years later and, after all that, when I gave up the music business, I just considered the whole thing to be completely unsuccessful. You know nobody liked us, nobody wanted to buy our records and nobody wanted us to play for them, so it was like, “Well, OK, what should I do when I grow up?”
Was Ron Asheton’s death the catalyst for getting back together? How long had it been since you and Iggy had spoken?
After “New Values,” he did an album called “Soldier” [in 1980] and I produced about a third of that record. Then we had a huge falling out over a set of issues as people frequently do making albums and that was it. We didn’t talk for at least 20-25 years after that and, mostly at that point, it was just kind of like publishing issues and things where you needed to touch base with the other person, but we weren’t chatting or anything like that. It was kind of a little bit out-of-the-blue kind of thing. I think both of us were very careful about the relationship going forward because neither one of us has another 25 years to go without talking to each other, so we won’t pick any fights.
Were you surprised when he called you?
The first thing he did was inform me about Ronnie’s death. I’d heard that through another channel so I wasn’t surprised by that, but it was nice of him to give me the courtesy of the call. Then kind of from there, we continued to have some on-and off-talks and part of it was the idea would I consider playing again? We had long discussions about that. I really hadn’t in my wildest dreams thought I would do that, even if asked and so at first it just didn’t feel right, but the longer I thought about it, it kind of was one of those things where they were fresh out of Stooges, so it was like I was the last guy walking and I think Ig knew that I could do it. It was just a matter of giving me a chance to do it.
What’s the key to producing Iggy Pop?
(laughs) That’s a trade secret. No, you just gotta be patient and Iggy is actually a pro, in a way. I mean, he’s made a lot of albums, he knows what works for him and what doesn’t work for him and I guess I learned in “Soldier” to try to be a little more flexible with him and to basically let him be the boss of his vocals. I’m very respectful of his ideas about his vocals. That said, I also want to make sure we got the best sound we could out of him so I put what I consider to be the best vocal mic around; it’s a Brauner VM1, So I made sure we used that on almost everything and the rest was up to him. He stepped up and did his vocals.
You write the music for this album and then Iggy puts on the lyrics. Is that the same way you've always written?
Yeah, it is. I don’t know what it is between us that makes this all work but it’s always been that way and so I’ve often said that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for me to be in another band because the thing is that I write kind of crazy music and there’s almost nobody that I know of who can make sense out of it as far as the song goes, but that particular individual can.
What did you think when you heard “DDs," a lecherous salute to breasts?
(laughs) I tell you, what can you say about that? That’s the, I don’t know, the primeval core of every teenage boy, right? Talk about striking a chord. I mean, it’s a song that everybody can either object to or rally behind. We’re wondering if there’s a certain type of movie or maybe in a Playtex ad where this could wind up.
Iggy’s talking about the poor economy on “Job” or the lack of gun control or the ghosts in the band on “The Departed,” and then in comes this song.
It’s true, it’s true. You hit on the thing that I like the most about the lyrics on the album: Basically he’s critiquing social issues on this album and that’s kind of what we were doing on “Raw Power.” “Search and Destroy” is all about the Vietnam War, so here we are again in 2013 and he’s got gun control, immigration, he’s involved in all sorts of topical issues.
What did you think when The Stooges reunited in 2003 without you?
There’s lots of little side stories to all this and one of the big ones is that when Ig and I reformed the Stooges after breaking up in 1971, we hadn’t intended to reform the Stooges at all. We went over to London and we were going to start a new band, but we couldn’t find anyone over there that we liked to play with, so we called the Asheton Brothers, so we moved Ronnie over to bass.
David Bowie, who mixed “Raw Power,” was mad that you brought them over, right?
I think not Bowie so much, but Bowie’s management [which had begun managing Iggy] always had the view of Iggy being the pop star so they were pissed even for him to bring me over there. When we multiplied it by bringing the Asheton brothers over, they didn’t think that was going to work.
But the point of the story is, they moved Ronnie to bass and he never really got over that, he never really liked it. He always wanted to be the guitar player. So you asked about 2003. I was just thinking, that is fantastic because not only do these guys get to play again, but Ronnie gets to play guitar again, so that’s what he always wanted to do. He was vindicated by all that as well.
You joined the band again in 2009. What is it like for you to be on stage with Iggy again?
Ah, it’s fun. It’s always been unpredictable. This is not an act. We’re kind of improvising on the run. We have a set that we do, of course, and the musicians are playing the numbers, but he’ll basically do anything to get over with the audience. I think there’s probably no other man or human alive that can even imagine doing some of the things that he’ll do. Being up there with him is really cool, but you gotta pay attention because first of all everything’s going fast and furious. If you lose concentration you’re screwed. Secondly he throws those mike stands all over the place and so occasionally, you might need to get out of the way pretty quick. I’ve actually been hit by one once, but luckily it was deflected off my guitar.
It must be really gratifying to see how “Raw Power” is now considered a classic. Everyone from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain to The Smiths’ Johnny Marr embraced it as a seminal proto-punk album.
It’s been amazing. I usually joke that we always thought it was going to be a really successful album and it was... it just took a really long time (laughs). It’s a huge vindication for all of us. Finally getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a lot of people snicker at that, but we don’t. It’s industry recognition, which is something we never had, so coming back around and actually doing this new album, you know, it just feels like we kind of have come full circle and now we’re kind of doing victory laps at this age, but we’re still doing stuff that we like and it still sounds like us.