The last five years must have felt like a triumphant return for Iggy and the Stooges’ James Williamson. After a decades-long alienation from the music business, during which he improbably landed a job as an electronics executive—not even a slightly typical afterlife for a proto-punk rager—the man best known for his sick guitar playing on the epochal 1973 album Raw Power reunited with his old band in 2009, and recorded the album Ready to Die with them last year. But with that band on hiatus again after a 2013 world tour, Williamson turned to some long-unfinished business. There was a very very large pile of old songs, dating back to the ‘70s, that he’d written with Stooges singer Iggy Pop for the intended follow-up to Raw Power, but which had never been recorded in a studio. A few were on the live Metallic K.O. album, some had circulated among obsessives as really rough-sounding bootleg dubs, and many of them turned up on the Open Up And Bleed! live collection released by BOMP! Records in 1995. But those were the only traces of those songs; sketchy-sounding live versions.
The Stooges, minus Iggy, have remedied that. With the Stooges’ touring band, that being bassist Mike Watt, drummer Toby Dammit, and saxophonist Steve Mackay, Williamson has recorded Re-Licked, a 16-track collection of those old songs, with a revolving door of singers. The lineup of vocalists is impressive—it HAS to be right? They’re standing in for a young Iggy Pop! I’d love to call it an all-star lineup, but a lot of these people aren’t really quite “stars,” though pretty much all of them kick high ass. The BellRays’ amazing Lisa Kekaula, Jello Biafra, Ariel Pink, ex-Dicks Gary Floyd, former Foetus honcho J.G. Thirlwell, Mark Lanegan, Alison Mosshart, and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie all make appearances. Last April, a Record Store Day 7” teaser single was released, with the gifted Austin, TX blues belter Carolyn Wonderland singing “Open Up and Bleed” and “Gimme Some Skin.” Both also appear on Re-Licked, which saw its release this week.
Williamson was kind enough to make some time to talk to Dangerous Minds about the album.
You joined the Stooges after Fun House, but they broke up. Then when they were reconstituted as Iggy and the Stooges, you played on Raw Power. After that, you appeared on a couple of Iggy albums, and that’s pretty much it, right? What did you do in all the years since then?
After we were unsuccessful at finding a record label, Iggy and I kinda gave up on the Stooges. He went off with Bowie, who’d offered to take him under his wing, and that launched his solo career, and I was kind of fed up with playing music at that point so I went to work at a recording studio in Los Angeles. I learned a lot there, but one of the things I learned was that I really wasn’t cut out to be a recording engineer. It was the disco era by then, and I couldn’t stand the work. One thing is worse than playing with musicians you don’t like, and that’s recording them every day. It was a training ground for me, though, because it got me interested in electronics, and since those were the early early days of the personal computer, that led to an interest in the possibilities of computers, so I decided to become a real electronics engineer. I got a job in Silicon Valley, and I’ve been here ever since.
And what got you back into playing?
I had a 25-30 year career in electronics, and ended up as an executive at Sony. Around when Ronnie Asheton died in 2009, I was toying with taking early retirement. With the economy, these companies were offering that, and it looked attractive. At the same time I got a call from Iggy asking if I wanted to rejoin the band. At first I turned him down. I couldn’t imagine doing it, and I wasn’t even sure I could do it, since I hadn’t been playing at all. But I decided I owed it to them to give it a try, and I could do it because of the retirement. Then it turned out that Sony didn’t want me to leave so they hired me back as a consultant, but still I had some time to do some woodshedding, and I got good enough to play the first gig in Sao Paolo, Brazil, to a HUGE audience compared to anything I’d ever seen before. So I was back. A lot of things happened all at once.
So the material you recorded for Re-Licked was late Iggy and the Stooges stuff that never got released on an LP. There’ve been two Stooges albums since their reunion, The Weirdness, which you’re not on, and Ready to Die, which you’re on. None of these dormant songs turned up on either of those albums. How come?
We did discuss it. We had that conversation. The fans always wanted that album, and the bootlegs are out there, so people are familiar with it. What we decided was if we did an Iggy and the Stooges album, it was a given that it’d be compared to Raw Power, and it probably would be a difficult comparison with the old Stooges vs the young Stooges. Iggy’s voice has changed a great deal, like everyone’s does, with age, and I’m not even sure he could sing some of these songs now, they’re not all easy to sing. In the end we decided that rather than beg that type of comparison, let’s just write new songs. Sure, it’s still going to get compared, but it’s going to get compared as new stuff. I’m very proud of Ready to Die, we spent a lot of time writing it, Iggy stepped up on the lyrics and the vocals, it’s a good album.
The fact was that we still hadn’t done these songs, though, and I had it in mind that I really wanted to do them. Once we stopped touring last September, I had the time. I only started out with one song, I rearranged “Open Up and Bleed,” and my wife and I were talking about it and thought it would be great to get a Janis Joplin type singer for it. So I searched and searched and searched, and finally an old friend of mine In Austin sent me a link to Carolyn Wonderland. She did like three takes and it was over, and I was so blown away I said, even before I came back from Austin, yeah, I can do this, I could do a whole album. Luckily for me I found a lot of people of that caliber who could do it.
How did you choose the singers? There are some inspired choices. Gary Floyd doing “Cock in my Pocket,” I just love. And the guy singing the other version of that song, he’s from the Hellacopters, right?
Yeah, Nicke Andersson. Those were people who were recommended to me, so were a lot of people on the album. I got lots of recommendations. There was a lot of interest in doing this album, so I didn’t have any problem attracting people. Where I did have a problem was I didn’t know a lot of them, so I would go and if they had any material I could get access to or if I could watch them on YouTube, I’d get a feel for their style. So the people that actually ended up on the album were narrowed down from a very big list. I didn’t really have anyone who turned me down. There were a couple of people who couldn’t do it because they were busy, but no one was disinterested. That’s one thing I really like about this album, you can hear the singers’ enthusiasm about it, it just feels like they’re into it and they’re bringing their A-game to these songs.
It’s interesting that there are so many female vocalists on the album.
Well, it all started with Carolyn, and after her I thought, well, this works pretty well. The Stooges never had any women on anything, so it was a different thing, but it worked really well. This isn’t a Stooges album, it’s a tribute to those songs, so I didn’t want think about making it sound like the Stooges, but just bring the best people on that I could find.
Yeah, Lisa Kekaula, especially, she’s pretty fabulous.
Oh, MAN, yeah!
Have you seen the BellRays live? You must have, right?
No! What happened was I was down at Joe Cardamone’s, he’s the Icarus Line’s singer. I worked a lot with him, he let me use his little studio for stuff where a little studio would work, and I was sitting with him and was looking for another vocalist, and he asked if I’d ever heard Lisa Kekaula, and I said no, and he said to call her. She just came right over, and I only had one track available at the time, that was “I Got a Right,” and she came in and just NAILED that song. My jaw dropped. Unbelievable. So I had to do a single with her, so later I came back and recorded “Heavy Liquid” for her. It was a lot of fun to do these sessions.
So is this it then, these are the canonical studio recordings of these songs? The Stooges won’t finally make the lost album?
I don’t see that as being in the cards. I made an open invitation to Iggy to sing on these. He wrote them with me, so he has every much a right to sing them as I have to play them. But I sincerely doubt that we’ll do that. Frankly I don’t know if we could improve on this.
How do you imagine it’ll be received? People who know these songs at all only know the really really gnarly versions from nth generation dubbed tapes, or else from K.O. or the Open Up and Bleed live thing.
So far the responses and reviews are incredibly good. It’s exceeding my expectations by a long shot. There’s always going to be people that don’t like something, and there’s a lot of “Iggy bigots” that are gonna hate it because he isn’t on it. I’ve always had to live with the people that wouldn’t recognize anything that came after Fun House. But so far, on balance, the responses are really amazing, if for no other reason than that, because of all the people singing on it, this is reaching people that possibly wouldn’t have listened to the Stooges. All of these different people bring their own audiences into play, so there’s this wider group you’re exposing this music to.
So is there anything happening with the Stooges in the future?
We haven’t discussed it. I’m beginning to have my doubts, because next year, Iggy’s going to be 68 years old. Think about going out and like, stage diving, at 68 years old. Think you could do it?
I’M NO IGGY POP!
*laughs* Well, the only thing that makes me say it could happen is that if anyone will do it, he will. I have doubts. And I also have to admit I’m a part of that equation, and right now I don’t have to think about it, but if I had a serious offer to do it, I’d really have to think about it. I’m not getting any younger either, but then, all I have to do is play guitar. So I could go out and do that, but I also feel a kind of duty to uphold the honor of the name. I don’t want us to be like the Rolling Stones. To me, they’ve ruined their brand. They’re just too frickin’ old. They’re still really cool guys, but they’re really cool REALLY OLD guys. I’d never go see ‘em anymore. So do I want the Stooges to be like that? No, I want people to remember us like, even the last tour we did, we were still really burning up the stage, some people at any age can’t do that. That’s what I want the memory to be. At this point I’m open to it if we can pull it off, but there are lots of reasons not to do it, too.
Williamson was right about these songs getting compared to the old versions, because we’re going to do that right now. Here’s the Stooges’ demo for “I Got a Right.” This has ended up on various bootlegs, and even got a small but legit release, on a super limited deluxe edition of Raw Power. This song completely fuckin’ smokes.
And here’s a teaser of the version with the BellRays’ Lisa Kekaula. This also completely fuckin’ smokes. If you’re watching at work, be advised there’s a stripper in the video.