James Williamson is an emotional guitar player, he plays how he feels. He’s essentially self-taught and writes from trusting his instinct. James co-wrote The Stooges cult-classic album Raw Power with Iggy Pop back in the early ‘70s after joining the band, crafting a pioneering guitar-style that is aggressive, powerful and influential—laying the foundations of the punk sound to come.
Gimmie spoke to James from his home in California about latest musical offering, album Two To One, released last week on Cleopatra Records. Created with good friend Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), the 11-track record struts and commands your attention as it plays, reminding us of all the reasons why both of these artists are all-time. Rock n Roll is very much alive in 2020.
Why is music important to you?
JAMES WILLIAMSON: I don’t really know other than I’ve always been doing it, since I was a teenager. I found it to be a really good emotional outlet, it’s ingrained in me at this point as a way to express myself emotionally.
What emotions were you expressing when playing the guitar as a younger person and what emotions do you express now? Has it changed?
JW: I think they are largely the same. I was simply able to emote that way, to get out my teenage angst and aggressive emotions, and maybe more tender emotions too. A lot of the style I developed as more or less a self-taught guitar player, that aggressive style. I think that’s what people hear in my music. When people hear this new album for example, people will be able to pick out the songs I wrote pretty much right away from the way the guitar sounds.
You’re still angst-y?
JW: [Laughs] I can still make some noise that way! There’s things that transcend age, this was the intent of this record, to go back to the straight-forward guitar record. I think we accomplished that. In doing so we brought up those original styles from ourselves as well.
There was a time when you weren’t playing guitar for a few decades; when you weren’t playing music, did you have another emotion outlet to express yourself in?
JW: Well, sure. I had decided that I was finished with music and I was moving into recording studio work, but I wasn’t really very well cut out for it because I didn’t really like the musicians that I was having to record [laughs]. It was not something I could do very well.
I ran across my first personal computer around that time and was captivated by that, they were very primitive compared to what they are today. I couldn’t even believe it! I decided I would dedicate myself to trying to learn how to make these things. It took me quite a while to get to that point but once I did, I got a front row seat for the whole deal: personal computers, the internet, networking and everything! I’ve been here in Silicon Valley since. I’m literally captivated by the technology, it’s been amazing!
On the flipside of that, I had the opportunity to come back and see what never happened for us [The Stooges] back in the day; when we came back we were fabulously popular. We played very, very large places, the first show back was 40,000 people! We went on to play in front of 350,000 people—just huge shows. I was able to see what it was like to be a big-time entertainer, it was an amazing run for me.
It sounds like both things you chose to do – music and tech – were at very exciting times in both fields.
JW: Yes. I was very lucky in that way.
Was it hard to pick up the guitar again? Was there a lot of feelings that came with doing that?
JW: Yes and no. When I first was approached to come back, I first said “no” because I didn’t know if I could do it. I had put the guitar down completely and not played it at all because it’s such a powerful thing for me! When I decided to do it, lucky for me we had many, many months before we were going to do our first show back. I had to work on it quite a bit, but it came. I was fortunate enough to have a local band that were thoughtful enough to let me play a show with them, just to get the hang of what it was to do a live show again. It all worked out but it was a lot of work for sure.
Have you ever had a really transcendent experience playing live?
JW: You could say that, any time we’ve played live it is an experience for sure. The type of music that we play in The Stooges is a type of music where the fur is flying and you don’t really have a chance to sit back and observe yourself onstage, you better be concentrating on what you’re doing because it’s moving so fast. If you lapse in concentration, you screw up! If you want to call that transcendent, it really is a deep concentration.
I saw some videos online where you were deconstructing songs “Search and Destroy” and “Shake Appeal” you mentioned that were in a way, respectively, derived from “The Bunny Hop” and The Lone Ranger theme.
JW: [Laughs] Yes. That was a couple of conferences where I was speaking and maybe it was a little bit stretched but I did feel it was not that big a stretch in some ways. I explained it to myself [laughs].
Were those things part of your childhood?
JW: Of course! I don’t know if I was conscious I was doing that though at the time. When you write music, you can’t explain where it comes from because there are so many ways to play the few chords that we have available to us and same few rhythms that are available, that they seem to be endless; surely there’ll be some overlap on things that are common to everyone.
There’s a lot to be said then for the attitude you play with then.
JW: For sure. I think that’s very much part of it.
On the record – Two To One – that you’ve just made with Deniz; what was one of the most fun moments that you had?
JW: The whole album was fun! First of all, Deniz and I are friends, we get along really well. We come from a very similar perspective, he grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I spent a great deal of time in Detroit and Ann Arbor—we have a very similar perspective on music, on ideas and so forth. I brought in the drummer I always use Michael Urbano and then I brought in a bass player I liked, so the people were compatible and everyone had the same objective. We recorded at a wonderful studio, it had a magical sound, and as we went through the project everyone was delighted. Everyone wanted to do it, there were no attitudes. From the beginning the album was charmed.
We recorded Deniz’s vocals in Hawaii and some of his overdubs. I brought it back and did mine in San Francisco, we mixed here too. Then unfortunately the shutdown came because of Covid-19. The album was finished but wasn’t mastered but fortunately Cleopatra Records had a mastering guy who had an operation out of his house. We just barely squeaked it in! [laughs].
It’s a great album! One of my favourite tracks is “Small Change”. I spoke to Deniz about it. I think that’s a lovely song too. I love the sentiment of the song of making positive changes in your life to have a better one.
JW: There’s a lot of nice subtlety in that song.
Is there a time in your life you made a small change that made a positive difference in your life?
JW: Of course! Even though I didn’t personally write the lyrics for that song, I think it’s true and that’s why people like you and I relate to that song. You have done things like that in your life and they did make the difference. I’m a big fan of that song.
You wrote the music for that one?
Could you share with us a really life changing moment from your life?
JW: There’s been so many. Anything that’s important and long lasting in your life is something like that where you’ve had to make a decision and had to change in order to move in a direction that was best for everybody concerned. I’ve been alive to have made many changes [laughs]. Things like getting into technology. I’m married, I have children and a granddaughter, there’s many things you make adjustments for along the line that do make a difference, for better or for worse. It’s a universal theme really… and it’s just whether you make changes for the best or worst [laughs]—it’s your choice always!
What has fatherhood meant to you?
JW: It’s been really a godsend in my life. My children are not children any more of course, but they are wonderful people and I’ve been fortunate enough to know them their whole lives. It’s hard to beat!
Was there anything challenging writing and recording this album?
JW: There wasn’t, that’s one of the nice things about this record, there weren’t any attitude problems within the band, there weren’t any real big differences between Deniz and I. The Cleopatra [Records] people were wonderful to us. Out of all of the records that I made, this has been one of the smoothest ones!
Will you keep making more records?
JW: Well, we’ll just have to see. Right now I’m busy trying to wrap up this one [laughs].
Why did you call it Two To One?
JW: That seemed to describe what it was all about, two guitar players into one album—it sums up the album rather well.
Was there a particular mood you were trying to capture with the album?
JW: Not specifically, it was more that we were trying to make a good ol’ fashion guitar album. What you’re looking at here with the album is that there’s two guitar players and one of them can sing. We didn’t want to do something that wasn’t us, we wanted to do exactly us. If you don’t like guitar, it’s not your record! [laughs].
What did you learn from Deniz while making the album?
JW: He’s a good guitar player, he came up with such good stuff! What was really nice that on a lot of songs, if it was his song he’d play the rhythm and I’d play the lead and on my songs vice versa. It was a nice mix and variety of not only the song writing but also the playing. I think that blended really very nicely and makes it more interesting.
What’s also surprising to me, I’ve made a fair number of albums… I produced it as well. Writing it, mixing it, I’ve heard this album a million times and I still like listening to it!
What did it mean to you to get inducted in to the Engineering Hall Of Fame?
JW: It was really a very big honour for me. I got inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame, which was a huge honour as well but, to get into the Engineering Hall Of Fame as well was a total surprised. Sometimes you just get lucky, I guess [laughs].
Or you’re really great at what you do, have a genuine passion for it and have worked hard.
JW: Well, a little bit of that too! [laughs]. The other thing that’s really gratifying about this album is that you’re talking about a couple of really old guys making a rock n roll record, so the fact that people still like it, is a very big honour really. Part of what we set out to do was really do it right and not just phone it in—we did work hard on it. We really enjoyed it too and I think that comes through.
I know that you haven’t ever really been interested in writing music for commercial purposes; was that something you decided early on?
JW: Not really, the thing was that we were attracted to originally and we always thought that that’s what we wanted to do. When I joined The Stooges and we started doing Raw Power we were really stoked about how the record was coming out and we thought it was going to be a big success! Of course we were totally delusional [laughs]. Nobody wanted that album at all. It actually did become a success, it just took about thirty years! We were right, it just took a really long time.
You mentioned that in terms of your creativity you value originality; what are the other things you value?
JW: Originality is the important part, related to music, and in terms of other things, you gotta be creative and original in everything in life ‘cause every day presents an opportunity to screw things up or do ‘em right! I think you have to be creative to get along in this world really. It’s a very challenging thing sometimes.
At this point in your life; what does success mean to you?
JW: I think success is just to be able to spend a lot of time with my family and to be on good terms and to not try to reach too far with other people and just allow them to be who they are. To enjoy my life, that is success to me!
What’s something that makes you really, really happy?
JW: I’m really, really happy when I can get a big smile out of my granddaughter!