The Stooges’ James Williamson: “Originality is the important part… you gotta be creative and original in everything in life ‘cause every day presents an opportunity to screw things up or do ‘em right!”

Original Photo: Franklin Avery. Handmade collage by B.

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?

Yes, ah-ha.

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!

Photo: Anne Tek.

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!

Read Gimmie’s Interview with DENIZ TEK here.

Please check straightjameswilliamson.com + JW & Deniz Tek on Instagram; JW & DT on Facebook; Two To One can be found HERE.

Deniz Tek: “The creative process itself is extremely rewarding, it’s not a financial reward but, it’s more of a spiritual reward”

Original photo: Franklin Avery. Handmade collage by B.

Deniz Tek is best known as the guitarist and primary songwriter from pioneering, influential and rule-breaking Australian rock n roll band Radio Birdman. He’s packed a lot into his life thus far, not only has he lived many musical lives creating in various incarnations – TV Jones, The Visitors, Angie Pepper Band, New Race, Dodge Main, The Glass Insects, The Soul Movers and more – but he’s also saved lives as an ER doctor and ex-navy flight surgeon, and these days he’s also a coffee farmer living in Hawaii with his own blend of Kona coffee, Tekona.

Gimmie caught up with Deniz recently to chat about his latest project, album Two To One, a collaboration with long-time friend and Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson.

How’s your morning been?

DENIZ TEK: Good. Very productive so far, I got a lot of work done this morning. It’s been a good day! How about yourself?

Very good too! I think every day is a good day though, your day is what you make it.

DT: Yeah. At our age every day you wake up should be a good day, time is limited and you have to make the most of every minute you’ve got.

You’re at The Tek Farm in Hawaii at the moment?

DT: Yeah, I am.

Is that a special place for you?

DT: Yeah, my parents started it about forty years ago, when my dad retired from his job at the University of Michigan. They moved out here to Hawaii and started this farm. My wife Ann and I are out here taking care of the place, we took over running the farm. After my dad died my mother needed the help so we moved out here about three and a half or four years ago, we had been living in Australia before that. She’s now gone into a nursing home for about the last year. We’re just going to stay here and take care of the place for the time being.

That’s lovely of you both. Do you enjoy working outside, outdoors in nature?

DT: Oh yeah! Absolutely. I enjoy it so much better than working inside.

What attitude and spirit do you approach playing the guitar in?

DT: It’s just part of my life. I’ve played guitar since I was twelve years old. I’ve been in bands since high school. I approach it as part of daily life. It’s like eating, drinking, breathing. I play most days, occasionally I don’t play but typically, I’ll play every day.

Does it give you a particular kind of feeling?

DT: Yeah, time disappears for one thing, you stop being aware of the passage of time—you’re totally in the process. Time goes by and it’s very involving, it’s something I can really focus on without any effort involved. When my attention is focused on that, I don’t have any outside distractions.

Is it like a meditation for you?

DT: I suppose you could say that. I’ve tried meditating and I’ve never been very good at that because I keep thinking of too many things but, when I play guitar that’s not an issue so, I guess it is my meditation in some ways. I’ve never really thought about it like that but I think you’ve right.

I understand that having commercial success from your music has never really been a big a motivating factor for you; what are the things that motivate you to create?

DT: The creative process itself is extremely rewarding, it’s not a financial reward but, it’s more of a spiritual reward you get from that. Especially if it’s something that you create that other people can relate to or if it resonates with other people and they like it and it makes their life better in anyway or happier, it helps people forget their problems for a short time—what better reward could you ever hope for.

When you’re creating, whether it’s writing a song or painting; where do you find the most magic in the process?

DT: Whenever there is something new happening that’s going really well its magical. That can be just sitting with a guitar at home or in the recording studio or it can be at a concert. When you’re playing live to people that are throwing energy at the stage and we’re recycling that energy and giving it back to people; also doing it between ourselves in the band, band members giving energy back and forth between each other, that’s real magic—that’s transformational. It works with some higher powers that I don’t’ understand. It’s pretty amazing!

Photo: Anne Tek.

On the new album – Two To One – that you made with James Williamson from The Stooges there’s songs like “Take A Look Around” and “Climate Change” that speak to environmental issues; are these things that are important to you?

DT: Oh yeah! Yeah. These songs are not necessarily meant to be protest songs or political propaganda but they are observational. These songs were holding up a mirror and saying, this is what we’re seeing and this is what you may be seeing as well; maybe to increase awareness in certain ways.

Previously you’ve said that The Stooges album Raw Power helped shape your path as a young guitar player; in what way? What resonated?

DT: That was in 1973 when it came out. I was living in Sydney, I was a student. I was in a band called TV Jones, about a year before [Radio] Birdman started. I already had great inspiration from many other guitar players that were well-known but, I think the guitar playing on Raw Power brought a new element to it. The tone was so brutal and the playing was so aggressive and hard and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it in some time. To me it was wonderful to hear that, it was an affirmation for me that rock n roll music that is very high energy and aggressive was still alive, that The Stooges were able to do that. It was inspirational!

You’re good friends with James now and you’ve worked together before; have you ever had a fan moment with him in any way? Like, this is the guy whose guitar playing resonated with me as a youth!

DT: Yeah, you can’t push that too hard but, I enjoy it when I can get him to tell Stooges stories [laughs]; when he tells me stories that nobody else knows, it’s good to hear that stuff. I love that! That’s being a fan, to want to hear that stuff. Of course I was very curious as to how he got that guitar sound. He’s very happy to tell me about it and show me how he got this or that guitar sound. A Gibson Les Paul through a Vox AC30, cranked up loud with no effects pedals. It’s a balance of being a fan and being a partner in the work we do together AND being a friend. We hang out a fair bit together too, we play tennis and us and our wives go out to dinner together and do things like that.

Nice! Why is writing songs important to you?

DT: I don’t know. I guess it important to me because I feel like I’m contributing something and I have an impulse to create, that satisfies that for me. I have a hope that the songs I write will also benefit others, that people will hear it, like it, dance to it or it will help their day go better. That’s what I hope.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re not quite sure where songs come, that they just arrive, that you have to be tuned into their frequency in a way to find them; is there anything you do to tap into that frequency?

DT: The best thing is to just have a guitar in your hand and be playing, you don’t have to be playing anything specific, you could just be tuning it up, and just have a clear mind, not being distracted. When songs come you grab them out of the air, they come out of you or through you, and then the challenge is to remember it when it happens. You have to try and get it down right away, you write it down or record it. That’s what’s nice about our modern phones, you can record straight away. When these ideas come, if you don’t save them somehow you never remember them the next day. I suppose they float off and someone else gets them [laughs].

Maybe! [Laughter]. I love the storytelling in all of the songs on your new record. One that really stood out to me was “Small Change”.

DT: The thing about “Small Change” was James presented the music for it and a friend of his, Frank Meyers, had written words for it as well. The story for “Small Change” was suggested by Frank’s lyrics but it didn’t quite gel with me, so I took his basic idea and re-wrote it. I turned it more into a story of a woman who decides to become free and leave the small-town single mother existence that she was stuck in, that she’d go off and do something else. The story of how it would take a lot of courage to do that. Sort of like a mini-episode of a movie.

I love the lyric from it: It takes a little bit of change and a great big heart. I think a lot of people can resonate with that. Has there been moments in your life where you’ve done that yourself?

DT: I suppose leaving home when I was sixteen or seventeen years old was sort of like that. Leaving the country at eighteen and just going off overseas with nothing but a backpack and a guitar.

Do you have favourite track on the album?

D: Not really. After it was mixed I didn’t really listen to it. You work so hard on these things and put so many hours into it and you hear it over and over and over again so many times when you’re finishing the production on it that you don’t want to hear it again for a while. I’ve actually put it aside and haven’t listened to it for about a month. When it comes out on vinyl and I have a copy of it I’ll listen to it again. I like all the songs, if I didn’t like them they wouldn’t be on there, I have a different favourite every day.

Why did you decided to call the album, Two To One?

DT: It was a big struggle to find a name for the album until we found one that we could agree on and that hadn’t been used. We’d decide on a name, look it up on allmusic.com and find out there were already thirty albums with that name so, finding something that hadn’t been used before was the challenge. My wife Anne came up with it. It’s an old blues expression and it’s a lyric in a Blind Boy Fuller song from the thirties. Two To One sounds good and it’s two guys doing one thing together.

For both you and James playing guitar is expressing your emotions; is it hard when you have to work with somebody else to get your vision through to fruition?

DT: It can be! It wasn’t in this case. We pretty much agreed on everything. When we first started writing for the album there were come ideas I presented that he didn’t like and likewise, there was a couple he presented that I didn’t like. We didn’t pursue those and we tossed them out early on and focused on the things we both agreed on and both felt were good. Once we had decided on that it was straightforward.

Are you working on new songs now yourself?

DT: Yeah, I am. I’m putting together songs for a new album now. It should have been recorded already but because of the coronavirus we couldn’t travel. Basically, I have another album written and arranged and ready to go. That will be a solo album.

You’ve been working on songs with your wife?

DT: She’ll play guitar on that album as well, when we finally get around to recording it.

Is it nice to have someone so close to you to bounce creative ideas off?

DT: It is! I’ve never had that in that way before. I’ve usually been the only guitar player in the family [laughs].

As well as your music I know you love to do art as well, you paint; is painting for you similar in any way to writing a song?

DT: It’s pretty similar. I’m a much more experienced song writer and guitar player than I am a painter. I’m just getting started with painting and figuring out how to do it. It’s just as much fun. It’s one of those things like I was saying, where time just disappears.

Over the years has there been any advice you’ve gotten I regards to creativity that’s really stuck with you?

DT: Not directly but, I read something that Keith Richards said when he was asked about creativity and he said that the thing he would like to have on his grave would be the words: he passed it on. In other words, you take from your influences in music and then you add something to it of your own and then you pass it on to the next generation. If you can form a link in that chain, that’s the greatest thing that you can do. I always took that it heart. I thought it was a really cool idea and that it was something that I would like to be able to say, I also did that—I formed a link in the chain and passed it on.

I think that you have done that, many times over!

DT: [Laughs] Thanks!

What makes you really, really happy?

DT: Not thinking about happiness but just being, existing in the world and being part of it—that’s what makes me happy. The minute you try to be happy, it just all goes away! [Laughs]. Just being makes me happy!

** Coming soon on Gimmie we also have a chat with The Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson**

Please check out deniztek.com; Deniz on Facebook; Deniz on Instagram; DT & James Williamson on Instagram. Two To One out September 18 on Cleopatra Records. Two To One via bandcamp.