James Williamson Talks Playing with Iggy Pop and The Stooges, the Reissue of Kill City and More
James Williamson is punk rock royalty. His wild, unhinged guitar playing made him the perfect foil for Iggy Pop on two great albums in the ’70s. Then he gave up music altogether. Now thirty or so years later he’s back, playing with the man who made him famous, and he just remixed and reissued one of those old dirty rock gems, Kill City. Here he talks about his past, present, and future and I try not to geek out too much.
Kill City was just remixed, you took part in that?
Yeah I did. Well to begin with, the reference discs that had been done for Kill City had long since disappeared and so they had been re-releasing it from previous records. Every time you do that it loses a lot so basically I was thinking, “You know what, there’s some do-overs I’d like to see anyway on that album” so I discussed it with Bomp and Alive and they agreed it was a good idea so I went back in and remixed it with a fabulous engineer, Ed Cherney, and I think we really reached the full potential of the record now and then we of course remastered it as well so it really sounds good.
So what do you remember about the original mixing process and recording process even?
Well the whole thing started out as a demo tape. In ‘75 or so after the famous Metallic K.O. show at Michigan Palace the band disbanded and Iggy and I decided to try to shop a record deal so the first thing we did was write some new tunes and record them on my little cassette player in my apartment. Our first idea was to take it to John Cale who was in L.A. at that time and see if he was interested. It didn’t work out with him but the next guy we went to was Ben Edmonds who was a good friend of ours and who had been a writer at Creem and so we had him listen to them and he kind of liked what he heard but he thought if you’re going to get a record deal you’d better make a demo and a proper one. So his friend Jimmy Webb,famous singer/songwriter, had a proper recording studio in his house and as a favor to Ben he agreed to let us use it and his brother Gary would be the engineer. So I rounded up a bunch of my buddies who were musicians, Scott Thurston and the Sales Brothers and a couple other people like that, and took them up there and we cut those tracks. By the time it was all over we had most of them done but we still weren’t successful shopping it as a record deal. We thought Rocket Records might pick it up, that was Elton John’s label, but they didn’t and we thought Seymour Stein might and he took too long so he didn’t and in the end we didn’t have anything except for the tapes. So a couple of years later when Iggy was off doing his solo careers and I was already moving on to a whole different world, Greg Shaw from Bomp approached me and he offered to pay for the studio fees and all that if I would take it back in and complete it. It was actually a little bit too short so we had to add a couple of things in there that were really poorly recorded like “Lucky Monkeys” and then we had to add a new track which was written by Scott Thurston, “Master Charge,” which actually doesn’t fit very well but we needed to fill out the time. Anyway we brought in some guys and did some overdubs and stuff and I think we did a pretty good job of salvaging what was a pretty rough tape at that point and a lot of people love that mix. It’s very Spartan and it has a kind of a feel about it but I always wanted to re-do it so I was glad I had a chance to do it.
Kill City’s got a weird place in time in Iggy’s discography. It was recorded before his solo albums but it was released afterwards and it kind of points towards that direction but I think it’s sort of got its own place. How much of that was you and how much of that was him since you produced it and co-wrote it. Was the writing split?
Yeah, you know its our typical thing. As long as we were together we wrote together and so you get his lyrics and you get my riffs, in between you get our combined arrangements and so on. We have a unique signature so it wouldn’t sound like what he did later. It didn’t sound like The Stooges because the band was different for one thing but also the writing had evolved as well. Especially when you’re trying to shop for a record deal, you wanted to make the music accessible so that people might buy the record, you know?
And they didn’t want another Stooges flop on their hands.
And thus they never did buy it but anyway I think it’s done rather well, especially as a historical piece and as Iggy says, I think it was actually the first Indie record really. It really does have a place. I continually get people who tell me that that’s actually their favorite album of the whole bunch so, you know it has a place for people.
Yeah I agree. Most of these songs, I don’t think they’ve ever even been played live before this tour. If any of them have it hasn’t been in a really long time. How’s the crowd reaction been to them?
Well, they love ‘em. Most of the people who love The Stooges know this record too. The fact of the matter is, The Stooges have kind of a history of breaking up and then reforming and so it would have been a distinct possibility that had we gotten a record deal or whatever, that we would have just brought the Asheton brothers back in and made it a Stooges album. So like I say, this started out as a demo on a shoestring really because really nobody got paid. Everybody just did it ‘cause they wanted to or they were a buddy or whatever. So it’s been very well accepted.
You haven’t been in music since the seventies. I’m wondering, why did you come back after all this time? When Iggy comes calling is it just hard to say no to him or have you been wanting to get back?
No that wasn’t it at all. First of all I wasn’t going to do it. I had a job so I was fat, dumb, and happy doing my job and wouldn’t have been able to do it. But with this economy, Sony who I was working for, started handing out early retirement packages and they were voluntary but they were very attractive and so independent of whether Iggy had called or not I would have taken that package, otherwise I would have been working for free for the next five years. When he initially called I did tell him no but then I got this package and I thought, I went back to my twenties with these guys. We know each other really well and I felt a little bit like I owed it to them because there weren’t any more Stooges, I was the last one, and so if your gonna go out as The Stooges you’d better have some Stooges. It can’t be Iggy and The Stooge. Scotty (Asheton, Stooges drummer) was the only other one. So I gave it a lot of consideration but in the end I just said “Let’s do it. It‘ll be fun” and that’s what we did.
Yeah you know it’s kind of nice to hear that the recession is actually having some positive effects for Stooges fans and in all these hard times at least we’re getting another Iggy and The Stooges tour out of it. Was it hard for you to get back into the whole rock and roll thing after being out of it?
I can’t deny that it was a lot of work. Even if you play all the time you’ve got to stay on top of it and I was very very rusty ‘cause I really hadn’t been playing at all. When you learn to do something your brain makes these connections so it’s just a matter of dusting those off. It was a pretty heavy Spring cleaning as a matter of fact but I managed to do it and I was lucky that the songs and the style are pretty much mine so it was natural for me. I also had some help from a local band, Careless Hearts, who rehearsed with me ‘cause it’s different playing by yourself and then playing in the band. So I got that going and I did one live gig to thank them for that and that went well and then we started the Stooges rehearsals. Slowly from a period of about June until November which was our first Stooges gig, it came back.
So back in the day when you toured with Iggy and The Stooges people had lots of drug problems and times were a lot different. Is touring a totally different thing now? Is it more fun or less fun? Do you party at all still or is it just business for you guys now?
Well we try to have fun but I think when you’re our age having fun has a different meaning. We’re not out trying to score chicks and party all night and so on. We are a lot more professional than we used to be. You know I would venture to say had The Stooges been this professional back in the day we might have actually made it. Things have changed a lot too. The live performances are a big thing in the music world today. In the old days it was all about hit records. Over the years Iggy built up his name and his brand so for somebody like me to come into this, it’s pretty cushy you know. I just come and play and that’s it. There’s no schlepping anything around or worrying about bookings, you know all those kinds of things that bands coming up have to do. I don’t know if I could actually do what the young guys do anymore ‘cause it’s just such a big hill to climb. For us, we’re well known and people are digging us just like we were twenty or something and writing new tunes. It’s just phenomenal.
Right. Are Iggy and Scott a lot different then they were back then?
No, that’s the fun part. We’re all just like we were except we’re older. It’s really unbelievable. It’s like joining the circus really. It’s just a bunch of guys you know and you’re going around and there’s lots of old stories to exchange so it’s fun actually in a lot of ways.
So you guys recently played all of the Raw Power album at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival which many, including myself consider one of the greatest albums of all time. What do you consider a greater accomplishment in your life: being Sony’s Vice President of Technology Standards or making that album?
Well, I am very proud of both things. The Raw Power thing is kind of a funny thing for me because it’s a little bit astonishing that it has that status in that it was my first record. I wonder what I could have done with the next one.
Yeah it seems like you keep walking into good situations.
Yeah so I’m proud of it certainly and it holds up. That’s the thing. I don’t know who said this but somebody said that there was really no vocabulary for music like that back in those days and that’s very true. It was unique and I think subsequently enough people have imitated the sound and the kind of core approach and things like the style that now there’s a vocabulary for it. So people hear that now and they find it to be contemporary whereas then they just thought it was weird.
Yeah true but it paved the way for all of that.
Exactly. So you know I’m very proud of that and I’m also proud of the career I’ve had, not just at Sony but AMD and other places, just to be a part of the personal computer revolution and the internet and all of that stuff. Being around the people who created it is fascinating so I have a pride in being a nerd and being a rocker too.
So what do you have planned for the future? Is there any more touring? Is there going to be a Kill City concert where you play that whole album or are you just going to enjoy retirement?
I don’t know. There’s never been any discussion of that. I wouldn’t be opposed to it but the thing is even with the Raw Power tour, we played the Kill City stuff so it’s kind of all mixed together as stuff we did. I’d like to record some stuff. Now that I’m off tour I’m spending a lot more time working on new riffs and things like that, seeing if we can come up with some stuff. Let’s face it, the Raw Power bar and the Kill City bar is set really high so if we can’t do something that’s equivalent in quality then we won’t release it, we just agreed on that. But we’re trying and we will record some stuff. It just may or may not be released.
Well alright thanks a lot for talking to me James.
My pleasure I’m glad I was able to and I look forward to seeing this article. Hopefully you can catch the shows next year.
Are there gonna be shows?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah, no doubt about it. I’m hoping we do more U.S. shows next year, we’re working on it.