ACL Interview: Iggy & the Stooges

Sunday, 6:15pm, Bud Light stage

Vintage Stooges,
James Williamson at left
Vintage Stooges, James Williamson at left

In 1974, the Stooges couldn't stand any more abuse from fans, the pop music infrastructure, or themselves, so they disbanded. While Iggy Pop went to rehab and later became a pop star, guitarist James Williamson studied engineering, worked at Advanced Micro Devices, and eventually became a VP at Sony (see "Shake Appeal," May 28, 2010). When mainstay Stooge Ron Asheton died in 2009, Pop re-enlisted Williamson into the band he'd been separated from for more than 35 years.

Austin Chronicle: How are you spending your days?

James Williamson: We just started working on a new album, so a lot of songwriting. There's been various demos I've gone into the studio and done, so when I'm not touring with these guys, which is pretty much what I've been doing all summer, I try to fit in some writing in between.

AC: Anything you can tell us about the album?

JW: It's still at very preliminary stages right now, but it'll be straightforward, old-school Stooges. I don't think people really care about hearing the Stooges doing anything other than what we do best.

AC: During your first tenure with the Stooges, did you ever play massive concerts like ACL?

JW: Not even close. Back in the day, we weren't all that popular, so the largest show I ever played back then might be 2,000 people. It was a pretty big shock for me when I first came back. Our first show was in São Palo, Brazil, for 40,000 people. Wow! It's not that different in a way, because when we're up onstage, our band is pretty nonstop, so if you snooze you lose. You're concentrating so hard on what you're doing that the audience is a bit secondary.

AC: Do you play the same Les Paul now that you did back in the day?

JW: Well, I have the same Les Paul. It's a '67 custom, but I retired it. I played it in São Paulo – that was the last time. It's special and when I take it out on the road it gets beat up and I have a lot of opportunity to lose it and so forth. So I made a replica of it, which is identical, so I use that one a lot on the road. I have a set of guitars in Europe and a set of guitars in the U.S., because we go back and forth so much.

AC: Do you consider yourself a technical player or the kind of guitarist who survives on emotion?

JW: Very much the latter. I'm self-taught for the most part, and I think that's what attracts people to my style of playing. It's unique to me and the songwriting is unique to me because I realized early on that it was easier to play my own stuff than it was to play other people's stuff. Technique-wise, while I can do a lot of my signature things, I can't always do what other people are doing. That's why I'm glad the Stooges are playing all my songs now, because I don't know any other ones.

AC: After the Stooges, how often did you play guitar?

JW: Virtually not at all. It was one of those things where I wanted to make a clean break from music and put my energy into the technology world. I probably did that to such an extreme that my son, when he was in college, wrote an essay called "The Coffin in the Corner" about my guitar case that never got opened. It was actually pretty funny, but I thought to myself, "You're depriving these kids of something you know how to do." So I've made up for it since, and he's learned to play the guitar a bit and enjoys music.

AC: Is there a certain energy you have to tap into in order to connect musically with Iggy Pop?

JW: No, I go back so far with him and we wrote all that music together. We play some of the stuff from the first two albums when I wasn't in the band, but we mostly play Raw Power and Kill City. You can't separate the music from the people who made it. When we do a show, I just know it's going to be very high energy. You can't have any lapses or you drop stuff because the music's going so fast. It's a pretty intense set. I don't have to do anything special except get up and get in the game.

AC: What songs from Fun House and The Stooges do you do?

JW: We do "1970," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "Fun House," and "No Fun."

AC: Those are songs Ron Asheton helped compose. When you're onstage playing those guitar parts, what feeling do you get?

JW: It's certainly a tribute to him. I've never used a wah-wah in my life, but in order to do justice to some of his tunes, I've put one on the pedal board and now I'm starting to use it on new songs, too. I do it in a way that is reminiscent of the way he played.

AC: You were asked to rejoin the Stooges after taking a retirement buyout from Sony, where you were an executive. If the timing wasn't right, would you still have said yes?

JW: It depends what part of my career that happened in. I had a family to raise and there's a lot of different variables that enter into a decision like that. Luckily, I didn't have to make that decision. It just worked out absolutely perfectly.

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