Williamson’s new post-Pop band, the Pink Hearts, also includes Petra Haden on vocals and violin, and vocalist-guitarist Frank Meyer of L.A. punk band the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs. Photo by Heather Harris
James Williamson’s simple, violent rhythm work, searing leads, and iconic raunchy distortion on “Search and Destroy”—and all of the Stooges’ Raw Power—helped light the fuse and inform the sound of the punk rock revolution as it was ripe to explode. Williamson’s guitar work on Raw Power is imprinted within punk rock’s very DNA, from the records coming out of New York City in the early ’70s to the British class of ’77.
James R. Williamson was tasked with guitar and co-songwriting duties in the Stooges after the band’s original guitarist, Ron Asheton, was relegated from guitar to bass amid the incredible turbulence that characterized the Stooges’ world in the early ’70s. From the visceral guitar assault of tracks like “Search and Destroy” to the moody riffs of “Gimme Danger” to the psychedelic meanderings of “I Need Somebody,” Williamson’s 6-string is the true bedrock of Raw Power, and there is no doubt that his contributions to that highly influential album will continue to echo through the lexicon of guitar music for decades to come.
Williamson’s post-Stooges tale is nearly as compelling as that of the band’s own debauched early-’70s trip. The Stooges disbanded for the second and final time of their initial run in 1974—destitute, drug-addled, and in a state of obscurity following a failed attempt by David Bowie to help them break out in England.
In a stranger-than-fiction twist, the former guitarist of one of the most untamable bands of all time returned to the States to study electrical engineering and eventually re-emerged as a fixture in Silicon Valley, where he designed products around microchips when that technology was in its infancy. Williamson’s years in the tech world would prove to be tremendously fruitful and led to an executive role at Sony as the vice president of technological standards. He was heavily involved in developing Blu-ray data storage.
However, it’s no secret that the music-performance bug is an affliction few ever truly kill. Sony offered Williamson an early retirement package in 2009, the same year that Ron Asheton—who’d returned to the resuscitated Stooges’ guitar chair—died. Iggy Pop recognized an opportunity to finally celebrate the posthumous canonization of the Williamson-era Stooges and invited the guitarist back into the band for a whirlwind second life of touring. The group performed to massive generation-spanning audiences at major festivals, and even released a new album, 2013’s Ready to Die.
Williamson and Pop have since parted ways again, but Williamson’s second coming as a Stooge gave birth to a solo career and, now, a new band called James Williamson and the Pink Hearts, which features singer, frontman, and co-writer Frank Meyer (of the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs), as well as singer Petra Haden. Their debut is the excellent Behind the Shade, which has its share of the high-octane rock ’n’ roll Williamson is best known for, but also shines a light on the facets of his songcraft that exist beyond the bombast of proto-punk. Juxtaposed against the album’s rock ragers like “Riot on the Strip” are alt-country ballads (“Pink Hearts Across the Sky”) and blue-eyed soul stompers (“You Send Me Down”). Above all, it shows a graceful evolution for the guitarist that nods plenty to the piss and vinegar of his past, but does not attempt to repeat it.
When PG spoke with Williamson, we delved deep into the often-overlooked ex-Stooge’s guitar world, discussed the recording of his killer new album and the gear he used to cop his inimitable guitar sound back in the day, and why he’s still an analog man during the digital revolution, despite his experience in the tech industry.
Your career as a guitarist—especially with the Stooges—is littered with unique, song-defining riffs. Do you think in terms of riffs, or do you look to the bigger picture of the song?
You know, it’s kind of the same thing to me. I think riffs are probably more an artifact of the way I go about writing a song, because a riff really is what comes up first. If I can’t come up with something that I consider interesting, which is almost always a riff, then I don’t pursue the song further. As a song progresses and develops—usually once I’m working with a singer—I start thinking in terms of structure and filling it out, but it mostly comes from riffs.
I’ve always felt like the same kid I was when I was sitting in my room trying to work stuff out on a guitar and using it solely as an emotional outlet, and I think that’s probably what people like about it. I was self-taught, for the most part—aside from an early lesson or two—and I pretty much just made stuff up from the very beginning. Part of it was that learning some of the guitar stuff I liked when I started was too difficult for me, so I just started making stuff up and I got better and better at it, and pretty soon I was in a band and had a place to play my stuff. People seemed to like it, so that was that.
I know you’re a blues fan and particularly big on Mike Bloomfield. Could you explain where the blues and Bloomfield come into your world as a guitarist?
When I was growing up, the British Invasion really overwhelmed everything else for us kids. I was maybe 15 at the time and all the girls were screaming about those bands. Therefore we were all interested in it.
TIDBIT: Although Williamson usually cuts tracks with the same rig he plays live, a Les Paul run through a Vox AC30, he also played a Telecaster and used an old Silvertone 1484 amp on Behind the Shade.
The blues came along a little bit later for us and the people that originally made it were finally being acknowledged as being the real innovators. The guys we looked up to, like the Stones, started acknowledging the blues guys that they’d been ripping off, so the original blues players became the real guys for us, rather than the English dudes playing their music and popularizing it. It was a period of discovery for a bunch of us, and certainly Paul Butterfield was the most accessible initially for us white kids for obvious cultural reasons at the time. I hadn’t discovered the deep guys like Howlin’ Wolf or anyone like that yet, but Bloomfield with Butterfield really brought the blues to white kids. Of course, Bloomfield’s style of playing was really so original, so he was someone important to me. I had to learn “Born in Chicago” and all of those songs, and I forget about him sometimes, but he was an amazing player and certainly very innovative.
Really, that same story fits the Stooges in a lot of ways. The posthumous popularity that we achieved is not far from what happened to the original blues players. We were never popular back in the day, and we actually broke up the final initial time because we just couldn’t make a living doing it. So the popularity that we eventually achieved came because the kids were listening to bands we had influenced, and then realized that they weren’t necessarily the real guys and that we were. When we reunited, the audience was full of twentysomethings, and I think it was exactly the same effect.
For every punk band that was influenced by “Search and Destroy,” there’s a player who was inspired by the way you play nuanced rhythm parts with melodies hidden in them, like in “Gimme Danger.” Guys like Johnny Marr, for example.
Yeah, and I must say that Johnny’s a really nice guy, by the way. The thing that I’m happy to hear is that you get that side of my playing. The thing that I think this album really displays is that side of my playing. For every “Raw Power” or “Search and Destroy,” there was a “Gimme Danger” or “I Need Somebody,” and I really focused on putting more of those types of songs into this album than I ever did back then. When you have a singer like Iggy Pop, who is so aggressive—though he can obviously croon—you have to do more uptempo things because they work really well with his thing. With Frank [Meyer] and Petra [Haden], you can give them just about anything for a guitar part and they’ll make a silk purse out of it because of how good they are with melodies.