With one of the Gibson Les Paul Customs he typically favors, James Williamson takes the stage as a Stooge during the band’s last run of performances. Although his preferred amp is a Vox AC30, he’s flanked here by two stacks of Blackstars. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
As someone who’s had a career as a major player in the tech industry and a career as a producer, I find it interesting that you still favor such simple, vintage-style gear—especially considering the renaissance we’re going through with digital signal processing. Do you have an opinion on all of the DSP-based guitar tech coming out these days?
I try to continue using the things that are already working and have a quality I like to them, and I try to use newer things in the places that stuff comes up short. For example, I came up in the era of tape, and tape was a bitch. You’re there with a razorblade all night long editing and it’s a mess, and it’s noisy, and it was no fun to work with … but it was all we had. I think it’s so wonderful to have digital editing. It’s a completely new world that I didn’t have access to back in the day, so I love digital editing. But ... there are things about tape that are wonderful, particularly the kind of compression tape gets that you really just can’t get in the digital medium. There’s stuff that comes close, but you can always hear it if you really know what tape sounds like. It doesn’t always matter, especially if you’re making music for people that listen to nothing but MP3s, but if you’re making music for yourself—which is what I do—or for people that really pay attention to it, you want to make it as good as possible. And I think tape and the sounds of the ’70s, in general, are hard to beat. So I use stuff like Neve 1073 preamps and EQs, and the sounds I grew up with.
This album’s guitars have a lot of very thick tones, but it doesn’t sound heavily layered. Do you have a specific approach to tracking those chunky rhythm guitars?
Williamson: Yeah! I’ve developed a blend of stuff that seems to work well for me, even though a lot of guys see my setup and go, “Wow, man! Who set this up, because it must be phase city?” That’s because I use multiple mics on my amp: One is a Sennheiser and the other is Unidyne’s early version of an SM57. I’ll blend them until I get the tone I’m looking for, which can be thick thanks to some of those mics, but I also try to keep a really crisp high on top of it. It’s usually just one guitar track that’s feeding several mics. Sometimes I’ll doubletrack a guitar part, and because it’s me, I can get it pretty spot on when I play it again. But a lot of it is mics.
Which tracks on this album are in open tunings and which tunings are you using?
“Pink Hearts Across the Sky” and “Destiny Now” are, surprisingly for me, open G, which is something I don’t normally use because everything you play sounds like Keith Richards. I normally prefer open C, because I used it back in the day and not many people used it, and I think it sounds great. “No Sense of Crime” [from 1977’s Kill City] and some other older songs of mine are in open C. Live, I use a Telecaster for those tracks, but on the record, it’s a Tele, a Les Paul, and a Martin acoustic.
The acoustic guitar has played a major role in your sound over the years—especially in getting the layered textures that really filled up some of the iconic Stooges tracks like “Gimme Danger.” I understand you wrote all of those tunes on an old Gibson B-25, which are extremely underrated guitars. Do you still have that guitar and could you describe it?
Yeah, that’s correct. It was a ’70s model in natural. It’s at the Rock Hall with the Leopard Lady Les Paul now. I got that guitar when I first went over to London, and this one was actually kind of crappy. It had that adjustable bridge. I don’t know why they put those on there, but I swapped it for a fixed bridge and it sounded a lot better. I wrote a lot of those songs with it. We lived in a Mews house, which had shared walls, and you can’t rock out in that situation, so I could work out the details of songs with that, and it also allows you to really hear the notes a lot better. You get the purity of the notes and you know fast if you have it or you don’t. I’ve very rarely written on an electric guitar since.
Do you have a preferred version of the Raw Power mixes between Bowie’s original and Iggy’s 1996 remix for the deluxe reissue?
Hands down, I much prefer Bowie’s mix—really just because it’s the original. With all of its flaws and even despite Bowie’s artsy stamp and all that, it’s still the one everybody knows. You can’t change that or its place in time. There are technical reasons why that mix happened that way. And Iggy’s thing was kind of just ham-handed: put up all the faders and make it loud! There was a lot of digital distortion in that mix and it just didn’t work for me, but what it did do was get the album reissued, because it was out-of-print when he did that, so there’s a silver lining.
James Williamson fulfills his iconic role in the Stooges, backing up Iggy Pop with his Leopard Lady Les Paul onstage during the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2010. And yes, that’s Mike Watt playing bass!