James Williamson Talks Iggy and the Stooges' Enduring Legacy, Issues Riot Fest Challenge to the Replacements

James Williamson Talks Iggy and the Stooges' Enduring Legacy, Issues Riot Fest Challenge to the Replacements
Affable guitarist James Williamson says he's excited about playing in Toronto this Sunday (August 25) for Riot Fest, but he's a bit puzzled about why his band, Iggy and the Stooges, are the penultimate act, just before the much-hyped, quasi-reunited Replacements, who are headlining.

"I do have to say, good luck to the Replacements on following us," Williamson tells Exclaim! over the phone from his home in California. "I mean, I don't know. We'll see?

"We're playing really well. As our sound guy says, 'The last 20 shows were top 10.'"

Williamson reunited with Iggy Pop in 2009 when guitarist Ron Asheton passed away not long after the Stooges started working together again. He made his biggest mark honing a blistering, much-emulated guitar sound and co-writing songs with Pop on their 1973 classic LP, Raw Power. The two eventually had an acrimonious parting and lost touch for almost 35 years.

In that time, Williamson says he never touched a guitar, instead concentrating on earning an electronic engineering degree and pursuing a successful career working for Sony. In fact, on September 28, he's giving the keynote address at the C2SV Technology Conference and Music Festival in Silicon Valley and in February, he'll be inducted into the Engineering Hall of Fame. Not bad for a proto-punk rocker.

"I think I may actually be the only holder of two hall of fames — one rock'n'roll, one engineering," he chuckles. "I was pretty astonished to get that letter because I'm not sure what I did exactly to deserve that. I'm not turning it down."

Earlier this year, Iggy and the Stooges released Ready to Die, their first LP under that banner in 40 years, with Williamson writing and producing. This followed 2007's The Weirdness by the Stooges, which was almost universally panned. Williamson was not on that record and is initially cagey about sharing his opinion of it.

"Well, I'm not going to comment on that," he says, laughing. "I think it's a sore subject. I wasn't there and I can't speak to it, but Iggy's a strong individual and if you're gonna sign up to be his producer, you better be strong too. And in the case of The Weirdness, it's not clear to me that the producer was strong enough — let's put it that way."

In this case, "the producer" was engineer Steve Albini who, despite being famously opinionated, generally doesn't "produce" records, as much as capture sounds in a particularly excellent manner, ideally letting his clients dictate what they want the end result to be. So, if that was the case here, then really it was the band themselves that produced The Weirdness.

"Right, that's also problematic," Williamson laughs. "It is what it is and let's just say I'm quite proud of the record that we did."

Williamson says he wasn't wary of messing with the band's legacy with Ready to Die or living up to fan expectations for Raw Power II. He just wanted the record to reflect the actual live sound of Iggy and the Stooges.

"The album is fresh and there's lots of topical material like we did on Raw Power," he says. "Like, 'Search and Destroy' was about the Vietnam War and here, we cover gun control, big tits, sex and money, and all sorts of stuff. I think Iggy stepped up with his lyrics and vocals and I put the big guitars on there. So, I'm happy with the result."

As for playing live, Williamson acknowledges that the grind of playing shows can be draining, even for the seemingly ageless, perpetually shirtless, sinewy Iggy Pop.

"Nobody that I know, at his age, would be able to do that," he marvels. "It's just something that he's got inside of him. Iggy has always been this way; he will literally do anything to go over with an audience. He has some really deep need for the approval of the audience.

"You'll see this in shows; when things aren't going well or the audience isn't as responsive as it should be, stuff starts happening. He starts throwing stuff and diving into the crowd and doing whatever he has to do. So, yes, that takes its toll. He's feeling it, no doubt about it. He does seem pretty superhuman most of the time but the real Jim Osterberg is as human as the rest of us."

So, any parting words for the Replacements before Riot Fest?

"Bring it on boys!" Williamson exclaims, with a huge laugh.

Listen to this conversation with James Williamson on the Kreative Kontrol with Vish Khanna podcast.