James Williamson has the distinction of having not only played guitar in the Stooges, but serving as a co-writer on all of the songs on their seminal 1973 album, Raw Power. The songs of Raw Power continue to be covered frequently—notable recordings have been done by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses and Ewan McGregor—while Raw Power continues to wind up on "greatest albums of all time" lists on a regular basis.
In the years between his collaborations with Stooges frontman Iggy Pop—he rejoined the Stooges in 2009—Williamson found success working in Silicon Valley. He ultimately developed computer chips before becoming an executive for Sony. After the dissolution of Iggy & the Stooges, Williamson recorded his first solo album, Re-Licked, which included members of the Dead Weather, Primal Scream and the Dead Kennedys. Behind the Shade is his second full-length and will be released June 22 via Leopard Lady Records.
Behind the Shades is the work of James Williamson & the Pink Hearts, a backing band that includes Frank Meyer (the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs) and Petra Haden (the Rentals, the Decemberists). Guitar World spoke to Williamson about Behind the Shades and plenty more in this new interview.
I've read that you started playing guitar based on your appreciation of Elvis. Did you start out learning Elvis songs? What was your first guitar?
Actually, I didn't even own a guitar when I first started getting into Elvis. It was mostly all about how the girls were reacting to him. I figured I needed a guitar and maybe three, four years later I was able to finagle one out of my mom. It was an old Sears Silvertone F hole guitar. I used the angle with my mom that since my uncle worked for Sears he could get us an employee discount. It worked. The only thing was its action was about an inch off the fretboard, so it wasn't the easiest thing to play.
When did you become partial to Les Paul Customs?
By the time I joined the Stooges in 1970, I had owned a number of guitars, including my first electric, which was a White Fender Jaguar. I could play a mean "Pipeline" at this time in my life. A Fender Telecaster and Gibson 335 had come and gone. In my earliest days with The Stooges I was using a Gibson SG. After a few shows it became apparent that the SG just didn't have the right sound.
Iggy had said he knew the owner of the local music store in Ann Arbor, so he and I made a visit. Indeed, they knew each other, but it was hard to say what their relationship was since by the end of the transaction, I had traded my SG, my Jaguar, and some money in exchange for a Cherry Burst Les Paul Custom. This would be the guitar that I played on Raw Power and every subsequent record up until Behind the Shade. A few years ago I donated it to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum.
So many guitarists have attempted to copy your tone from the Raw Power era of the Stooges. Did you have that tone in mind when you were writing the songs?
No. I had developed my style and sound by just learning and playing my guitar mostly alone. As a teen, I used the guitar as an emotional outlet and almost as soon as I could play, I focused on writing my own songs. I figured it would be much easier to write my own songs than to learn somebody else's. So my guitar tone on Raw Power and everything else is essentially how I play.
Your guitar tone is very raw, yet your post-Stooges career included working on highly technological, audiophile-friendly projects. Did working with computers change the kind of gear you favor when playing?
Not really. For most things, I still play the same type of rig I used on Raw Power—a Sixties Vox AC 30 top boost Amp and my Cherry Burst Les Paul Custom. I occasionally play other amp/guitar combinations but not all that much. I stick with the sound that people want to hear from me.
Raw Power took a long time to catch on, and ultimately inspired members of Nirvana, the Smiths, the Sex Pistols and Motley Crue. When did you start to realize that the album was meaningful despite its lack of immediate commercial success?
It started with the Internet, as writers begun to be able to track me down for interviews. They would tell me how important it was. Then commercials started happening and bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns' N’ Roses started doing covers, etc. By the time I reunited with the Stooges in 2009 we were playing 40,000-seaters as headliners and [to over] 300,000 people at festivals.
Re-Licked, from 2014, was your first ever solo album, and it had a lot of notable musicians on it. Had you attempted to make a solo album in the past?
No. Re-licked was my first solo album. It was really more of a tribute to the songwriting that Iggy and I had done right after Raw Power in the hopes that we would be able to make a second album for Columbia. Of course, that didn't materialize, and after all of those years had passed, I wondered what the material would sound like if recorded properly. The variety of different singers on Re-Licked gave it almost a tribute-like dimension.
Behind the Shade is your new album, in which you are backed by the Pink Hearts. Had you worked with Petra or Frank before recording Behind the Shade?
On my last full-length solo album Re-Licked, I had around 14 guest singers altogether. Of course, with that many singers, it's impossible to tour. However, when we were asked to tape a couple of episodes of The Carson Daily Show, a number of the singers came to L.A. for the taping. And since they were already going to be in town, I asked them if they would like to do a live show. Even with that, I was short quite a few, so Cheetah Chrome suggested I use Frank Meyer. I asked Frank to do “Sick of You” and was impressed with not only his singing but with his stage presence as well.
I’ve been aware of Petra’s work since around 2013 ,when I was looking for a backing singer for the final Stooges album, Ready to Die. Our mutual friend Mike Watt suggested that I listen to Petra's a cappella album of The Who Sell Out. I was impressed. I met with her and became more impressed as time went on. She did some amazing vocals on “The Departed” for Ready to Die and other tracks. From there, I did a single with her on lead vocals to raise funds for animal rescue, and I also enlisted her to great effect on my release last year with Deniz Tek, Acoustic K.O. I've only been talking about her voice—her violin playing is also incredible!
I have long been a huge fan of her father's work, so it has been an honor to get to work with one of Charlie Haden’s daughters, who is a monster in her own right.
Do you have a favorite song on Behind the Shade?
Honestly, I love them all. I couldn't be happier with this album. At first, I had a few which were my favorites but as I've listened more, I've become so enamored with them all that I can't pick a favorite.
Finally, James, any last words for the kids?
Once you figure out what you love, do it no matter what that means. Play for fun, not for money—if both come your way, all the better.