Iggy & the Stooges’ James Williamson: from rocker to executive and back again

Iggy & the Stooges from left: James Williamson, Iggy Pop and Scott Asheton

Iggy & the Stooges from left: James Williamson, Iggy Pop and Scott Asheton

By Caroline Fontein

NOTE:The Iggy and the Stooges performance scheduled for Sept. 10 was cancelled due to a foot fracture Iggy Pop sustained while performing in Romania. The new show date for Vegas has not yet been scheduled.

James Williamson’s career as a musician has come full circle. Back in the 1970s he was a guitar player for the punk rock group Iggy & The Stooges. The group was known for their outrageous stage performances especially by frontman Iggy Pop. In 1972 they released “Raw Power,” showcasing the band’s avant-garde sound and Williamson’s bold riffs and songwriting. Now considered to be a milestone in punk rock music, the album was not an initial success.

By the 1980s Williamson had his sights set on something other than being a musician. He put down his guitar to pursue a career in computers. He enrolled in California State Polytechnic to study electric engineering.  After graduating Williamson took a job in the electronics field. He got married, had kids and landed a job at Sony Electronics in 1997. Williamson worked his way up the corporate ladder eventually earning the title of vice president of technology standards. His days of performing in a rock ’n’ roll band were long gone.

Fast forward to 2009 and Williamson is on the verge of taking an early retirement from Sony. Then he gets a call from Pop about rejoining the band. More than 20 years later Williamson, is back with a guitar in hand, reclaiming his role as a Stooge. The band’s reformation came at a good time. In 2010 Iggy & The Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Along with Pop and Willamson the band’s lineup includes Scott Asheton, Mike Watt and Steve Mackay. The group is currently on tour performing to old fans who remember the Stooges from back in the day and new ones who want to see where some of the punk rock sounds as we know it today all started.

VEGAS.com had a chance to talk to Williamson about his upcoming show in Vegas on Sept. 10 at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and what it was like transitioning from his life as an executive into being a Stooge.

Q. What can audiences expect to hear from Iggy & The Stooges at your upcoming show in Las Vegas?
A. “I’m not exactly sure what we’ll end up with. We generally play a lot of the songs on “Raw Power.”  We play a lot of songs from “Kill City.” We play a few songs that have never been properly released that are on bootlegs and things like that, and then some of the material from the first two albums. It’s quite a wide breadth of material, but it works very well.”

You have a dynamic background as both a musician and an executive for Sony. What was it that made you decide to rejoin Iggy and the Stooges back in 2009?
“We (Iggy and the Stooges) go back a really long way to our 20s… It was pretty apparent that they needed me to come back because it’s hard to have a band called the Stooges if you don’t have any Stooges. I was in the process of taking an early retirement from Sony anyways. So, the timing was very good for me, and I felt like I owed it to these guys to do it. The only problem was that I didn’t know if I could actually play guitar good enough to do it because I hadn’t been playing. It turned out I had enough time to get all that together. I worked very hard at it. It all came back, and fortunately everything worked out great.”

Along with practicing playing the guitar what did you have to do to make the transition from working as an executive in a corporate environment to performing with a band in front of a live audience?
“It was a little bit like whiplash. I joked that I was kind of like Spiderman for a while there because Sony hired me as a consultant. So, during the day I would be doing consulting work for them, and during the night I would be playing with the Stooges. ”

 What that intimidating at all for you?
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t so much. I learned along the way in life really that if you’re really prepared, well then you’re not so nervous because you know what you know, and you can do things better. But, even with that said, it is a little bit intimidating. The Stooges’ show is very, very intense and if you snooze you lose. You cannot lose concentration at all or you’re lost. That’s a little bit stressful, but we did fine. Of course now, we’ve done it so much that I’m pretty used to it.”

Did any of your co-workers know that you had performed in the band when you were younger?
“Not really. No. Working in the electronics field wasn’t applicable much to people. Very few people did know for most of my career, but slowly a writer here and a writer there would find me. Then of course as the internet started happening it became easier and easier to track people down. So slowly people started to find out. I couldn’t hide anymore. At first, it usually shocks people who have worked with me for a long time, but then once they get used to it they like the idea. It’s all fine. I guess I’ve spent a lot of my life just trying to be normal, but it gets harder and harder.”

Iggy and The Stooges

What about your family?
“My family, of course they’ve always known about it. I met my wife in L.A. at a Stooges show. She used to work at Warner Records so she had seen us back in the day. My kids, I always used to make comments to them about, ‘hey I’m the one that developed that style,’ and they were always going, ‘Yeah sure dad, whatever.’ But finally now they can see us play, and I think it’s a source of pride for them. ”

While you were working at Sony was music still something that you thought about?
“I really didn’t. The music business is actually a pretty lousy business. I never really had ever considered going back into the music business. Sony was a great place to work. Sony is very diversified… I was able to interact with a lot of different [music] groups at Sony and saw part of what they were doing, but I had no intention of going back into it personally. Things change, and I got the opportunity and took it. Now I’m enjoying it. Fortunately, for us (Iggy & the Stooges) we have enough name recognition that we can do this fairly easily and comfortably. When I see young musicians out there and how they struggle it just reminds me of how tough it really is.”
Your albums “Raw Power (1973)” is now considered to be a pivotal album in punk rock. What were you and the band trying to do with your music when you created that album?
” Then the material was all new. It was stuff that Iggy and I wrote over there. It was what we did though. It was what we considered to be good music. The thing about it is that we were so delusional we actually thought we were writing hit songs at the time. It couldn’t be further from the truth. It took like 35 years for that record to go platinum, but it was a success. It just took a really long time.”

What do you think it is about “Raw Power” that eventually made it a success?
“I think Iggy used the term, there wasn’t any vocabulary for that music at the time, and maybe that sums it up… When it first came out the sound was so different from anything else out there that people didn’t know how to relate to it… Over the years as more and more people imitated the approach, it became more familiar to people. Now a lot of the younger people are coming to see us. They’re buying the records because we’re almost like an old blues band were you go to see Muddy Waters because he was the original guy. Now the Stooges are kind of the original guys that did that stuff. Young people want authentic music. So that’s why they’re attracted to it.”

Have you given any thought to writing new music?
“Yes. We are in the process of doing that. The trouble is that we’re touring so much that we have to find gaps where we can do that. We have several things that we’ve been working on, and we’re going to do some more when we get off tour. It’s hard to say what we’re going to do with them at this point. It’s a little too early, but the plan is to get some stuff out there. I think people want more material and frankly, we want to play new material too. You can only play the same stuff for so long. The Beach Boys excluded, most bands don’t like play the same stuff all the time.”

What was it like for you to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010?
“It was really, really gratifying. I think that all of us had almost given up on getting that kind of recognition from the mainstream industry. That was the seventh time that the Stooges had been up for that, and it got voted down every time. After eight times we would have to take pride in setting a record for being nominated without getting in, but we did get in. I think everybody takes a lot of pride in that. It’s vindication really because it had been so long, so many years with not being able to sell any records and not being able to get any recognition for what we had done… Finally the industry couldn’t ignore us anymore.”

What is performing live like for you now versus when you performing back in the ’70s?
“First of all, we’re much, much more professional. Back in the ’70s, you never knew what you were going to get, and that’s if we showed up. We didn’t show up all the time either. Back in the 70s maybe we were ADD or something, but we would get bored very easily. We would continuously write new music and then play that instead of playing stuff off the record. So people who came to see us never knew what they were going to hear, and they didn’t know the songs they were hearing. It left a lot to be desired as an entertainer, but now everyone knows the songs.”