The Portrait Of Creative Convergence

Friday, 27 September 2013

It may have taken forty years, but Iggy and The Stooges guitarist James Williamson is finally able to see and accept the idea that his career is an impressive entity very deserving of praise. That such a discovery has only become apparent to the guitarist now might seem surprising, but even more unbelievable is the fact that the point finally hit home because of an event which, on the surface, might appear unrelated: on September 28, 2013 Williamson will deliver the keynote music address at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) Technology Conference and Music Festival at noon before he performs with Iggy and The Stooges at St. James Park later that evening.

The combination of those two events – the speaking engagement and the performance – will simultaneously give the guitarist respect and acknowledgement for the two sides of his career which, until recently, seemed to run independently of each other. While it's true that James Williamson first garnered notice as the guitarist for Iggy and The Stooges, the lesser-known part of Williamson's story is that, after The Stooges broke down in 1974, he obtained a degree in electronics engineering from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and, by 1982, had climbed the corporate ladder to the position of Vice President of Technology Standards for Sony.

His roles as the guitarist for one of the most influential bands in rock history and as a self-professed “tech geek” are why Williamson is the perfect speaker for C2SV; he embodies the concept of “creative convergence,” the term for which C2 stands. Even so, that doesn't mean he isn't still a bit modest when it comes to acknowledging his own achievements. In conversation, Williamson is perfectly affable and candid when conversation turns to his roles both as the keynote speaker at C2SV and as guitarist for Iggy and The Stooges, but he also regularly downplays any compliments that he might receive with good humor. In that way, he proves yet again to be the ideal candidate for the role of being the keynote speaker for this festival.
Bill Adams vs. James Williamson of Iggy and The Stooges

JW: Hello?

BA: Hello may I speak to James Williamson please?

JW: Yeah, hi! How are you doing, Bill?

BA: Oh, I'm
doing pretty well, how are things on your end James? You're about to give the keynote address at a conference which really seems to be geared toward all the things you've done in your career!

JW: It really does seem that way doesn't it! [chuckling] I don't know how that happened exactly – other than the fact that I'm the local boy so it would be pretty easy to get me here – but it looked pretty interesting to me. They've been doing the conference for the last couple of years and modelled it in the vein of South By Southwest. They approached me a few months back to see if they could get The Stooges to come and play the festival. We went back and forth with it and it ended up working with our schedule because we were playing a couple of Riot Fests before we were done, and then this performance would be our last one for the year.

BA: Oh really? This is the capper on the year?

JW: Yeah, this is the last one of the season. We're old Bill, we only play when it's warm [both laughing].

BA: Oh wow. See, that it's sort of the end of the year is sort of cool though because, with all the research that I did, your involvement with this festival makes perfect sense because everything about this festival could tie in very easily with the different things that you've done in the music business in your life.

JW: In a way, it really does, and I think that's one of the reasons they wanted me to speak at it. I was sort of a natural choice because, between working as a guitarist and working on the tech side and also having worked at Sony, I've really had my foot in both worlds for most of my career.I'm really flattered that they would have me do it and I'm looking forward to it, now all I have to do is make sure that what I say is interesting [chuckling].

BA: Well, I mean, that's already sort of set – isn't it? I mean, at least theoretically, the feynote speaker sort of sums up and personifies what the festival is all about – I think.

JW: Normally at a conference, I'd say you're right; there's usually one keynote, and he's the guy who sets the tone for the whole thing but, in this case, I think there are a few keynotes. In that way, I think they're using the term a little more loosely because I know they've got a couple of technology people who are talking too. In my case, I just came off a show in Toronto and I'm leaving for Denver tomorrow, so I really didn't have the luxury of being able to prepare a full speech or anything like that. Because of the timing, what's going to happen is more of a conversation that's going to happen; we've got a moderator who's coming in that's familiar with my background and we'll discuss different things and developments which have happened or that I've done throughout my career.

BA: Right. And as far as the “creative convergence” angle of the conference goes, I'd say you're the idea guy to get to speak. I mean, you're a guitar player of course, but you have been present and active in the other side of the business for quite a while – whether it was at Sony or otherwise. I wasn't trying to be trite when I said it, this conference really does seem to be geared geared toward your combined skill sets.

JW: It certainly does fit naturally, so I'm looking forward to it. I hope they can draw the people who do appreciate it. I've been in the technology world and one of the reasons I never really talked about being in The Stooges much was because not every nerd knows who The Stooges are [laughing]. That said, I'm hoping that we'll be able to draw some people from both communities so that everyone will at least have a bit of context for what we're talking about. I guess we'll see how it goes.

BA: I can appreciate what you're saying. Now, as far as 'how it's going to go' does indeed go, of course The Stooges are also playing the conference as well as I wanted to ask a bit about that too. You've got Ready To Die out now, and I really wanted to say congratulations on the release. It's a great record man.

JW: Well thank you! I'm really happy to hear that. Whenever you release a record – especially with The Stooges' name attached – it's impossible to make everybody happy, but it's good to hear that it has been well-received; I like it – we like it – so I'm always happy when I hear that other people do too.

BA: I can understand what you're saying as far as not being able to make everybody happy goes. I mean, Iggy and The Stooges had a whole lot of history behind just one album, really. So how did this one come together? Was it a matter of everyone in the band sitting down and discussing what possibilities there could be?

JW: Well, not exactly. I mean, Iggy and I write the music so it's really down to us as far as what we want to do. We kind of had a couple of diferent viewpoints on what should happen with Ready To Die; I mean, Iggy has been in this industry continuously and he's had the gamut of different releases: he's had some really big hits and some really big flops. Even with that said though, he ws pretty sure that everyone was going to judge this album against Raw Power. Of course people were going to do that, but I was more inclined to think that people would judge it against the band as it exists now – I hoped they would, anyway. In those terms, I think we succeeded, definitely; I think we made an album that sounded like us and that's really all I wanted to do. The last album that they tried to make with Ronnie in the band, I don't think it sounded like The Stooges – to be honest, I don't know what it sounded like, but it just didn't come across. Because I thought the last one was sort of lacking, my goal as producer and as songwriter was to make stuff that sounded like we had written it and sounded like us as we are now. I think the album PLAYS nicely from front to back; as producer, I had to listen to it continuously from front to back, and I found that I never got tired of it which is a really important signal that there's something to these tunes, I think.

BA: I see what you're saying, and can totally understand your view. I mean, I'm 34 years old and can say that I've been listening to Raw Power not just for my entire adult life, but my entire life in general.

JW: [laughing] Well, I'd say that's a pretty good baseline for it.

BA: I thought so. Okay, so, it shows up and before I even put it on, I started thinking about it. I happen to agree with you as well that The Weirdness was really just okay; it wasn't awesome, it was just sort of another album where everyone expecting it was expecting an incredible event. This one is an event though; listening to this versus Raw Power, it didn't sound like anywhere near as much time had lapsed since the release of Raw Power – it had a similar kind of energy.

JW: That was the goal. The goal was to make Ready To Die was a contemporary work to Raw Power; we didn't want to sound like a bunch of old guys – we didn't write the songs FEELING like a bunch of old guys, necessarily – we just made it the way we thought sounded good.

BA: So how has it been received live?

JW: Very well. We run four or five of the songs in the live set now, and they really do fit seamlessly with the other body of work, and that's what really the key that tells you, 'This isn't just some isolated Stooges effort, this is part of the continuum of stuff that we've done.' I find that, in putting the new songs in as we have, it really livens the set up a great deal. I mean, I love the old songs and all, but nobody wants to just go up and be a jukebox on stage, you want to have some life in your set.

BA: So what's going to happen now? I mean, as you were saying, the band is coming up on its own year end, so what's next? Is Iggy and The Stooges still a creative outlet? Or is the thought process to the effect of, 'Okay, we did it. We proved we could, now let's get on with our lives?'

JW: I really don't know. I mean, Iggy and I are coming from two completely different places; he's been doing this continually over a pretty incredible period of time. I mean, how many albums has he made? Forty? I'm not sure of the exact number of albums he's made but I know it's large; whereas I've made four. That said, I feel like I've got a lot of music left in me – in fact I'm working on a little single project  right now with a singer from Austin, TX – and the desire to work more, so I'll continue to do that; it's not the end of the creative process for me. Whether or not we do any more Stooges albums us TBD; we take it a year at a time at this point, and we're probably going to take next year off. From there, well, Iggy's going to be sixty-seven years old by then, so the question has to become, 'Do we want to do this anymore?' Like think about it; what must it be like for him to be stage diving like he does every night at his age? Or any of the other stuff he does; no raional person would be doing that.

BA: Well, I was thinking that when I saw The Stooges play in the park in Toronto. I couldn't imagine that he'd long-jump that barricade between him and the crowd, but he did.

JW: Of course he did! Half the time we tell him not to too – but telling him not to just guarantees that he will. For sure. [laughing] Because of that, we ask ourselves every season if we want to do it again, but we already know the answer. Because we do already know the answer, we have to look at it a little more critically than that; not 'Should we?' but 'CAN we?' We can still bring it, and I'd put us up against any band at any age right now; but no one wants to be too old to rock anymore, but I think some bands are. Like, I think The Stones are too old to rock now, if you ask me. I saw the band on their last tour, and Keith can't even play anymore and Ron Wood kinda never could [chuckling]. Mick's still okay, but they can't really hold a song together anymore and I don't want to hold on so long that we're in that position where you're sort of a parody of yourself and people are just making fun of you. It's hard enough to do this as it is, but I don't want to do it like it's a joke or become Herman's Hermits.

BA: I can understand that and, I mean, Iggy has already dodged that bullet a few times. There was that period in the Eighties when he really did look like he was going to become a parody of himself, but then in the mid-Nineties he bounced back and started making what I consider to be music that matters again.

JW: That's exactly right I think; he got The Stooges back together and started really working again, and started making music which was relevant to people again. I think you're absolutely right in that, if he goes too far off of that, then he will end up doing the self-parody thing and that'll be the end of it. That would be too bad and I really hope that doesn't happen; I'd rather go out at a point where people still want to hear you instead of going out at a point where people really doin't want to hear you.

BA: Well, what's that old adage? You always wanna leave 'em wanting more, right?

JW: Yeah – that's it.

BA: And you know? I think he's at a point where he's surrounded himself with the right guys to do it; I know Mike Watt's living a dream getting to play with The Stooges….

JW: That's very true. Watt very enthusiastic and he's fun to be around in that regard; he works hard and he's happy to be doing it – it's fun every show for him.

BA: So what is The Stooges for you now? I mean, you moved on and got on with your life for thirty years after The Stooges broke down the first time. It stands to reason that you came back because you wanted to, would you keep running with it now if you had the option?

JW: I don't know. Like I was saying, we're four years into this now, and I can't explain how gratifying it has been, really. All of these wonderful things have happened – the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame happened, the adulation from the crowds is there and it's fantastic how far it has gone from the days when nobody wanted to hear us play and we weren't selling any records; now we're playing to incredible crowds and we're selling lots of records. Because of that, I'm very satisfied with having made the decision to come back and play because it's fun to play and we can do all these victory laps. That said, I'm going to be sixty-four this year, I have a granddaughter now and my own family, and it's nice that we're in the position where we don't have to be on the road all the time. It's still a balancing act, but I think we've got it set pretty well; we don't do an exhausting number of shows every year and I think that if we keep going, you'll see us do progressively fewer and fewer, but as long as we sound good and people still want to hear us, I don't think any of us is interested in outright quitting.

BA: That's valid. As far as the adulation and respect goes, that seems to be an ongoing trend for you lately. I was reading somewhere that, in addition to holding a rock n' roll hall of fame award, you also hold an engineering hall of fame award.

JW: Yeah! That's a new development! That just came up – I haven't ever received it yet – but there's a ceremony happening next February where I'll have to get up and accept the award, but I'm already in. I was astonished, to be honest, because I'm not even sure how or why I got it [laughing]. I'm really happy to have won that award though, and I'm pretty sure I must the only person in the world with both those awards [chuckling].

BA: No doubt, but it must feel good too because all these accolades are just getting piled on top, and it's looking awfully good to be James Williamson at this point because, as celebrated as the band you're in is, some of these accolades are specifically for acheivements you've got beyond the band too.

JW: I'm no complaining, that's for sure. I mean, those are just awards, but they're symbols of things I've accomplished, and it's nice to be able to tell my granddaughter about these things I did and have the things which show I did them [chuckling]. By the same token, what has been really fun to do is break out all these songs that I helped to write, and see kids in their twenties dig them so much when we play them live.

BA: I can appreciate that. I mean, I'm thirty-four years old as I say, but I remember seeing The Stooges play that park in Toronto and watched a kid who couldn't have been more than fifteen years old singing every single word to the songs from Raw Power in front of me!

JW: Yeah! And you know? That's everywhere, all over the world, and it's really cool to see that. For the longest time, I didn't think that we were successful at all and, while we liked what we were doing, there was only a handful of other people who really dug it so, to see that happen now is really, really quite amazing. That said, we've seen how relevant we are or were with Raw Power, and making Ready To Die was really our effort to continue to be relevant, and I feel like we did it. I think the songs are great and the lyrics are topical; we covered gun control and sex and money and sick kids and all the kinds of things which are current and really hot-button topics right now. I feel good about that.

BA: Absolutely – and people can identify with it! A song like “Job” in the state of Michigan? I'd bet it feels good to be able to inhabit that kind of mindset if you can. I think it's great, and it's one of the reasons why I asked if there was the chance that Iggy and The Stooges might make another record after this – you've obviously got the right mind to remain relevant.

JW: Well, Iggy and I write together very easily, so it's conceivable that we could do more. The problem with being a singer when you're sixty-six is that, eventually, your voice starts to go, you can't hit the notes you used to hit and you become more limited. That said, it's up to Ig; I'd do it – in fact I'm going to be doing it – but time will tell. Technically, we're still promoting Ready To Die, so we're not far enough down the road to start talking about another record quite yet.


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