Get this. James Williamson of the Stooges is a nerd. Like, he's a huge, colossal, gigantic nerd. The man who resurrected the Stooges, the man who wrote the nasty, nasty licks for Raw Power, the man who ran with the wildest, most drugged-out band ever, the man who plays riffs that can cut a car in half, is a Pointdexter.
Do you know why Williamson's music record is blank from about 1980 through 2009? It's because after the colossal drug trips and catastrophes that were Raw Power and Kill City, Williamson did a little production work for Iggy and then moved to California, went to college, and got a job right away at a computer company in the Silicon Valley.
And then, do you know what he did after that? He was so good at computers that he worked his way up to being Vice President of Technical Standards for Sony. That's right, the man who stood next to Iggy as he got his ass kicked by rednecks on Metallic K.O. eventually became one of the most important guys in the tech field, meaning that not only is he perhaps rock's most important guitarist, but he's also one of the computer industry's most important computer guys. Because Williamson mastered both the rock and computers field, making us all look like lazy slackers, features editor John Gentile called up Williamson for the story on how he transitioned from the stage to the computer age.
[Ed: Please note that this interview took place before the untimely passing of Scott Asheton.] You are the worldâ??s baddest guitar player. How did you develop your style?
I was very, very emotionally troubled as a teenager. I think most teenagers have a lot of angst. I played my guitar a lot as an emotional outlet and it was just a good way to let off steam. I learned very early on that to was much easier to play my own songs, instead of other people's songs.
Iâ??m largely self-taught. I did have a few lessons back in Oklahoma to learn a couple chords. I got on TV because my guitar teacher had a TV show. That was my first taste of showbiz and girls started calling me up so I thought it must be ok.
Is it true that you were sent to juvenile detention in high school?
In ninth grade, I started growing my hair out because of the Beatles and Stones and Bob Dylan and everybody. I was especially a Bob Dylan fan. The school I went to, back in those days, they werenâ??t having that in Michigan, and they said "Cut your hair or donâ??t come back."
So, I didnâ??t cut my hair and that basically made me truant. Ultimately, I ended up in juvie for that. It was really stupid. They buzz cut my hair the first night I was there. It was a lesson learned about fighting city hall. You canâ??t.
How long were you in juvenile detention for?
It was about three months. They werenâ??t kidding around.
How were you as a student?
I was not particularly good. I didnâ??t really have a lot of interest in school at that point. I was more interested in music and what was happening with culture. But, I had a good aptitude for it. I went to five different high schools and itâ??s hard to settle into being a good student. When I went to college later on, I had some serious gaps in my academic background that I had to overcome that.
Do you think that you were too smart for regular school?
Actually, that is one of the things that they used to say to my mother when I was in elementary school. I tested pretty high on the aptitude tests. That was always the advice they gave her -- to keep me interested because I was going to get bored.
Now, before you joined the Stooges later on, you were at the first Stooges show.
I went and saw their first show at the Grande Ballroom. There were a lot of substances being consumed there. No doubt it was all part of the scene. They were the Psychedelic Stooges at the time and they were pretty wild.
Iggyâ??s instrument was a blender with a microphone coming out of it and he also had a vacuum cleaner. He had all his eyebrows shaved off and he had silver face with sparkles all over it and I think he learned that night why we have eyebrows. He was wild. From the very start, you knew these guys were great performers. Whether they could play or not was immaterial. The main thing was that they could captivate an audience.
The clichĂ© about Iggy Pop is that he has an internal switch where he goes from a nice guy named Jim Osterberg to the wild man Iggy Pop. Do you think thatâ??s accurate or is it an over-simplification of the man?
I think itâ??s an over-simplification. Basically, he is a nice guy. However, I think he has a deep-seated need for the approval of the audience. So, he will go to any length to get over with the audience. If that isnâ??t happening, then all hell breaks loose.
He demands that they give him their approval. The audiences are better off getting into it right away, otherwise mic stands will fly every way and heâ??ll get in their faces. Thatâ??s the way he is. He thrives on that love from the audience.
You first joined the Stooges at the tail end of their original run around 1970. They were a mess. What was causing it? Drugs? Financial problems? Anger issues?
All of the above. Mainly, Iggy became unreliable in terms of the drugs and stuff. It just wasnâ??t an ongoing concern as far as running it like band or a business. Sometimes weâ??d make gigs and other times we wouldnâ??t.
It all came to a head when [Stooges drummer] Scotty Asheton tried to drive the equipment truck under a bridge that wasnâ??t high enough to clear the truck. He almost got killed. That resulted in us doing a gig we were playing because we needed the money so bad, but we didnâ??t have a drummer. We asked Steve Mackay to play, but he couldnâ??t play the drums at all. We had an hour of drum lessons for himâ?¦ but we did get paid. The band split up after then because it was ridiculous. Iggy needed to get himself together and the rest of us werenâ??t that much better.
What did you do in your spare time when you flew to England to record Raw Power?
When we first got over there, we were pretty taken aback by the whole thing. Here we were, a couple of guys from Michigan -- a couple of bumpkins parachuted into ground zero of the glam movement. That took a little bit of getting used to.
We went to concerts like Marc Bolan and we were astonished by how popular he was over there. It was like the Beatles again -- the girls flinging themselves against the fences and crying. We started gearing up. You gotta have your London clothes. That whole management group was very high style and they wanted their bands to look like rock stars. We tried to get into the swing, but mainly, we were about rehearsing and writing new material. And of course, you had to look for a few girls, here and there.
The mixes of Raw Power are a notoriously touchy subject. Did you get along with David Bowie when you were working with him?
We got along with him fine. I didnâ??t think too much about him. I didnâ??t want him to produce our album and he didnâ??t either. The lucky part was David Bowie started getting very popular so they tried to break him in the US, and his attention got diverted from us.
By the time it came to mix the album -- our mixes sucked and they called on their golden boy, David Bowie, and he did. At the time, I didnâ??t like the mixes, because we felt like we had mixes that were better. Knowing what I now know, I think he did as well as he could with what he had to work with. Itâ??s kind of an arty mixâ?¦ What can I say? I was sitting right there and if I had anything to say, I should have said.
Did you argue with him at all?
No, neither one of us argued with him. We had a lot of sour grapes after the fact, though.
After working on Kill City and producing a few Iggy Pop tracks, you got into computers and went to school for computer engineering. How did that happen?
I saw a son and a dad at an electronics store. In those days, almost nobody had a computer. I got really fascinated by the whole thing. I wasnâ??t that excited with rock and roll and I was very excited by what I was seeing. I thought, "Somehow, Iâ??m going to go do this and be a part of this." It took me a while to get through school, but, after that, I got a job right away in the Silicon Valley and have been here ever since.
When you applied for your first job, I assume you didnâ??t tell them that you used to be in the wildest rock and roll band ever.
My first job was at Advanced Micro Devices. I didnâ??t talk about the rock and roll because it wasnâ??t relevant. And most of those guys donâ??t know about the Stooges.
Did you get a certain thrill out of having a secret background while working amongst "the squares?"
Not really. I put the guitar down and went on with my life. Iâ??ve got a lot of different interests. I had a family. When you see a young group of guys starting a band, you think, "been there, done thatâ?¦ but you guys arenâ??t any good!"
So, you are a pioneer in "Technical Standards." What is that?
You can think of them as the language of trade. I donâ??t think that there would be anything that could be done without them. From the plug in the wall, if it wasnâ??t standard youâ??d had different outlets and the wall would be different. These are things that are negotiated between companies so that many different companies can build projects that are compatible and develop markets. To high-tech companies, standards are essential to their business.
How do the tech parties compare to the rock parties?
The first company I worked for, AMD, had a very dynamic CEO and President named Jerry Sanders and he used to throw totally wild-ass parties. He would take over the Moscone Center and hire bands to come in. Earth, Wind and Fire and Rick Springfield, when those bands were hot, would play. Not my taste, but they were big-ass parties. Thereâ??s so much money being made -- itâ??s not debauchery like rock and roll, but it can be pretty wild.
You said you got into rock music for the girls. Why did you get into the standards division for the tech industry?
Well, it certainly isnâ??t the girls! Itâ??s inter-disciplinarian. You have to be a diplomat. You have to have a multicultural aspect. Itâ??s quite challenging. So, once I got into it, I thrived in that position and was there for quite some time.
Now, youâ??re working on some new tracks, I believe.
The Stooges are taking 2014 off for touring, Iâ??m using the time to work on pet projects that Iâ??ve always wanted to do -- redoing a bunch of old stuff that was never properly recorded. Itâ??s been a labor of love. Youâ??ll start seeing singles come out starting on Record Store Day.
Youâ??ve been a driving force in both music and the computer business. Do you have incredible foresight or incredible luck?
Hey, my whole life has been lucky! Thatâ??s kind of like asking, "Did you know that some day youâ??ll be a really famous rock star?"
Did you ever have any regrets about leaving rock music behind?
None whatsoever. I feel very fortunate to have been here during the time that I have been here and been exposed to these very brilliant people. Itâ??s great to be back in the band and getting all this adulation. Itâ??s something Iâ??ll never regret. In about a week Iâ??ll be down in LA to get the engineering award from my university. That, for me, is right up there with the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame.