Interview: James Williamson on The Stooges and his new Collaboration with Deniz Tek

James Williamson and Deniz Tek first teamed up in 2017, releasing the Acoustic K.O. EP of orchestrationally reimagined version of well-known Stooges songs. They got back to creating music together a few years later. After they sorted out all of the musical elements that have been uniting these two cult musicians for years, Two To One was the result of their cooperation. An electrified record with damn good garage-rock vibes through the well-known aggressiveness of Williamson accompanied by furious vocals from Deniz Tek.

In this interview for Joyzine, James Williamson speaks about the upcoming release and the process of work on Two To One, about production side of things and producers’ experience, about songwriting and Raw Power.

Cleopatra Records just announced the release of the upcoming Two To One album by yourself & Deniz Tek. Could you please tell me a little bit about the record itself?

Yeah, first of all it was a fun record to make! And I think the background of both Deniz and myself is very similar in some ways. Both of us spent many years in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Detroit, Michigan. So, we came from very similar musical influences. When we decided to make this record, we decided to make just a good old-fashioned-guitar-album. That’s how we set up doing it. That was what we were thinking of when we wrote the songs. And I think it came out really well that way.

A few years before that, you reworked some parts of your career releasing Acoustic K.O. How did it feel to get back to this era of your creativity and why did you decided to re-interpret these songs working with Deniz?

Well, Acoustic K.O. came out of an interesting idea of looking at some of those songs and re-doing them all acoustically. And I think it came out really nicely. For this new record Cleopatra wanted us to make an electric album. And that’s was what we did for this! It was really fun to do it. Because, like I said – it’s a good old-fashioned-guitar-album. It kind of reminds me of the very beginning days. That’s how we kind of play.

Both Deniz and you are guitarists. So, it makes everything a little bit different – in comparison with the bands where each musician has his or her own duties. So how can you characterize your work on Two To One and the writing process itself?

It pretty much was the way I always go about writing songs – I write the riffs, the guitar-parts and the music. And somebody else writes the lyrics. The same was true here. We have a couple of guys I worked with: Frank Meyer, Paul Nelson-Kimball as well as Deniz – them doing lyrics, and us doing music. There are about six songs on the CD that are ones I contributed to and then the other five – those were contributed by Deniz on his own. So his process is different than mine. It worked out well! But in terms of playing on the album – If he has a rhythm track, then we would do one of his songs. Then I would do lead on that. And then – vice-verse. On some of my playing, he’s been playing the lead. The two styles don’t conflict with each other. They complement each other.

It seems to me that during the last few years you’ve been mostly focused on bluesy sounds – exploring these areas with The Pink Hearts. That’s why Two To One sounds a bit aggressive. How it felt to get back to something well-known for you?

Well, it felt great. It’s old-school and kind of from my past, really. But at the same time, it comes very naturally to me because my style is actually naturally very aggressive. I’ve learnt that teaching myself to play as a teenager. I had lots of anger. And so I could channel that through the guitar. I think you hear that on the guitar.

Definitely definitely! But there are still some bluesy components you put within this record – on ‘Small Change’, ‘No Dreams’ or ‘Melissa Blue’. As a guitarist you keep on combining loud distorted chords with something softer – just like you did with Gimme Danger – is it important for you to have these elements, that sometimes seem contradictory together?

Everything I record is important to me – or I wouldn’t have recorded it. Blues certainly had an influence on me – coming up in music. Especially in Ann Arbor where there were lots of blues acts that would come through town. All the famous ones I saw back in the day. Even Iggy’s old band – The Prime Movers, was kind of a blues-style band. We had a lot of influences there. So it doesn’t surprise me that you heard that.

Being a fan of blues and growing up in the late 60’s-early 70’s, what helped you to shape your own, recognizable sound?

I pretty much was self-taught. So, I developed my own style. Even early on
in my guitar-life, I would try to write my own songs. Because it was easier for me to write my own songs than try to write somebody else’s songs. It kind of came naturally. The thing that really made it happen for me was that my music didn’t have much of a song structure. And what happened when I started writing music with Iggy – he had more of a sense of how to make a song out of stuff. At first, I would just come up with the riffs. And we would write together. He would help me to kind of massage that into the actual song. And then over time I got better and better at it. So yeah, that’s kind of how the style developed.

There are lots of moments on Two To One where it seems that musically and lyrically you just got together PERFECTLY – like when Deniz sings: “burning days like cigarettes…” – very poetic. When you’re working together isn’t it difficult for you to sort out these places where you should enhance certain lyrical structures or do lyrics always comes afterwards?

The lyrics always comes afterwards. With that particular song the lyrics was written by Paul Nelson-Kimball – he’s just a very creative and very imaginative. I think that lyric like you say is very poetic.

Your style became one of the components that shaped punk-rock. On Two To One it’s still the same – of course as a musician you evolved but your presentation isn’t changed. It’s still aggressive and powerful. And no doubts that any music provides a certain reaction, whether it’s country or dream-pop or any kind of electronic music. What reaction do you want to get from your listeners?

I want them to have whatever reaction they have – just naturally! I wrote this stuff really for us. And I’ve always done that. I don’t come in for making an album to be commercially successful necessarily. If it does become so it’s usually been a long time later. Raw Power was probably 30 years later when people started really taking up on it. You can’t really worry about that. As a musician I just want to make the best music I can and hope for the best.

Most of the songs on Raw Power – sound provocative. Not even just the lyrics but the whole radicalism – your tuning, tonalities, the energy of your performance, whether on ‘Penetration’, ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘I Need Somebody’ or ‘Raw Power’ itself. What inspired you when writing these songs?

You know, just life! We had come over to London with the new management. There was a lot of rock-n-roll going on in London at that time and we had an album to do. And I had to come over with songs! I had to just write them in my room on an acoustic guitar. I would translate them to an electric later, but they were just songs about how I felt. I think they…are good! It’s funny but the album got lots of weird mixes and things like that (laughs). But no matter what anybody did on that album it all sounded good. And that’s because of the songs.

A lot of these songs were written on an acoustic guitar and then you played them on the electric-guitar – do you still follow that way of writing?

Yes. Basically, yes. I don’t always follow that. But I frequently do it that way. Because, what I’ve found,  if you play acoustic guitar you can actually hear the notes really well. Lots of nuances and things come though on acoustic that may have been lost on electric initially. So that’s how I like to write. And it’s done pretty well for me.

After you have the idea, in what way is it different if you’re writing by yourself or if you have collaborators\contributors? Is it important for you to have a certain kind of cooperation?

No, I typically don’t do that. I typically write… If I’m writing the music, I write the music. Maybe there is possibly someone doing a solo on one of my songs… Of course, they do it the way they want to. Essentially, if I like the beginning and end of the music and then I always have someone else write the lyrics. Because that’s not my thing.

You got back to music world with your solo-album Re-Licked released in 2014. In your own words, some basic things were written many years ago – after Raw Power was finished you you’d been thinking about the next record to move to. How was it for you to get back exploring these tendencies and getting all these people together working on this record?

It was really gratifying, to be honest with you. Because those songs were some of the best songs that we ever wrote in The Stooges. And we should have been making that album! But the record company didn’t allow us to make another album. So they were bootlegs. All those years. To go back and try and record them properly and on top of that – round up a lot of people who were fans really, to sing on the album, it was a lot of fun, really! I think, it came our really well!

Getting back to the music world, what did you feel at that point, and how much did your work in the technological sector affect the things you’ve been doing musically – your approach and methodology?

Well, I certainly became a lot more disciplined as a person. And the world changed a lot from where I used to record back in the analogue days to these modern digital days. When I came back and the first album, I did with the reformed band was Ready To Die, I had a lot of things to learn in the studio. By the same talking, much of the same things still help up – in the studios a lot of people still uses analogue equipment over the digital. It sounds better and so on. But the thing that was really different was ending in digital world. There were lots of good things within that attitude – within mixing. I still think, I had to re-learn things for a while. But in fact, it’s like a bicycle – you can get it. I had a few things to work on and eventually I did that! It felt good. We played a lot of shows all over the world. For a lot more people then back in the day!

Being a member of The Stooges, you became a part of the tendencies
that lately led to the appearance to punk-rock. Iggy and The Stooges, Alice Cooper, MC5 – what did it feel like becoming a part of this movement and how did it feel to get to the stage together, after you got that recognition?

You know, of course it’s gratifying to be recognized. We got into The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. And like you say – along with other bands started… Back in the days in Detroit those bands didn’t…We used to play with them – not that much with Alice Cooper. But at that time, we knew them. We were on the road at the same time. I think that certainly, not every band becomes popular, especially the second time around. You have to really be grateful that people accept what you did.

After Two To One is released are there any new musical directions you’d love to explore?

I can’t think that far (laughs). I’m just happy it’s getting out there. As I just finished mixing the album we were waiting to master the album – the virus came down. I wasn’t sure I was even gonna get to master the record. And fortunately, through the label we had a connection with people who have their home mastering labs. So we were able to get it done and he really did a great job!

Typically, bands go on the road while the things got done. In this case this is the project and we’re not really working really like that. But looking forward, I really can’t tell you – as I don’t have any vision of what to do.

There were lots of contradictory things about Raw Power and while you mentioned your work on Two To One I just wondered how it feels when you started controlling everything and when did you actually get to production side of things?

I think, that started with the album Kill City – back in those days, I was sort of “on” those types of things. And Kill City – we did those tapes initially as a kind of a demo. In order to finish the record, Grew Shaw from Bomp! came and asked me to do it. Then I had to get more involved in production and complete the album. So I got into those things back then. And one of the things I started doing after The Stooges had broken up completely was to work in the recording studio. I thought I wanted to be more involved with that. It turned out that I couldn’t be an engineer because I wasn’t cut out for that. To me there’s nothing worse than being in a band with musicians you don’t like and have to go to work every day and record musicians you don’t like (laughs)! Not a very good job. I wasn’t cut out for it. But as a producer I can do that and things I want to do. I did New Values after that. And have really produced everything I’ve been involved with ever since.

There are lots of approaches to writing – not just in the context of songwriting, but reading interviews with different writers it’s impossible not to notice that each person has his or hers set of rules. How do you approach these things and do you have your own rules?

I don’t have any rules. If I’m writing music it’s very much a feeling. More than anything else. It’s feeling and inspiration. Sometimes it fits right, sometimes it doesn’t fit right. It has to come to you. I guess, the first thing is the purpose. If you want to do something then you have to kind of wait ’til the feeling hits you. Otherwise, you’re not gonna come up with much.

Two to One by James Williamson & Deniz Tek is out on 18th September via Cleopatra Records.

Interview by Dan Volohov
Recording Studio Photographs by Franklin Avery
All Other Photobgraphy by Anne Tek

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