Former Stooges guitarist James Williamson talks about his new album, Behind the Shade, and new band the Pink Hearts; including Petra Haden, Frank Meyer (ex-Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs), Gregg Foreman (Cat Power), and Don Cooke
James Williamson has certainly not been resting on his laurels. In the last five years, the former Stooges’ guitarist has now released three new LPs: The Stooges’ much underrated swan-song Ready To Die, Re-Licked—a collection of post-Raw Power Stooges tunes that the band never got to properly record—and now Behind The Shade with his latest group, the Pink Hearts. This in addition to an EP, Acoustic K.O. w/ Denniz Tek, three 45 RPMs (reviewed elsewhere on this site).
Actually, James has released five LPs if you count two live sets—The Stooges’ In The Hands Of The Fans and James Williamson with the Careless Hearts.
The Pink Hearts’ Behind The Shade features, of course, James’ guitar, but he also plays bass on 7 of the 11 tracks, and he is accompanied on all the tracks by drummer Michael Urbano (who played on much of Re-Licked). The actual Pink Hearts are James with singers Petra Haden, who adds her violin to five cuts, and Frank Meyer (ex-Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs), who also wrote most of the lyrics, and even gets to play an appropriately primordial guitar solo on one tune (“Purple Moon”.) The sound is filled out with various piano and organ players, Gregg Foreman from Cat Power’s band getting the most cuts, plus some horns on a few tracks that bring a bit of Detroit R&B into the mix. Finally, Don Rooke adds lap steel on two tracks (one of which, a cover of Alejandro Escovedo’s “Died A Little Today”—given a beautiful, understated delivery by Petra Haden—is sort of a bonus track on the CD, but couldn’t be fit on the vinyl without loss in the mastering process).
There’s plenty of straight-ahead rock’n’roll— “Riot On The Strip”, “The Revolution Stomp” and “Miss Misery” should satisfy old time fans. Singer/lyricist Meyer, who made ten albums with the Street Walkin’ Cheetahs, is as steeped in the Stooges/MC5-style Detroit ‘rock out with your cock out’ sound as any singer out there; the more melodic and restrained Haden is a perfect foil for his guttural voice. Of course, James Williamson’s guitar is pretty much the star of the show.
The best part of writing for a website is I don’t have to explain too much—check out his solo on “Judith Christ” one of his best ever, showing his style and sound hasn’t changed but he’s still growing and adding new subtleties as a player.
We caught up with James Williamson recently to get the lowdown on Behind The Shade.
PKM: The Pink Hearts are an actual band? I heard rumors of some live shows coming up…
JAMES: We’ve got L.A. and San Francisco right now set for June. I’ve got a guy working on booking some stuff for August/September.
PKM: What can people expect from the live show?
JAMES: People can expect the whole album but eleven songs isn’t enough for a set so the rest will be from my catalogue in some form or another. We have like thirty songs to cherry pick…
PKM: You’ve been on a roll, four albums and the various singles in five years…
JAMES: Well this group is exciting for me because it works well, especially with the new music, but I think it’ll work well with the old catalogue, we can give it a completely different take on things.
PKM: There’s a lot of variety here (on Behind The Shade), some of it has an R&B/Exile On Main Street feel with the horns, there’s the rockers like “Riot On The Strip” and “Revolution Stomp” that people would expect from you, but then there’s quite a lot of melodic stuff that’s probably going to surprise people.
JAMES: I hope so. Those songs just came, but if you look back to Raw Power and certainly Kill City there’s always been some of that kind of stuff, a lot of acoustic guitar. The treatment we gave it back then was a little different, but if you think about it, it’s not that unusual for me.
He wants to go all Stooges on everything, but I’m like, “this isn’t the Stooges, let’s do some other things.” I mean, I don’t like to see these old guys trying to be their young selves. I mean, you know they’re not; I’m not my young self.
PKM: It seems with Petra Haden as your musical foil it gives a whole new side to the melodic things. Her voice and violin add a different scope to it.
JAMES: Absolutely. We can take it to a different level. First of all, she can sing her ass off. It’s like, Wow — there’s the secret weapon. The combination of Frank’s voice and Petra’s voice really blends well. I was surprised. When we started this thing I had written maybe four songs with Frank – actually, one of them was written by Paul Nelson Kimball. So I took those songs and tried them with that combination and I was so impressed by the way it worked that I said, “OK, let’s make an album.”
PKM: Frank did a song at your L.A. show (in 2015, to promote Re-Licked) — I think “Sick Of You”?
JAMES: Yeah, and maybe one more. That’s the first time I met him. Cheetah Chrome recommended him; he said he’d been working with him a lot.
PKM: I just realized the Street Walkin’ Cheetahs made like ten albums. I’m so old I think of them as a new band. I guess I first saw Frank when he was doing something with Wayne Kramer, that might be twenty years ago now, but it feels like it was a few months ago….
JAMES: When I started working with him I was super impressed at how fast he could write lyrics— like overnight. But even on the music, he’s pretty accomplished. He knows this stuff.
PKM: It must be a dream come true for him — he’s so steeped in the Stooges/MC5 style rock’n’roll.
JAMES: Well, I have to rein him in from that. He wants to go all Stooges on everything, but I’m like, “this isn’t the Stooges, let’s do some other things.” I mean, I don’t like to see these old guys trying to be their young selves. I mean, you know they’re not; I’m not my young self.
PKM: The world is a different place now. In his book Dylan talks about how he doesn’t know how he wrote those old songs, and he can still write songs now but they’re not going to be like the old songs. He’s addressing the world he lives in now, not the world he lived in forty years ago…
JAMES: And the Dylan he is now. But in my frame of reference you can’t beat the pre-motorcycle accident Dylan.
PKM: But no rules apply to Dylan—stuff I used to laugh at, like Self Portrait, but it makes total sense now. It keeps people from digging through his trashcans. But getting back to Behind The Shade, there’s a broad scope of music on this thing—- violin solos, sax solos, a trumpet solo, the horns on those tracks that gives it an R&B punch. Do you think your fans are going to accept it? Or do you care?
JAMES: I don’t know. So far writers who are interviewing me seem to like it. I absolutely love that trumpet solo, he just came in and nailed it. Are the Stooges fans going to like it? I don’t know.
PKM: Nobody likes anything anyone in the Stooges has done for 30 years anyway. Iggy toured doing The Idiot and Lust For Life in 2017.
JAMES: Well, with Kill City everyone was bitching and moaning about the sax; lately, I meet people and they tell me that that’s their favorite record—so, all of a sudden, the sax is cool.
PKM: I guess you can’t think about that when you’re making music. If they don’t get it, they will someday. I like the R&B feel on those tracks: the sax solo on “You Send Me Down” and the Latin thing going on “This Garden Lies” — that’s a whole new side of you.
JAMES: True. I don’t think about that … I’ve always worked so far outside the mainstream anyway it hardly matters. I guess I’ve always had an R&B inclination although you never heard it before. Iggy was never an R&B guy, but he also comes from an R&B background, as a drummer. He just wasn’t that kind of singer so I never tried to write a song like that before. This one, I figured let’s fill it out, so we brought the sax in and I thought, Cool, it works. That keyboard player (Hervé Salters) is just cookin’ with the clav. It’s a very ‘70s thing.
PKM: “Purple Moon” has a nice “London Calling” (the only Clash song I really like) bomp bomp drive to it.
JAMES: That song has more Frank Meyer influence than me. He had a lot of input into that particular one. That’s the one he plays the solo on, not me. He killed that solo. I don’t usually let somebody else play the solos but I wasn’t going to get it any better than that.
PKM: Any chance for East Coast shows?
JAMES: Well, we’re working on it. But because it’s so far away, there’s a couple of festivals, but they book so far in advance we didn’t get it in time. But if we got something substantial in say Chicago we could swing by Detroit and New York, but we’ll see.
PKM: The economics of live rock n’ roll are so brutal nowadays. I guess if you had high-paying festivals in Europe it could make it worthwhile to hit the East Coast.
JAMES: We missed that train for this year, for sure. Maybe for next year.
PKM: Doing live show, that’s going to be a lot of pressure on Frank Meyer — how do you follow Iggy?
JAMES: I think he kind of relishes it, he was great on the Re-Licked show.
PKM: Sure was. That was like a revue, with all the different singers, like the Stax/Volt revue but for the Stooges. But this will just be one band together doing their set….I guess it comes down to—if people dig the record, they’ll dig the show.
JAMES: Yes, I think they will. There’s a lot of variety on this album so when you go through it, [the listener] never gets stuck in one groove.
PKM: But your guitar is always your guitar, it’s just like changing the framework around it, putting it in different settings. That’s what I like about it. That last song, I’d never heard that Alejandro Escovedo tune, (“Died A Little Today”). That’s a great left-field choice. Great song.
JAMES: I never heard it either and I thought it was so amazing. I wanted to have a bonus track, so it won’t be on the vinyl, only the CD. When we started doing it with Petra singing, it’s haunting, but I think it’s one of the stronger tracks. It’s so different.
PKM: It’s like it takes the record into the fading sunset…
JAMES: Yeah. But I couldn’t fit in the vinyl LP if I wanted to and still have it loud like I like it (*Note: when mastering a record, the longer the playing time, the less space for the grooves, hence loss of fidelity), but I think “Behind The Shade” also works as an album closer. The way they harmonize together is like an old folksong or something…
PKM: And the organ gives it a churchy gospel feel — it’s dramatic. There’s a lot there for the listener — I love it.
JAMES: One of my complaints about these young guys today is they just lock onto one style, and not very well.
PKM: And it’s always something you’ve heard too many times already — like Oasis where every song sounds like some Beatles songs, maybe with the bridge from some other song grafted onto it. Stuff you’ve heard a million times already. I have to say the solo on “Judith Christ” is one of my all-time favorite solos of yours.
JAMES: Thanks, I like that I have a choir behind me. I’ve never had real singing going on when I did a solo before. I love it.
PKM: As a fan, and especially a fan of guitar music, I love the idea of taking your guitar sound — which is so recognizable — and putting it in a whole bunch of new settings. “Pink Hearts Across the Sky” is another one of my favorites right now.
JAMES: I’m super happy to hear that from you. I think that is a song that crosses over every listener. It’s a super positive song. That’s why I’m so happy about Emily doing the animation on it (Note: animator Emily Hubley is working on a video for the song).
PKM: The world is so out of whack that positive is now rebellious…
JAMES: I’m super proud of the record and I think you should give it a chance; if there’s some tracks on there you don’t get right away, you will.