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James Williamson and The Pink Hearts

James Williamson first came into the music spotlight in the ‘70s when he was a member of the Stooges, when he co-wrote and played guitars on “Raw Power,” including the anthemic “Search and Destroy.”  The man plays some of the raunchiest, raw, ear-piercing guitar the world has ever heard.  James’ latest album, “Behind the Shade,” with his current band the Pink Hearts, is due to be released 22 June 2018.  The Pink Hearts feature the incredibly talented vocalists Frank Meyer (The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs,) and Petra Haden (The Haden Triplets, ex-That Dog) and this group just meshes together so well that your ears are in for a big treat. I spoke with James last week to get the dirt on the new album and if he still plays with the same guitar and amps to make that raunchy, dirty sound.  Come check out our chat!

Erin: James! How are you?

James: I’m good!

Erin: I have to tell you, I am absolutely in LOVE with your new album. 

James: I’m always appreciative to hear things like that.

Erin: Seriously, really well done.

James: Cool, I’m glad you like it. Even though it’s mine, I find it to be quite listenable.  I don’t feel like I get tired of it, you know, like I do with most albums.

Erin: Exactly!  So, can you tell me how you met and ended up working with Frank and Petra?

James:  I’m gonna start with Petra.  I met her a long time before I met Frank.  In 2013, we were making the last Stooges record, “Ready to Die.” I was producing it and I was looking for some backing singers and I talked with Mike Watt (The Minutemen) who was playing bass with us at that time and he suggested that I listen to this record that Petra had done.  She’d done an a capella version of “The Who Sells Out.”

Erin: Really?!?

James: Have you ever heard that before?

Erin: No!! But I am definitely gonna look for it now!

James: Oh, you gotta go get that.  I mean, she takes that whole album and she sings it — instruments and all. 

Erin: WOW!  

James: A capella.  It’s incredible.  Actually, you know Pete Townshend, once he heard that, he called her up and told her how much he loved that album. So, I listened to that album and thought, GOD, I’ve gotta talk to this girl.  I called her up and arranged to meet with her the next time I was down in LA and had her come down to the rehearsal room and try some things out that I was looking for vocals.  And she is just so talented that she blew me away and I just went OK, let’s do this! She was on that album with me and I became a big fan at that point.  Later, when I did the next album, which was “Re-Licked,” once again I had her come in and do some backing vocals and she just killed it and so I got used to working with her and she has a wonderful voice and can sing the lead parts, too. I was looking for things to have her sing on and I did a couple of projects with her where we did covers and stuff for charity work like “Blues Jumped the Rabbit.” Anyway, with this project that came up, I immediately thought of her but I wasn’t sure how I was gonna use her.  Then fast forward to the point where I’m writing new music last year and I started coming up with these riffs and I liked them and I thought, well let’s see what we can do with them.  I really can’t write lyrics and I just finally admitted it.  And I can’t sing!  So, I was looking for a singer and I was looking for a lyricist.  The first guy I got was Paul Nelson Kimball, who was someone I worked with, actually not recording per se, but he was the singer for the Careless Hearts, the band that helped me when I was getting back to playing guitar and rehearsed me because you can’t really rehearse being in a band unless you’re actually IN a band.  He is a REALLY good lyricist.  He wrote “Destiny Now” which is a great song and I loved it.  But then I remembered Frank who had filled in for one of the 14 singers that we had on “Re-Licked.”  He is just a great singer so I thought of him and asked if he’d would sing on some of this stuff, but it turned out he could write, too.  In fact, he was very prolific.  I’d write a tune and give it to him and I’d get a song back the next day. 

Erin: Oh wow!

James: Yeah, it was pretty impressive.  Now, granted he probably had some of that (lyrics) in the vault but nonetheless he did a great job and so there you go.  The magic really happened when I put Frank and Petra together.  You have this gruff, sort of rock sounding male singer and then you have this pure, female singer and the combination is truly magic.  

Erin: How did the album come about?

James: We started out as I explained where I had the one song from Paul and then Frank quickly came up with another three and I thought, hey, this is great.  Let’s go record this and see what it sounds like.  And that’s when I introduced Petra to Frank.  The two of them just KILLED it on those four songs and everyone got really excited and we decided we’re going to do an album.  It just evolved from there.  We continued to work on stuff through that summer and it was just going so well that it was kind of sad to stop, really.  It was so much fun.  

Erin: Obviously, it’s like straightforward dirty rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s got a little bit of rockabilly and a little blues in there, like the title track, (“Behind the Shade”) and then you’ve got the quieter “Died A Little Today.” When I first heard that track I was like, WOW.  Petra’s voice is very angelic and pure but also has a bit of haunting sadness to it.

James: She just OWNED that song.  That song, by the way, is the only song I have ever covered in my entire life. 

Erin: Really?

James: Alejandro Escovedo’s song.  The way I found that song was a friend of mine back from high school days that I still stay in touch with, had connected me with Carolyn Wonderland, and she and I worked together on some of “Re-Licked.”  The song had come out of some stuff he had listened to in Austin, Texas and he forwarded it to me and I LOVED it and I thought, you know what? This is a PERFECT song for Petra to sing and sure enough she just COMPLETELY owned that song.  The backstory on that is that Alejandro Escovedo, he was in LA back in the ‘70s, when we (The Stooges) played the Whisky A Go-Go and we did about two weeks there and he said he was at the front of the stage every single night.

Erin: What a small world!

James: Exactly.  Then he formed the band the Nuns and he’s got a very long musical career.

Erin: What influenced you guys with the making of the album?

James: Just us!  We had the songs.  I think that we all have been around music long enough to have had countless influences but I also think we all have some individual talents that we bring that are completely ours. I don’t really hear anybody else per se on this album.  I just hear us.

Erin: Oh, I’m sorry!  I should’ve made my question clearer.  Not influences like musically, but more like external influences, like world events, personal issues or what not?

James: I see what you mean.  You know, having not been the lyricist, I can’t speak other than what I’ve been told.  I know Frank, and you can hear this in the record, I was playing the record along the way to people like my wife and she’s going like, “Is he having relationship problems?”  

Erin: Thank you!  That’s what I was wondering!

James: And, yes, he was breaking up with his long-term girlfriend and a lot of things were going on.  He just wears it on his sleeve and that comes out in all the lyrics and it worked really well.  Luckily, when it was all over, at the very end of the record when I’m like in post-production, he actually found a new girlfriend, so things started looking up. But I was kinda happy that he didn’t do that until we got to the end! 

Erin: Because you needed all that angst and all that pain for the amazing work that shows in this album!  I figured as much when I was having a deep listen to the album.  Your playing on this album is good and raunchy and dirty on songs like “The Revolution Stomp” and “You Send Me Down.”  How did you get your “sound” on this album?  What guitars and amps are you using?

James: I’m pretty much the same on everything really from the very beginning.  During “Raw Power,” I discovered the combination of Vox AC30 amplifiers and the Les Paul guitar.  The actual models that I use have evolved over the years, but it always pretty much sounds the same.  So that’s my sound and I’ve stuck with it.  I did mix things up a little bit and I also use acoustic guitars quite a bit, even from the beginning for tracking and stuff.  Martin D-28’s, and in this case, an old Martin D-18.  My essential approach is very similar.  I just love the way the sound came out.  It’s a combination of things.  The guy that I’ve been working with on the last few albums, Jason Carmer, he’s a very accomplished engineer and he GETS this material.  He was into this project and he worked with me a lot.  We kept tweaking things and getting it to the way we wanted it, but the mix is super and the mastering of the album done by George Horn is just like old school.  He was just like my kind of guy.  He knows how to get that “sound!”

Erin: Not only sound, but it all flows together really, really nicely. The whole album layout, it just flows from one song to the next.  There’s nothing that breaks up the continuity of the album if you know what I mean.

James: It’s sequenced perfectly and we thought about it a lot and lived with it a very, very long time and that is the real test of good material.  When you have lived and listened to it as much as I did — from when you wrote it to when it’s mastered — you’ve heard it a million times.  If you still feel good about it, that’s pretty good.

Erin: Yes, then you know it’s something special and will stand up to the test of time.  You guys have the new album track “The Revolution Stomp,” which we are world premiering on The Punk Lounge on the 19th of June and the new album is out on the 22nd of June, right?

James: Yes.

Erin: Are you guys going to be doing any type of touring behind this album?  I know you’ve got the show at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, one of my favourite venues ever, on the 29th of June and then you are playing San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall on the 30th of June.  Do you have any other dates you are looking at doing?

James: We are.  It’s a little premature to discuss them other than to say we are shooting for mid-August through mid-September and we want to do all the usual spots like Austin, Detroit, New York, and just the places where they would like a band like us. It’s odd.  My name is fairly well known but this band and my name are not associated yet because we’re brand new.  People want to see us but promoters are a little more cautious and so we are working on it.  I think we’re gonna get quite a few dates.

Erin: Do you think you guys will end up doing any U.K./European shows?

James: I’d like to.  I’ve actually been discussing European shows recently.  In fact, Alejandro’s manager lives in London and he was talking to me about playing Spain and London and France and a few more places like that. I think people would like us in those countries. 

Erin: Yes, I think you’d do really well over here!

James: We’ll cross that bridge for sure.  Right now, I just want to get the album out.  And then play these gigs and have a good time with it and then take it from there.  Speaking of which, how did a nice LA girl end up in France?

Erin: My husband has lived here in France for 40 years and we met when he played with his punk band at the Whisky A Go-Go and we fell in love and I didn’t have much to leave behind other than my job as a social worker in LA and his children and life were in France so I said, I’m always up for a new adventure! Let’s see what happens!  And I came here to Lyon and have really enjoyed it so far!   

James: I mean, c’mon!  There’s not much difference in being a social worker and working with punk bands! It’s not that far off! 

Erin: (Both of us laughing,) No, you are totally correct!  Plus, I get to interview cool people like you and get to hear amazing new music and do cool write ups so I’m happy!  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and the new album is so awesome and it really struck a chord with me in my heart and soul.  Songs like “Judith Christ,” it’s just all so good!

James: “Judith Christ” is a sleeper.  That one will get you.

Erin: Yes, it is great!  I’m so happy to be able to help pump and promote this project with you so, thank you for all your amazing music in both the past and present! 

James: Well, excellent Erin.  Thank you and it was a pleasure talking with you and maybe I’ll get to see you in France.

Erin: Yes!  For sure! Take care James!  

James: You, too.        




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