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How the Stooges Finally Reunited

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Guitarist Ron Asheton and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, had been to musical hell and back with Iggy Pop in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Their quartet, the Stooges, shook up the foundations of business as usual in an increasingly trend-conscious, corporate-leaning music industry, and it cost them their band and very nearly their livelihoods. While Pop eventually resurrected himself as a solo artist for the next few decades, the Ashetons floated from band to band, scratching out a journeyman living.

But the Stooges legend only grew larger over the decades, and eventually the Ashetons found their way back to Pop in 2003 to work on one of his solo albums, “Skull Ring,” and then in 2007 to record a new Stooges album, “The Weirdness,” with bassist Mike Watt (filling in for the late Dave Alexander). 

Ron Asheton died at age 60 in 2009 and Scott Asheton died at 64 in 2014, but they lived long enough to enjoy a victory lap with the band they built as dead-end teenagers in Ann Arbor, Mich. Back in those days, their leader was still known as Jim Osterberg before he reinvented himself as Iggy Pop and set the band on a decidedly unconventional path toward the rock ‘n’ roll stardom they would only belatedly attain. 

In separate 2007 interviews, excerpted here, Ron and Scott Asheton talk about the long road back to resurrecting their band.

In the beginning:

Ron Asheton: We loved Parliament Funkadelic, James Brown, stuff even like Sam & Dave. Who doesn’t like James Brown? We took on all sorts of things. John Coltrane — that’s where you get “L.A. Blues.” At the end of the set we had free-form jam, a freakout, except we hated the word “freakout.” We called it “let one go,” which came from Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and all those great jazz musicians. And then the blues was in there because Iggy was previously a drummer in a blues band, the Prime Movers. You take a little of the truth from everyone and mix it with a little bit of your blood and it comes out with your music.

Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton brings the noise onstage.

Scott Asheton: We were basically a jazz kind of band to start with. We had some riffs that we’d just collapse on and it was different every time. We never knew where it was going to go, when it was going to end. We knew if we had any chance at all of getting noticed we had to do something completely different. I played 50-gallon oil drums for my bass drums because they had an incredible sound. Jim would stomp on sheet metal with a golf shoe. He invented these feedback machines — dropping a mic into giant funnels or in a blender full of ice cubes.  Dave would pick up the bass head with full reverb and drop it so it made a big crashing sound. It wasn’t until we signed with Elektra that we were told we needed songs. “We loved Iggy, but we can’t do an album of what you do on stage.” That changed the whole band right there. What you heard on our first record (“The Stooges” in 1969) was not the band we were before the record deal.  

Stooges drummer Scott Asheton concentrates on the beat.

Scott Asheton: It happened all so fast on the first album. We were just kids. I was 19 and the other guys were only a year or two older. Most of the album was written in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City and we had never played the songs before. One in particular, “Real Cool Time,” Jim wrote that and the first time we played it was the version that ended up on the album. “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” were written in the hotel room. I was sitting around with my drumsticks. Ronnie had his little amp and Dave on his bass and Jim clapping his hands and got together some words. “Well, we gotta go in the studio tomorrow, we better write a couple more.” I think we had completed the whole album in three days. I really liked the Velvet Underground at the time and I thought it was cool John Cale was producing us. He played some viola on one track.

Reuniting the band after 30 years apart:

Scott Asheton: I had been pushing for it for many years. I started in ‘89 trying to get it going, but Jim was just too busy. He was doing a tour, then doing a movie with Johnny Depp. And I was talking to his manager, Art Collins, but he kept telling me that, oh, Jim’s not opposed to the idea, but he’s got all these other things going on and maybe someday. J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. took Mike Watt, myself and my brother out on a tour and we did all Stooges songs. We got a really good response and I think that got back to Jim and he goes, well these guys are out there. They’re playing. They’re getting a good response. I think it’s time we get back together. Much thanks goes to J. Mascis for getting me and Ronnie out there.

He told me tongue-in-cheek, ‘My management said that you guys could help me save my career.’

Ron Asheton: I wasn’t angry with Iggy or anyone. I just felt bad that the band didn’t get a chance to go on. But there were legitimate reasons. He would be mentally and physically exhausted and then he chose to do his own thing. That’s OK. I can’t deny him that. I never quit music, so when I got that call from Iggy going, “Hey, I’ve got a project going, how do you feel about projects?” He told me tongue-in-cheek, “My management said that you guys could help me save my career.” And I said yes right off the bat. I hadn’t been face-to-face with him in 20 years or more, so while waiting for him in the Kent Hotel garden in Miami Beach, I was nervous. It was like seeing your ex-wife you haven’t seen because your son is graduating from college. And when he walked in it was cool. We went across the street to the 11th Street Diner and it was the best thing just to talk and get used to each other while we’re eating and drinking. It’s kind of like having an invisible mediator. Then it was into the studio. The night before I did the riff that became the song “Skull Ring.” I went with that as an ice breaker. Once we got in the studio and started working and he saw that we were capable of having a good time and working like professionals, everything was just super relaxed. All those years just melted. 

Recruiting Mike Watt for the band:

Ron Asheton: I got a call from (producer) Don Fleming and he was doing the soundtrack for the movie “Velvet Goldmine.” The story is loosely based on the relationship between Iggy and David Bowie, and they needed a Stooges-like band for the movie called the Wild Rats. They had Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, and they were sitting around going, “Who are we going to get to be a Ron Asheton guitar player?” Well, you idiots, I’m sitting here doing nothing. And Fleming had worked on my Dark Carnival record so they called me up. That’s when I got to know Mike a little bit and spent time doing that Wild Rats stuff. We wound up actually making a whole album for London Records but the label got bought out and dissolved and the record never came out. Down the road a piece I got a call from Mike when he was in town playing with J Mascis in a band called the Fog, and ended up doing a bunch of things with them, including some Stooges sets. Mike sang and played. So when I did the “Skull Ring” project with Iggy and my brother, Iggy started getting calls about us playing a live show, which was Coachella. Iggy wanted to use Pete Marshall on bass, who was in his band the Trolls. But I told him that my brother and I had been playing with Mike for years: We’re used to him, he knows all the songs. We did just a couple rehearsals in L.A. and after playing Coachella, I’m standing with Watt and Iggy says to him, “Hey, would you be able to do some shows this year?” And I’m going, “Yes!” He was the right man with the right tools at the right time

Scott Asheton: Mike has his own style. He sometimes overplays a little. It took a little while, but we got him down to playing more basic. And that’s when it really started to work. [Dave Alexander’] bass playing, you couldn’t get it more simple than he did, which was good for the band. Mike grew up with that music and he loves that music and it’s an inspiration for him, so he fit in really well with the whole thing. To me, the Stooges’ sound is based on Jim singing and Ronnie’s guitar playing and you could put other bass players to that and it would probably still sound like the Stooges. Simplicity is the key. Originally it was due in part to our limitations as musicians. But we also understood that we had no interest in being a band that likes showing off all your chops.

Choosing a producer:

Ron Asheton: It was going to be maybe Rick Rubin, Jack White or Steve Albini. We liked Jack White and it would have been cool to work with Jack, but Rick Rubin we felt we’d be taking orders. I always wanted Albini because we had talked and we hit it off. Iggy turns to my brother when we’re together writing songs and he says, “Who do you want?” And Scott says, “Albini,” and that was it. My brother was the deciding vote. 

Ron Asheton: With Steve at his studio in Chicago, the way he set up the mics, the amps, we got more of a room sound to get that big, live sound. It wasn’t so compressed. You got a feeling of space and the room sound. He’s also a funny guy. And they’ve got great coffee at (Albini’s Chicago studio) Electrical Audio. I’m telling you, the “Steve Albini special,” this tall fluffy coffee — it’s everything perfect about coffee. We’d do two songs a day and work eight hours a day for about four weeks while making the album. It was very efficient. After each day of work Steve would burn those CDs for us to listen to on the way home. They (recording engineers) all have those blue jumpsuits in Steve’s studio. One day I saw Steve and Jim sitting at the mixing board and I say, “Why it’s Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.” And Steve turns around and says, “Are you inferring that I have big ears and a big nose?”  

Producer-engineer Steve Albini, who manned the boards for “The Weirdness.”

The Stooges’ evolving sound and relationships:

Ron Asheton: When it first started out you could hear it was simpler, and it’s still basically the same. It’s just that you get more confidence with your instrument over time as would anybody with anything  — driving a car, jumping out of an airplane — you just get more used to handling it. Some of the new songs are a little more advanced, they do have some more chords. But it’s all basic rock ‘n’ roll music. It’s still Stooges music. The anger. The sex. The underlying sarcastic humor. 

Scott Asheton: The first time, drugs got in the way and took away from the band, a lot from the playing and a lot from the music. It screwed things up that way. But now nobody does that anymore. We’re all concentrating on the music and playing. Toward the end of this last tour we just did we started getting really tight and really solid. Young people look at it as a chance to see something from history, something that was before their time. And Jim is not up there to mess around and lay back. He’s up there to give his all. He’s drug free. He might have a little red wine with his dinner and that’s it. In many ways he is in better shape than he was when we first broke up. We found there’s a lot more music in this band.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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