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Iggy Pop on Avoiding His Ultimate Nightmare

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The Stooges made three groundbreaking albums in 1969-73 that sounded like nothing else in the flower-power and singer-songwriter eras. The blend of bluesy grind, psychedelic swirl and avant-garde chaos conjured by “The Stooges” (1969), “Fun House” (1970) and “Raw Power” (1973) stiffed commercially, but was subsequently adopted as a sonic blueprint for just about every punk, post-punk and garage-rock band.

The Stooges never got to bask in the glow of what they had accomplished until three decades later, when the surviving members — singer Iggy Pop and brothers Ron and Scott Asheton, on guitar and drums respectively — reconvened. They recorded a handful of songs for a 2003 Pop solo album, “Skull Ring,” which opened the door to a Coachella appearance, lucrative tour offers and ultimately— had been battle-tested by several years of touring before entering the recording studio with Steve Albini in Chicago to record their first album in 34 years, “The Weirdness.” Yet when I interviewed Pop in the weeks before the album was to be released in 2007, the singer was bracing for the Stooges to be rejected yet again for daring to tamper with their legacy.   

“I think every album we’ve ever made fucked us up, honestly,” Pop said with a rueful laugh. “But that’s OK. This album is our own achievement to ourselves. We always made records for us, so why should this be any different?”

Pop needn’t have worried. Though not a game-changer on par with its predecessors, “The Weirdness” proved to be hard-earned reaffirmation of what the Stooges do best, and a springboard for more shows that cemented the Stooges’ reputation as a killer live band led by one of the most dynamic rock performers ever.

Here are a few edited excerpts from my Pop interview.

Greg Kot: With “The Weirdness,” did it feel like you were picking up where you left off 35 years ago?

Iggy Pop: In the essential parts of it, yes. One thing unique about our group at the time that we were last making records is the songs were absolutely etched in stone before we got to the studio, to the point where with “Fun House” even the order of the album was predetermined months before we went in. That was our live set. That sort of thing was accomplished in large part because we were living together and playing every weekend. We’re not doing that now, so in this case we made sure we had get-togethers. We stayed out of rehearsal studios and did them in little houses. I’m talking to you from the main one now, which is a little cottage that does not look unlike the sort of dump we used to inhabit. We stayed dumpy. We didn’t road test these songs because we’re doing a different touring now. So instead we brought the drummer in for our sessions and we demo-tested by playing them loud on tiny equipment. So you can tell if it rocked or not. 

Kot: The group has always been a very particular, insular affair. How do you go about picking someone to produce your music?

On ‘Raw Power,’ there was a nervous phone call from the record company to [David] Bowie every month, saying, ‘What do we do with them?’

Pop: The group was never produced. On a couple of albums people got their names on them, but this horse was never ridden. On the first record, [John] Cale and Nico gave a sense of occasion. The two of them came every day and sat there, he in a Christopher Lee-style Dracula cape. He tried to produce that record and I bumped him. He wanted the morose, depressive Velvet Underground version of the songs. We were told not to play with the big amps, etc. We ignored everybody. On “Fun House,” all Don Gallucci could do was stand back and shake his head. We did our live set, start to finish. On “Raw Power,” there was a nervous phone call from the record company to [David] Bowie every month, saying, “What do we do with them?” And Bowie’s response was, “Just let them do what they’re going to do. I’ve tried and offered everything I possibly can, and they declined.” Then finally when I went unhinged at the end of it, that’s when Bowie stepped in and that was the most ever done (by an outsider) on one of our records.

Kot: How did you end up working with Steve Albini?

Pop: There were actually a number of names in play to produce. I had a short conversation with Rick Rubin. I probably got about half-a-million dollars worth of diagnosis from him in 20 seconds, which was helpful. I think he might have given it a second thought if we were signable to American Records and if he could have done one of his living-room things like he did with Johnny Cash. But we are not the band that is going to make him 2 million dollars for four hours work and a phone call. Jack White offered a couple of times, but have you ever noticed that anyone over the age of 50 who’s photographed with Jack White looks like a raisin? It’s like something out of the Victorian era. It should read something like: “Explorer Jack White finds exotic mummy in dangerous tomb. Read about his other adventure next week.” So that wasn’t gonna go. We were gonna end up with the world’s most handsome, prolific bass player. That wasn’t happening, so we ended up with crazy Steve (laughs), who is half out of his mind and the other half is a very astute, civilized, organized, very valuable player. 

Kot: What was your interaction like once you got into the studio?

Pop: We had to prepare our own grave, because as he put it in one of the pre-production calls we had, “I don’t want to hear your songs before you come in — no. I don’t have a clipboard either.” The next call I said, “Well Steve, let me get this straight. We’re gonna be playing and you’re going to be sitting there or standing there somewhere in an adjacent room and you’re not going to have a reaction?” And then I got a seriously long, academic discourse about his role that I think is polished at this point. But, actually he’s a mensch, and about halfway through he started opening his mouth. He has very strong opinions and reactions. He produces you when he feels like it. And then when he’s not in the mood that day it’s, “Well it’s your record” (laughs). He kicked in a little production, about the right amount for us, and I think it kind of worked out. I tried to keep it to what it used to be and we tried to have a number of songs — almost all of which were under four minutes and that should have been comprehensible in their content to the average idiot simply by looking at the title.  

Kot: How did Mike Watt fit in as the new bass player?

Pop: Ron brought the riffs, and helping make him sound good was Mike Watt. Mike came down and visited me here [in Florida] for two labor-intense days with his computer and our demos and we sat down together and did the arrangements. Mike is a solo-oriented player and that was all thrown out really quick. He plays a supporting role in this thing and most, not all, of his role was to provide a really concise, smooth and tuneful backup — a second, if you will, to what Ron was playing. I think Mike helped.  

Kot: Were you recording live and dancing around in the studio as you would on past Stooges albums?

Pop: I didn’t dance around too much, but put it this way, I was active. There was a lot of flailing and moving and I was situated with a clear sightline to each of the other three guys. And they told me apparently they were watching. There were some hand signals going on, too. My favorite line on the whole record is near the end of “Greedy Ugly People” and that’s because…if you have a good take going the way we play and somebody blows an ending or something, we don’t call in the computers. We just give up and try again. You don’t want to fuck up. So when it was time for the end I sang, “This is the last chorus/I don’t want to bore us,” which is in case you forgot it’s time for the fucking song to end. I was very pleased with myself that day. 

Kot: Do you write songs differently for the Stooges vs. your solo material?

Once we had the stuff I just wanted to know, did it make some part of my body wiggle?

Pop: It’s very different. I don’t know how that works either. I would have to submit to therapy. And I’ve never done that. It was very important to me…the idea of dealing with all the quote-unquote “expectations” or comparisons to what we had done so many years ago. I was very aware of the interior attitude and the process of how we did things then and tried to be true to that. Once we had the stuff I just wanted to know, did it make some part of my body wiggle? Did I know what the guy was singing about if I wasn’t the guy? Did it have something, either a bit of melody or something in the lyrics to make it memorable? And then I wanted to keep it under 40 minutes because I wanted it to resemble the length of an LP, not the length of a CD. To me this is the age of the musical tuna melt — more and more fucking awful. Do I have to listen to another awful song by you? I got it, you wrote three good songs. They’re all at the front of your album. The one you think will make you any money is first and that’s really all you have to do. I buy a Killers album. I put on the first song. I wince. I pee. I throw it into the trash. We’re done. You know what I mean? 

Kot: Albini told me that he thought your work ethic was very efficient, that you were prepared. But that’s not a new development, is it?

Pop: Some people are, “Oh, he’s efficient now.” No, I was always that way —  always, always, always. Before I was in this group I was playing five sets a night, six nights a week straight out of high school. And then I was playing that way for three years before the Stooges got signed. I supported myself as basically a bar musician and learned a lot of tricks.  

Kot: I always thought the Stooges sound was not as simplistic as some listeners claimed, like you were Midwestern trailer-park primitives who could barely play. Did that bother you?

Pop: Yeah, we got that all the time. But it’s not quite what it seems to be, even the drum parts. The drum parts are written and very carefully arranged. Scott built on a small vocabulary that I gave him when I was a drummer and taught him a few things and he picked up on it and was better than me in a week. But for instance on “1969,” that is a very particular Lebanese belly dancer beat. That is not a Bo Diddley beat or “Wipeout” by the Safaris or anything else. It’s a very particular beat. The beginning of “No Fun” is a very particular Stax-Volt session beat where you play the bass drum on the off accents in between a snare drum and it sounds real odd. We had a nice vocabulary. It’s true that the guys were more or less picking up their facility on their instruments, but honestly most of that was true before we started recording. By the time we recorded the band had a certain facility and it became more advanced over the next couple of years. We had a limited vocabulary that worked to our advantage.

Kot: How did you update the sound for “The Weirdness,” if at all?

Pop: Everyone had lots of ideas, but the simple stuff stuck because it was good. With Scott, basically, Scott played some marvelous beats on our demos and I kept a careful library of everything we played, so as the rehearsals started after we finished writing he started playing some jazz because it’s inevitable. “It’s been 30-some years and I’ve been waiting to show the world what I can do.” I sent an email to everybody saying, oh, by the way I assume the drum beats will be based on those on the demos! Hint, hint. And the tempos, the same thing. The tempos were creeping up. I was able to refer him to his playing on the demos, which is different than telling someone what to do. With Ron it was very straight forward. It was always very clear what he was going to play on a rhythm track, but at one point he was ready to do nine tracks of overdub on everything and play the bass. That wasn’t going to go down with me. There were a couple of songs I wasn’t going to put on the record because I thought they were too basic, “Greedy Awful People” and “Trolling,” and there was a little objection from the guys, so they stayed on. Luckily we’re the kind of group that is not going to agree in the moment, but we never have had one serious disagreement about the music given even a half-hour to consider it. 

Kot: A lot of the lyrics are double-edged, humorous but cutting, as in “The leaders of rock don’t rock” in “ATM.” It’s funny to hear you sing that, but you’re also being serious, right?

The other half of what I try to do as just common sense as a writer is just try to find a device — a phrase, an object, an experience — something that everybody knows.

Pop: I’m being dead serious, but I tried to be polite about it. That’s why I followed it with the sentence “This bothers me quite a lot.” I didn’t say, “And they all should be taken out and shot.” This is not Slayer, but I am who I am. I’m a reasonably polite, mature individual. Well I am on one hand. There’s a mixture between. I try to find things to sing about that are hot-button issues for myself and for some reason one day I hadn’t been able to find words for that song and there I was again at the ATM shooting out a mountain of cash and it made me nervous. Then I thought, as I so often do when things upset me or if they’re going a little funny, I think, “Well, might be a song in here.” The other half of what I try to do as just common sense as a writer is just try to find a device — a phrase, an object, an experience — something that everybody knows. If you have a mix of those two things then that’s the start of the recipe.

Kot: Those turns of phrase are great. Is it something where you’re actually jotting things down until it resonates? Or is it just a stream of consciousness? I mean, that line in “She Took My Money”: “She sets her watch on Paris time/I’m living in a friend’s backyard.” That made me laugh.

Pop: “Friend’s backyard” is good. That was a quickie. The first verse was blurted out during a jam. And then there was no second verse til we got closer and closer and I was looking for something bigger than life. I wanted something with humor. I did not want this to be some guy screaming, “You took my money you fucking bitch.” I wanted a little humor and a little resignation. …I was trying to think of my ultimate nightmare which would be 10 years from now calling up Ron and saying, “Hey Ron, can I pitch a tent behind your house? I’ve had a couple problems.”

Kot: I was at one of your reunion shows in Detroit in 2003 and you’re playing in front of 15,000 people and the place is just going nuts. I couldn’t help but think it had to be quite a bit different than it was 30-35 years ago when it seemed like each show was like hand-to-hand combat. Is it a vindication to be accepted now?

Pop: I think there’s some of that, one note in the music of our experience doing this. But all that will be called into question because we had the temerity to actually make another album after all this time. It was like, “Hey fine, they want to go out and play some gigs together. Isn’t that nice?” That’s the underscore of it. Then, “Oh my God, they dared to make an album and put their name on it? And the guy’s 60 and he says ‘dick’?” Or whatever it is. We’ve kind of put ourselves out there again. It probably would have been easier for us to keep playing reunion gigs, frankly.  

Kot: You’ve said that one of the reasons you placed songs like “The Passenger” and “Lust for Life” in TV commercials is to keep your music alive when it otherwise was ignored. Did it work?

Pop: I have a complex set of reasons why I actively cultivate and am involved in and very happy and positive about all that licensing. It allows the music to finally breathe daylight. The corporation is the new castle, and now radio outlets that wouldn’t touch any of my songs before see that if Nike likes me, it’s OK for them to like me. And so actual radio play followed because of the reach of film and television. Plus I get paid about 1,000 times more for one play on TV than I do on radio. Eventually all the formats that most brutally excluded us are dying. Hand in glove with their policy about excluding us was their policy about being boring, fake and shitty in general. The songs themselves have become advertising on radio. When our stuff is used in that way, it sounds great. It stands out. Good content is so scarce that when someone hears one of our songs, they go check it out on the Internet and suddenly we’re on an equal playing field with Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Chesney, John Cougar, R.E.M., whatever. Suddenly things are evened out a little bit. It’s been terrific for me. It’s also helped me do certain things that put me in a position to promote this group. I’m in a stronger spot because of that.

Kot: Your shows continue to be very demanding physically. How do you stay in shape?

Pop: There’s something called Qigong, the basic Taoist building block exercises of Tai Chi. I was in very bad shape going on 20 years ago and I found a guy in New York, a Korean guy, and he was my benefactor and taught me these Chinese exercises. You don’t have to wear a funny suit. You can do them in the bathroom if you’re in a pinch. You don’t need a lot of room. It’s not a lot of huffing and puffing. I just do that to regulate my body and that’s really all I do aside from living the life of a beach bum whenever possible. When you and I stop talking now I’m going to go to the beach for two hours — two beautiful hours — before I have to get back to work.

Kot: Do you ever see yourself reaching a point where you won’t do this anymore?   

Pop: I feel like this (reunion with the Stooges) is the last thing I really had to do. I’m still nervous about the whole thing a little bit. Nervous in the sense that it’s dangerous to be in a group. That’s why almost all the new groups that have succeeded in the last 10 years are just brand names. It’s usually just one guy with all the power and three or four guys who adopt his haircut and are willing to live where he lives. That’s what’s easy enough that works. But it seems to be going really well with us and I want to give this a good run and I wouldn’t rule out following up this record. I keep a stack of CDs on a side table near a lamp behind my couch and it’s my life’s work. It’s getting pretty high. I’d like to make one more studio album of some sort just so I have 20, and I would be happiest if it was a Stooges follow-up.

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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