Interview by Addison Martinez
"In the suddenness of morning,
Clouds are solitary planes:
Soft or low shoulders,
Uneven lanes..." ("Ragtop Ruby")
I can't begin to talk about the music of James Jackson Toth without first comparing him to the character Jonathan Strange in the British writer Susanna Clark's novel of alternate-history, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It is the story of two magicians: the first one, Mr. Norrell, is by-the-book and well-studied, but a legitimate magician nonetheless; the second, Jonathan Strange, is a total natural, with capabilities beyond what theoretical magicians would have thought possible. As far as who's who in the real world, I'd say take your pick for a Mr. Norrell, for me, it was Bob Dylan; James Jackson Toth was undoubtedly the adept Jonathan Strange. In fact, it wasn't until I took to my front porch one evening to listen to Toth's instrumental "Lucifer Over Lambeau (Collage 165.3)" and a hailstorm broke out that I realized that I was talking to, and listening to, the man, if not the magician, named Wooden Wand.
"I was born where the wild gravel grew
Raised in the tar that the bus tires threw..." ("Overpass")
As confirmed in this interview, Wooden Wand is no longer and James Jackson Toth (a really nice guy) is on to a completely different sound with a rock group, One Eleven Heavy, but it's a sound he has had no trouble mastering, just like he as Wooden Wand did playing psychedelic folk music - what he once called "the New Blues." I never got to see Wooden Wand in any of their various incarnations over the 20 or so years that they toured. However, there are some fantastic live recordings of Wooden Wand available on Bandcamp, along with various demo collections, and official releases, and they're all worth hearing. Toth is somehow on the radar (he's been produced by guys from Sonic Youth and Swans, he had a major-label release) but he's quiet as a mouse in even this internet age, and as I can say from talking to him, he's genuinely humble.
"You make your own fun here,
But rules still apply
And as for the glory
It's to be denied..." ("Overpass")
I have to reiterate that James Jackson Toth is an absolute master. Yes, I think he sounds Dylan-esque on "Dead Sue" but that's something I believe is not easy to do. Likewise, "Future Dream" sounds like it was sung from that same perch that a young Leonard Cohen sang from, but I can't say that about any other Toth song. People have compared "Southern Colorado Song" to Bruce Springsteen, but it also sounds like Neil Young, so those two giant birds are very nearly killed by one stone and we all get the chance to enjoy the music that comes from the clash. Toth is an original poet of a writer with a voice that only grows on you.
"In dreams, you can't dream
But when you're awakened
The vault of the sky opens to you
Just calm yourself down
Kid, take it easy
This will get better, it has to..." ("No Bed for Beatle Wand")
PSF: The first song that got me into Wooden Wand was "Sacrificial." I was scouring over your song collection, searching for a song I heard in late '08-early '09 which I think was "Death Dealer Blues" and the line about "every step he left a trail of pain behind" stuck out to me as visually stunning and the one-word chorus hook was and is especially beautiful. Can you tell me about that song?
JJT: It's interesting to me you identify that line in particular, because I have to credit my friend, the author Trinie Dalton, with inspiring it. In her short story "Scarlet Gilia," she describes a hike up a volcano in Guatemala with a barefoot sherpa, who cut his feet so badly on the rocks that he was bloody by the time he descended. Unfortunately, I don't have the book handy to quote it, but I recall that the sherpa's pain represented a sort of tribute, and was a symbol of his love and respect for the volcano, as well as his home, where the volcano stood. I thought that was beautiful imagery and it dovetailed perfectly with something I'd been thinking a lot about, namely, the notion of sacrifice and accountability, and what it means to acknowledge a debt and to pay it back--or forward, as it were. This has implications as far-ranging as our larger responsibility to each other as citizens of the world to more comparatively mundane concerns, i.e. the ethics of streaming and taking art--and people--for granted. "This rock asks nothing, but it knows your blood from mine" means you can't duck responsibility forever without facing some consequences, some reckoning. The song wrote itself after those first few lines, but it wouldn't exist without Trinie's great story.
PSF: I had not thought of that song relating to musicians and the current streaming reality; the song itself seems like an eternal parable or fable, but it's true that music is very much an eternal gift, hard to put a price on. Another song of yours is based on a Woody Allen short story, correct? How much of yourself went into writing "Ragtop Ruby"?
JJT: Yeah, a lot of people who liked that song ("Sacrificial") were disappointed when I told them about that 'streaming' angle. They thought, like you, that it dealt with something larger and more universal, and I'd argue that it does, and I'd also argue that music and art are a smaller part of that larger, universal something. I think you can apply the moral to anything you like. The most enduring parables and fables obviously aren't trying to teach us all about hares and tortoises and talking serpents. Rather, they address larger questions to do with morality, perseverance, integrity, love, commonality, the human condition. That's what I think songs should do, too.
"Ragtop Ruby," like most of my songs--especially from this period--contains an element of autobiography. Some songs have more of me in them than others; that one is pretty, err, nonfictional (though there is no specific "Ruby"; there never is, unless she/they is me). Going back to what I said above about reaching towards a kind of universality, these days I actually aspire to remove myself from the songs completely, and those songs are, in my opinion, my most successful ones (though I should mention that not everyone agrees). Obviously, we are the sum of our lived experiences, so it is only natural that parts of us will emerge, consciously or otherwise, in anything we create, whether it's a song, a painting, a story, a ballet. But, on the whole, I reject the notion of songwriting as a vehicle for self-expression. Approaching a song that way, in my view, threatens to reduce the entire process to an exercise in vanity, and we already have social media for that.
That said, I'd be lying if I said I never used my songwriting to reckon with or "work through" things in my life, especially when life was particularly lousy. But I probably wasn't aware of those therapeutic aspects at the time. The Born Bad album, for example, is a very personal one because it is (frighteningly in retrospect!) largely autobiographical. It isn't one of my more popular albums as far as sales go, but I think more people have written me privately about that album than any other I've made. It seems to resonate with a certain kind of person, and I think, if you DO relate to the songs on there, you relate to them a great deal.
Oh, and I only got a title from Woody - "Wither Thou Goest, Cretin" is a title a fictional author uses in one of his short stories, if I recall correctly!
PSF: You're working with a band now, One Eleven Heavy, and I've heard you say your approach to writing with One Eleven Heavy is different than in the Wooden Wand days. Is Wooden Wand over for you as a musical project? I'm not sure if the four-volume Toth's Law demo collection was a Wooden Wand or a James Jackson Toth affair.
JJT: Yeah, One Eleven Heavy is my main focus now. I do write differently for that band because I write with the group's strengths in mind. I know what they are capable of, which is a lot. We've been playing together for several years now, so I can usually predict how something will go over before I email everybody a demo.
Wooden Wand is effectively over, yeah, barring the possibility of an archival release or something. I'd still really like to see Brooklyn Blizzard released in physical form (it's currently only on Bandcamp) since it is the last thing I did under that name and I really like how it turned out. I just feel like that particular project has run its course, and sales of my last few records would seem to reinforce that feeling. I think I was doing my best work toward the end, but those records didn't get the attention the earlier ones did, or that I felt they deserved, so, you know, I'm choosing to read the room, as the kids say. The Toth's Law material is trickier because most of it (well, volumes 1-3) was recorded while Wooden Wand was still a thing, so nominally, they are Wooden Wand releases, but I think going forward, I'll just release them on Bandcamp under my real name.
I still write and record every day--some things I make are WW-adjacent, some not--but if I do any solo stuff in the foreseeable future, it'll either be radically different than what came before or will be done under a pseudonym and released anonymously. Maybe both of those things!
PSF: Sounds good to me, although I have no idea what to expect based on what you just said! You are just about impossible to pigeonhole. Even the term 'songwriter' seems too narrow to describe what you have done over the years. For example, Hassara features some very loud psychedelic blues rock that completely differs from anything else in the Wooden Wand songbook, but it is heavy in places where One Eleven Heavy are light. Likewise, your work with the World War IV is darker in parts than Wooden Wand tended to be. The song title "Someday This Child Will Die" is, in itself, especially heavy.
JJT: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and a lot of the reason I listen to music is to learn things and be inspired. I stubbornly--maybe arrogantly--never really saw a need to limit myself to one thing. This has probably been to my detriment, professionally speaking. But I listen to very little of what could be described as "songwriter music."
External forces impose limits as soon as you become known for doing a particular thing. Those limits make it difficult for an artist to follow their instincts without having to first consider the marketplace. If they wanna sell records, they are forced to contend with the baggage of expectation. Like, to use an extreme example, what if Madonna wanted to make a bluegrass or techno record? Even if Madonna released the best bluegrass or techno record ever made, it would still be considered a novelty in her catalog, and very few people who love bluegrass or techno would ever take it seriously or want to give it a chance.
One of the benefits of not being famous is I just do what I want to do, and hope that my small fanbase is interested enough to keep up. I don't feel a lot of that external pressure I mentioned. My earliest songwriting heroes, like Neil and Dylan, defied expectations constantly. Look at Trans, look at Saved. There really isn't the widescale support for those sorts of impetuous diversions now.
The World War IV album is one of the albums I wish had made a bigger impact. It was basically a hat tip to the sort of artsy punk and screamo that was so important to me and several members of that band when we were teenagers. Bands like Moss Icon, Universal Order or Armageddon, stuff like that. For whatever reason, that album didn't seem to click with people.
"Someday This Child Will Die" may seem pretty bleak on the surface, but I do think hidden in the song is a very positive message. After all, the next lyric, if I remember right, is "so give them a reason to try to live forever," or something to that effect. It's about time not being a renewable resource, and the determination to make the most of that time.
PSF: I think I spoke too soon when I said the World War IV album was darker than most Wooden Wand is. I forget your albums always go into dark places. In fact, I totally flubbed up in forgetting your Michael Gira produced masterpiece Death Seat. Songs like "The Mountain" ("I went out to look for the Kodiak bear / I walked back to town with dry blood in my hair") and "Hotel Bar" ("A hotel bar in the sky / where even your honesty's full of white lies") reflect some of the gloomier aspects of man, but what hits me the hardest is when you sing, "What if we have a kid and we hate his guts?" in "Until Wrong Looks Right." Like in the line "Someday this child will die," you have a way of voicing thoughts that some people may deem too unpleasant to speak of, and this ties in with you being so hard to pigeonhole as an artist. For a so-called "freak-folk"/"psychedelic" artist, you have not ever shied away from the negative vibes. It seems, light or dark, the truth is what made a Wooden Wand album what it was.
JJT: Thank you. That is high praise. I should mention that several years ago some friends of mine asked me to play "Until Wrong Looks Right" at their wedding. At first, I was taken aback--that one?!--but my wife Leah said it made perfect sense to her because she said the song deals with a specifically "grownup" kind of love, with many of the associated existential questions. It made sense after that. They're still happily married, by the way.
PSF: Of your music, I always said, "he's a country singer from New York City" to explain who I was listening to, because your voice seemed to stand out from whatever style of song was being played (at times, it's as if you could have upgraded to being a rockabilly singer). I would say Neil and Dylan are country singers, too (and psychedelic freaks in their own way). Would you say Townes Van Zandt was a "sunshine-blues" artist? Or that Leonard Cohen was "acid-folk"? I just can't believe you ended up in this New Weird America when these old-timers were breaking the same rules and following the same traditions that you did for so long as Wooden Wand.
JJT: As far as being a "country singer from NYC" (ha!!), I have always said--not entirely seriously--that my "accent" is "rock and roll." It never bothered me when Mick Jagger yucked it up on songs like "Dear Doctor"; I thought it was amusing. He was just inhabiting the song in a way that felt right to him, the way an actor or actress might fidget with their hat or something because they think it's something their character might do. There are, of course, places I won't go and things I won't do--you won't hear me singing in Jamaican patois anytime soon--but for the most part, I think it's fun to try to inhabit a character when you are singing, even if it's just for a single line, as long as it doesn't feel too conspicuous. I lived in New York a long time and have also lived in the south a long time, so when things come out, they tend to come out somewhat naturally, and I don't spend a lot of time second guessing them. Obviously, there are things that are and probably should be verboten, like when an accent or affectation crosses over into disrespect or appropriation, and as a guy who spent a large part of his teenage years rapping, I'm really sensitive to that.
One time, a guy reviewed one of my records in some print magazine and complained that my voice was "pitched somewhere between Ozzy and Lou Reed." And this was supposed to be a negative review! It made my day. I've never kept a scrapbook of Wooden Wand press or anything, but I wish I'd kept that one.
I consider my voice my primary instrument, so I listen very carefully to vocalists. The singers that inspire me most are the fearless ones: Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Catherine Ribeiro, Annette Peacock, people like that. Then there are singers I just love to listen to because of the quality of their voice, their technique, their phrasing, or some combination of those things: Gene Clark, Nina Simone, Julie London, Nat King Cole, Darryl Hall, Horace Andy, Phil Ochs, The Roches. I actually think Bonnie Raitt is a terrific singer. And I mean the hit songs. Her vocal on "Nick of Time"--which is one of her most popular songs, everyone knows it--is, in my view, flawless. Like Darryl Hall on "Sara Smile": flawless. I could talk about singers all day so I'd better stop.
PSF: Do you have any favorite country singers?
JJT: There are many I like, but I think I've been more directly influenced by bluegrass singers than country singers; guys like Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin. As far as country singers, Merle is without peer, and I think that should be obvious to anyone who's ever heard him sing. George Jones and Jim Reeves are similarly beyond reproach. On the more contemporary tip, I really love Gary Stewart. I could listen to him sing anything. Ditto Keith Whitley, who was able to rise above material that one could argue was often beneath him. Keith Whitley could sell you anything. He probably could have sung "Welcome to the Jungle" in a way that could make you weep. I also really like Tim McGraw.
PSF: I should note that I was listening to "Overpass" a lot when I deemed you country.
JJT: That's funny because that song's about a very un-country thing: graffiti! But yeah I'm pretty sure that's the first and only folk song about graffiti. Now, that song is autobiographical. I was planning a concept album called Islander about Staten Island but I only wrote two songs for it. I never follow through on concept albums. I don't think I have the attention span!
PSF: I understand this notion of the songwriter as singular artist goes even further back to guys like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, who are freakishly unlike any other artists. Charlie Patton sounds like a punk rocker these days.
JJT: The amazing thing about those guys is that their influence is obviously everywhere, but at the same time, it's also become in some ways invisible, because as that music recedes further and further into the past, it becomes impossible to chart or quantify its resonance and staying power. How do you even acknowledge a debt like that? A kid tuning his guitar in open Em for the first time likely has no idea it's the "Bentonia tuning" invented (or at least popularized) by Skip James. There are garage rock bands covering songs they think were written by white guys but were actually written by people who've been dead for over a century. I really don't think there is a way to overstate the importance of those pre-war blues artists (or the earliest bluegrass artists, like Bill Monroe). They should be teaching that music in elementary schools.
By the way, if you haven't read Stephen Calt's book on Skip James, I'd Rather Be the Devil, I highly recommend it. I don't always agree with Calt, who can come off really petulant and opinionated, but it's a great book on a very complicated man.
PSF: "Dogpaddlin' Home to Live with my Lord" has a sort of gospel feel to it and it's not quite like most of what we were hearing from Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice at that time. Was that song a sort of milestone for you as a writer? Is there a reason that one made it onto the album The Flood?
JJT: I'm really pleased you made the connection to gospel - I think you are the first to do so. Obviously, it isn't a gospel tune, but it was inspired by one: Mahalia Jackson's incredible performance of "Trouble of the World" at the end of the film Imitation of Life. The title is a direct reference: the refrain to the hymn is "I'm going home to live with my lord." Very powerful performance. The Flood was the second in our trilogy of loosely-based concept albums. Buck Dharma was our nod to metal and Gipsy Freedom was our nod to jazz. The Flood was to be the "folk" album, and the idea was that all the songs would evoke some sort of apocalyptic imagery. The singer of the title track is supposed to be a fanatical religious type, maybe mixed with a little Travis Bickle ("someday a real rain will come," etc.). The reference to "dogpaddlin'"--which in retrospect I realize is a bit silly--is related to this idea of the biblical flood. The singer is "right with God" so to speak, so though he is witnessing everything he owns, knows, and loves wash away, he is convinced he is bound for his great reward in the sky. I always try to write such characters without passing judgment, though the narrator of this tune is clearly fucked up. I didn't really think there was anything especially distinctive about the tune when I wrote it. It was only after people started requesting it when we played live and a lot of reviews started mentioning it that I realized it was something that resonated with people.
See Part 2 of the Wooden Wand interview
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