James Jackson Toth (Wooden Wand): Interview
“For better or worse, there is no Wooden Wand sound.”
This interview seems like a long time comin’. The work of James Jackson Toth has followed me throughout my career. As I fumbled and foraged for the right words to write, Toth had them in bushels no matter his backing band, the mood of the music, or the genre I haplessly attached.
It seems some things have changed little. The new Wooden Wand album — Wooden Wand and World War IV — is a powerful statement of aging, commercialism, and resilience — but moreso just a badass rocker from a man who has plenty of love for those sorts of classic albums. In fact, it may be his most straightforward statement yet.
Tiny Mix Tapes spoke to Toth about his past, the business of digital music and touring, and how the new album is different from the already multifarious output that forged his musical identity.
You’ve never seemed to follow a predestined blueprint based on genre or audience expectation.
Well, it’s conscious inasmuch as I try to make every record different. I have certainly nixed certain songs for sounding too Second Attention or too Waiting In Vain or whatever. Say what you will about WW records, but I take a lot of pride in never having repeated myself. For better or worse, there is no Wooden Wand sound. Mostly I just try to do what feels most honest, and not second guess myself too much.
Do you go back and listen to your body of work? Are there any albums or songs you feel you’ve outgrown — that no longer reflect on Wooden Wand or you as you live today?
After they are released, I only occasionally go back and listen to old Wooden Wand albums to relearn an old song or something. That’s about it. What I mostly hear on every record I’ve made are concessions, mistakes and compromises; things I would have liked to have done better; lyrics that should have been rewritten. Small stuff, but vexing stuff — I am a Virgo, after all. I like at least parts of every Wooden Wand album but I find nothing constructive in trying to listen to them for pleasure.
On the other hand, before a record comes out — before sequencing and mastering and all that — I listen obsessively. I make a CD for the car, I play it at home, and I listen on an iPod. I hear a lifetime’s worth of the album in those weeks before I send it to the label. After that, it’s like clearing hard drive space — now there’s finally room for more.
Do you feel pressure from fans who have followed you for the last decade to go back to a particular sound/album?
Not really. I’m traditional in the sense that I believe in a sort of loyalty to an artist, to allow your favorite band their mistakes and growing pains, and I like to think WW fans share that view. There’s obviously too much Wooden Wand material to try to cater to everyone, so I just try to release the stuff that’s most exciting to me and hope that excitement gets transferred to the listener; if not, I hope that listener sticks around and keeps checking in with me.
Several years ago I played in Montreal, and as I was setting up the merch, this guy came up on a bike. He immediately bought everything on the table — CDRs, shirts, LPs — spent quite a bit of money. Then he asked me, “Tonight — is it the jams or is it the songs?” We’d been playing songs on that tour, and I told him so. “Great,” he said. “See you next time!” And he put all his newly acquired WW merch into his backpack, got on his bike, and left! Didn’t even stay for the gig. I thought that was pretty wild. So, you know, that guy gets it. If you don’t like the country record, wait it out. It probably won’t be country next time.
I ran the stats recently and only 2% of the people who have streamed the songs in full have paid for them.
That response from fans, was it the impetus to begin putting out hard-to-find and unreleased Wooden Wand material via Bandcamp? How do you see the digitization as a means of spreading more of your music? Is it the antithesis of your desire to record and release “proper” albums?
I’m of two minds about the Bandcamp thing: on the one hand I don’t really want to encourage people to experience music solely as a series of ones and zeros (hence the exhaustive contextual liner notes, cover art); I mean, I don’t buy digital music. On the other hand, Bandcamp and the like have become a pretty popular, err, distribution model, and I thought it would be cool way to offer some rare stuff. The response, officially, has been very positive, but I ran the stats recently and only 2% of the people who have streamed the songs in full have paid for them. That was pretty disappointing, so I’ll probably take them all down at some point, chalk it up to a failed experiment. A major design flaw of Bandcamp is that you can stream whole songs an infinite number of times, and since a lot of people listen to music on their computers anyway, what’s the incentive for them to pay for it? Anyway, in short, the idea of music in clouds seems to me pretty obviously pernicious but lest I be compared to Chaplin railing against the talkies I’ll leave it at that.
What benefits have you found to recording with different individuals and backing bands? What have you learned from them that you’ve carried with you into other collaborations/albums?
Different people obviously bring different elements and personalities, and putting people in weird, uncomfortable spots can usually result in some pretty far-out things. I recently asked Darin Gray — hands-down the greatest bass player I’ve ever worked with, and easily one of the finest all around musicians I know — to play a song with a pick, which, if you know Darin, is sort of like asking Jack Rose to play a Flying V. Or, you know, you make the engineer sing a harmony. That kind of stuff is fun. In general, it’s far too easy to get spoiled by a group of individuals, and, as much as I’d love to have a band with a stable membership, geography and other factors make it almost impossible. So I generally try to view it as a positive thing rather than a liability. It keeps things from becoming stale.
You’ve recorded for numerous labels, was this by design or just a product of the current state of the music business?
The latter. I can say I am on good to great terms with every label I’ve ever recorded for, with the exception of one (rhymes with ‘psycho-risk’). The 15-year-old me is still giddy about having the Kill Rock Stars, Young God, or Ecstatic Peace! logos on the back of my records. That said, I like the idea of a permanent home. Unfortunately, many of the good labels are barely surviving, and most of the ones that are flourishing are doing so by taking zero risks. I’m a risk.
How did your experience recording for Rykodisc/Warner Bros. shape your view of making albums in the aftermath? What value do you place on creating new recorded output at your continued pace?
The records are paramount. I don’t need to play live, I don’t need to make videos, but I feel compelled to write songs and then gather people to record them. It’s one of my favorite things to do, so I just keep doing it. Recording the album for Warner Brothers was actually a really positive experience — I got to work with Steve Fisk, Nels Cline, Carla Bozulich, John Dietrich, Otto Hauser — just great, inspiring people. I also feel lucky to have been probably one of the last ‘indie’ artists of my generation to have been put in such a strange situation. It was the tail end of the majors being all, ‘Let’s try this,’ you know? I felt like I was Royal Trux and I was making Thank You or Sweet Sixteen. It’s hard to imagine an artist who hasn’t sold more than 5,000 copies of any of their records being given that sort of budget and that sort of control now. It was the aftermath of that whole situation that was catastrophic. Looking back, I should have trusted my instincts a little more.
So why play live? Why make videos? Do you feel both are necessary to eke out a living as a musician? Do you believe albums and recording has been devalued with technology allowing anyone who wants the ability to record?
Seems to me, even if you work in a factory that produces caramel blowjobs, you still have to contend with traffic; maybe a dull coworker; an uptight boss… things like that. I love making songs and making records and occasionally the travel is enjoyable, but yes, in some ways the other demands are the necessary evils, means to an end. As for your second question, I think it’s pretty obvious that they have. I’m not sure why there are so many bands; there are fewer rewards than ever for doing this sort of work. Anyway, show me a record without at least some vague sense of having a deadline and I’ll show you a crappy record.
How has World War IV morphed from the Briarwood Virgins? What lessons from that experience have stuck to the new album?
The so-called Alabama Trilogy is nothing if not a testament to the versatility of the individuals in that band. But where Briarwood was me more or less giving direction to rank strangers, and Blood Oaths was the sort of blooming of true friendships and a true collaboration, the WW4 record literally couldn’t have happened with any other group of people. Going back to your earlier question, I was hellbent on releasing this under the name “World War IV,” no ‘Wooden Wand’ about it, because, really, I’m only 20% responsible for what you hear on that record. I only wrote the music for one song (“Our Father the Monster”); the rest was collaborative. David (Hickox) wrote most of the riffs, and the rest of us just added our parts. Then I wrote melodies and lyrics and sang them on top. Because of the absence of a ‘leadership role’ on that record, it’s a record I enjoy listening to for pleasure more than the average Wooden Wand album. When I listen to it, it impresses me. I’m really into it.
Then he asked me, “Tonight — is it the jams or is it the songs?” We’d been playing songs on that tour, and I told him so. “Great,” he said. “See you next time!”
Since World War IV is collaborative, why did Wooden Wand end up included in the name?
The reason for that is pretty mundane, I’m afraid — we felt that by putting the name Wooden Wand on it, it would sell better, because people seem to recognize the name ‘Wooden Wand.’ Again, I was against this, but the band members outvoted me on that. It is their record as much as it is mine. I think of it as “the World War IV album.”
Why the flirtation with name changes?
Oh, Justin, this is truly one of the things that keeps me awake at night. Every record I make — every single one — I threaten to change the name. As you know, I’ve succeeded a few times, with varying success. Labels don’t like that idea and usually talk me out of it. But I often feel like people have some preconceived notion of what Wooden Wand is based on something they heard in 2004, and it maybe prevents people from checking out the newer records. I don’t know.
How did surrendering leadership with WWIV better the ideas you brought into the sessions? At what point did you and the band realize this was an equal effort and how did it free the music?
Almost immediately. David and Brad (Davis) and I were in Nashville, at William Tyler’s club The Stone Fox, shortly after the release of Blood Oaths of the New Blues, and they let it slip that they’d been working on some instrumental things. I asked them if they’d send them to me so I could try to write vocal melodies, lyrics and additional guitar parts over their riffs. They did, and I was really happy with the source material they sent. Then Jody and Janet wrote their own parts once we got into the studio. This isn’t the first time I’ve worked this way — in fact, a lot of the earliest WWVV stuff was done in a similar fashion — but it really seemed to inspire a lot of new ideas all around.
What world/political events have crept into WWIV? I wouldn’t call it a political album but there seems to be obtuse ideas of modern living presented through your unique writing.
I think it’s thematically consistent with the sort of preoccupations found on other WW albums — acknowledging the sort of silver linings. Even that first song, “Someday This Child Will Die,” is, to me, a very positive song. It’s a reminder to not waste time, to be present in every moment, to be awake. There is, also, of course, disillusionment with what you call modern living, but I try to let things remain somewhat ambiguous. “McDonalds On The Moon” is a ‘nothing’s scared’ sort of thing, which is intended to be sort of dunder-headed and humorous; “Directions To Debbie Harry’s House” is about feeling betrayed by the thing you love most, the sense of creeping oblivion, the longing for heroes. So I suppose there are political aspects in the sense that this is a band of people in their thirties who were raised on certain utopian ideas about hard work and justice and fairness who are now forced to acknowledge that much of what we were taught was empty rhetoric and bullshit. It’s a scary-ass fucking time to be a grownup, Justin, you know?