At this point in his musically inclined career, you could probably build a small brick and mortar building devoted entirely to the catalog of James Jackson Toth. With nearly 100 releases to his name (and varied pseudonyms), Toth is one of the more prolific musicians of the last two decades. He’s recorded and released hours of solo material under his own name (as well as WAND and Wooden Wand), but he’s also played with countless bands and groups over the years and recorded and released nearly all of it.
Last month saw the re-release of Toth’s Briarwood (originally released this past November), now a double LP that includes eight stripped-down demo versions of songs from the original LP. TMT recently chatted with Toth regarding the Briarwood re-release, the indisputable Suck that is an unending tour schedule, and just how good that new Lee Ranaldo LP is.
Why did you decide to re release Briarwood? Is this your first re-release? Would you do it again if given the opportunity?
It was actually the label’s decision to re-release it, not mine, but I think it’s a testament to Fire’s belief in the record that they’re re-releasing it so soon. I think we all felt that the timing was all wrong for the initial release, and a lot of that was my fault — I had a few too many pokers in the fire at the time.
You’ve alluded to the unreleased material on Briarwood as your “grimoire.” Why these songs in particular?
They aren’t unreleased songs, just demo versions. The idea is that the demos are created more to remind me that a song exists than for any other reason. They also help the band get familiar with the structures of the songs. I write rather prolifically, so if I don’t keep some sort of record of what I’m writing, things get forgotten.
The age of the blog critic is a death knell in a lot of ways. I’m a stickler for good grammar. To me, a misplaced modifier ruins your credibility faster than anything dumb you might possibly write about music.
Have you noticed any significant changes in your songwriting over the years? Can you pinpoint any specific things you consciously do differently?
I think I’ve just gotten better at it. I should hope so, at least, having been doing it for so long. There are things I’ve written in the past I’d never write now, and the inverse is also true.
Was all the material for Briarwood written for/with a full band in mind? Have you had to change your way of thinking when writing for a full band?
It was written with a band in mind, yes, but that doesn’t really change the way I write too much. There are considerations — like leaving a solo section, having an additional vocal melody, that sort of thing — but mostly I just bring the songs to the band and let them worry about making music out of it.
Are you enjoying playing with a full band? Do you enjoy playing solo as much as playing with a full band? Do you still try and do both equally?
I love playing with a band, and this band in particular. I really don’t enjoy playing solo, never have and only really do it out of necessity.
Have you always enjoyed touring? Any awful/hilarious recent tour stories?
Oh, the novelty of touring wore off for me around the turn of the century. I really don’t enjoy “business travel,” which is what touring is. I love traveling for pleasure, but I don’t get to do that very often. In fact, ironically, I probably take fewer vacations than people who work in a bank. As for awful/hilarious stories, on my recent tour with my old friend Jeffrey Lewis, we presided over no fewer than three vehicles that had to be towed within a three-day period. Murphy’s Law situation, and I don’t mean the band, which would have been preferable. A puppy was also killed on our watch. Not making that up. Raw shit.
Do you pay attention to your critics? Is there a significant reason why you pay attention or ignore criticism? Any critics getting it right?
It’s funny; the negative reviews have a better history of “getting it right” than the positive ones. There are exceptions, of course, and I generally prefer to read that someone enjoyed the record, obviously, but I tend to learn more from bad reviews. I’d like to say I don’t read press, but I often do. I just wish there were more real writers writing about music. The age of the blog critic is a death knell in a lot of ways. I’m a stickler for good grammar. To me, a misplaced modifier ruins your credibility faster than anything dumb you might possibly write about music.
What are your thoughts on downloading music? Are you cool with your fans downloading your music first and then paying for it? Do you embrace technology?
There are things I’ve written in the past I’d never write now, and the inverse is also true.
I would not say I embrace technology, no. I do obviously use email, social networking and, err, Microsoft Word. I’m okay with fans downloading if they like what they hear and then go and buy the record. Using downloading as an audition tool will just make bands work harder, and I’m all for that. Also, if fans download and don’t buy the record, I would hope they’d be charitable enough to come to the show and maybe buy a t-shirt. I understand no one likes to buy CDs anymore, but for God’s sake, buy something. Our van won’t run on your demo tapes. Also, piracy has already made half the things I love about music obsolete — record stores, cool labels, and local scenes…
Any current musicians you’re paying attention to? Anything current you wouldn’t hesitate to plead with someone to run out right now and buy?
Oh, man, tons of things. Recently, the Carter Tutti Void album has been ruling my world. I love Lee Ranaldo’s new album, that’s my current car jam. The Fugitives by Control Unit. The new Charles Gayle album, Streets, may be his best work. Everything Graham Lambkin has ever done, but most recently, his brilliant Amateur Doubles LP. The Robert Turman reissue, Flux, has been getting a lotta play at our house. The last Scott Tuma record, Dandelion, is also getting wore out around here, especially at night. Really love this guy Simon Henneman, who released an album last year, Black Magic and Mustache, that I’ve been playing constantly. As far as songwriters go, I really dig Cass McCombs; his last few albums blew me away, but this most recent one is a pinnacle, I think. I just reconnected with that Ezra Furman guy, I think he’s got something for sure, but I’m a sucker for any singer that sounds even a little bit like Gordon Gano. Hiss Golden Messenger put out one of my favorite albums of the past five years, Poor Moon. Get that one first.
New album in October, called Blood Oaths of the New Blues. I’m extremely proud of it — it feels like a defining record. I’m psyched for you to hear it.