Branching out: a Wooden Wand interview
Delightful, charming and unquestionably talented, James Jackson Toth and his band Wooden Wand recently graced the shores of Cornwall for a special show at the recently launched Beerwolf Books in Falmouth. After releasing his latest album Blood Oaths of the New Blues on Fire Records earlier this year to noted critical praise, we sat down with him to discuss songwriting, touring and the origins of his prolific career in music.
Congratulations on 'Blood Oaths ...'. You described this record as the "wake and bake" follow up to 'Briarwoods'' revelry. I wondered what influenced the woozy, hypnotic sound and was it something you had to get out of your system?
JJT: That’s interesting because that sound is... I usually hate the term organic when people discuss music but it just so happened that during the first day of recording our drummer Brad bought a harmonium and said 'Oh, maybe we’ll use this'. Then we all started talking about how we all love those Nico solo records and the Hermann Nitsch's Harmoniumwerks and stuff and then we were like, 'let’s try this' and it ended up being the thing that just links this record together. I mean Blood Oaths is a truly collaborative record in the sense that I just brought songs in this time whereas Briarwood was more directed. Blood Oaths is more like acoustic demos and this group of individuals coming together to make this sound. I’m still pretty psyched about it.
I noticed that this is the second major album you’ve put out on Fire Records. I wondered what the relationship between yourself and the label was like, in that you’ve decided to continue doing this work as opposed to your previous DIY output.
Yeah, Fire is a great label. There’s always a time and place for DIY stuff and Fire are fine with me doing DIY stuff. I can always press limited things. In fact we have a limited release coming out at the end of the year which is a collaborative thing with this other band so as far as labels go, I have no complaints. It’s a great roster, I mean Giant Sand, Mission of Burma, some great stuff.
On this European tour you’ve chosen several dates for the UK. Falmouth doesn't show up often on the schedule so what charmed you to make your way here?
Well, I was here last year and I just had such a great time, I played at... it’s right on the water here. You probably know the place.
Gylly Beach Cafe?
JJT: Umm, I dunno if that was it but anyway I was here last year and I played with Duke Garwood.
Oh, I know where you were - Miss Peapods!
Yes! Miss Peapods and the gig was cool but afterwards we got to walk around its just beautiful here and I mean Cornwall in general is just a beautiful place. Here and Hebden Bridge I’ve been telling the band are the best places to see. Sometimes when the scenery is this beautiful the gig is like an afterthought, New Orleans in the States is the same way. The gig is usually pretty average there but it’s like you’re in New Orleans, it’s amazing! And I love David Morris who is also playing tonight.
In the past you’ve been really prolific and released a Wooden Wand record every year but I noticed that 2012, there was a break; it was total silence from you. What prompted that gap between 'Briarwood' and 'Blood Oaths'?
I guess that’s as long as I could have waited before putting out another record, I mean it was a conscious thing to try to let people catch up a little bit. I get tired of the press that talk about how I have a hundred releases but a lot of those were cassettes and a whole lot of 7” and it makes it sound like I’m churning them out. I mean compared to some other people like Robert Pollard, but I’m lazy. My work ethic is like shameful so it gets to be a thing that journalists use as like an angle and I didn’t really want that anymore. So now I figured out I’ll put out like one major, not major label but major release a year and then put out a few 7”s around that and not overwhelm and saturate the already overcrowded market.
I know this may have been brought up quite a lot but how did your relationship with Michael Gira begin? Was it his idea to produce your record?
Yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time - long before Death Seat. We would see each other at shows and he wrote me a really nice letter and told me he was a fan of my music which to me was like you know, it was unreal because I grew up listening to Swans and he remains a hero of mine even after working with him.
The timing was never right, either he was busy with Akron or Devendra or Angels of Light and I was always on another label and when the whole major label catastrophe occurred, I was a free agent suddenly and he was the first person I called and he said 'Yeah, let’s do it'. He is one of the most unpretentious and real people I’ve ever met. He’s exactly what he appears to be.
Like you say, completely unpretentious. Did his influence when producing the record change its sound at all to what you originally envisioned?
(Laughs) Oh yes! We had to completely re-record it for that very reason. I mean he definitely has a fingerprint and, you know, I had to kinder defer to him on a lot of things and give myself over to the idea of being produced. It’s never something I’ve... I did a record with Lee Ronaldo, I did a record with Steve Fisk but it was definitely a collaborative thing, whereas with Death Seat, Michael would go through my lyrics - which nobody has ever done before - and he was like ‘Argghhhh, what does this even mean!? Arrgh! This is no good!’ and that’s like old school producing, he paid attention to everything.
There were some concessions and compromises that I made and I hear them on the record and I’m like 'Ahh, I would’ve done that differently' but I think that’s part of the fun and especially someone like him who I trust unconditionally, it’s a true meeting of the minds.
Lyrically, Blood Oaths treads a lot of narrative ground with prominent characters on tracks like 'Outsider Blues'. Are they autobiographical or part of your imagination?
I think everything’s a little bit autobiographical but no, I find it lazy like when you read books and the main character is THE author. I didn’t really wanna do that, I didn’t want to put myself in it anymore than was going to be subconscious and further I don’t believe in records being a catalogue of obsessions and interests. I hear bands, especially newer bands and I can guess their entire record collection based on what they sound like and I try really hard. Of course whatever you absorb you secrete and there’s always going to be hints of things. I mean I listen to Thelonious Monk everyday and I dare anybody to find any of that in my music. I just try to do whatever comes naturally and just let it spill out.
With the song 'Jjohn Balance', it’s obviously an ode to John Balance from Coil. What does that song mean to you in the context of the album?
Right, yes. I think it’s about finding a spirit animal or like a guardian angel character in someone you’re a fan of. It could be Elvis, it could be anybody but for me John Balance represents living the life you sing about in the song. For better or worse, he did it. He lived exactly the way he wanted to live and sometimes when you feel a lot of judgement from the straight world or it’s the post office, or the hospital. In the case of John Balance it’s the hospital.
I have a lot of friends who have drug problems and things like that and I constantly hear these stories of how they’re looked at in a certain way by ‘the staff’. I always say, consider the source. I mean, would you trade with any of those people with a million dollars? Probably not. I mean, all they do is talk about TV. Anyway, but like John Balance in that song is interchangeable. It could have been about Michael Gira but, you know, any number of people.
Around the time of 'Death Seat' you said you could pen a song at any moment’s notice. How old were you when you started taking an interest in writing songs - was it like an epiphany or something that gradually happened?
Well, I always wrote. When I was a kid I wanted to be an author, that’s what I wanted to do. I was actually a late bloomer when it came to writing songs because I was really into heavy metal when I was a kid. I really liked the Earache label and Napalm Death and so obviously I wasn’t writing those kind of songs. So I’d be listening to that music and be I was learning to play heavy metal bass and on the other side of that I was writing words and poems and whatever you write when you’re a kid, coming of age as an artistic person or whatever.
It was only till like college, it was like '96 maybe that I learned like a D7 chord and applied that to my writing and it just started coming really easily. It’s true I can write a song on demand but again it might not be a very good one but if I do really have a gift or whatever, that’s all I really know how to do.
Like you were saying about metal, you even went and put back-masking on 'Blood Oaths'. Have you ever considered adapting a heavy metal or noise rock sound to your own music or do you not think that would fit with your kind of song writing?
It goes back to what I was saying earlier, that music is very close to my heart. I mean I come from a metal family; my family is really into heavy metal and it was like my first musical love. I was in a metal band with my ex-wife who's still playing in that band and I kinda got that outta’ my system but no, I think it would be a cheap thing to do cause metal fans can really sniff out the true versus the dilettantes and I don’t want to ever be thought of as like a dilettante.
I could talk metal all day but I’m not a metal dude. I find it kinda easy to write those sorts of riffs but it’s not what kinda comes out of me naturally any more than Thelonious Monk comes out of me. I would love to be an excellent jazz pianist and I would love to be like Bill Steer but it’s not me, so what comes out is this songwriter stuff. People think I go home and listen to Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt and I do sometimes but it’s a very small part of my interest in music. The songwriter tradition, this is what I do - honest!
Have you ever considered revisiting your earlier DIY work and then re-recording it for a major release or are you done with that, it’s all in the past?
No, I have toyed with that idea, for sure but I guess I’m kinda saving that for when the day comes, where I’m bereft, I’m outta ideas. I’d have to be pretty spiritually bankrupt to do it. I mean it sounds like fun, like a metal band sounds like fun but it couldn’t be something I could take too seriously. Those songs already exist and it’s hard enough for me to listen to them, they’re another Wooden Wand! (laughs)
For more information about Wooden Wand, visit the official website. Blood Oaths of the New Blues is out now on Fire Records.