Is it a coincidence that James Jackson Toth (formerly Wooden Wand) and I both have AOL email accounts? Is it a coincidence that his favorite Sun City Girls’ album is titled Torch of the Mystics? Is it a coincidence that his favorite album of his is Second Attention, which just so happens to be my favorite as well. I think not, these are no mere coincidences, his presence on our Porch was predestined by fate. When we chatted via cell-phones, James was somewhere between Buffalo, New York and Bloomington, Indiana, touring for his new album Waiting In Vain, out now on Rykodisc. In Toth’s own words, Waiting In Vain is “kind of about temptation and redemption, and the varying ways you can view these things.” He told me he was not wearing his seat belt, and yes he was driving while talking on his cell-phone. More importantly James does not wear his seat belt on the highway of life, traffic laws are like your mother’s precautions, and you alas are not your own mother.
JD: What are some of your musical influences on Waiting In Vain?
JJT: I’m always influenced by the same things. I’ll be listening to something, and I’ll really like it, but I have no desire to mimic it. I don’t want to mimic anyone, and make money off of their ideas. So what I listen to doesn’t really reflect what the album sounds like. Lately I’ve been into Prefab Sprout, a really poppy 80s band, and I’ve always denied 80s music, the music of my youth, but now I have this nostalgic connection with it. I’ve always listened to old country music, and for like a whole year all I would buy is dub records. I grew up in a metal oriented family.
JJT: I was reading a lot of Dante at the time. Meeting people and traveling has always inspired me and I was traveling a lot. I think it’s necessary for writers; it’s a very creative and fertile thing to do. I am constantly inspired, I’m always writing, I don’t get writer’s block, I’m a generally restless person. I feel like I have to do it, I don’t choose to do it. If I could fight fires or be a carpenter I think I’d be a happier person. There are people who write songs and then there are songwriters. It’s a weird disease that infects you that you have no control over. I’ve talked to other writers who feel the same way. I’m superstitious about following the muse, or else I’m afraid I might lose it.
JD: What affect does living in the South have on your music?
JJT: Well I’ve lived in Tennessee for four years, but I grew up on Staten Island actually. To be honest, it doesn’t really influence my music. The cost of living is nice, and the people are great. If I was going to move somewhere for music, there are a lot better places to be like San Francisco or somewhere in Texas. I don’t flourish creatively in those environments. There is a comfort in Tennessee, and I go where im comfortable, something about being around people who aren’t artists.
JD: Are there any authors who have affected your writing?
JJT: I don’t read much fiction. I really enjoy Larry McMurtry and a poet, E.M. Cioran. He’s got this one book,The Trouble With Being Born, and if you ever think you’re going through hard times, you should read that book first.
JD: Can you talk a little bit about the Biblical imagery in your music, especially with Second Attention? I feel like there’s a Southern “fire and brimstone” kind of undertone to the lyrics.
JJT: Staying reverential, light versus dark, good versus evil, inspires a lot of writers. I grew up in a Catholic family, and Catholicism has a lot of imagery in it. I think a lot of people who grew up Catholic never really shake that for better or worse. I don’t consider myself a very religious person, but I do have my own relationship with a spiritual side of myself.
JD: What is the significance and/or motivation of the name change from Wooden Wand to your birth name?
JJT: I think people’s expectations started to eclipse what we wanted to do and Wooden Wand had hit a ceiling. I needed to make a clean break form the old, and I didn’t want to live in the past. Plus, there’s an honesty that comes with just playing under your own name, I feel more responsible for the music now because there’s nothing to hide behind.
JD: You have prolifically released such a large volume of music, but most of it is hard to find, or impossible to find due to it being released on a small, grassroots type of scale. Was this an intentional way to acquire a more cult following or was it circumstantial, and do you wish some these recordings would be reissued some day?
JJT: It definitely was not intentional, it was just the easiest way to do it. I think we spread ourselves thin by doing that, and I don’t regret anything we’ve released, but it did saturate our small market. I know that people sell them on Ebay for a ridiculous amount of money. People ask me about those recordings all the time, and the truth is I don’t even have a fourth of them anymore. I always tell people to just get the one you can buy on amazon, and don’t worry about the rare stuff. I think we put out a lot of good music that way, but the best stuff is on the albums. There’s probably some beard stroker in Belgium who would disagree with me saying the best stuff we ever did was on a spray painted cassette.
JD: I was baffled when I read about some of the people who played on the album, from Vetiver to Deerhoof to Wilco. How did some of these relationships begin?
JJT: All of those people were friends or friends of friends before we started recording. When you tour you meet so many amazing people. Like when I met Thurston Moore, who was a childhood hero of mine, getting to know those kind of people is amazing; people I thought I’d never get to meet, but now we’re good friends. Being able to play with Andy Cabic was great, Andy is a sweet sweet guy. We performed two songs together during the first show of this tour in San Francisco.
JD: Many of your songs are written through a character’s perspective, can you speak to how this is a suitable way of presenting your material?
JJT: I don’t think enough songwriters try that. You have to be able to write in the voice of people who have experienced different things than you have. You have to get in their minds and write through their perspective, otherwise you won’t be a good writer. You know you don’t want to read a book where all of the characters sound the same, so a writer has to study other people, and try to be a composite of those people when writing. The people in my songs don’t exist, but in a way they do, because they are all based on people I come in contact with.
JD: What was the motivation behind making, as you put it, an “un-weird” album?
JJT: Weird is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s all relative. It’s still weird next to Sheryl Crow, and for me it was experimental because I was in a studio environment which was all new to me. I have recorded everything up until now on a 4-track. I’m bored with psychedelic music though, and I think there are enough dudes out there with wah-wah peddles, and maybe we were part of popularizing that, but I just don’t want to be a part of any scene. I want to do what all of my heroes have always done, they follow their muse and do what they want.
JD: I saw where you had a few dates coming up with Silver Jews. How did this relationship begin, and what has the experience been like?
JJT: I know some of the members and they are amazing people. I can count the number of contemporary bands that I listen to on one hand, and they are one of them. I’m really psyched to do a few shows with them, and apparently David likes my new record.
JD: Where did you record the album?
JJT: We recorded in San Francisco in John Vanderslice’s studio. I’d like to record at home, but it’s too easy to get distracted there. I love visiting San Francisco, and I really enjoyed it while I was there.
JD: Can you talk a little bit about your musical background?
JJT: I come from a metal family. I was into like 80s hair metal as a kid, and from that I got into grind-core, and I learned to play guitar through those styles of music. It sounds cliche’ but Neil Young opened my eyes to a new kind of music and he’s still probably my favorite artist.
JD: What’s been your best, or most interesting show you’ve played thus far?
JJT: They all sort of blend together to me, the good and the bad ones, for better or for worse.
JD: If you could collaborate with any person or band, who would you choose?
JJT: That’s a good question, I could give an obvious answer like Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis, but all the people I really admire like that, I don’t know what I could add. I’m happy with the people I get to play with now, which are all friends that I know and respect.
JD: What are some other things you are involved in besides your music?
JJT: It consumes most of my time. When I’m home I spend time fixing up the house, making sure the lawn looks good, and spending times with the dogs.
JD: If you could live anywhere in the world where would that be?
JJT: I’d stay in Tennessee, or maybe get a house in San Diego. I like the Pacific Ocean a lot. I could really live anywhere.
As stated above, James is currently on tour, and if he comes around anywhere near where you are, go see him play. Here’s a Mp3, the first track off of Waiting in Vain…take it!