Last week we were lucky enough (in our eyes) to have James Jackson Toth, aka Wooden Wand play a couple of dates in the UK. Although for various reasons the London dates fell through, Christy-Popper and Dr Roddy headed up North to York to catch him live and to have a chat with one of MM’s all time favourite performers.
Arriving in York after a 4-hour car journey including the navigation of a closed M1 both Dr Roddy and I were in good spirits. Having checked in to the palatial Premier Inn (lovely staff, faint whiff of shit in the corridors though) we found an excellent pub for a pie and some pints of Timothy Taylor. Larynxes suitably warmed we made for the City Screen Basement and our reason for the visit to this beautiful city, Wooden Wand was sound checking below us and we were here to interview him. As novice journalists but heartfelt music fans we were in a state of nerves. James Jackson Toth is one of our favourite artists: a lyricist capable of making you laugh out loud before you wonder why you aren’t grimacing, he has a clever knack of delivering some bone-fide classic lines. A colourful background and three entries in our combined top 10s of 2010 (as well as numerous entries in previous years) meant we were a little star struck.
Gripping our pints we descended the stairs, we had no idea what would happen. Luckily James Jackson Toth is a warm, friendly and funny musician, willing to talk about anything and everything; cue sense of relief and an hour shooting the breeze…
CTP – So how’s the tour been going?
Awesome. The gigs, the people, the food and the scenery has been amazing. The travel on the other hand – unbearable. I have bad travel luck, getting here I was awake for 37 hours, there was panic attack on the flight to Frankfurt, emergency landing, missed connections… so whenever there’s been a chance to delay or cancel it’s happened. But the gigs have been so awesome, I arrived at every place kinda bummed out and depressed but then I play the gig and meet the people and it’s great.
CTP – So you play in Glasgow tomorrow? DR – And you’ve played Italy haven’t you? And a festival in Spain…
Did four shows in Italy and the Tanned Tin Festival in Spain. It was cool… it was a… festival (laughing) always better for the attendee rather than the artist! It’s very hurry up and wait, sound check then wait 8 hours. It’s a time where drug addicts are made… (laughing)
DR – So are you essentially touring Death Seat (his latest album) or is this you just you on tour?
I’m supporting that record but I play all different types of stuff….
CTP – Do you love all your songs?
No, no I don’t. I have weird relationship with them. I hear people refer to their songs like people and babies, that not my experience at all. A lot of time I write ‘em because I’m superstitious. I was telling someone this earlier, it sounds like hippy shit I know, it sounds very pretentious, but I feel more like an observer. Like I’m kind of communicating it, so I’m very passive in the process, the song kind of occurs to me. So, I’m driving and… fuck, that’s a great title and I write that down. If I’m sleeping, I gotta write down that line or it’s gone forever, so I always keep something close by like a notebook or something, lately I’ve been texting myself. I’m prolific to a fault, I’ve never had writers block, but you have to write a hundred shitty songs to get like two good ones, that’s how it is. I’m disgusted with myself – I’ll write a song and be like ‘urgghh’ – you know trying to be like Robyn Hitchcock or something, you’re a sham!
DR – Do you have a favourite song of yours out of your back catalogue? One that you’re really proud of?
There’s songs I like better than others. Once a record’s done… you remember a movie called Superman 2? He sends them out in the capsule…that’s how it is when I’m done with a record. It’s like ‘bye bye song’ and on to the next one you know…I don’t like to listen to them because all I hear are mistakes, and I hear concessions that were made, and compromises…five more minutes we could have nailed that harmony better, all that shit you know…
CTP – So it’s more critical than sentimental?
Exactly, well put. My favourite stuff – is always the newest stuff, I’m kinda psyched by some of the new stuff.
CTP – Tell us about the Kickstarter programme, that seemed to take off really quickly?
I was very happy, if it had been a failure it would have been a very public failure. I think it would have been a good barometer. It’s just neat to see people are pre ordering – you can’t download a lot of this stuff. It’s really encouraging; we’ll see how it goes. I was worried that it would be like throwing a party where nobody came.
CTP – It was a brave thing to do but it paid off…
We met the goal and everything, if people keep pledging we’ll be able to pay the band…
DR – Do you know who the band is you’re going to work with?
Brian Laurie is my foil. He’s on Death Seat, all the harmonies – all the good parts. I always like to record with him. He’s my favourite person to play with. Some dudes from Alabama I’ve never played with before, Duquette Johnson – he’s great, I think his best days are ahead of him. He was in Verbana who were huge for a time in the 90s. He’s been doing this for as long as I have, but it’s the typical story – major label, not knowing what to do with it. The post-Nirvana glut was rough on everybody…I had my own major label catastrophe.
DR – Tell us about that…
When I was a kid I used to read Maximum Rock ’n Roll and Punk Planet so I should have known better. I saw those articles come to life before my eyes. The major label thing is just how Steve Albini says it is – it’s horrible. It was just really discouraging for me because I would go on tour and here we are thinking we’re fucking Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and there’s like Wooden Wand fans to this day that don’t even know that record exists, so the crowds were like a third of the size for what they were for Vanishing Voice! You would see your name on a marquee and it would be bone chilling as I would be thinking ‘no one’s coming to this!’ It resulted in the well publicised worst year of my life…but you know, everything is good now.
DR – In some quarters you have been labelled the ‘New Dylan’, could that prove to be a millstone?
It was absurd…
CTP – It must be fairly horrible for anybody to be compared to Dylan…
DR – Regardless of talent it’s more of a cross to bear?
It’s sounds like a sort of NME kinda thing to say. It’s a tag for somebody who gives a shit about lyrics. So Conor Oberst has been called that… anybody that isn’t writing about the beach I guess is the new Dylan. In the landscape we’re in now anybody who takes more than 5 minutes to write lyrics for a song…
CTP – We’re really big fans of your lyrics… How much blood sweat and tears does it take – do you just know when you have nailed a lyric? It just comes to you? (repeats line from Ragtop Ruby about rope making you feel uneasy)
That’s a very divisive song, the band dudes don’t always like that – my wife doesn’t like that song! But I like that song. That’s one of my favourites, you were asking me earlier about my favourite song…I don’t want to say it’s effortless, no it’s more the editing process for me. I look back on the stuff I have written that’s made it out, on records with barcodes forever…I cringe. I’m really critical of my own stuff. The only person I can say ‘that line’s pretty good’ to is my wife. It keeps me grounded and humble.
CTP – Are there any performers or bands out there at the moment you particularly like?
There’s quite a few actually, Cass McCombs, I think Bill Callaghan’s great, he’s one of our great writers, he could have been Tom T Hall, you know what I mean. He has it. A lot of people might be surprised but Drive By Truckers…I mean talk about lyricists, I’m a huge fan of that band. My all time favourite bands are still Black Flag and Royal Trux.
CTP – Are you a bit of a punk at heart?
Oh yeah, yeah. I was in to Crass and the ‘against’ side of things. A weird band…
CTP – In Uncle Bill (one of MM’s songs of the year), the little boy is called Jimmy…
Yeah, that’s what my Uncle called me.
CTP – I have nephews and see myself a little bit in that role…
Everybody needs a cool Uncle, that’s the thing.
CTP – I immediately connected with that song…
That means a lot to me. It’s actually Uncle George, he’s the one that got me in to Neil Young. When I was like 12, or even younger, he would bring out a shoebox of old photos of him going cross country with these beautiful women. He looked like Keith Richards! And I was like, that’s what I want to do!
DR – It also brought back memories of me and CTP ‘borrowing’ songs from Mr Mackerel’s collection when we were about 12 years old. He would have killed us if he found out…
Was it all alphabetically catalogued (laughing)..?
CTP – In their own shelving unit obviously.
I could get in once in a while, when he was out getting something to eat. I didn’t know what I was looking for. There was some really dark shit!
CTP – So when did you start writing songs and performing?
I was at college, a late bloomer. I always wanted to be a musician since I was young. I didn’t start writing songs until my freshman year at college, 18 or 19, something like that…The Tower Recordings, MV’s (Matt Valentine) band, were huge. I can’t overestimate how inspirational they were. I used to see them all the time, they were like my Velvet Underground, they changed how I felt about things. I unmercifully ripped them off…I joke about it with them now.
DR – I’m a big fan of westerns, your music seems to fit in with the genre.
I’m a big fan of westerns, The Searchers has got to be the greatest ever. I think it’s a masterpiece.
DR – I’d say Big Country.
Really? I like movies, outside of music though there’s not much. Books…I think the hardest thing to do is write fiction. There’s more vivid imagery and metaphor on one page of a Raymond Carver novel than a whole Wooden Wand album.
CTP – I have just found my Country gene after stumbling across Phosphorescent at SXSW
The To Willie album? Willie is one of the greats. For me the country gene kicked in when, well it’s thanks to Uncle George…I was going on vacation with my parents and had a bunch of tapes, metal stuff. And he was like, ‘take this, you’ll like this’, and it was the Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds. I accidently left all my other tapes at home, so I listened to that for two weeks.
CTP – Being a boy from Oxford I always slightly mocked Country music…
Yeah… pop music with an accent.
CTP – Then at some point you hear Johnny Cash…DR – Or the Gambler!
I love that song! I got plenty of time for Kenny Rogers.
CTP – Finally, how would you feel if one of your songs got on Rock Band?
Fine with me…
DR – Just out of interest which one would it be?
That’s a good question…Wow. Portrait In The Clouds maybe.
CTP – The ethics you’re okay with?
Unless it was for a George Bush re-election campaign. Like I say, when I go home I’m on a 40 foot high ladder painting houses or pulling up flooring. I was never sold in to sell out!
It can be hard meeting someone you admire and be objective. Saying all that, James Jackson Toth was an absolute pleasure to spend time with. He is a musician and writer blessed with huge talent, craft and a wry sense of humour as sharp as a Nick Clegg u-turn. He went on to deliver a mesmerising performance (see separate review tomorrow). It wasn’t a huge crowd – which for me is a huge disappointment. This man is worth seeing.
Somewhat inconveniently the recorder was switched off when Wooden Wand stopped by to see how we enjoyed the show. Both myself and Dr Roddy (being rather full of York’s excellent hospitality) had some trouble recalling the details of the last conversations (including a chat with the most amiable Conquered Animal Collective outside smoking a tab in a gale, come on!) but we finally made our weary way back to the hotel. Stopping off at a York City centre pub was a mistake. It almost shocked us in to sobriety seeing people fifteen years younger than us with haircuts worse than Charlie Brooker and no coats. Suitably chastised we swore to the loyalty of the local and how glad we were for the sweet scent of sewage as we made it through the doors of the Hotel.
The end of a great night, a big thank you to James for his time and we’ll see you next time you’re in Blighty.
And so should everyone else…
Download Wooden Wand – Uncle Bill mp3 (from Wither Thou Goest, Cretin?)
Download Wooden Wand – The Fly mp3 (from Wither Thou Goest, Cretin?)
Download Wooden Wand – The DNR Waltz mp3 (Demo)