Wooden Wand

Wooden Wand

interview by Alessandra Reale, Antonio Ciarletta
With Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in his head and heart, James Jackson Toth is going to become the nth martyr in American country music, one could say. This seems to be confirmed by the latest albums he signed as Wooden Wand, especially by the excellent "Death Seat", that was released by nothing less than Michael Gira's Young God Records. Notwithstanding this, though he carries the outlaw and provincial bard stigmata in his soul, symbolizing his more than sincere adhesion to the country music principles, Wooden Wand shows a pure fascination for the iconography and sounds of southern American music. Thus his approach to the music subject is heterodox, and this aspect allowed his records to be appreciated even by that wide part of indie listeners who are not so familiar with the more traditionalist side of country music. In the present interview we retraced James Jackson Toth's music path from his early psychedelic steps with the Vanishing Voice and we talked with him about his musical and literary interests. Enjoy your reading.

Since when you were a child, you have always been attracted to the desolate landscapes of southern United States, where you went to live with your wife some time ago. Despite your unsuspected southern accent, you were born and grew up in the Big Apple.

I don't really have a southern accent, at least not when I speak. Early on I cultivated a non-regional dialect - like a television anchorperson - because I decided I didn't want to talk like Rodney Dangerfield. Having been raised in New York City and having spent the past decade living in the south, occasionally I'll slip into something resembling an accent. When I sing, I feel I have carte blanche to sing however I feel the song should be sung. Whether that's like Joey Ramone or Johnny Rotten or Steve Earle, my only "accent" is rock and roll.
Could you tell us something about those times in New York? What about your early contact with music?

New York was a great place to grow up as far as discovering music is concerned. My first love was heavy metal, and then hip-hop. There was access to it all. My family was always into heavy metal, and hip-hop was ubiquitous where I grew up. When Wu-Tang broke, that was the greatest. I still love the Wu. And I still love Deicide.

When did you discover that you wanted to be a musician? Was it a sudden intuition/revelation or the destination of some kind of path?
I only ever wanted to be a musician. In my fifth grade yearbook, I mention wanting to play bass in a heavy metal band. Music was the only thing I cared about. My dad bought me a bunch of 45s one day and that was that.

Judging from your huge music production, your creativity is always quite lively. Where do you draw your inspiration from? How much of yourself is there in your songs?
I think there is autobiography in everything anyone writes, to an extent. I read a lot and listen to a lot of music, and through a process of osmosis, that stuff works its way into what I write, of course, but mostly, we're dealing with radar. I pick up phrases around me and collect them. Songs aren't really invented as much as they're sort of captured. The trick is to always be listening and never ignore the muse when it knocks.

Wooden Wand and the Vanishing VoiceWhen you were with the Vanishing Voice, you used to play a strongly psychedelic free folk. Do you feel closer to the Summer Of Love psychedelic music, to the Texan psychedelic music or to the urban trance based in New York (Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, etc.)?
I don't really make those kinds of distinctions, but yes, I love Roky Erickson, and yes I love Sonic Youth and Lou Reed. I don't think that's unique. I'm not sure I'd want to hear a rock musician who wasn't in some way inspired by some of those folks. But psychedelic music can be reggae, or jazz, or blues, too.

What is the legacy of your New York imprinting that had a deeper impact on your music?
As I said, just access. I've worked with people who grew up in small remote towns in the States and they didn't have access to magazines, there was no MTV, no college nearby, no older brothers or sisters or cousins around to teach them about Camper Van Beethoven and R.E.M. or whatever. I sort of took a lot of that for granted. I've been going to shows since I was eleven years old. I was in my first moshpit at 12, at a Kreator show. I guess kids in Kansas don't really experience that kind of shit.

Where would you place yourself among the various music scenes that surround you? Do you feel part of the free folk movement that has developed in United States starting from the early 00es?
The "movement" is an illusion created by journalists. I don't align myself with any movements. I have a lot of friends who were also lumped into the "freak folk" thing, but no one I knew ever associated themselves with anything like that. I think the common thread was that we all owned acoustic guitars and most of us liked Pentangle or whatever. That's a movement?

You have a long-standing collaboration and friendship with Sonic Youth. How did you guys meet?
I met Thurston backstage at a Decaer Pinga show in New York in the late nineties, and we've been friends since. He's been a great supporter of my music over the years and I'm eternally grateful for that. Those Sonic Youth guys... Sometimes you meet a band you worshipped when you were young, and once you get to know them, that access begins to diminish your fandom a little, for whatever reason. My experience with Sonic Youth is the opposite - I love them now more than I ever did, and I always counted them as one of my favorite bands. Lee Ranaldo may be the most underrated songwriter in all of indie rock. A huge inspiration.

Your music, in the recent production above all, shows a deep bond with that dusty and damned country music that is rooted in tradition and shuns Nashville glitters. Who are the artists that had more influence on your country music background?
My influences as far as country music goes are the usual suspects - Waylon and Willie and the boys, but also Jerry Jeff Walker, an all time favorite, and 70s honky tonkers like Michael Martin Murphy and Gary Stewart. There is very little country music I don't like. Same with delta blues. I just respond to the formalism, I think. I am endlessly fascinated by it. It just appeals to me on many levels. I even enjoy much of the Nashville glitter, as you call it.

How do you relate with the pre-war country blues?
With awe and reverence. I try to play guitar along with those records and get so hopelessly frustrated. It's some of the greatest music in the world.

Your latest album "Death Seat" was impeccably produced by Michael Gira. How was it to work with him? What did you learn from that experience?
Michael's a visionary. He's a producer in the classic sense. His approach to arrangements is befuddling and fascinating and educational. In the studio, his vision is absolute. Working with him was difficult but rewarding. He's a very dear friend and the very definition of a true artist, as far as I'm concerned.

The front cover of  "Death Seat" gives a sense of obscure restlessness that goes along with the crepuscular mood of songs, where a dark and melancholic atmosphere can be perceived. How was this album born?
The cover art was Gira's idea, and design. I generally like photo-driven artwork, so that was compromise on my part. But the album itself is a collaboration between Michael and I. We pored through 172 songs to decide on the batch we'd use for the album. It was a rigorous, occasionally unpleasant process.
Was it difficult to make the selection? Did you choose the definitive ones by yourself or did Michael Gira have a role in this?
Concessions were made on both sides, as can be expected from any collaboration, especially one between two such stubborn, unyielding, immoveable objects such as Gira and myself. But we're somehow still on speaking terms, so I'd say it was a great success. Now if only more people would buy it...
Is there a leitmotiv recurring in all songs?
Because some of the songs are well over ten years old, I can't say there's a common theme, just that they were songs Michael and I both liked enough to include.

After a long series of projects and aliases that are almost hard to list (The Blood Group, Golden Calves Money Band, Wooden Wand and The Vanishing Voice, Wooden Wand Hassara, up to the more recent Wooden Wand), in 2008 you signed as James Jackson Toth you first solo album, "Waiting In Vain". Do you think that it can have a follow-up or do you mean to go on only with Wooden Wand?
Wooden Wand is the name I am stuck with. It could be worse. I do enjoy the phallic implications of the name. The James Jackson Toth album was an experiment that ended catastrophically. I should have trusted my instincts but deferred to others. Mistakes were made. My bad.
Are there any new projects on the horizon?
The new album is a rock and roll album, the one I've been trying to make since "Second Attention", and I'm very proud of it. It will be under the name Wooden Wand & The Briarwood Virgins and will be out before the end of the year.

James Jackson TothHow do you relate with your songs? Do you love them (all)? Do you listen to them after much time has passed?
I like very few and love even fewer. I rarely listen to any Wooden Wand album once it's been released. Once it's finished and there's no changing it, it no longer concerns me much. All I hear are mistakes and concessions. On to the next one. The writing and the recording is the fun part.

Many alt-country musicians draw inspiration for the lyrics and atmospheres in their songs from the imagery of southern gothic readings, they are inspired by authors such as Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Erskine Caldwell and so on. What are your favourite readings? Are there any writers you especially love?
My favorite authors, or at least the ones I come back to the most, are Breece Pancake, Pinckney Benedict, Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, Rudy Wurlitzer, Larry McMurtry and J.G. Ballard. I've also absorbed a lot of non-fiction, occult texts, true crime, biographies, etc at various times in my life.
Is there any link between your background of readings and your music?
It's all in there somewhere. Tom Waits said "whatever you absorb, you eventually secrete."

Over the years you released many albums in limited edition (more than 100!). The latter of these releases is called "Wither Thou Goest, Cretin", a 300 copies vinyl edition that was out just some time before "Death Seat" and that actually was the re-release of an even more exclusive CD-R edition, distributed in only 200 copies, each of them hand numbered and mounted on a wooden support (worthless saying, both editions went sold-out). What is for you the meaning of these limited edition releases?
They're only limited by the resources and the demand. With the CD-R, we spent several days assembling that. 200 was enough. I had glue all over everything I owned. Blackest Rainbow made 300 copies of the LP because I think we felt that was a reasonable number to break even with. I'm a supply and demand kinda guy. I don't get into fetishizing limited shit. Ideally, everyone that wants a copy of a Wooden Wand release should be able to get one.

What is your relationship with the physical aspect of music? In general, do you like to look after the cover-art and packaging of your releases by your own or do you fully entrust other people with that?
I like to be involved, obviously, and for most of the Wooden Wand albums I've designed or at least conceived the cover art ("Death Seat" and the last few Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice albums are exceptions). But I'm not really a visual person. I can't draw or paint or sculpt or anything like that. I usually just defer to talented friends. It's not something I obsess over. All I ask is final say.

And as a music consumer, what are the aspects of a cd or vinyl that impress you most? Do you like to collect albums?
Of course I collect records! It's a sickness and has probably kept me out of bigger trouble. I love the way LPs sound and look. I love the crackling sound it makes when you open a gatefold for the first time. I love reading liner notes and making connections and trying to figure out why track 2 is track 2 and why track 10 is track 10. I'm an obsessive person and the thing I'm most obsessive about is music. It's practically religion.

Let's play a game. Let's say that Wooden Wand suddenly gains a huge success (as it happened to Bright Eyes). What do you think that would change in your way of approaching music and in your life?
I'd probably just disappear after an album or two. I'm not interested in that level of recognition, so to speak. I'm just trying to create a body of work. That said, it sure would be nice not to have to do roofing work or paint houses.

What are you listening to lately? Is it true that you are a black metal fan?
I do love black metal, though not as much as other kinds of metal. One of my recent favorites is Clair Cassis, which is the guy from Velvet Cacoon, one of my favorites. As far as metal, I listen to a lot of Portal, Wold, and Bone Awl, and always go back to the Earache stuff I grew up on. Morbid Angel's "Altars Of Madness" and the first Deicide album still sound amazing to me. I've been really into late-era Darkthrone recently - those records are crazy! - and an instrumental / doom sorta band from Michigan I just discovered called Beast In The Field. Awesome stuff. Raspberry Bulbs LP on Hospital is mindblowing, and I like the new Liturgy album a lot. Beyond metal I've been obsessed with the George Mitchell Collection on Fat Possum, and also some of Robert Nighthawk's more obscure recordings as a sideman. I love the new Cass McCombs, and Cass McCombs in general. Digging the new Gang Gang Dance, and this electronic group called Raime a lot - a lot of stuff on the Blackest Ever Black label, in general. Like an even more twisted Demdike Stare. My friends are making some fantastic music right now as well - Ray from Castanets just sent me his amazing new record, that one blew me away. Southeast Engine, Glossary, Black Swans, D. Charles Speer, Everyone Lives Everyone Wins - I'm lucky to have so many talented friends making such great music.

If it is true that "love is the ultimate outlaw" because "it just won't adhere to any rules", as Tom Robbins says, do you think that music could be the penultimate outlaw?
That's a good question, but I like rules. Rules are good. I think it's important, if not crucial, that people pay dues. And I'll see your Tom Robbins and raise you a David Briggs - "the more you think, the more you stink." Words to live by.


 Harem Of The Sundrum & The Witness Figg (Soft Abuse, 2005) 
 James & The Quiet (Ecstatic Peace!, 2007) 
 Wither Thou Goest, Cretin (Mad Monk/Blackest Rainbow, 2010)


Death Seat (Young God, 2010) 
 Blood Oaths Of The New Blues (Fire Records, 2012) 
 Hard Knox (Ecstatic Peace!, 2009) 
 Born Bad (People In A Position to Know, 2009) 
 Waiting In Vain (Rykodisc, 2006) 
Second Attention (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) 
XIAO (De Stijl, 2004) 
 L'Un Marquer Contre La Moissonneuse (Three Lobed, 2005) 
Buck Dharma (Time Lag/5 Rue Christine, 2005) 
 Sunset Sleeves (Weird Forest, 2005) 
 The Flood (Troubleman, 2005) 
 Gipsy Freedom (5 Rue Christine, 2006) 
 Briarwood (Fire, 2011) 
 Golden Calves Money Band (Mother Tongue, 1999) 
 Everything Forgotten Gathers At The Ceiling (Ep, Le Grand Magistery, 2001) 
 Volunteers (Le Grand Magistery, 2002) 
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