Wooden Wand: interview

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the music of Wooden Wand, the alter ego of James Jackson Toth. I first stumbled upon Wooden Wand’s music after much ground had already been covered — my first exposure was actually through Catherine Irwin’s version of “We Must Also Love the Thieves,” on her excellent Little Heater record in 2012. Intrigued by the lyrics, I followed the thread back and discovered an extensive collection of material already available. Delving into the Wooden Wand discography can be somewhat overwhelming, due to its varied and extensive nature, consisting of multiple collaborations, compilations, singles, on a variety of labels. 

When describing Wooden Wand to someone unfamiliar, I often pause before starting with the well-trodden term “singer songwriter,” which is inadequate and inaccurate, especially as there is so much more to the body of work.  It’s a cliche, but Wooden Wand really doesn’t fit into any particular genre, with releases stretching from the countryish to the psychedelic. The voluminous and restless nature of Wooden Wand is reminiscent of the late Vic Chesnutt or of Howe Gelb — other artists, who appear to have an endless stream of new ideas and words, seemingly defiant of the music industry in their peripatetic and irrepressible need to create new work.  Like these artists too (or like Nick Cave or David Berman, whose recent death still comes as a shock), Toth has an ability to write a line that sticks with you for days as you unravel it in your mind, such as starting a song,“They suspended mail delivery on account of all the roving dogs, twice a week I go in to collect my bills”

With his latest release, Brooklyn Blizzard, Toth indicated this may be the final release of Wooden Wand material.  Before he leaves on a tour of the East Coast, with his new collaboration, One Eleven Heavy, who had a celebrated record, Everything’s Better, released in the last year (and another on the brink of release, Desire Path), I had the opportunity to ask Toth a few questions.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.  Having read some of your interviews on Aquarium Drunkard, with a number of musicians, whom I admire, I admit to being a little intimidated asking you about your own music.  In addition to being an artist yourself, you seem to have an in-depth and wide-ranging knowledge of music. Can I ask you first about the new release [Brooklyn Blizzard] — in this, you included some songs that have been previously released in other versions.  What led you to redo these songs?

My old friend Jarvis [Taveniere] chose them from a larger batch of demos. I liked the idea of the EP as a collaboration, and though it’s nominally a Wooden Wand release, it’s just as much Jarvis’ work as my own. In general I like the idea of recording different versions of songs, especially when the personnel varies. Songs, like people, are mutable, and different environments and circumstances tend to reveal different aspects of them.

Wooden Wand — Brooklyn Blizzard

You suggest this may be the final release of Wooden Wand material. Perhaps for other listeners as well, this raises the question for me: where’s the line between you and Wooden Wand? Do you perceive Wooden Wand as an alter ego, or reflective of a particular approach to making music?  If you’re leaving Wooden Wand behind, does this mean more work with other artists in the future? More band-focused?

People make music for a lot of different reasons. I make music to communicate. I’m not interested in self-expression; that has never been my motivation. I think of a record like a message in a bottle, and when it feels like no one is receiving the messages, it begins to feel like some weird and pitiful hobby. Because there are no financial or even cultural benefits to making music in 2019, the silver lining is I now only do things that I’m 100% inspired to do.

I certainly didn’t mean for that Bandcamp post to have the ring of finality it seems to have had. A lot of people wrote me in response to that link with very encouraging messages trying to talk me out of ‘quitting,’ but quitting is the furthest thing from my mind. Creatively speaking, I’m more active than ever: I just finished a draft of my book, I’m working on a collaboration with percussionist / sound artist Jon Mueller, and my band One Eleven Heavy keeps me extremely busy writing, recording, and touring. I also seem to be getting a lot more freelance writing work than usual. I’m an uptight person who doesn’t really know how to relax, and I’m really only happy when I’m working on something, so the busier I am, the better.    

The end of Wooden Wand only represents the end of that particular project. Less an alter ego or brand, Wooden Wand has always been—to borrow a phrase from one of my heroes, Robert Fripp—”a way of doing things,” and I no longer see a place for those methods in my life. In the first place, releasing dozens of solo records at a time when the world is in such precarious shape increasingly seems like a thoroughly vain and narcissistic thing to do. I’m also not a competitive person by nature and I don’t relish the idea of being one more person barking to be heard above all the noise. The last reason is that, frankly, I’ve been disappointed that the last few things I’ve released were not given the respect or attention I felt they deserved, so I took that as a sort of hint that the world probably has enough Wooden Wand records already. 

Given the prolific and wide-ranging discography of Wooden Wand, do you yourself have a way you’d encapsulate your previous work? What would be the first record you’d put in the hand of someone, who’d never listened to your music before?

There are three Wooden Wand records—which I distinguish from collaborative work with others—that I’m especially proud of for different reasons. 

Blood Oaths of the New Blues as it was released bears little relation to the demos I sent to the band in advance of the recording. That was one of the most creatively fertile of my long-term groups; those Birmingham folks were just brimming with great ideas and they were just down for anything. They’re just as responsible for what you hear on that record as I am. We’d already made one record and toured together, so by the time we recorded Blood Oaths of the New Blues we were all comfortable with each other musically and personally. We couldn’t have made that record otherwise. I think of it as a solo record that accidentally became a collaboration along the way, and it’s all the better for it. All things considered, it’s my favorite Wooden Wand album. 

Wooden Wand – Blood Oaths of the New Blues

Farmer’s Corner is the exact opposite of that approach in that it is the first studio Wooden Wand album that I produced without outside help (though bassist Darin Gray helped immensely), and I was overjoyed that the final product came as close to my original vision as any record I’ve ever made. Most of my records change a lot between the writing and the recording, but that one didn’t. I feel it is one of the most overlooked albums in my catalog. It is the only album I’ve ever made for which I take full and total responsibility, for better or worse. 

Wooden Wand – Farmer’s Corner

Lastly, I really like Clipper Ship, the final full length Wooden Wand album, because it blends the two aforementioned approaches: it very much conforms to my initial concept but benefits greatly from the contributions of the players. I think it makes for a good final chapter, and it’s probably the album I’d give someone who’s never heard my music. 

Wooden Wand – Clipper Ship

I also really like all three volumes of the Toth’s Law compilations on Bandcamp and I think those might make a good, low-stakes starting place for anyone unfamiliar with what I do. 

Wooden Wand – Toth’s Law

As someone who has always been on the receiving end of music, as opposed to creating it myself, I’m fascinated by the varied and somewhat obscured nature of your body of work.  You don’t make it easy for the Wooden Wand completist, with many releases on smaller independent labels or in limited runs, even your digital releases are not universally available.  I’m likely misplacing the quote, but I recall Tom Waits telling Terry Gross he tries not to feed the sharks, keep ‘em hungry. Is there an underlying game plan or are you reacting more to the state of the music industry? 

For what it’s worth, I’m not a Wooden Wand completist, either! It was only a few years ago that I even had the foresight to start collecting personal copies of my own records. The idea that a stranger might own just one of the albums I have made remains exciting to me, so I encourage a “take what you need and leave the rest” approach to my admittedly sprawling catalog. As far as being prolific, I generally believe to be a working artist, you need to actually work. 

With your “Toth’s Law” releases, you describe the theory that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of effort that goes into a particular piece of art and the audience response – “the work of art over which one slaves, bleeds, and suffers will almost invariably be the least effective, least enduring art one creates.” You also state that the inverse of this is true — some of your songs that seem to touch people the most are those, which seemed to come too easily to you or seemed too obvious. I have to admit that some of these songs are among my favorites of yours — am I too easy? Am I not trying hard enough? 

This is a customer-is-always-right scenario. I am perfectly willing to accept the idea that the listener is right and I am wrong, so I defer to consensus. All my favorite Wooden Wand songs are the ones no one ever requests when I play live, no critics ever mention in their reviews, no one ever covers, and invariably receive the least amount of digital spins on my quarterly BMI statements. Even the songs Jarvis selected for us to record for Brooklyn Blizzard were not necessarily the songs I’d have chosen to record. I think I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m just a poor judge of my own work. See my comments above about Farmer’s Corner. 

Wooden Wand – Toth’s Law, Volume 2

You seem to me to be an artist, who doesn’t necessarily take the easier road – in fact, you reference this idea in one of your Toth’s Law songs, “You Could Have a Job.”  This goes back to the Toth’s Law idea, I guess, but how do you balance the drive to express yourself artistically with the demands of playing to an audience? 

This is less of a concern for me in 2019. For better or worse, there aren’t a lot of expectations one way or another. My friend Chris Forsyth has a theory that rock music will soon become more like jazz: it’ll go back to the clubs, become about individual plyers, become something of a connoisseur’s choice. This is a nice idea but I have a dimmer view: rock music is becoming vaudeville. If it ever resembles jazz it will only be in the sense that cultural and technological changes, combined with consumer neglect, will force us all into exile only to have our faces appear on postage stamps long after we’re dead and unable to reap any benefits. That probably sounds smore cynical than I mean it to.   

That said, I loathe the old cliché of “we do what we like and if anyone else digs it, that’s a bonus, man.” Perhaps I am insane or woefully out of touch with reality, but I have always viewed Wooden Wand as populist music, not niche or specialty music. I want everyone to enjoy what I create. I don’t make it to please myself.

At the risk of pigeon-holing you with the cliche of being a “musician’s musician,” I often find pathways from other artists leading back to your work.  You’ve worked frequently with other musicians in the past, and the One Eleven Heavy project seems to be a truly collaborative effort. And yet you also strike me as a rather fiercely independent artist, forging your own path.  How do you see the role of collaboration in your work as an artist? Do you prefer one approach or the other? 

In the past five years or so, I have almost exclusively worked in collaborative settings, and that is where I am happiest and most comfortable. I’m very proud of the records I’ve made with Neil Hagerty, William Fowler Collins, Ryan Norris [Coupler], and Jarvis, as well as live collaborations with my friends Daniel Bachman, Tashi Dorji, and Gardener.

Hagerty-Toth Band – Qalgebra

Going forward, this is what I plan to continue doing, though I don’t rule out the possibility of doing some more solo music somewhere down the line. I do live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, after all, where opportunities to jam in real time with sympathetic people are few and far between. Maybe I’ll take up the violin. 

Can you tell us more about how the One Eleven Heavy band came together and where you see it going in the future?

One Eleven Heavy is a band of masochists. I don’t think anyone would take me to task for suggesting that our band is up against a lot. First of all, no two members live in the same state, and one of us lives in a different country. Currently we are spread out between Spain, Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin and Nashville, and our manager, Scott McDowell, lives in New Jersey. So the practical and logistical considerations of One Eleven Heavy alone would, I think, destroy most working groups. I think it’s a testament to the fiery and determined (read: stubborn) people involved in this band that, despite all this, we are as active as any full-time rock band: we’ve made two records in as many years and are about to begin our second US tour, with more live dates to follow next year. I think we’re all committed to it, and I think the reason for that is that we all have a tremendous amount of belief in the project. There’s not one member coercing and dragging everyone else along (though it should be said that Nick, in particular, does the work of five people). We all have our roles and strengths, and all of us are lifers who’ve spent decades touring and making records. I joked that our motto should be “over a century of combined rock and roll experience.” Whatever that’s worth. 

I expect One Eleven Heavy will exist as long as it remains fun and creatively nourishing. We all get along really well and care about and respect each other, we share a lot of the same influences and reference points, and we all have similar goals for the band. I feel like the group’s best days are still ahead. 

I fear being the person at an author reading, who inevitably asks the writer about Their Process — do they use a typewriter? do they have a schedule? — but I am intrigued about your songwriting — do you start with writing lyrics or a tune? What comes first?

For some people it’s like turning on a faucet, but for me it’s more like waiting for the weather to change. I will go weeks without writing a thing and then I’ll write three songs in an afternoon. I’ve learned that you can’t force it, and when you try to force it, it doesn’t work. I’ve also found, in trying to describe the songwriting process, that it is almost impossible to not sound like a hippie, but it really is simply a matter of allowing yourself to be a medium or a channel for it: titles, first lines, chord progressions and sometime even entire songs will just suddenly materialize in my head and all I have to do is write them down. This last part is more difficult than it sounds because sometimes these things appear at inopportune moments and you feel lazy and don’t want to get out of bed or pull your car over and go looking for a pen or sing something into your phone. I think the important thing is to remain receptive to the muse, and to always keep your antenna up. If you go to a party or take a long drive on the interstate or read a magazine article and you don’t get an idea for a song out if it, you aren’t listening hard enough. Songs are everywhere!

I’ve been a longtime record buyer (I’m no audiophile, mainly because I’m too cheap, perfectly happy to dig through a box of yard sale records and not generally chasing after high ticket first pressings).  I think you’re also a record hound, although I saw a recent interview in which you mentioned concern about the fetishizing of vinyl and talked about the benefits of finding music on CD these days. In the old days, vinyl used to be the cheaper way to get new music vs the higher-priced CDs; it’s funny to be on the other side of this now.  Presumably, the vinyl bubble will burst and the record stores will once again be inhabited only by the lonely few. In the meantime, how is it to be someone who is on both sides of this equation — producing the music and deciding how to release it to the public? You’ve released plenty of physical media, but also a number of digital-only releases.  When you’re preparing new music to release, does the actual format of the release play a role for you? 

Ideally all of those digital releases would be on CD or vinyl, but it’s not really possible nowadays. Putting out a record is no longer an option for most working class artists. Between the eight-month backup at plants because of things like Record Sore Day and having to line up behind the Howard The Duck soundtrack picture disc or something, by the time you have the record in your hands you’ve written three more records (or your band has broken up). Bandcamp is a good compromise and I do like that model; it’s fair and respectful to artists and it’s a treasure trove for fans. I buy things on Bandcamp all the time. But for me, music in ephemeral form will never have the same value as a record, cassette, or CD. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just my own preference as a consumer, taking into account my age and personal taste.

One of the greatest joys of my life—along with listening to, playing, and reading about music—is buying music. I say this without an iota of shame. It’s still a major thrill to walk into a new record store with a couple of twenties in my pocket and ninety minutes to kill. Call it retail therapy if you like, but it has been, over the course of my life, one of the most consistently reliable ways I know to elevate my mood.

Owning things is underrated. I don’t want my house to look like the Korova Milk Bar or an Apple Store. I want it to be a shrine to what I love. Physical media forever! 

One other question I meant to ask, somewhat in regards to the interviews you’ve done with other musicians.  I have been making sense of the idea of a shared sense of music in the internet era.  When I was a kid, finding out about new music depended so much on your friend’s older brother or the guy at the record store, so there was much more of a local music scene in different areas of the country.  Nowadays, it seems things are more homogenized — a more collective sense of various types of music – eg Turkish Psych or Afrobeat etc, but the timeline is also more compressed as everything is available at once. As a fan of music, but also as a musician, do you feel this shift has affected your own appreciation or composition?

I think you perfectly express both the pros and cons. A few years ago I got heavily into Greek music, thanks to the curation and exceptional scholarship of people like Tony Klein and Christopher King, and labels like Dust to Digital. I spent last week not only listening exclusively to Markos Vamvakaris, who I discovered via those compilations, but reading his autobiography and watching multiple documentaries about him on Youtube. In many ways, it is a golden age for obsessive musical sponges like me who try in vain to hear and learn about everything that piques their interest. I am never, ever bored; how could anyone ever be bored? I don’t really watch a lot of TV or movies, but I can spend—some would say “waste”—an entire afternoon reading about Frank Zappa’s guitar pickups, or listening to John Zorn podcasts. And those are just the “Z”s! We are truly spoiled for information. 

The downside, as you mention, is that a lot of this self-navigated scholarship is necessarily mediated and compressed, which can result in superficial or otherwise compromised understandings of things that might require lifetimes to grasp, despite our best efforts and intentions. Can you listen to and enjoy North Indian classical music if you don’t know a gat from an alap? Maybe, but knowing the difference, to my mind, enriches the experience tremendously. I wrote an essay for NPR a few years ago about the problem of “too much music,” and about how it tends to make all of us more passive listeners and dilettantes. I might tell you that I love, say, some Eccentric Soul comp on Numero, and that would be the gospel truth, but I’d be lying if I told you I could remember every song title on the album. On the other hand I can still sing you every word to the album Nothingface by Voivod because when I was 12, I listened to that album every day. So the way even obsessive people like me listen to and experience music has necessarily changed. I think the short answer is that it’s been both good and bad, but it’s not a reversible situation at this point, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s good for feeding our all-consuming habits, but bad for trying to reach truly profound understandings. There’s just too much rad shit, and not enough time.

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