Wayfaring Stranger: An Interview with James Jackson Toth

Unlucky troubadour James Jackson Toth tells Adam ychawski about his new album

Whether you’ve heard of James Jackson Toth before or not, he is undeniably one of the most acclaimed folk musicians in the past decade. Wooden Wand, is only one of the various monikers he has performed under, having previously released records with The Vanishing Voice, Sky High Band, or on his own as WAND. Toth is not a man who likes to linger for any amount of time, whether constantly changing his band, moving several times across America or just traversing folk subgenres from experimental to psychedelic to country to freak and whoknowswhat next.

Folk however, was not his first love: as a teenager his musical tastes were of the nosier variety. “I just wanted to play bass in a metal band, it’s in my fifth grade yearbook under the “What do you want to be?” bit. I eventually ended up doing it for a while, so mission accomplished. My then wife had a metal band called Jex Thoth, a Heart meets Doom sort of thing, I was helping her write songs and played in the band.”

Having lived the dream, Toth found himself discovering other musical tastes, and eventually settled on the quieter side as a folk musician. “Well I love all types of music but when I’m on a ten hour journey I don’t want to listen to Macronypha, I love that music but I wanted to do something that was reverential to the great legacy of American rock music.”

Toth might be blessed with considerable talents as a folk musician, but he has some of the worst luck of any man. From the minor travel problems: missed connections, cancelled flights, wrong trains to the more existential episodes of ill-fate such as his band leaving halfway on tour, his record label bailing on him and splitting from his wife.

Yet somehow he laughs off any mention of his self-confessed “catastrophic year”, shrugging off any influence on his follow-up Death Seat as weirdly coincidental. “Honestly, the more bummer songs on Death Seat date back before the calamity of that year, a lot of the bummer songs were written in happier times. It’s almost like the James of the past warning the James of the future about events. And I’ve experienced that a few times, it’s really weird in a soothsayer, I know that sounds terribly hippy dippy.”

Thankfully he has been lucky enough to find the attention of Swans frontman Michael Gira, who signed him to his label, Young God, and took on the roles of mentor, producer and drill instructor. “We go back years and years, he came to one of my shows and I was psyched because I’m a huge Swans fan. In New York and in the music scene you tour enough so you don’t get intimidated by people, but he’s an intimidating dude.

“Finally when the major label catastrophe happened he was like ‘Wanna do a record on Young God, and was like ‘Yeah totally’.” “His vision is absolute, he’ll say something like ‘I want it to sound like this meets this’ or he’ll talk like a Japanese Fluxus artist ‘It should be this colour’ or ‘What food are you eating?’ And if you tell him that doesn’t work, those chords don’t work together, give him an hour and it’s like holy shit that’s amazing.”

I just wanted to play bass in a metal band, it’s in my fifth grade yearbook under the ‘what do you want to be’ bit

Before Gira’s intervention, James had already recorded a staggering 172 songs; prolific for most artists but about normal for a man who released two or three records in a year until recently. “There were 172 songs that I had in an archive to listen to, I would say there were probably about 50 written for Death Seat, the rest were songs without a home.

“It was like boot camp with Michael Gira, we stayed at his house and every day we listened to about 15 songs and made notes. He’s a very harsh critic but it was good for me, and we did whittle it down.”

On questioning how he manages to relentlessly write so much music, he shrugs it off as natural. “It’s hard to talk about it without sounding like a hippy or pompous, my experience of writing songs is not sitting down with a blank piece of paper, nothing comes out well like that. It’s more the songs occur to me, it can be a nuisance, when you’re driving and come up with a great title or you’re in tired and in bed and you know if you don’t write it down it’ll be gone for ever.”

Death Seat, released last year, takes its name from a phrase used by American cops, as James explains “it’s cop slang for the passenger seat. Statistically in car wrecks, it is the most dangerous seat in the car.” For a man who often touches upon mortality and morality in his songs, James is dismissive of his own religious upbringing. “I’m not as spiritual as you’d glean from the lyrics, I was raised Catholic and you encounter so much malevolent and morbid imagery from a young age and it leaves its indelible mark on you. But I wouldn’t really say I was a religious person as such.”

But he also tells me he has met his fair share of dodgy characters working as a carpenter in the downtime between records. “I blush at the term carpenter, I’m more a handyman. I know just enough to pretend. It’s funny the people you run into at these jobs, because there is no training, no paper trail, no tax forms, you run into a lot of ex-cons, druggies and other musicians so you get some interesting stories out of that.”

James is restless in his work, constantly writing new material, and even having suffering the odd disaster hasn’t stopped him, hopefully this much deserved spate of good luck will hold out this time.