It's been three years between Wooden Wand records, but James Jackson Toth has used the time. He made a bewitching, drone-filled LP, Under Stars and Smoke, with William Fowler Collins; with his wife, Leah, he launched an independent vinyl record label, Footfalls Records. And as Wooden Wand, Toth released one of his finest records yet in May, Clipper Ship, which is as majestic as its title and a seeming distillation of his ever evolving lyrical and musical discernment.
"I wanted to make like an exploded drawing of a folk record," he says, "like a postmodern folk record that used all these elements of old-time music and bluegrass and blues, but I didn't want to make it like renaissance fair music."
Toth made his first record in the mid-nineties, and, since 2005, he's recorded under several different names, in ever-changing permutations. He's amassed a trove that is startling in its range. Still, he says, one theme runs through it all: time, the ultimate nonrenewable resource.
"I consider myself a time-haunted man," he says. "I'm obsessed with time. It drives my wife crazy."
From a Cracker Barrel in Michigan, Toth offered thoughts and reflections on five records culled from nigh on two decades of virtually constant music making.
Waiting in Vain
After three releases as Wooden Wand, Toth made his major-label debut under his own name with this guest-studded collection.
That whole process was sort of a learning experience, and like a lot of learning experiences, it came with some pain and struggle. The way I think about that record is like, everything I ever read about in punk rock magazines like Maximum Rocknroll about major labels sort of came true. It was almost like a one-act play based on those articles. We had more time than we needed and we had a big budget. We could fly people in and work with some really incredible talented people. But when I think about making that record, I think about sitting in the lounge, watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force while handclap overdubs were occurring in the next room.
Wooden Wand & the World War IV
Three Lobed Recordings, 2013
Envisioned by Toth and a familiar set of bandmates as a post-hardcore-influenced psych record, this fiery set summons the crackling interplay of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
That record was an interesting kind of alchemy. It was the third of three records I made with the same group. We had toured together, we had been in Europe together, so we knew each other really well. And when you're in a group with any five or six people, there's always different people who are into different things and they introduce you to the stuff that they're into. The other thing that happens is you hit on the thing that everybody agrees on. Kind of the equivalent to tacos on tour. Usually whether you're vegetarian or gluten-free, really hungry or not that hungry, anybody can usually handle tacos. So we were finding those taco type bands among our tastes, and Fugazi was the one that kept coming up. And we all were born around the same time, so that was big for all of us. So we thought, Wouldn't it be fun to make a psychedelic Fugazi record? And like all best laid plans, it didn't come out anything like that. But it mutated into something that was singular.
Three Lobed Recordings, 2015
This collaboration yielded taut tunes and an epic title track, which cycles through intriguing changes over eighteen minutes.
Cory [Rayborn, of Three Lobed Recordings] wanted a Wooden Wand-related Record Store Day release, but he wanted to do something kind of special. He said, Who do you want to work with that you haven't worked with? Royal Trux were always one of my favorite bands—still are and a very big inspiration—so, without thinking of how impractical it might be I was like, Oh, Neil Hagerty! That would be great. And we made it happen. Surprisingly, he was into the idea. We wrote the songs over email. I would send him lyrics, and he'd put them to music and vice versa. Which is an interesting way to work, but I don't have a lot of people I really look up to anymore. A lot of the people I look up to are friends of mine, other songwriters I really respect and admire, but I know them pretty well. Neil was kind of my last Lou Reed, the "buy his records the day they come out" kind of guy. So it was really exciting to work with him.
Ecstatic Peace!, 2007
This record constituted a hard turn from Toth's early, haze-shrouded LPs, and it includes Toth's best-known tune, "Spitting at the Cameras."
Working with Lee Ranaldo was incredible. They say never meet your heroes, but I became an even bigger fan of Lee after working with him. But that record was released a little prematurely. I was younger and more naïve and I didn't realize at the time that if you make a record like I did, which seemed to get a lot of attention and praise in certain quarters, the best thing to do is sit on it, not release anything for awhile. Certain indie rock luminaries have made entire careers out of disappearing for ten years or more. My mistake was following up too quickly. Maybe the record was a little overstuffed; I think you could lose four songs from that record and you wouldn't miss 'em. But it's part of my discography—there are definitely songs on that record I still play live, that people still ask me to play live.
Fire Records, 2013
Here, Toth delivers luminous, doom-tinged narratives from a damaged America.
I think that's probably my favorite Wooden Wand record overall. It was just studio magic first thing. On the first day, the drummer, Brad Davis, brought a harmonium. He always has cool shit, full of weird instruments. We were all talking about harmonium records that we really loved. Obviously the Nico record [The Marble Index], but other things, the Herman Nitsch record Harmoniumwerk, and then next thing you know, it was the sort of thing that threaded the whole record together. And I would have never expected that. On day one in the studio, I had no idea there'd be a harmonium on the record. It adds a certain consistency that I really like. I don't think it's a perfect record, but I think if I make a perfect record it'll be my last one, so I like to be feeling eighty percent about any record I make. I feel like that's a good number. But I always want to make another that I can improve upon the one before.