Over the span of the past fifteen years James Jackson Toth’s strange journey through the music business has yielded the requisite high highs and low lows of a gifted, tireless performer faced with the absurd and decidedly non-meritocratic whims of an industry consumed with chasing its own tail in search of the next commercial trend. Observed through that lens, the still young Toth’s career has touched nearly every pole of that ridiculous enterprise, from buzzed about outsider, to major label afterthought, to indie label reclamation, and on and on. The astounding insanity of all of this is underscored by the remarkable, consistent brilliance of Toth’s songwriting, which has never wavered in the wake of all of the ways the music business would hypothetically have him.
Toth is a nearly unmatched chronicler of broken lives and miraculous redemptions, the kind of genius songwriter who can express spiritual awakening and godless dread within the same couplet. His idiosyncratic take on blues and folk traditions is respectful, but crucially never reverent. Toth understands that merely aping Blind Willie McTell or Honeyboy Edwards is wholly insufficient. On his inspired new release Blood Oaths Of The New Blues, the manner in which he integrates echoes of those older influences with his love of Morrissey, Sonic Youth and other contemporary heroes is the truest demonstration of how this remarkable artist both honors his forbearers and also lights a path forward. We were lucky to talk to Toth in advance of Wooden Wand‘s forthcoming tour.
E&T: You’ve recently released the extraordinary Blood Oaths Of The New Blues. Among a brilliant catalog that we have long admired, this ranks alongside the best work you’ve ever done. Having said that, when we first heard it, in all its austere beauty, we thought, “Christ, what is the matter with James?”. You promptly reassured us that the funereal tone of the album was no cause for concern, and we should begin an intervention when it sounds like you’ve made a Descendents’ record. So, Woody Allen once said something similar, something like, I’ve never been happier than when working on my tragedies and never been more depressed than when working on my comedies. Do you think there’s anything that rings true to that dichotomy for you?
JJT: As with most things in life, I relate to Woody on this one. If and when I do get “down,” the last thing on my mind is writing a song. Usually, being bummed just involves lying around on the couch and taking the bad weather personally. I only write songs when I feel good – or at least something approaching “good.” While the business of “collecting” lyrics and melodies happens all the time, when it’s time to corral them all into something, I have to be in a good mood, ready and willing to work. Some of the tunes on Blood Oaths are kinda old, anyway. It just seemed like time to record ’em after the relative rip roaring good time (emphasis on relative here) of my last album. I’d also like to note that, when they wanted to, the Descendents could get pretty dark. Remember “My World?” Yikes.
E&T: There’s been a recent back and forth about the ostensible value of “popular” folk rock acts, like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers – bands that we consider inconsequential at best. Even those inclined to defend them in supposedly indie circles have cited the proposition that while admittedly their lyrics are meaningless, hey, at least they are predictable and make people sing along. Our own view is that an acoustic-based folk act who treats their lyrics as just so much generic fodder is the equivalent of a jazz band who doesn’t particularly care if the arrangement is cool or the music swings. It seems insane. Curious to know where you come down on this phenomenon.
JJT: Your jazz analogy is perfect. I’d add that those bands also remind me of the Renaissance Fair. And aside from the honey straws (which are delicious), I don’t really want any part of the Renaissance Fair. Thing is, people forget that The Band dressed like that ONE TIME, for ONE PHOTO SHOOT. If you look at the pictures of them in the box set, they’re all in, like, Nike sneakers and shit. So these bands are basing their sartorial choices on a single photo shoot of a band they don’t even sound anything like. But I’ve made a resolution to talk less shit, so I say, fuck it, they’re not breathing my air. No one is standing at the record store with only fifteen dollars to spend, having to make a choice between buying my record and Old Crow Medicine Show’s new one. “Dungeon of Irons” clearly wasn’t written to win over the sorority girl demographic; no one’s gonna be batting a beach ball around to “The DNR Waltz.” I feel better about the existence of these bands when I consider them of a different profession entirely.
E&T: Blood Oaths Of The New Blues is only the most recent in an astonishing run of work that you have issued over the last few years, including its remarkable predecessor, which was your first Briarwood Virgins collaboration. Before that, there was 2011’s Death Seat and 2009’s Hard Knox. In the meantime, over the course of five years, we’ve managed to issue just one five-song EP. How do you account for being so prolific, and are you just attempting to make us look foolish?
JJT: Ha! Well, I remember watching Throw Mama From the Train with my mom when I was a kid, and, you may recall, Billy Crystal’s character runs this writer’s workshop. His advice to the class was “a writer writes.” That stuck with me. I try to write every day, and I find that I have to write ten bad ones to get one good one. Some people are different and only write six songs a year, but all of those songs are masterpieces. I write songs simply because I get a kick out of making them exist. I’m also sort of addicted to the recording studio, and making albums is my idea of fun.
E&T: Confessional songwriting has long been a part of the folk rock tradition, dating to – at a minimum – Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue in the early seventies. But the thing about Blood on the Tracks was always the sense that as much as it may have been a contemplation of a lost marriage, it was also a consideration of a lost generation, suggesting that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The view is panoramic. Recent entries into the confessional forum seem to lack this quality. While Alan Ginsberg said of “Idiot Wind” that the lyric “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull/ From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol” was the “great disillusioned national rhyme”, could we feasibly say the same about current folk acts in terms of using the confessional forum to indicate a greater significance? Or is the supposed tragedy of their lost relationships truly worthy of obsession? Surely this has become a convenient shorthand for publicists. Are we at a place where confessional songwriting is incredibly trite?
JJT: It really doesn’t have to be. On the whole, it bums me out that lyrics seem to be written as afterthoughts nowadays. Not sure why this is, but hopefully things will come around again and bands will once again want to “communicate” “ideas” with their audience, and not just content themselves with providing attitude and atmosphere with clichés on top. That said, there are many artists out there right now writing good or great lyrics: Eleanor Friedberger, Simon Joyner, Cass McCombs, The Paranoid Style, Drive-By Truckers, Hiss Golden Messenger, Richard Buckner, Bill Callahan.
E&T: So we see you’re on the road. While we can’t wait to see you in DC, we have to question: Why in the world are you doing this? Don’t you know that you are going to miss things that are on television? Do you watch Long Island Medium? Where will you go to the grocery? What will you eat? When you become as old as we are, you recognize that these issues are utterly terrifying.
JJT: Though wrongly attributed to Einstein, whoever actually did say “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” knew all about touring the United States. See also: Paul Simon singing “all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity” – I think that’s about tour, too. That said, on the one hand, it’s a necessary evil and I enjoy it less with each passing year, but on the other hand, as far as occupational obligations go, it certainly beats cleaning toilets (or painting houses, which I have done a lot, incidentally), so I’m hesitant to complain about it too much. But, you know, touring isn’t traveling. Everyone should know that. And I would absolutely recommend a month of solo touring – that is, no driver, no merch person, no tour manager – to anyone in the position to do such a thing. But just once. You grow a lot in those situations, like when you spend a Christmas alone (which I also recommend). But, again, only once. That will be enough.
E&T: OK, so, whether or not you’re inclined to accept the challenge – and it is a nasty challenge: Given that Fleetwood Mac has now been given impenetrable cover from the critical community, how do we speak about the Eagles? It seems to us that from LA gloss to the fact that Henley and Nicks had “common cause” there’s not much to choose between the two. And yet, the Eagles remain loathed by hipsters while Fleetwood Mac remains a touchstone. Now it’s up to you, James. Defend the Eagles. GO!
JJT: I can do this. Before we even begin, let’s acknowledge that, when you get right down to it, the Lindsey / Stevie era was just a much, much, much better band than the Eagles, despite all the similar cocaine / Rogaine connotations. The breadth of that band’s imagination (and strength of their songwriting) on albums like Tusk (and parts of Mirage), to say nothing of Rumours, was light years beyond even the best Eagles song (which, incidentally, would be “I Can’t Tell You Why” – God, I love that song). Now, we record, err, “enthusiasts” (read: nerds) know that The Eagles’ rep for ripping off Gram and others is well established and well-earned, but I also think a lot of folks just have this knee-jerk reaction to the band based on, like, that scene in Lebowski or whatever. “The Eagles suck!” Well, why do they suck? Let’s talk about that. Many folks I know in the so-called underground swear by that first Eagles album. I won’t out anybody, though. If “Take It Easy” comes on the radio, I don’t turn it off. Ditto “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” I think the Eagles represent something nasty to people of a certain generation, maybe the same ugly things that Limp Bizkit (sp?) and Creed represent to us, but if being a fanatical Grateful Dead fan has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you need to put those connotations aside and objectively judge something on its own merit, and not its current place in the zeitgeist or whatever. Anyway, Glenn Frey is plainly, clearly insufferable, yes, but I’ll go on record as saying that the Eagles, as a whole, are not an indefensible band. The mere presence of Joe Walsh on later records alone redeems them somewhat. I mean, Joe Walsh is awesome, man.
Wooden Wand plays Tuesday at Ghion (2010 9th St, across from the 9:30 Club) in DC and Wednesday at Metro Gallery in Baltimore.