James Jackson Toth is Wooden Wand. After the June 12th release of James & the Quiet on Ecstatic Peace!, the name and the legend will be no more; this, after a slew of studio albums recorded with the Vanishing Voices (and one with the Sky High Band) and countless self-released CD-R's and audiotapes. Fresh off his last tour with the Vanishing Voices, PAPERMAG's Justin Goncalves phoned Toth and talked about titular phallacies, working with members of Sonic Youth and growing up in Shaolin land.
Justin Goncalves: I remember getting a press release a few months ago with some pretty forceful language about your retiring of the name Wooden Wand. Rather than asking why James & the Quiet will be the last time you use the name, I'm more curious about the origins of the name.
James Jackson Toth: It's not too interesting a story. Iâve been asked this question before and I never know what to say. It just popped into my head one day. Since then, people have drawn into the phallic implications, which is fine with me. It's not like I hadn't seen them.
JG: You're fine with the phallic implications?
JG: The other day I was on Tiny Mix Tapes, looking at the list of writers, and I noticed a James Jackson Toth. I wasn't sure it was you. Is it you?
JG: It seems like writing about music and creating it are worlds apart.
JJT: At the risk of being corny, it's born of the same passion of music. I wrote about music before I made it. I used to make a living as a writer before I was a musician. I think there's some professional envy on both side. I'm sure most musicians want to write their own bios and press kits and I'm sure most journalists want to be musicians, in their darkest moments. I don't write any more because I don't have the vigor for it. Writing professionally is taxing. You have to listen to some Midwestern hip-hop record and you just don't look forward to wasting the next 77 minutes with it when you'd rather be listening to something else. I guess I really just don't enjoy writing.
JG: So you don't write at all anymore?
JJT: I still write songs and stuff for myself -- sometimes, but not really.
JG: You're releasing your record on Ecstatic Peace!. Considering the other bands on the label (Be Your Own Pet, Awesome Color, The Notekillers) it seems like a weird home for Wooden Wand.
JJT: I think I agree with that. That's the charm of the label. They've had the luxury of being able to do whatever they've wanted. Whenever they dig something they put it out. Classic labels always follow the music. In the olden days, pre-digital media, people would just trust a label. I would just buy everything that came out on Drag City. Those days are gone. You can't just buy a record on Sub-Pop and know it's gonna be quality.
JG: Have you noticed a big difference between Ecstatic Peace! and Kill Rock Stars?
JJT: All the people you're talking about (Thurston [Moore], Slim [Moon]) they're all good friends of mine. There's not a lot of crunching numbers, it's very informal. Kill Rock Stars was important to me, when I was a kid I loved them. Just putting a record out on that label was exciting for me. I'm still really good friends with Slim, I talk to him all the time, and I've known Thurston for about ten years.
JG: You knew Thurston before you signed to Ecstatic Peace!?
JG: How'd you guys meet?
JJT: It's actually a pretty interesting story. We were at a noise band show, Decaer Pinga. They [Decaer Pinga] were friends of mine. Through the noise scene we were pen pals. They came to the States and we took them around and gave them a place to stay. They had a show opening for Sonic Youth at Bowery Ballroom and they asked us to play for them. The crowd was polite but not enthusiastic. I was like 19, no business being there. After the show, backstage, I heard Thurston talking about a record of the Golden Cows, this band up in Purchase, which was my band. We've been friends since.
JG: That's crazy.
JJT: Yeah, Thurston's an amazing guy. He's so passionate about music. I hope I'm not jaded at his age. He's always going around, checking out young bands all over the place. He's pretty inspiring.
JG: While we're on the subject of Sonic Youth, you had Lee Ranaldo produce and Steve Shelley play drums on James & The Quiet. I know it came out sounding great, but how well did the arrangement work in the studio?
JJT: We were all Sonic Youth fans from when we were little guys. Lee was the only one I didn't know too well, only on a "hi and bye" basis, so I didn't know what I was getting into. We had wish list [for producers], and Lee was on it. He was amazing; he was so patient. I was working from a checklist thinking we should over dub this part and do this again and he was like, "Give me an hour, I've got a crazy idea." He hit it off with my wife, Jessica, working on arrangements and stuff. They'd be working on stuff while I was sitting around reading magazines.
JG: So you live in Knoxville, Tennessee now. Are you from there?
JJT: No, I grew up in Staten Island, New York.
JG: You and Method Man.
JJT: I actually have some Wu-Tang stories. I served them burritos when I worked at Taco Bell. I went to high school with Raekwon's little brother. Wu-Tang gave the place a kind of identity. You can say Shaolin and the world will know what you're talking about.
JG: Can you share any Wu-Tang stories?
JJT: I served burritos to all of them except the two I most wanted to meet, O.D.B. and Ghostface. That was my first job. They were opening a new Taco Bell in the "white" area so they sent us to learn at the one near the ferry, so we'd be ready once the new place opened. When it opened, we were the worst Taco Bell chain in the country or something. I was fired in a group firing.
JG: You were that bad?
JJT: Yeah, the boss was like, "You, you and you, you're fired."
JG: So what kind of impact did Wu-Tang have on Wooden Wand?
JJT: In Staten Island, hip-hop's kind of ubiquitous. During the golden age of hip hop, '92-'94, those were the only records I bought. Those were the only records I would listen to.
JG: Any favorite rappers?
JJT: This is where I'm going to show my age. I always like Brand Nubian. I loved Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, of course the greats. I also liked a lot of the West Coast stuff.
JG: Anything from today?
JJT: No, most of the rap is pretty appalling. Jessica's into the house stuff. The Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice girls are really into the booty-shaking stuff.
JG: So you're not listening to current hip-hop. What're you listening to now?
JJT: I pretty much listen to old stuff. I love the Blues Control record. Fire on Fire, they have a record coming out on Young God. They're good friends of mine, but, despite that, they're amazing. I'm pretty reverential. Nothing beats Neil Young and Bob Dylan, prime-era Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground. I like the sound of old records as much as the songs. They're obvious, but for a reason. Post-collegiate times you get into krautrock, free jazz-after adolescence you have an awakening. "Oh God, you never heard Can? Faust?" Everyone kind of goes through that. And no one's ever the same.
JG: Is there anyone that you personally emulate?
JJT: I wouldn't say emulate, but I do have a tattoo on my wrist that says W.W.N.Y.D. --What Would Neil Young Do? If punk rock were a person, he'd be Neil Young. He's way of dealing with the music business. If I emulate anything, it's him. If Neil Young didn't want to do a tour, he'd fucking get off the airplane.
JG: W.W.N.Y.D. reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask. Throughout your albums, there's a religiousness to them. I don't want to sidestep the question, so I'm just gonna ask. Are you a particularly religious person?
JJT: What I usually tell people is that I don't really talk about sports or politics. It's about the mythology of it. Once a junkie always a junkie; once a Catholic always a Catholic. The ritual appeals to me in an aesthetic kind of way. I know it's nerdy and post-modern to talk about religion in terms of aesthetics. I think a lot of artists, whether they are writers or musicians, find themselves obsessed with the rituals. My family's Catholic and my parents are pretty religious. Even though I'm not really into it, it's always kind of nagging me, hanging out in the back of my head.
In my family it's more of a cultural thing. They are Catholic in the same sense that they're Italian. It's part of the culture. It's hard to get away from it. We all go through teenage angst. I listened to Slayer, I hated all that shit for along time. In a lot of ways I still hate it. You do come back to it in was you might not expect.
JG: You're not on tour now. Are you planning on touring soon?
JJT: Not really. I'm really exhausted from the last U.S. tour. I guess if Thurston or the guys from Ecstatic Peace! come up with something good, I'll be out there. It's a matter of things being well organized.