Interview: James Jackson Toth (of Wand)

Several weeks ago, Akron/Family hit up the nation’s capital… only they weren’t alone. Opening the show was Wand, a brilliant songwriter who sometimes composes tunes about people who don’t share a certain characteristic with their creator himself. In other words, he’s principled. He’s also thoughtful, friendly, and independent (maybe even a bit stubbornly so).

Midway through his solid set of bleak folk tunes, Wand invited a friend of his from Tennessee to accompany him on pedal steel guitar. Later on, as my buddy and I exited DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel after the show, this same pedal steel player was outside gleefully jamming along with some random guy who in all likelihood abides in the H Street corridor that the club is located in. It was a nice, warm little moment: Here’s a musician who does it because of love. For some unfathomable reason, people like this are something of a rarity.

Maybe not that much of a rarity, as the concert showed. Maybe these folks are just hiding. Wand, aka James Jackson Toth, is one of these people. The songs he performed were dark and haunting, but never struck this reviewer as overwhelmingly austere. They were all powerful, and for the right reasons, with the pedal steel providing a wonderful, subtle melodic augmentation. Oh, and Toth gets several bonus points for his killer between song banter.

A few weeks before the show I spoke by phone with Wand about his new album Hard Knox. In the course of the discussion, he shared his thoughts on record labels, his influences, and the current indie rock scene:

First off, I understand you’ve had a tumultuous year. What’s been going on?

[Laughs.] Oh, you know, it’s kinda one of those years. It’s a Murphy’s Law kind of thing. I mean, you know, it builds character. It’s a transitional period. Yeah, for sure, and it’s just a lot of bad things all at once. You know how it is. But what happened was on the tour people left in the middle, and I just chose to honor my commitment and not piss off my booking agent, the promoters. [Laughs.] So I just finished the tour alone. I came back and wrote a record largely dealing with that incident, which was Born Bad. I’m just looking to the future.

The next question I have is one that I’m personally curious about: the last track, “Soldier Movies”, is dedicated to Larry McMurtry. That’s the writer, correct?

Yes, that’s correct.

I’m wondering how his writing has influenced you.

As far as contemporary authors, if he’s not my favorite, he’s certainly one of the authors I come back to the most. I think he evokes the sort of America that I identify with, and I just think there’s a lot of beauty in his prose, you know? His characters are just great. When I first read The Last Picture Show many, many years ago it just had a profound effect on me, and the movie did as well. I tried in that song to sort of evoke, in a micro sort of way, the feeling that I get when I read those books—the place it takes me. I’m just a big fan.

Hard Knox and Born Bad are credited to Wand. How do these records fit into your catalog?

Hard Knox is something that we’ve been working on for a few years, actually. Thurston [Moore] and Andrew [Kesin] of Ecstatic Peace proposed it … I guess it’s about two years ago now, because I have a lot of material in the archives and we were trying to whittle it down and see what was good enough for release. It’s kind of “what I’ve been up to,” kind of like a primer—like a “catching up with Wand” sort of thing. [Laughs.] It’s good because that kind of stuff allows me to put songs into a capsule and send them out into the world. It’s almost like clearing hard drive space. Now I’m able to write more and be done with those songs and move onto something else. It was a satisfying thing to do and, also, I think I’m really happy with the way Andrew and I sequenced it and chose the material because I do think it moves like a record, like an album, and that’s the only thing I really want. That’s the only real barometer I had for its success, was that it had to make some sort of sense. It had to be consistent in a way and not be just this hodgepodge of b-sides and rarities and stuff. Those are usually pretty lame, you know?

Yeah. What influence did Knoxville have on the composition?

Well, aside from just living there … I guess you could argue that inasmuch as that I’m happy in Tennessee it influenced my work—as far as it giving me, you know, the ability and the solitude to write more. I’m inspired by my surroundings, but ultimately a lot is made of that, like the move to Tennessee, like somehow because Johnny Cash walked around here, I’m more inspired here than I was, like, where The Ramones were from, which is kinda where I grew up. [Laughs.] That’s just really not true. It’s more that I’m just generally a happier guy living somewhere like Tennessee, where the cost of living is a lot lower, which affords me more time to tour and record and not have to work in a cubicle or something.

I really like the reverb sounds on the record and I was wondering if you could describe the rooms that the songs were recorded in.

Just a little bedroom in a little old house, I mean, nothing too fancy about it. It wasn’t soundproofed. I guess it’s just kind of carrying naturally; I mean, it’s a small room, but like I said I’m a pretty utilitarian kind of dude and I don’t like to have a lot of clutter. I need to be in a space where I’m not really distracted or, like, oppressed by ambiance, you know? So you could argue it was just a big, empty room with a wood floor where most of that was recorded. [Laughs.]

I think my favorite track on the record is “Dark Is Bending”, and I’m wondering how the vocal was recorded. It has kind of a distinct sound.

Yeah, I think—it’s so long ago, it’s one of the oldest songs on there—I think I was just kind of messing around with a little bit of chorus or something. It’s chorus or phase, honestly, I can’t remember. That was a song that my friend who is a really good judge of my work in that she’s really honest about it, she thought it was just a direct rip-off of the song “Rats” by Syd Barrett. I sort of alluded to that in the liner notes too, but it’s a great song so…better to steal from Syd Barrett.

It kind of reminded me of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind.

Wow, thanks man.

Especially the song “Love Sick,” do you know that song?

Yeah, that’s a great song. I like all the modern Dylan stuff, actually. That’s a nice compliment, man.

Okay, so from what I understand, you went off Ecstatic Peace but now you’re back on.

Well, this was a record that we agreed to do even before this thing happened so it’s not like I’m necessarily signed exclusively to Ecstatic Peace. In fact, the next album will be coming out on Young God with Michael Gira, who I believe will probably produce it too. The good thing about working in this more of a handshake capacity is that a lot of these people are just friends of mine and there’s not a whole lot of ownership issues and stuff. The Rykodisc thing was probably a mistake, in hindsight, and that was the only bad move. It wasn’t even really a lateral move; it was a step backward I thought. In general, yeah, I trust these people. I mean, Slim Moon, for many years, was a good friend of mine, so Kill Rock Stars seemed natural. I’ve known Thurston, like, 12 or 13 years, and Andrew is a good friend of mine, so it just makes sense, so I know there’s not gonna be any weird hassle.

So you’re really into the Ecstatic Peace label?

Oh, I think it’s a great label. I think it’s awesome. It’s good to be in the company of people—like that Matt Krefting record that just came out is amazing, and I really like Little Claw. I obviously like Sonic Youth, that doesn’t even need to be said. I mean, it’s still a thrill, you know? I’m sure I’d never take that for granted at all.

The songs were recorded between late 2002 and early 2007—

Roughly … that was kind of a guess. [Laughs.]

What was going on in your life in this period?

You could say it was a transitional period. I mean, I was moving from New York, where I lived, to Knoxville and … it’s an adjustment. It’s an adjustment that I welcome, that I inspired, but it’s still something that you need to figure out. But it was generally a really good time in my life, I’d say, overall. I was a pretty happy dude and I was recording a lot. I was really happy to leave New York and leave the sort of metropolis and … the hussle-and-bussle, if you will. It was a really creatively fertile sort of time.

My last question is, ‘What were you listening to in this period?’

That’s a good question … you know, I listen to so much stuff in a seven-year period. I probably went through an obsession where I was listening to Scientist and digital dub, and I was probably going through a big Bert Jansch phase at some point, and then just listening to Wu-Tang for weeks on end. [Laughs.] It just moves that way. The only stuff I really don’t listen to … the only music, if I have to say, that I don’t really enjoy a lot is sort of contemporary indie stuff. I mean, when I was a kid I liked Guided By Voices and stuff like that, but contemporary indie is probably the only thing I don’t really draw inspiration from, which is probably for the best because if I accidentally steal from somebody I want it to be Michael Hurley and not … I don’t know, Fleet Foxes or some shit. [Laughs.]


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