Some people write songs because they like to write songs, but James Jackson Toth writes them because he needs to.
“If I didn’t have to write songs, I wouldn’t,” he told AdHoc over the phone from his home in Richmond, VA. “If they didn’t pester me the way they do, I’d just do something else."
Since the mid-2000s, Toth has released a near-perpetual stream of music under the moniker Wooden Wand. The sheer volume of his output has freed him to dabble with a wide variety of scenes and sounds—freak folk, outlaw country, free jazz and psych rock, to name a few—without ever coming across as an artistic tourist. What ties that work together is Toth’s idiosyncratic lyrical stylings, and his refusal to linger for too long in the same sonic space.
Creative freedom doesn’t necessarily yield financial freedom, and Toth is no stranger to the necessity of side hustle. He explores the concept on “Mexican Coke,” a song off his most recent LP, Clipper Ship, singing, "Where there's a will, there are ways."
Although Toth admits he once viewed the side hustle as a somewhat romantic notion—doing something menial in service of pursuing your passion—he now believes it's assumed a darker significance in the age of the sharing economy. It’s a question that we kept coming back to during our interview: just how much hustling can one soul take?
Wooden Wand plays in Brooklyn at Baby’s All Right on August 13 with Dark Tea and Francesco Saxton.
AdHoc: Why do you write songs?
James Jackson Toth: I guess I feel compelled to do it. I think it’s a misunderstanding that a lot of us enjoy doing it. I mean, it’s definitely satisfying to write songs. But it’s certainly not something I set out to do. I just started really young and kept on doing it. If I didn’t have to write songs, I wouldn’t. If they didn’t pester me the way they do, I’d just do something else. I’d probably sleep a lot better.
When did you first start writing songs?
It really depends on your definition of “song.” There are recordings of me at 6 and 7 years old under the influence of finding Helter Skelter on my grandmother’s bookshelf and learning about metal and The Misfits. I’d sing these very crude songs about bashing heads all these pretty gnarly things. It probably should’ve been an indication that my parents should put me in therapy.
But as far as sitting down with a guitar and writing a piece of music, I was a late bloomer, because all through high school I was into metal and hip-hop. I could play metal riffs and everything, but I didn’t know what a B7 chord was like. So it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I wrote my first song, and after that it was like a dam burst—I’ve never stopped.
You’re an extremely prolific songwriter. Do you ever get stuck?
Being prolific means you write constantly. I don’t really get stuck as far as the writing process—I only get stuck with bad songs. The thing that’s different for me from a lot of other songwriters is I always finish everything. If I’m in the middle of a song that I’m working and I’m like, “Argh, this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be anything,” or “This reminds me of something else,” I still finish it, because I get a kick out of making a song exist.
So once a song is done, even if it’s a B-minus type of song, I still like to have it in my arsenal. I don’t really get stuck. If you gave me a guitar now, I could write you song. I just can’t promise you it would be a great one.
Do you ever revise or edit your compositions?
Yeah, in the studio I’ll do that, which is why some of the home recordings that have trickled out over the years bug me a little bit. Some of the lyrics are just place-holder lyrics and I think, “Oh, I’ll just fix that later.” And then some label is like, “We need to put it out just the way it is.”
I get kind of nerdy about syntax and grammar, something as simple as that. “Less” instead of “fewer,” or vice-versa — that’ll just stick in my craw. But I don’t think a lot of people notice.
Was there anything you altered in terms of your approach when you set out to write and record Clipper Ship?
It was totally different. At home, my wife and I don’t listen to a lot of what you would call “singer-songwriter” music. At the risk of lacking humility, I don’t really listen to any singer-songwriter who’s not better than me [Laughs]. I know that sounds like an arrogant thing to say, but I don’t get a lot of inspiration from listening to other singer-songwriters.
So we listen to a lot of instrumental music, running the gamut from jazz and krautrock to Indian music. [For this album], I really wanted to make something that could stand on its own and not just as a vehicle for words, which is what I think a lot of people think of when they think of Wooden Wand. I wanted to make a record that sounded just as good if you took the lyrics off. So I worked on the music first, and then built the lyrics on top.
Is there a reason you feel more comfortable performing under the moniker Wooden Wand than under your own name?
At this point, it’s sort of an albatross. I’m sure you can ask Robert Pollard why he still puts out Guided By Voices records. The practical answer is the brand recognition. Typically, a Pavement record will always sell better than a Stephen Malkmus record. It’s a name I thought of early on, and now I’m stuck with it. Any time I’ve tried to deviate, it’s been a problem.
Why did you choose the name Wooden Wand to begin with?
Some of my favorite bands when I started Wooden Wand were Swell Maps and Tower Recordings. Those guys always had names like “Spanish Wolfman” and “Jowl Head.” Those pseudonyms were cooler to me than being just another white guy with three names singing songs.
“Wooden Wand” was never meant to be a band name, necessarily. It was more using it as an alias rather than a “doing-business-as.” I kind of resist [the vibe where] there’s this guy’s name on your T-shirt. It’s cooler to have a band name.
One of the tracks on Clipper Ship that sticks out is “Mexican Coke,” which talks about having a side hustle, needing to do something else in order to also do what you really love. Have you had any memorable side hustles?
Oh boy, that’s a whole other interview in and of itself. I feel like I’ve had every shitty job that you can make under 10 dollars an hour doing. I’ve driven trucks, I’ve done house-painting and roofing, I’ve filled vending machines, I’ve worked in prisons. I’ve also done sort-of respectable things like copy-editing, writing, freelancing, working in record stores. I’ve worked in like five or six record stores. So, yeah, a side hustle is something I’m very familiar with.
But the thing is that as recently as 10 years ago, it was kind of a weird thing to have a side hustle. It was just touring musicians I knew who came home and worked at record stores or graphic design shops. Now I know teachers and filmmakers and authors who also have side hustles. It’s kind of a weird time. You thought that was a path to the middle class before, and now everyone I know has a side hustle. It’s kind of terrifying.
But then you see certain people who get excited about the sharing economy. There’s a new idea that having 15 jobs you can turn on and off is somehow a path to freedom.
And obviously that’s problematic, because it’s contract labor, meaning there’s no benefits. There’s a sleight of hand where it’s like, “You can do whatever you want,” but there’s also this super-negative side, too.
All these jobs I’m listing—I never had insurance and I was always paid in cash at the end of the day. If I got hurt falling off a ladder, that’d probably be it: I’d be 25 and in debt for the rest of my life.
On the one hand, technology and social media get your music out in front of more listeners. On the other, they don’t necessarily lend themselves to artists sustaining themselves financially. Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to be a professional musician in 2017?
It’s absolutely more difficult. There’s no question. Anybody who says differently, you should look for their secrets behind their ability to sustain themselves.
It’s a small world, what we do. Through two or three degrees of separation—my wife’s a former concert promoter and I’ve toured for 20 years—we know a lot of mid-level bands. I don’t know anyone who’s psyched right now about the music business. Some people are more pragmatic about it, while other people get lampooned when they start to complain. People like David Lowery [of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker] are becoming punchlines even though all he’s doing is standing up for all of us.
It’s difficult to deal with because there’s no question that things have changed. I mean, I knew people who were making a living selling CD-Rs just 10 or 15 years ago. You talk about side hustles, and [now] they have three or four. And there’s still no endgame. People aren’t going to be doing a side hustle for the rest of their lives. People aren’t going to be buying artisan chocolate for the next 40 years, so what do you do?
You have to think that there will be a breaking point somewhere down the line, but for now we’re living in a middle period, and things are tense.
I think it’s true that we’re living in a bottleneck period. And although my wife probably would prefer I didn’t read a lot of books about Big Data, I read a lot of books about Big Data. It’s the closest I get to reading a ghost story before bed. I terrify myself as if it’s Pet Sematary, you know?
Where’s everyone going to work when there are no truck drivers? There’s a book called The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly that I would recommend. But his response isn’t like a Douglas Rushkoff or Neil Postman warning. He’s more gleeful about it. He’s like, “Won’t it be great when we’ve got robot slaves?” And I’m just thinking that aside from maintaining the robot slaves, how is anyone going to make a living?
How much are you thinking about the listener when you’re writing a song?
I think about [them] a lot more than many people will say or admit. The audience is important. Especially in these solipsistic times, people are like, “I’m just expressing myself.” But you need to communicate, too and self-expression, in and of itself, is not communication.
I’ve said that if I was stranded on a desert island with a guitar, I’d probably just burn it for firewood. If there’s no one to play for, I’m not going to play.
You’ve worn a lot of different sonic hats across your releases, trying your hand at genres like alt-country, free jazz, freak folk, psychedelia and more. Would you say that you have a particular comfort zone?
Privately, I don’t. But going back to your previous question, there is definitely a parameter that I think about. At home, I’ll try to make a weird deep house record one day, or I’ll be like, “Oh, I’ll get back to my metal roots and do a grindcore thing.” But as far as releasing a Wooden Wand grindcore or deep house record, that’s probably never going to happen. I don’t want to seem like a Luddite or tourist in any genre.
I feel pretty comfortable with the stuff that I do, and although I don’t feel any limits, I do work within a framework where I’m more comfortable. For lack of a better word, I’d call that the folk tradition, and I’d include under that Crazy Horse. I think it’s a pretty broad category, but I feel comfortable in that world.
You were born in New York, and you’ll be returning for the Baby’s All Right show in Brooklyn. What’s your favorite thing about city, and what’s your least favorite thing?
Like anything, you don’t really realize how much you miss it until you’re gone. I’ve been out of New York more than half of my life at this point, and I do see where I grew up a lot differently now. When I was a kid, getting out of Staten Island was my first priority. I felt like there was a pervasive, willful ignorance and xenophobia—this bad side of a working-class neighborhood—that was kind of stifling. I couldn’t wait to leave.
But now when I go back after having traveled so much, I see family-owned businesses. I see a lot of parks. I see communities of people who are really diverse and cooperative. I appreciate that aspect a lot more now than I did then.
The bad thing is it’s too expensive to live there, and as an artist, I don’t relish the idea of working four jobs waiting tables just to survive in a place when I could buy a house in Iowa and create all the time. With the internet, it’s not as necessary to be like, “You’ve got to live in Chapel Hill because that’s where everything is happening.” Now, it doesn’t matter as much, as long as you can get out of your bubble and have time to tour.
You happen to share the same name as Reese Witherspoon’s husband. Is there a particular film from the Reese Witherspoon canon that Wooden Wand would like to formally endorse?
Did she do Clueless?
No, that’s Alicia Silverstone, but close enough.
Yeah, you see, I’m out of touch with that stuff [laughs]. I do remember when they got married, because a lot of people joke-texted me congratulations for marrying a movie star.