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Wooden Wand is the moniker of Eastern Kentucky-based singer-songwriter James Jackson Toth. He has previously worked with psych-folk band The Vanishing Voice and became known as part of the freak-folk scene. He has since dissociated himself from this scene, and now makes music which has been described by Interview Magazine as "experimental-Americana-psychedelic-folk-country". Now signed to a new label, Michael Gira's (of Swans) Young Gods label, after a very bad year, Toth speaks to Soundblab about the new album Death Seat, working with Gira and why he regrets being pro-pirate.
What was the editing process like for Death Seat? I read you had over 100 songs for it originally?
The editing process was like boot camp. I think it was 172 songs. I went to Michael's house and we listened to about 20 a day and we whittled 'em down. I've written at least a hundred more since then. Fortunately, Michael is a very gracious host and I had a lot of fun, even when we had, err, disagreements.
The imagery in your lyrics is very vivid, witty and surreal at times (for instance "the trannies who know judo" in 'Ms Mowse') and at other times quite religious with a strong emphasis on good and evil. What influences you when it comes to lyric writing? And how important are lyrics to you?
Lyrics are the most important thing. Good lyrics can make a song for me (the opposite is also true). As for good and evil - well, most good stories are about that, right?
How did going through such a tumultuous year last year, splitting from your label, band and wife, affect how you approached Death Seat?
Less than you'd glean from the lyrics, As I said, Michael and I whittled down a LOT of songs, and some of those tunes dated back as far as 1996. Most of the 'bummer' songs were written before my 'bad year.' As far as autobiography, my album Born Bad comes a lot closer.
What it's like working with Michael Gira as your producer?
He's the best. Rigid, stubborn, MEAN, critical, exacting, impatient. But all of that filtered through an aesthetic sensibility that's clearly genius. I've learned to trust his instincts - he's usually correct. He has had a remarkably positive influence on my life that's pretty much incalculable.
How did you come to work with the collaborators from bands like Lambchop and Mercury Rev on Death Seat?
We're friends. You meet a lot of people touring as much as I have over the years. I am extremely grateful to those people for their time and patience, to say nothing of their outstanding work.
You said in the past that you don't like the freak-folk association; do you think that music is too lazily categorised these days?
Of course it is. But that's not something I think about too much, it really has no bearing on what I do. You can call it whatever you want. I just call it American music. Which it is.
You've also said before that you are pro-pirate do you still stand by this? And what do you feel about the current state of the music industry especially for independent artists like you?
I'm sorry I said that, that was short-sighted of me. In the early days, I was happy and flattered that people were trading tapes and CDRs, but it has definitely had an adverse effect on my being able to make a living doing this. It sucks.
This is your first album in more than a year, when previously you've released several in a year. What's changed and do you plan to leave bigger gaps between releases in the future?
I don't know. Michael's trying to get me to slow down. There are always limited edition things, you know. I just did a limited run LP for a great label out of the UK called Blackest Rainbow. I do split-singles, comps, that sorta thing. I write a lot. I don't like to sit on songs. I think of it as clearing hard drive space - put 'em out, write some more. This is my process.
Your music is strongly influenced by the blues. What blues musicians have most influenced you?
Howlin' Wolf and Junior Kimbrough.
Has living in different parts of America affected your music, and what do you like about where you're living now?
I don't like where I'm living now. There are some cool folks here, some great food and, best of all, plentiful whiskey - but Tennessee won my heart many years ago and I hope to get back there someday. I generally like travelling in the US - every place is inspiring in its own way. But I also prefer being home with my wife and my dog.
What musicians are you currently listening to and really liking?
If you mean artists who are still alive and bands that are still together, today I've been listening to a lot of metal - Darkthrone (always), Agalloch, and Esoteric. Aside from that, I really like Cass McCombs, I think he's great. The Body, Girls, Salem, Bottomless Pit, aTelecine, Lindstrom and Christabelle, Wolfgang Voigt, The War on Drugs, Deer Tick and Endless Boogie all put out albums this year I've listened to a lot. New music is still worthwhile if you know where to look.