Over his many years perched in the tangled branches of American underground music’s family tree, James Jackson Toth has employed many names for his projects, including his own name, the ever-morphing Wooden Wand designation, DUNZA, and more. And now: James and The Giants. On June 30th, the self-titled album from Toth’s new outfit sees release via Kill Rock Stars. Produced by Toth’s longtime collaborator Jarvis Taveniere of Woods, it’s a bucolic and self-assured outing, weaving together touches of soul, Americana, and folk, always framed by wiggy, scrappy strangeness that belies Toth’s years crafting poetic and individualistic art.
Today at AD, he joins us to discuss the album, its science fiction and personal details, and ponder the eternal question: what would Neil Young do? | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: This James and the Giants record is great. It’s warm, it’s sweet, and it feels deeply reflective without losing a sense of humor or joy. Was there anything like a “mission statement” for this new album or project?
James Toth: Only in the loosest sense, and only retrospectively. I rarely set out to make records with overarching concepts, and when I do, I usually abort about halfway through the process because it starts to feel like I’m trying to shoehorn the concept into the songs, or vice versa. If this record has a theme, it’s like a modern version of that old tv show This Is Your Life. It plays a bit like “The Wooden Wand Revue” or something. There are four people on the record who’ve played in three different non-overlapping versions of my band, so it became by complete coincidence a reunion of sorts.
AD: You and producer Jarvis Taveniere go way back; how did he encourage the sound of this record?
James Toth: I’d say Jarvis is about 75% responsible for the way the record sounds. I’ve always said that I tend to make two different kinds of solo records. One is the kind where I’m the tyrant, and I have very clear ideas about everything I want the record to be, with every bass part and cymbal hit arranged in my head before I even arrive at the studio. Coincidentally, these have historically been the least popular of my studio records. The other kind of record I make is where I just defer to a producer or in some cases a band whose ears I trust completely, and I don’t get so uptight about every decision. People who like my music typically tend to prefer these records. This new album is an example of the latter. Jarvis chose most of the songs for this record from a large backlog of demos, and some of the songs he picked are over 20 years old.
Jarvis and I met in 1996, and at various times during those years, he and I have been roommates, bandmates, and touring mates, and we stayed good friends throughout. You could say I have been placing trust in Jarvis’ ears and good taste for almost a quarter century. There’s nothing he can’t do in the studio; he’s one of those Swiss army knife guys. But the thing I love most about working with Jarvis is that he is the ultimate “Bullshit Detector,” and every good band needs a Bullshit Detector.
AD: What’s a Bullshit Detector’s role in making a record?
James Toth: When everyone else in the studio is placating me and nodding “yes” to what is almost definitely a terrible idea, because they want to keep things light and breezy and not awkward, the Bullshit Detector is the person in the band surreptitiously shaking their head at me from the corner of the room. Like, if everyone is saying “Sure, James, a dubstep remix with timpani and zither might be really cool,” Jarvis will always be the one to say, “you will definitely regret this decision.” Bullshit Detectors don’t come easy, however. They emerge and materialize over time. You can’t just draft one into a band like you would a drummer. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few very reliable Bullshit Detectors in my bands over the years, but Jarvis is the OG.
AD: How did closing the door on Wooden Wand influence what we hear on this record?
James Toth: I’d be lying if I said it was the result of some sort of big decision or grand statement. The truth is I just got tired of having a band name that felt like an albatross, and I’d been trying to escape it for a long time but had always allowed myself to be talked out of it. I guess the stakes are low enough now for everyone in the music business that no one seemed to have any objections about me not using the brand name this time. I think anyone who makes records long enough begins to feel that they are constantly competing with their own history. If someone bought a Wooden Wand record in 2004 and they didn’t like it, what’s going to compel them to pull one off the rack at the record store in 2023, you know?
AD: In the song “Friends Forever” you sing, “If you limit your options you make the most of your time.” The blank slate of a new project can be paralyzing: how did you narrow down what you wanted to do with this one?
James Toth: That’s where Jarvis was so crucial. All I had were the songs, and I left it to him to make everything make sense and sound consistent. As for that lyric and the song on which it appears, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m unhealthily obsessed with time, and the modern world has only amplified and accelerated this anxiety, largely because of social media. Let’s say I hit it off with someone at a party in Nashville 20 years ago, or geeked out about Sun Ra with some drummer in a local opening band while on tour in 2001. Well, now I find myself on Instagram looking at pictures of these peoples’ kids graduating high school. That’s clearly not a natural development for our brains, let alone our social calendars. So that song is about making peace with the notion that I’m not going to someday be on my death bed surrounded by everyone I’ve ever met, and that’s OK. Maybe the message of that song sounds harsh, but it’s not meant to be. Actually, I’m an extremely sentimental person. I have a difficult time saying goodbye to strangers I sit next to on a ninety-minute flight. I think: “I will never, ever see this person again.”
AD: One of your most engaging recent projects was The Toth Zone, a personal biography/storytelling podcast. I’m picking up on some themes I heard discussed on that great show. Longtime friendships comes up on the record, “Friends Forever” and “Islander,” reflects on your Staten Island upbringing. Did that project of personal autobiography inform the writing on this album?
James Toth: One of the aborted concept albums I mentioned earlier was a concept album about growing up on Staten Island, and my love-hate relationship with the place. I think I finished three or four songs for that concept album and then I got sick of the idea and abandoned it. “Islander” was obviously intended to be part of that original album, as was “Dilated Eyes,” and the former is certainly a more autobiographical song that I am used to writing. I usually try not to write songs about myself, and very few of my songs are autobiographical, but there is definitely some of my own experience in “Islander.”
AD: Do you think more Toth Zone is on the way?
James Toth: Maybe at some point. After two seasons, I’m not sure I have much more to say! I know a lot of people seemed to really enjoy the podcast, and I’m grateful for that, so if I can find the time and the will, I’m definitely open to it. I just feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day.
AD: Was that an enjoyable project?
James Toth: That’s the thing: not really. Once the basic outline of an episode is written, it’s actually pretty tedious, not-especially creative work. But take those complaints with a grain of salt because all I really enjoy doing is writing songs and making records. I have no hobbies outside of music. I don’t particularly enjoy writing anything except songs, which may sound strange coming from a person with my writing CV. But songwriting is the only thing that seems to come very naturally to me. Everything else I write, every sentence, feels like a series of hostage negotiations, even if it’s an assignment for a blurb in a newsweekly no one will read. Writing is not something for which I feel I have any natural talent, but it’s something I’m able to do somewhat capably if I work really, really hard. Songwriting is the opposite for me. Give me ten quiet minutes alone in a room and I can write you a song right now. Maybe it won’t be the best one you’ve ever heard, but it won’t be the worst, either.
One time, in the early days of my relationship with my wife Leah, I observed her writing an article for some academic journal. She sat at the computer for a few seconds facing a blank screen, took a breath, and then proceeded to write something in a single sitting that looked very much like a final draft. Witnessing that process was my Brian-Wilson-hearing-Rubber-Soul moment, like that scene in Amadeus where Salieri notices that there are no erase marks on Mozart’s music and it basically breaks his brain. I have no idea how people are able to write that way.
AD: “All Time Girl” is about as pretty and touching as it gets. What kind of working relationship does Leah (of Amelia Courthouse) have with your songs? Do you share works in progress? Is she a “notes giver”/”vibe checker?”
James Toth: “All Time Girl” was written 15 years before I met Leah. It’s not about anyone in particular: I just liked the idea of writing a love song that involved time travel. A science fiction love song. At the time I wrote it, I was dating a redhead, which is why the lyrics mention “yellow curls,’ because I pointedly did not want people to think I was writing love songs to my girlfriend. Well, when it came time to re-record that song all these years later, and my wife did in fact have “yellow curls,” I considered changing it to “raven” curls or something, just to once again try to discourage the quite reasonable assumptions that people who know me might project onto the song. But “raven curls” didn’t seem right, somehow. Maybe it is about Leah, but it was written by the Toth of The Future as a gift to the Toth of The Past. I mean, that happens sometimes.
There is very little work that I produce that isn’t vetted by Leah. She’s extremely supportive and the fact that she is also a writer as well as an English professor and music scholar makes her an ideal sounding board, and I try to provide something similar for her and her work. I have a lot of confidence in Leah, so I always hear her out, even when I don’t agree with her. She’s responsible for the early—and I would say premature—demise of some demos of mine I thought were pretty good. We definitely disagree sometimes about which songs work and which ones don’t, so I have to calibrate with her opinion my own instincts about a particular song. There’s even a song Leah dislikes that made it onto this new record. I won’t tell you which one.
AD: How about your One Eleven Heavy buds? Do you share works in progress with Nick and the gang too?
James Toth: Not so much, actually. Nick and I are often too busy talking about our various One Eleven Heavy plans, as well as various records we like, to go into too much of that. I try to keep my various projects separate. The tough part isn’t identifying what’s what and deciding what goes where—to me, there are very clear differences—but finding a place for all of this work at a time when everyone is just constantly bombarded with information, because I don’t want to contribute to saturating an already saturated market. So, what do I do with all these songs? I have to be judicious. I don’t write songs for myself. It can be a bummer amassing albums worth of material waiting for things to get released, but people naturally require time and space to listen and hopefully absorb what artists are creating. If people aren’t listening, songwriting just becomes some weird hobby I have. Of course, it’s a fun hobby, but, you know, so is bowling. To quote a wise man from Cornwall: I care because you do.
AD: You’ve got a What Would Neil Young Do tattoo. I love that because it’s kind of an unanswerable question—you never know what he’d do. Do you have any other music specific tattoos you could share?
James Toth: Neil Young was definitely the reason I started writing songs, and he’s been in many ways the north star of my musical life, but I don’t listen to his music nearly as much as I used to. In some fundamental sense I feel like I’ve gotten as much from Neil as I need, which is a lot. I don’t really listen to many contemporary songwriters who aren’t my friends, to be honest. Imagine I own a pizza parlor. It’s a pretty good pizza parlor. Am I going to lock the doors at the end of a long day at my pizzeria and go next door and order a pizza from another pizzeria? I want anything but pizza. Once in a blue moon I’ll don a disguise and drive to a pizza shop across town that I like, but that’s extremely rare. Maybe that’s a dumb analogy. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of terrific songwriters. I just find I’m increasingly drawn to music that makes me go “what the fuck,” and a person perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar rarely elicits that kind of response from me.
The “What Would Neil Young Do” thing to me was less about “what chord should I play here?” and more about “This feels wrong, let me off this plane immediately.” Neil, to me, embodies the notion of trusting your gut. As artists, I think it’s really important that we follow our instincts, even if doing so could potentially sabotage our careers. I think, for better or worse, my discography suggests I take this question very seriously.
As for other music tattoos, I have the obligatory Black Flag bars. The thing adults always told me when I was young to try to discourage me from getting a tattoo is that whatever tattoo I got, I’d probably regret it. My high school girlfriend’s mom talked me out of getting a Morrissey tattoo when I was about 15, and I keep meaning to send her a bouquet of flowers. But I had wanted a Black Flag tattoo since I was 11 years old, and I still wanted one when I was 31, so that’s how I rationalized finally getting that one. I think anyone who still wants a tattoo after 20 years will probably be OK with that tattoo in 80 years, too. The only weird thing about the Black Flag bars was, for a while, while it healed, I had this prominent, brand new-looking Black Flag tattoo, so I just looked like the biggest poser. Like, “Hey, fellow punk rockers, have you heard this Henry Rollins guy? He’s pretty boss!”