You may not know the name James Jackson Toth, which is both a shame and kind of the point. Over the past twenty years, Toth has rendered his voluminous catalog of astonishing songs through various sobriquets including Wooden Wand, One Eleven Heavy and the mysterious Jescos. His journey through the beating heart of American indie saw him receive the patronage of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, collaborate with Neil Hagerty from Royal Trux and record with the Swans’ Michael Gira. He is easily amongst the most esteemed songwriters of his era, especially amongst fellow songwriters, which it transpires is not necessarily a commercial plus. Recently, the Wisconsin-based, Staten Island-born-and-raised Toth has begun unfolding the amazing stories of his life in rock on a podcast called The Toth Zone, which renders his underdog story and brushes with history in epically wry terms suggesting something like David Sedaris by way of Iggy Pop.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent episode that describes several of life’s crucial rites of passage: falling in love with Debbie Harry, making sense of the runes and codes of pre-internet album-seeking and generally marinating in a budding music obsessive’s onset preoccupations.
I spoke to James about his career and ambitious new enterprises. For those already familiar with his extraordinary contributions, the Toth Zone makes for an indelible value-add to a long and fruitful career. For those just discovering his unique combination of gallows humor and vaulting empathy, it makes for a perfect introduction.
EN: I think you’re probably best known as being a great singer-songwriter and frontman of many wonderful bands, but you’re also an insanely good prose writer—certainly one of my favorites to read. I wasn’t surprised when I heard you were writing a book, and of course I was very excited at the notion, but I did wonder what brought you to that decision?
JJT: Thank you for the kind words! As you know, the feeling is mutual. As for why: I have no idea! I find that working on things is one of the only ways I know of to avoid falling into a depression about the state of the world, and since it seems like there are fewer outlets than ever for my music, I thought I’d give this a try. I also liked the idea of the book as a historical document, or, perhaps more pompously, a concentrated cultural history in microcosm. I also joked to my wife that the book could alternately be read as a protracted suicide note. The words every young wife longs to hear!
EN: You’ve been playing music all your life, and touring and recording professionally for more than half of it, so this COVID stuff must have really affected two of your big revenue streams, huh? When did it hit you that the whole scene was going to be shut down indefinitely? What happened that day? How are you doing now, by the way?
JJT: I’m doing OK, thanks for asking. My wife and I are largely “indoor types,” so the isolation hasn’t really a presented huge problem; no Overlook Hotel vibes yet. But we also like to travel, and both of us had quite a few things canceled, including tours and stuff.
It wasn’t real to me until they canceled the Olympics. The Olympics, Elizabeth! I thought, “OK, if this is serious enough to cancel the friggin’ Olympics, surely there’s no need for my psych rock band to play to our 40 fans in Omaha.” Also, my wife and I recently had a family emergency that occurred some 800 miles away, and when the reality set in that we couldn’t just jump on a plane like we would have under normal circumstances, well, that certainly put things in perspective.
Lastly, without getting too dark, where the music biz is concerned, COVID feels less like some pivotal event than a nail in the coffin. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which guys like me will ever be able to tour again, even after a vaccine. Where will we play? I’d say streaming put independent music as we know it in a coma, and COVID pulled the plug.
EN: What was the experience of actually sitting down and “doing a memoir” like, compared to writing a song? Outside of the obvious stuff like a song lasts—ideally—two-and-a-half minutes while a book is usually more of a commitment when it comes to word count at a minimum?
JJT: I’ve actually been working on the book for a long time. Maybe a decade or so? The form it took, at least in the beginning, was the same as when I write a song: I’d have an idea and hurry to write it down on a scrap of paper. Only instead of writing down a good opening line for a song, I’d write down a memory. Notes to myself included simple things like “don’t forget Party People”—Party People was my first band, which you can hear in episode number three. I’d then expand these little notes into entire chapters. It wasn’t until I moved to Wisconsin that I started really tackling the book in any serious way. It took the winter lockdown here to force me to begin corralling all of those incoherent scraps and Post-Its into something readable. I would say the process was more cathartic than enjoyable, which actually makes it very different from the experience of making music, which I find enjoyable but not necessarily cathartic.
EN: What made you decide to go ahead and unleash this on the world as a podcast? How are you enjoying recording the chapters?
JJT: I figured—best case scenario—given how the publishing industry works, this book might be published three years from now, and that’s before taking the pandemic into account. Where will I be in three years, and where will the world be? I was happy with the most recent draft of the book and feeling restless about it just sitting on a hard drive in my desk, so I had the idea to put some of it out into the world while everyone was sorta stuck at home and maybe needing a respite from all the bad news. I “crowdsourced” this idea with a few close friends and some publishers, and almost everyone liked the idea, so I bought some gear and watched a dozen Youtube tutorials about creating a podcast. It’s definitely been a trial-and-error situation. I’m still figuring it out!
I’ll be honest: I don’t enjoy recording the podcast. It’s a chore. But I do enjoy the editing part, which at least feels like something resembling a creative act. And I’ve been enjoying the feedback from listeners, which has been thoroughly encouraging and great. I love that so many people hear so much of their own lives in this thing; that was my goal. I don’t like the idea of The Toth Zone as a memoir, because who cares about me? The fact that people are locating some commonality of experience in these episodes has been the most affirming part of doing this because, like I said, that’s the intended effect.
EN: So I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke about the guy who says that he likes both kinds of music: Country AND Western. Meanwhile, you have metabolized everything from the pastoral and gnomic extremes from English folk to being the definitive authority on free jazz, ‘80s new wave, black metal and the Dead. How does one cultivate such a broad musical palate?
JJT: I have no hobbies, and while I love watching films and reading books, I usually don’t retain movies or literature the way I do music. If I’m awake, there’s a good chance I am listening to, creating, buying, reading about, writing about, or talking about music. Sometimes I can’t wait to finish eating a sandwich or even peeing so I can get back to arguing with someone on a message board about the best pressing of a particular Steely Dan record. Activities other than music feel like a waste of time. I think most people would consider me an extremely boring person. I really only care about one thing.
I also don’t discriminate between genres, because I truly believe every type of music has some value.
EN: My first real introduction to your biography came in the form of this extraordinary story of your familiar and close relationship with the late Peter Steele from Type O Negative. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and how it impacted you as a curious kid?
JJT: Peter’s influence was crucial. His life and work basically gave me permission to try to be what I wanted to be rather than what I was expected to be. I come from a family of blue collar workers and civil servants, and when you’re really young, you mistakenly assume that your destiny is determined by this, even if your family is encouraging of your nascent affinities and talents, as mine was. Having an actual rock star in the family showed me that there were other paths available to me. For this I am very grateful. I would have definitely made a lousy cop.