SONIC PARTNERS James Toth & Jex Thoth

Visionary husband-and-wife team explore
musical fringes solo and together.

BY JAMIE GADETTE

 

Syncronicity being
what it is, we were still surprised when we heard that both James Toth and Jex
Thoth were issuing new records almost simultaneously. It should be stressed
that neither project is really connected —  Thoth sings on Toth’s album and Toth plays on
Thoth’s; he’s effectively disbanded their Wooden Wand outfit — but both benefit
from the proverbial intangible we like to call “something in the water” that
makes certain artistic endeavors even more special than usual because of their
context.

 

BLURT couldn’t
resist, then, talking to James ‘n’ Jex (separately, per their request, hence two separate stories, below) to get
the scoop.

 

 

****

 

 

VANITY/NEMESIS

 

James Jackson Toth breaks up Wooden Wand and
scrapes the slate.


James Jackson Toth is moving on—and he ain’t looking back. As
co-founders of Wooden Wand, Toth and his wife Jessica (or Jex, as she’s known
these days), explored the darker depths of eccentric psych-folk and earned a
spot in the freak-folk canon before they could scream “pigeonholed.”
Now Toth wants to scrape the slate with Waiting
In Vain
(Ryko), produced by Steve Fisk and recorded at John Vanderslice’s
Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco.
It’s a remarkable solo effort that trades obtuse imaginings for streamlined
psych, back-porch blues, country and jangly pop. “Prolific to a
fault,” Toth emptied stacks of bedroom recordings and fleshed out 12
tracks for a cohesive album that features Nels Cline, Carla Bozulich and other
friends who “thought enough of the project to lend a hand.”

 

With James and the Quiet (2007) you wanted to
create an “un-weird” album and Waiting
In Vain
charts a similar course. Why the intentional shift to
“normal”?

 

I think on the last album it was a more conscious decision.
On this album, while on the surface it might seem un-weird, the production and
mixing is actually quite weird—as far
as being reverential to the Western Beatles tradition.

 

So why the emphasis
on now versus then?

 

People tend to live in the past and want me to keep doing
what I’m doing and make 100 records of psych-folk improv. But all of my
favorite artists follow their muse. I could have made a trance album. We listen
to a lot of black metal and I could have made a black metal record.

     I can’t worry
about what people think and to be quite honest there aren’t many people who
give a shit either way. I know I could make a lot more money playing
eccentric—a lot of artists do. But it’s kind of like playing retarded in a movie.
Anybody can do it, but at what cost?

 

How did you wind up
at Tiny Telephone?

 

John [Vanderslice] and I go back a little way—he’s a
super-gracious, generous individual, and Steve Fisk was the perfect producer.
He understands the lineage of Neil Young but he’s also experimental. He
understands why we want to be in tune, but also why we want to mix for
hallucination.

     I find the studio
quite tedious. A man has to know his limitations. Once I give them the demos,
my work is done. Some people learn from the studio process—I’m more of a
one-take kind of guy.

 

Did any collaborators
help shape your original vision?

 

They helped me whittle it down. I kept an eye on
transcending the indie-rock quotient; to market the record for people who were
fans before but also for people who buy records not just because it’s on a
certain label or some weblog said it was cool.

 

 

*****

 

THE JOY OF JEX

 

Psych-folk-metal siren Jex Thoth snatches
magic from the air.

 

If you listen to Jex Thoth on shuffle, you’ll miss the point.
The dark goddess of underground psychedelic folk and heavy, heavy metal
understands the temptation to mine select tracks off her eponymous I Hate
Records release, but she didn’t bunker down for 12 days in a dank Midwest studio to produce one hit single. Even the climactic
four tracks that comprise “The Equinox Suite” serve only as a Cliffs
Notes to the epic doom record. “It offers just a taste of what we’re going
for,” she says.

 

You prefer listeners
to consider albums as complete works. Is that why you change your name — Wooden
Wand, Jessica Toth, Totem, Jex Thoth — so often?

 

I want to preserve the integrity of each project. It wasn’t
that I planned to adopt pseudonyms—each one just kind of came to me. Jex came
about pretty organically. It’s a nickname I’ve always had and, also, there was
a mysterious black car parked outside of our studio in Madison, Wisconsin
that would sit there all day and disappear each night. On the fourth or fifth
night, we noticed that the license plate said, “Jex.” We took it as a sign.
After recording, we immediately had to pack up and leave, so I called up the
studio and asked if that car had been around and they said they hadn’t seen it
since.

 

Spooky! I imagine
that set a strange tone for the session.

 

The whole experience was kind of dark and dismal. All kinds
of external things impacted us: hailstorms, wind and rain, and snow. It was
definitely more of a team situation than I anticipated—we were in the trenches;
locked in our own world in the back of the studio with a leaky ceiling and a
lot of drafts. We kept buckets around to catch the water. We had lots of local
visitors—metal fans coming in and out trying to sneak in on the recording. We
tried to keep them confined to the break room  

 

How did you approach
the new group dynamic?

 

Everybody understood the tone I wanted to set. I tried to
make it clear that I didn’t want to lock ourselves into any specific genre or
preexisting path. There wasn’t time for second guessing. And as soon as I felt
this magic in the air, I wanted to capture that… There were a lot of twists and
turns I didn’t expect and I’m so happy that they came out.This is my band and I
have final say, but everybody has amazing things to contribute and I would be
an idiot not to embrace this.

 

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