We spoke with James Jackson Toth about bagel sizes, the eventuality of death, his least favorite music journalism word and the most depressing show he ever performed.
Mystery is infinitely more appealing to me than conjecture. Not all riddles need to be solved, you know?
I’ve noticed that many recent albums – including your new album Clipper Ship – have dealt with more themes of spirituality and humility than before. And as a whole, it feels like some artists are reacting to the horrors of Western civilization by trying to engage with something higher, more elemental. Some hip-hop is relying more on Christian themes, your song “One Can Only Love” feels like a long exhale from a burning bush… what do you think?
James Jackson Toth
I like your reading of that tune, and I do believe in the artist’s duty to try to transform chaos into harmony. But the word “spirituality,” to my mind, connotes an idea that all the questions have answers. Mystery is infinitely more appealing to me than conjecture. Not all riddles need to be solved, you know?
I often view art as a respite from the madness of the world rather than an attempt at solving its problems. What I mean by the lyric “one can’t just believe…but one can only love” is that ideology alone can self-limiting; treating everyone in your life with love and respect is a much better long-term game plan.
Really quickly, can you pick up the nearest book in your proximity and read the first line you see? Can that be related to your own psychology in any way?
“The thing was to get to the taxi before any clock struck what could be the hour.” Hmm. This is from Elizabeth Bowen’s creepy short story The Demon Lover. The preoccupation with time in this sentence could be said to have some sort of coincidental resonance, but it would be a stretch. In the context of the story, the protagonist is fleeing in fear. I regard time as an adversary to be constantly reckoned with, but I wouldn’t say it is fear that provokes this feeling as much as stubbornness and a lifelong weakness for lost causes.
Back to my first question. This reminds me of a personality flaw I have, where I expect too much from music. I have a hard time listening to anything that can’t give me something I can use – tools for survival. I know that fun party music has its place, but then I miss the big chunk that’s lost and reach for Jackson Browne or something like that. What do you expect from a song?
I don’t think it’s a flaw, or especially unreasonable, to expect a great deal from music. We’re on Earth for a finite amount of time, and life is uncertain. If tomorrow I suddenly choke to death on microwave popcorn, I don’t want it to be a 7” by a band called Diarrhea [expletive] they find on my turntable when they come to carry me out. I’d much prefer to go out listening to music made by someone with the words “Pandit” or “Ustad” (or “Fats!”) in their name – ha!
I guess that makes me an elitist, but it also means I don’t waste valuable time listening to bullshit. As an artist, it’s doubly important to be protective of your space, because everything you hear is grist for the mill, for better or worse. I hold music to very high standards and I expect and hope people who listen to my music will hold me to those same standards.
My dad has this thing where he needlessly fixates on mundane negative things. For instance, if we are in a car together sitting in traffic, he’ll say “Man, the fuckin’ BQE is always fucked up.” “Yeah, sure is,” I’ll reply, sympathetically. A minute will pass. “Christ almighty,” he’ll mutter, the situation unchanged. “It sucks,” I’ll say, out of solidarity. Another beat. “You believe this shit?” he’ll ask, to which I will reply “it’s pretty fucked up.” This will go on and on. Regrettably, I have inherited this unbecoming trait and have spent my adult life trying to exorcise it. As you might imagine, obsessively and repeatedly acknowledging the bad time everyone is having is a big no-no if you plan to spend half of your life traveling around in a van with other people.
My mom is an Italian-American and a Scorpio, and her temper is the stuff of legend. I probably inherited a little of this, too.
Despite all of this, my parents are both compassionate, generous, and thoughtful people and we get along famously.
I take exception to anything being referred to as a ‘bagel’ that isn’t at least as big as a boxing glove.
Can you describe, in as much detail as you like, the worst or most unpleasant live show you’ve ever performed? What was the whole story? What about the best you ever performed?
I have, on tour, slept on freezing rooftops, in cramped Econoline vans, in standing water, and on concrete floors; I have been physically threatened by promoters; I have on more than one occasion been paid less in dollars to play a particular gig than the number of hours it took for me to drive there.
But the worst, most depressing show I ever played was in Redding, California circa 2005.
My band and I arrived to play a venue / coffee shop run by husband and wife proprietors. The place itself seemed hip, had a proper stage, beautiful murals on the walls, and a hospitable vibe in general.
As the hour grew late, we noticed the place wasn’t exactly filling up; in fact, there was no audience at all. This was unusual but not completely without precedent, especially on weekday evenings in smaller cities, but I did notice the young couple were looking more and more dejected as the evening wore on. Their despair became so palpable that I eventually made my way over to them and told them not to sweat the turnout. “It isn’t that,” one of them said. “This is the last day we’ll be open. They aren’t renewing our lease. We found out right after we booked your show. They’re turning this place into a Starbucks.”
I remember us performing our set to three people: the two inconsolable proprietors, and the guy with the paint-roller painting over one of the beautiful murals as we played.
As for the best I’ve ever performed, I have no idea. I only remember the bad ones.
I recently found a sector of the Internet that swears by Pizza Hut as the world’s finest pizza, the taste of their youth, a damaging agent to any and all pizza they’ve ever had or will have. I can’t throw my hat in this ring, but is there any taste of food from your youth that will follow your culinary experiences for the rest of your life?
I’m the rare New York native who doesn’t discriminate, on principle alone, against pizza from other places. Yes, New York pizza is terrific (ditto Chinese food), but I try not to be a chauvinist about it. I’ve had great pizza in lots of places. I’ll also totally order Pizza Hut if I’m on tour and hangry and can’t find something better in the immediate vicinity of the hotel (though truth be told I prefer Domino’s, as long as we’re “going there.”)
That said, I take exception to anything being referred to as a ‘bagel’ that isn’t at least as big as a boxing glove. And if it has visible cornmeal on it, costs more than $1.50, or doesn’t leave me feeling as if I’ve just eaten a three-course meal, count me out.
How do hawks fly through the air completely silently and other birds know how to migrate by celestial mind-mapping and by the Earth’s magnetic field? That’s incredible! Why can’t humans shut up and witness that?
I think we’re obviously less in tune with those sorts of things than ever, as well as with our own mysterious human mechanisms, which can be, I think, just as spellbinding. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I read a lot of books about big data and technology’s effect on our cognitive abilities; it’s the closest I get to reading horror fiction. Have you read any Douglas Rushkoff? His work has absolutely influenced my thinking.
Ditto Neil Postman. There are also authors who focus less on the negative aspects of technological changes (I’m loath to call them ‘advances’), and because I am a masochist, I read those books, too: Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable gave me the willies like nothing since Pet Sematary back in ’89. You could almost call Kelly’s authorial voice “giddy.” It’s a book of nightmares, Morgan.
To be clear, I am not a technophobe or a Luddite, but I certainly do miss talking to strangers in doctor’s office waiting rooms and at bus stops (and in shared green rooms at music festivals, formerly the site of numberless Dionysian antics but nowadays the most boring places on Earth), and I don’t think I’m unusual or unique in feeling overwhelmed by “content,” or in feeling a strong temptation to disconnect. I don’t want to be excluded from what is happening in the world, but at the same time I don’t want to lose the right to not participate.
I’d love to return as something solid and inert, like a stone or a seashell on the beach, and just be part of the whole circus, but without a responsibility to function or an awareness of death.
The ancient Egyptians had a complex view of the afterlife. Many of them believed that rank-and-file members of their society had little to no chance of actually getting there, because every member of the next life would need to have a distinct purpose, a role in life. So, what do you feel is your role in this world? The next?
I’m not sure I believe in that sort of destiny you refer to, but I know that writing songs has always come very easily to me, and I think it’s something I do very well, maybe better than most. At no point in my life did I decide to be a musician or a songwriter; given the choice, I might have decided to become something else. Hermann Hesse said “a poet is something you are allowed to be, but not allowed to become.” I like that. I consider what I do more a mutation than a gift, and though I definitely think there is value in what I do (otherwise, how could I continue to do it?)
I’m not under any illusions about the large-scale importance of it. If I were to find myself stranded on a desert island with a surgeon, a scientist, and a carpenter, I would gladly volunteer to be eaten. I make music because I feel compelled to, and because I find it’s a marvelous way to communicate. When you feel like you’re not communicating, that’s failure.
I’m not sure I believe in a “next life.” Maybe there’s a next something, but I don’t believe it will resemble life as we know it. I wouldn’t mind staying on Earth in some capacity, just to be present and see how it all plays out. I’d love to return as something solid and inert, like a stone or a seashell on the beach, and just be part of the whole circus, but without a responsibility to function or an awareness of death.
Lastly, we love lists and technical data at North of the Internet. Please make a list of your least favorite words or phrases used in music journalism.
“Penultimate” is a bugbear, as is any word that isn’t regularly used in casual (or even scholarly) conversation. I also dislike reviews that only compare the music to other music. Basically, I’m a prescriptive kind of guy, for better or worse: I love music criticism that gets deep into the minutiae of the music itself, criticism that aspires to some sort of objective truth. I keep by my bed a stack of old issues of Down Beat from the seventies, and I will occasionally read them with a highlighter pen. That’s absolutely the nerdiest thing about myself I have ever admitted to in an interview.
We asked James to picture himself a decade ago. He gave ten commandments – ranging between advice, demands and reassurance – to his former self.
Don’t waste time. (Can I write just this ten times? It’s very important.)
Not everyone you deal with deserves your fierce, unyielding loyalty.
Take piano lessons.
Don’t get too attached to the cat.
You do like kale.
Don’t flood the market. Disappear at regular intervals, just long enough to be missed.
Write down the names of everyone you meet on tour, everywhere you sleep, every promoter and venue. Maybe rate these things with little stars so you don’t rely on your notoriously poor memory and wind up in compromising situations that could have been avoided. Keep a diary.
Don’t sign to a major. It’s every bit the bummer Maximum RocknRoll, HeartattaCk, Punk Planet, and Steve Albini tried to warn you about, and more.
Go hug Jack Rose.
You can totally: eat hot dogs and Kit Kats, drink hard liquor, smoke weed, abuse drugs, shun exercise, and spend your twenties barely sleeping, but you cannot do them all. Pick two.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: August 2, 2017
Total questions: 9 + 10
Word count: 2202
Reading time: Eight minutes
Hug: Jack Rose
Mother’s sign: Scorpio
Preferred bagel size: Enormous
Preferred reincarnation: Seashell
ancient, awareness, bagel, beach, boxing glove, BQE, bugbear, California, carpenter, cat, Cat Stevens, Chinese food, Christian, circus, criticism, death, diary, Domino’s, Douglas Rushkoff, Down Beat, drugs, Econoline, Egyptian, Elizabeth Bowen, exercise, Fats, flood, grist, Hermann Hesse, highlighter, hip hop, hot dog, Jackson Browne, James Jackson Toth, kale, Kit Kat, liquor, Luddite, Mark Kozelek, market, Maximum RocknRoll, mill, mural, Neil Postman, New York, Pandit, penultimate, Pet Sematary, pizza, Pizza Hut, Redding, scientist, seashell, standing water, Starbucks, stars, Stephen King, Steve Albini, surgeon, technophobe, The Vanishing Voice, tour, truth, twenties, Ustad, van, Wooden Wand
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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