In other interviews, you’ve emphasized that you are a writer above all else. Have you written any prose or do you have ambitions to do so one day?
I heard someone say once that “everyone has a novel in them – and that’s where it should stay.” I’ve definitely written a lot of prose, but mostly either for my own pleasure or as a sort of exercise. I don’t think it’s something I’m especially good at, at least not yet. Michael Gira was always trying to get me to write a book, but I didn't feel ready, and I still don't. But I do write a lot.
I remember seeing Throw Momma from The Train in the theatre when I was 8 or 9 years old, and in the movie, the Billy Crystal character taught a writing workshop whose mantra was “a writer writes, always.” It’s strange, the silly things that stick with you over the years, but I always think about that: a writer writes, always.
You wrote this in conjunction with the release of Toth’s Law this year:
“Sometimes a song gets thrown away or neglected because it reminds me of another (better) song, or its lyrics seem underwritten or overwritten or trite, or the tune is too poppy or too catchy or too silly or too something. The line between steadfast notions of integrity and reckless self-sabotage is a thin one--or so I have been cautioned—but that's how I roll.”
You have a reputation as a great songwriter – one of the best. It seems to be based, at least in part, on a high set of personal standards you set for yourself. Do you feel pressure to write only great songs – or is it okay to write a song that is merely good?
The latter, with an asterisk. I have a reputation for being prolific, but the secret to being prolific is simple: finish songs, no matter what. I hear writers talk about “working” for months at a time on a song, and I don’t relate to that at all. If a song is taking that long to reveal itself, my feeling is that it doesn’t want to be written. Most of what I’ve written has been completed in one sitting, with some small edits later on. Any time I’ve labored over a song, it has yielded junk. That said (here’s the asterisk), my personal standards for what I actually release are relatively high, and I want all of those songs to be great. I’ll finish any dumb song I begin, because sometimes my brain is just like a hard drive that needs to be cleaned out to make room for more information, and maybe I’ll find a home for them somewhere down the line. That doesn’t mean those songs need to be imposed on others. It’s just that you have to write ten lousy ones to get one great one.
In that same Toth’s Law essay, you wrote that you didn’t expect listeners to like every song. Why not?
Well, because that release is just a random collection of orphaned songs, with no real theme or logic. And because of the sort of scattershot nature of the material, I just assume that not everything on there will be to everybody’s taste. A lot of those songs failed to make the cut [on a record] because they didn’t seem to get along with the other songs, so they had to be sort of quarantined. The only way they work is to go alongside other songs that just didn’t seem to fit. At least then you’re acknowledging their misfit status. In the old days, these songs would be for sale and more popular artists than Wooden Wand would be performing and recording them, but the business doesn’t really operate that way anymore.
Toth’s Law, the theory, is applicable everywhere, by the way: I remember one time I was playing in Montreal, and a guy arrived to the venue very early while I was still sitting up my merch table. Before I had even unboxed the wares, he bought one of everything—shirts, 7”s, and tapes as well as CDs and LPs—and then he shook my hand and told me he was a big fan. Then he asked me “So, tonight— will it be the ‘jams,’ or the ‘songs’ you will be playing?” I replied that since it was just Keith and I on this particular tour, it would be a song-based set, with not much jamming. “OK,” he said, still smiling, “See you next time!” And he got on his bike and sped off, didn’t even stay for the show. That’s Toth’s Law. The answer to that question—‘the jams or the songs tonight?’--is always the wrong one.
Toth’s Law was your second release this year, which you posted directly to Bandcamp. The first was Clipper Ship, a more traditional release on a label (Three Lobed). The album benefitted from the physical production (album art, vinyl, etc) and marketing efforts typically associated with an official release. It seems like you had a full album in mind when you set out to write it. This varies significantly from how you released Toth’s Law. Each process seems so different, so I’m curious about how you approached each effort. What was your motivation behind the two very different release strategies? Why did you do both in the same year?
Toth’s Law was a kind of afterthought, really. It seemed like a good way to get some songs off my laptop and into the world and also to make a little money. Clipper Ship is the album I wanted to release in 2017 (though a lot of it was recorded as early as 2015), so I very much prefer it to Toth’s Law. The former was conceived as an album and a complete work. Toth’s Law is for whatever diehards may exist and for people who prefer what we will call my more “traditional” songwriting. I may post another volume in the Toth’s Law series later this summer. The archives run deep!
Cream Puff Records takes its name from a Grateful Dead song, and we sometimes ask people to indulge us by discussing the Dead. There’s an interview series on YouTube where you discuss how, after being “tricked” into liking the Dead, you’ve been a “ravenous” fan ever since. So I think you may be equipped to answer this: what is their best studio album? How do they stack up against each other? I was having this discussion with some friends recently. The only rule is that live albums and compilations must be excluded. Do you have any strong opinions on their studio records? Can you go so far as to rank them?
Wake of the Flood is a vastly underrated record. I like every song on there. But I think it’s tough to argue that Workingman’s Dead is, objectively, the closest the Dead ever got to making a great studio record in the traditional sense (with American Beauty being the runner-up). I will defend most of their studio records, though. I really like In The Dark! Go To Heaven is also really good. Bobby’s album Ace, if you count it as a Dead album, is essential. Blues for Allah is a tough one for me, mostly because I think it’s a bit of a slog after “Crazy Fingers,” though I have a friend who is wild about the title track. Shakedown and Terrapin are wildly uneven but the highs on those are really high. Really, the only one I don’t really enjoy is Built to Last (though I do love the title track). The rest of the albums all have various redeeming qualities.
That said, I am the prototypical Deadhead in the sense that on most days I’m not sure why you’d want to listen to a Dead studio album when a live show is within reach. The only studio album I ever play in its entirety is Workingman’s Dead. So, I guess that one, by default, is my favorite.
We are excited for your show in Charlotte. Have you played here before? What kind of set do you have in store this time around?
I may have played Charlotte, but I don’t remember! That’s nothing personal and certainly no reflection on Charlotte: there are entire European countries I don’t remember visiting. My memory is notoriously awful. But I’m very much looking forward to visiting this time.
As for what I’ll be playing, I typically learn or re-learn some 25 Wooden Wand songs before every tour, and then just kinda feel out the venue, the crowd, etc, and come up with a set list from there. Anything in particular you wanna hear?
That depends. Is it the jams or the songs this time?
Ha! Strictly songs on this one, my friend.
Damn. I was hoping for a “Blues for Allah” cover.
Keep it up and you’ll get a “Victim or the Crime.”