From one end of "Nothing Hides" to the other, James Jackson Toth's backing band keeps it simple, steady and static: A metronomic rhythm shuffles. A gentle electric piano falls between the beats. Guitars playing muted strings and short notes split across the speakers. The minor two-minute bounce sits like a microcosm of banal existence, where nothing ever changes, where one instrument going loud just means another gets soft, where a dynamic equilibrium stabilizes everything. Singing softly with his wife Jessica, or Jexie, that's what Toth keys on here: "Now nothing can undermine us/ And the wolves are grinning too/ All creation holds the aces/ Embraces us like strangling roots." He juxtaposes images of entrapment and emancipation, 1 and 0, yin and yang, playing opposites against and with each other. We caught up with the Toths on their way between tour stops in Asheville and Chapel Hill, hours before they hit the stage behind Waiting in Vain, James' first record under his own name and the first since dropping his decade-old sound-name, Wooden Wand.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did you first hear this song?
JESSICA LYNN TOTH: It was the same way I hear most of the demos for the first time: They're very stripped-down, just guitar and vocals. James will come down the stairs with a grin on his face and say, "Let's take a drive." And the moment we get onto the highway, he pops in a CD-R, and I hear it. I heard that with a couple of other songs all at once, but that particular one grabbed ahold of me right away, for sure.
IW: What took hold of you?
JLT: Well, I think all of it. Right from the start, it had that easy summer morning feeling, like waking up on a beautiful morning after a really great night. Then, of course, the lyrics are pretty straightforward in that song—kind of a beautiful way to state how you can feel about somebody when you're truly yourself around them.
IW: The song has these interesting lyrical juxtapositions, especially negative versus positive and the wolves grinning. Did you catch that?
JLT:The new record has a theme running through of temptation and redemption. That's the wolves, but sometimes even the wolves can grin. [Laughs.]
IW: What was happening in your and James' life when he wrote this song?
JLT: You're going to have to ask James about that because the songs take on new meanings for me. I'm not quite sure where he is in the world when he writes these songs. He'll store up about five or six and record them all at the same time. I'm not sure if it was just written or the first of the six to be written. But the line "fire flares along the coastline/ and draw their dead from the falling snow" really got me the first time I heard it. It's so poetic.
IW: When you first hear a new song like "Nothing Waits," at what point does your vocal line start to take shape?
JLT: It's a very organic kind of way that I approach most of the songs the first listen through. Usually, I hear it right away. I hear a complimentary melody line almost instantly, or where not to sing. In this song, in particular, I sing through the entire song, and that just felt appropriate. On other tracks, they're more involved. Like "Beulah," for instance, that was definitely very orchestrated, very planned, down to every single part, every single choice of syllable. That comes more from me wanting to use my voice as an instrument rather than as another voice. On songs like "Nothing Hides," where the lyrics really need to penetrate, I feel like I should be singing them also, as opposed to "Oohs" and "Aahs." I want people to pay attention the lyrics.
IW: James told me last week that he generally does first-take vocals, then you add yours after that over time.
JLT: This song in particular, I want to say we actually did them together.
IW: It seems like the perfect song for that, lyrically.
JLT: Yeah. Generally, you're right: He makes his best vocal take the first time. It just comes out the most honest and the most colorful the first time through. The more he sings it, the words are just the letters of the alphabet and not lyrics anymore. So we really try to get him in and out of the vocal booth as quickly as possible. For me, I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to pitch and feel and inflection. I'm very intuitive when it comes to idiosyncrasies in music that I enjoy and in everyday life. There are certain things that I will sing just trying to just serve the song, and I know the moment the words leave my lips that it didn't have the flair or the intent that I'd originally planned. I'll stop and say, "Wait, again, from the top." I'm kind of a nightmare that way. [Laughs.] People never understand because they think it sounds the same when I do it the next time through. The intent has to be right when I say the word.
IW: Musically, this song never changes. No chorus, no shifts, just a steady throb. Was that a band decision in the studio, or did you always know it sounded that way?
JLT: The band had a lot to do with the feel and the sound of the song, for sure. The bass and all of that really carries the song through. I think everyone kind of understood right away while we were rehearsing that song that it needed to be almost like we were on kind of a gentle raft together, y'know? Just kind of gently flowing up and down and forward, but not running. I think everyone just kind of gave into the mood. The way James and I sing it in the rehearsals for the record, definitely made people kind of vibe out nicely. [Laughs.] No one's bouncing during that song.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Jexie was telling me that you gave "Nothing Hides" the car test.
JAMES JACKSON TOTH: We give everything the car test.
IW: Why do you like the car test so much?
JJT: There's several reasons. One is because car speakers are very unique, as opposed to home stereos or iPods or headphones or anything like that. They just have a different sound to 'em. Also, more than that, a lot of people listen to music in the car. I know we do. We listen to a lot of music in the car, especially with all the traveling. So we like to give it the car test. You'd be amazed at how things can change from a boombox to a car or from a Walkman to a car.
IW: Of the songs that you listened to that day, did any others make Waiting in Vain?
JJT: Honestly, I don't remember. There are always so many songs. We probably did that several times before [making the] record, driving around and getting a feel for what things sound like in the car.
IW: "Nothing Hides" is the records single and lead track, so it's a big tune for the record. When did you know it was worth it?
JJT: I'm never sure. I defer to the band and to my friend, Slim Moon, on things like that. As far as that one is concerned, I just think the band sounds really good on it. Pretty much one of the reasons it was first on the record is the band sounded especially tight. I like that it doesn't have a chorus. It's more of like an introduction.
IW: That's a bold move for a first song—to have it be static.
JJT: Yeah. The electric piano gives an almost hip-hop sound, not in the sense that it sounds like hip-hop, but it's just like a beat and some other element that lays a bed for the vocals. It's kind of neat.
IW: You said last week that most of the songs on the record were first takes for you and overdubs for Jexie. This one wasn't. Why?
JJT: Yeah, this is the one exception where we just got on the mike. We knew the song really well. We'd been playing it live for a long time, so we just got on the mike and did it. It went really well.
IW: Lyrically, it seems like the kind of song you should sing together. It's about perseverance and making it.
JJT: For me, it's kind of like an epilogue, which is interesting because it's first on the record. Once you get through all the nonsense, finally nothing hides. It can apply to anything. I didn't want to make any song on this record too explicit, but this one is probably the least explicit. It doesn't matter what kind of trials and tribulations you've been through: When it's all over, it's all out there.
IW: What was important for you in life when you wrote this?
JJT: The two things that are always important to me are family and spending time with people that are important rather than wasting time. But ultimately, I don't apply my own songs to my own life. Of course, they're born out of my life, and there are definitely elements in songs that mirror my own experiences. But, in general, I just try to write in a more universal way. Everybody goes through stuff and everybody goes out of stuff. [Laughs.] It's pretty universal, y'know?
IW: It makes sense, then, since the rest of the record follows those themes in a way.
JJT: Yeah, that's what I like about it. It's kind of preparing you a little bit. It's like the disclaimer in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I always thought was the scariest part of the movie when I was a kid. It's a weird comparison, but apt. [Laughs.]
James Jackson Toth plays Local 506 Thursday, Aug. 28, at 9:30 p.m. The Dutchess & The Duke opens. Tickets are $10.