Barely into his mid-30s and boasting somewhere close to 100 releases under his belt, songwriter James Jackson Toth’s declaration that he considers himself to have been “a late bloomer” as far as songwriting is considered might surprise you.
He didn’t learn how to “play a D7 chord” or start writing songs until he was a freshman in college, he explains, adding, with his signature blend of humor, humility and existentialism, that it “may have even been too early. Who knows?”
Toth, a Lexington transplant via New York and Tennessee, is best known as Wooden Wand, the moniker under which he started recording music about a decade ago, and is verifiably better known outside of Lexington than he is here. His most recent album, “Blood Oaths of the New Blues,” was released in January via Fire Records, a London-based independent label whose roster also includes indie giants Guided By Voices, Lemonheads and Mission of Burma. The release has been steadily garnering favorable press from outlets far and wide – from reputable independent music sites like Pitchfork and TinyMixTapes, to New York Times and SPIN Magazine, which wrote that the album’s “eight songs weave easily together to form one big blanket of beautiful.”
With a decade-plus musical career that has essentially carved its own unique class out of a pasticcio of influences (lo-fi indie rock, free jazz, Americana), “Blood Oaths” has been called, by at least one reviewer, his most accessible album. Toth happens to disagree (the opening song is nearly 12 minutes long, for one example), but seems pleased with how his latest effort came out: a haunting, intimate and visceral soundtrack to a life marked by equal parts love, fear and resolve. One of the most lyrically mature albums I’ve heard in years, “Blood Oaths” was recorded in the same Alabama studio where Toth recorded his last LP, 2010’s “Briarwood,” a decidedly more raucous, outlaw country-esque effort that employed the same backing band, and Toth praised both his band’s versatility and their willingness to let him know which songs needed to be let go.
“I’m fortunate to have a band who will tell me when I’m wrong,” he said. “I probably could have done ‘Briarwood’ with any rock band, but I couldn’t have done ‘Blood Oaths’ without these particular individuals.”
Though he wouldn’t necessarily say he grew up in a musical household, Toth credits his family with encouraging him to pursue his creative outlets from an early age. Even though he didn’t start writing songs (or mastering intermediate guitar chords) until after high school, he was always known for being the writer in his family, and started playing bass and exploring different types of music as a kid.
“My dad was always really encouraging – he signed me up for Little League, and the same week he bought me some records,” Toth recalled, adding that he “played the records to death and ran the bases backward, so it was pretty clear early on.”
He credits much of his initial musical interest, however, to his late cousin, Peter Steele, whose underground metal band, Type O Negative, garnered a significant international following.
“Peter was someone I looked to at a young age, and was like, ‘Oh, he can make records, so it’s possible,’” Toth said. “Before that, it was like, David Lee Roth and Ozzy – these guys were demigods. Meeting them seemed about as plausible as going to Mars.”
Soon after he started writing songs, Toth bought a Tascam 424 four-track and started making what he now calls “horrible recordings.”
“It wasn’t as much about my own identity as it was just taking from five or six different things I was into,” he says of his early recordings, adding quickly that “it was still a cool rite of passage.”
He put out his first “release” in 1996 under the name Golden Calves; a few years after that, Golden Calves put out a split LP with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“New York stuff; six degrees of separation,” he explains nonchalantly). Toth finds the fact that that album was recently reissued by the record label Woodsist both “cool and embarrassing.”
“I can’t listen to it, but it’s cool that it exists,” he said. “Most of the time all you hear are concessions and compromises and mistakes – you’re always your own worst critic.”
Regardless, Toth doesn’t spend too much time fretting about the past or harping on his current releases. As he explains it, songs are continually building in his head and he’s always looking toward the next release.
“Making a record to me is like cleaning out a hard drive,” he said. “Songs need to come out so I can write more.”
Toth is planning an extensive tour in support of “Blood Oaths” in the coming months; visit www.woodenwand.org for more information.