Q&A: Strand Of Oaks On The Harrowing Circumstances Behind HEAL And Learning To Cut Loose And Rock Out
Over the past half-decade, Timothy Showalter spent more and more time on the road performing his unique breed of artful, expansive folk-rock under the name Strand Of Oaks, all the while watching the music evolve over the course of three stunning LPs. Playing music became Showalter’s sole source of catharsis, but the touring life also enabled him to avoid facing the fact that his life was crumbling around him. HEAL, Strand Of Oaks’ fourth full-length and first for Dead Oceans, is the sound of a gifted songwriter putting himself back together one musical epiphany at a time.
As usual, the album finds Showalter channeling his unmistakable weathered warble into new forms. He tries on furious fuzzbox rock ‘n’ roll (with a searing solo by none other than J Mascis) on lead single “Goshen ’97,” takes a page from fellow Philadelphians the War On Drugs on the propulsive title track, and dabbles in digital soul on “Same Emotions,” and that’s just the first three tracks. The rest of the record continues to refract Showalter’s personal crises through the prism of the music that guided him through the wreckage. The rebuilding process reaches its pinnacle on the Jason Molina tribute “JM,” a song that does justice to its inspiration as it expands from hushed wound-licking to towering glacial bombast. It’s meta — a powerful Molina-inspired song about the power of Molina’s songs — as is most of HEAL. But these 10 songs also present Showalter at his realest and rawest, mostly forgoing the symbolism and complex mythologies of his previous work (give or take a sun falling out of the sky) in favor of harrowing autobiography.
Put simply, HEAL is a hell of a record in more than one sense. I spoke with Showalter by phone last week to discuss the stories behind the songs, Strand Of Oaks’ transition into a four-piece rock band, and much more.
STEREOGUM: Where are you today?
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: I’m in sunny Philadelphia!
STEREOGUM: That’s home, right?
SHOWALTER: That’s home when I’m not on tour. Doesn’t feel like home sometimes, but that’s where my stuff is.
STEREOGUM: I know just from the number of times you’ve been through Ohio the last few years that you tour pretty hard.
SHOWALTER: I was playing weekend shows for like five years, and I’d do two-week tours, but then it was like: Oh, OK, a three-month tour and then a two-month tour after? They just kind of all blended together. It was awesome and I loved it. Besides making records, it’s the only thing I do well in my life that has any meaning, so I think that’s why I’m probably addicted to it.
STEREOGUM: That said, you are about to be touring in a different capacity then you have, with a band.
SHOWALTER: Yeah, it’s exciting ’cause I feel like I’ve been playing shows and trying my hardest with out any — I don’t know, it’s not like the songs have been compromised, but I try so hard either by myself or as a duo. And this is the first time that I’ve had musicians of this caliber and this kind of tour experience that the live show just — it wasn’t even like a step forward, I just don’t even recognize the songs anymore. They feel so full. And that has really very little to do with me, it’s just picking the right people to play with.
STEREOGUM: Who is playing with you?
SHOWALTER: I have an amazing drummer called Mike Sneeringer. He was a drummer in Purling Hiss, this amazing band, and drummed with Kurt Vile and the War On Drugs and all those guys, and I snatched him up pretty quickly when I found out he was available. And I have a keyboardist and vocalist, her name’s Eliza Hardy Jones. She’s been in basically every Philly band too. And my friend Deven Craige on bass, who’s just a monster bass player. And I’m kind of filling out the roles of singer/shredder, so I’m trying to get comfortable in my shred capacity. It’s a fun journey because I’m not like an assassin on the guitar necessarily, but I’m more of like a dangerous guitar player.
STEREOGUM: Kind of combustible?
SHOWALTER: Yeah, like this could go so well, or it could go so wrong. It feels like an exciting element to the set because the band is so tight that it almost allows me to get to that place, because it is like — it’s not a cerebral thing, playing. It’s like, “Am I going to feel it tonight or not? I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”
STEREOGUM: Obviously there are times before when your music got heavy, like on Pope Killdragon, but like the music on HEAL rocks in a way that it never has before. It kind of calls for that.
SHOWALTER: Yeah, and it’s so exciting because what I realized — you know, as I’m answering questions and talking to awesome people like you, it’s actually answering my own questions about what I do. And I realized that it’s just like I took this weird side step into folk music but really where my lineage comes from is that I want to have the big lights. I want to play rock music. This is my favorite music. I don’t sit down ant put Jim Croce records on, I listen to awesome metal records and stuff. That’s the music I love, and I’m finally reaching toward that live. It’s gonna be big and it’s gonna be loud and powerful.
STEREOGUM: I guess you have to churn out whatever strikes you. I’m sure you had a reason for making the music that you were making at first .
SHOWALTER: Yeah, and I think it was what I was interested in. But you don’t just make your first record and know how to make records. I always thought that’s how it worked. And I knew how to write songs, but I don’t think I knew how to make records, and it took me until this one to finally realize, like, “Oh! I can do all this stuff in the studio! And I should reach for that.” I used to make all these rules for myself, you know, like what stuff should sound like, feel like. When it came to this one, it helped that I was smoking copious amounts of marijuana during the whole recording process, which let my inhibitions go away, and I was like, “I’m gonna do whatever the fuck I want in here. This is the only magic I could make in my life or anything close to it. Might as well take advantage of the studio.”
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I mean I feel like all your albums have changed shape, changed sound, But if there are rules to Strand of Oaks, I definitely see them being broken there.
SHOWALTER: I just felt like in the past my songwriting process has been pick up a guitar, play a few chords, probably an E minor and a C or whatever, and then there was a song that would come out. But for this one I approached so differently that I would make a drum beat on my computer, or I would make a baseline or something, or start out with the guitar solo in mind and build songs completely opposite than I did before. And the lyrics weren’t really planned necessarily. I wrote so many songs so quickly that there wasn’t a moment of reflection where I’m like, “What am I writing? What are these lyrics?” I would ask myself constantly, “Should I be writing this? Is this fucking weird?” It wasn’t precious, like there wasn’t this precious journal being kept of like, “Here’s my lyrics and I’m gonna cross this line out and think of a better rhyme.” They just happened. Like the title track “Heal” was just me talking into a mic. That was one pass-through of the song in my house and yelling into a mic, and and after it was done. I was like, “Holy shit, I guess it’s done. Those are the lyrics. So this is how this is gonna happen.”
STEREOGUM: The label’s press release mentions it being really in the dark time in your life when you were making the record. Do you mind explaining what was going on?
SHOWALTER: It seems like every songwriter says, “My life fell apart, or whatever, and then I made a record.” And that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t just that my life fell apart. People have breakup records — I broke up with this girl or whatever — but I broke up with my mind. I think I just disassociated myself and probably went a little — I was probably mentally unstable for a month two in crazy bipolar world. I actually hated myself, and I hated how I lied to myself. I hated how I was completely full of shit, everything I did. Going through these motions and touring especially allows you to forget all of the real stuff in your life, and you can have a very set schedule and loading and playing and loading out hotels. At a certain point, after two years of running away from marriage problems and addictions and problems with relationships and me realizing I was so lonely. I was around people all the time, talking to people, yet I just didn’t feel like I had any real connection with people in my life and it was going to reach a breaking point some point and it did. Once that happened, my tour was wrapping up in Europe, and I then looked down the barrel of six months at home in a place that I didn’t know anymore and I wasn’t excited to go back to. I was like, “Oh, I have to face this shit now. I’m not just home for two weeks then I get in the van again.” I would not want to have lived with me through the months of September through November. I was probably a nightmare to be around, but I was writing constantly, the faucet was turned on, and whether I wanted to or not I had to just go with it.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the writing is what pulled you out of it? Are you on the other side of all that?
SHOWALTER: I don’t know if I’m on the other side of it, but I’m sure as shit further along than I was in September. Like I think the writing was therapeutic in the sense that if I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think I could’ve functioned. I don’t think it was suicide level. I probably would’ve drank myself to death or whatever. I felt that I needed to write these songs, and however they came, I was able to give whatever good feelings or bad feelings or confused feelings, I was able to define them through writing the songs. My first record is all about this girl that I fell in love with. And I spent a whole record on symbolism and metaphors and, like, “woe is me” shit, and on this record I just say her name. I just say “Caitlin,” and just saying Caitlin just feels so much more powerful than the the 10 songs that I put on my first record about her. I was like, “That’s your fucking name, that’s what you’re called. I’m saying it.” Not that anyone else in the world cares, but I have to say it right now. And because of that I wasn’t easy on myself. I don’t look good in some of these songs. It’s not an ideal world. I needed to be honest with myself about that. I’m curious to see how people react to it. They could either be like, “This is the biggest narcissistic asshole that I’ve ever heard in my life” — I probably am — or, “I feel that way too about a lot of stuff when I wake up in the morning,” like, “I kind of understand this.”
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask about a couple of songs in particular. The lead track is “Goshen ’97,” I guess that’s a flashback to discovering and falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll?
SHOWALTER: I’ve been so confused with how to explain this record, but, like, this record is about music. Like, the only reoccurring theme in a lot of these songs is music and bands that I like and idealizing this savior of rock ‘n roll. And that’s what “Goshen” is. It’s just like, there’s no complicated things. I was just a weird kid that would not leave the basement that was listening to tapes and playing with keyboards and guitars and not getting laid and all that stuff that you’re supposed to do. I was just there, kind of consumed by it. It really pulled me out of it and it made the world lot bigger than the town I grew up in. Which did not have a lot to offer. I’ve got a big imagination anyway so I would just like I would like air drum to Jimmy Chamberlain, and I’d be playing “Cherub Rock.” I was an air guitar kid essentially.
STEREOGUM: How did J Mascis end up on the track?
SHOWALTER: I wrote the song, and I had a shred part. I wrote the ripping song that it is, I layered down a guitar solo and sent a demo to people at my label, and they loved it. And they were like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if J Mascis played on this song?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’d be cool if I was 13 and had a stack of Hustlers or whatever. You know, everybody can dream.” And they were like, “No I’m gonna write him right now.” So like 24 hours later J Mascis had laid down the solo, and we had it. I never met him or talked to him. The only communication shared between us was that J was like, “What do you want me to do?” and I was like, “Just sound like yourself. Sound like J Mascis.” And so he did. He laid it down.
STEREOGUM: I also was really struck by the song that you wrote for Jason Molina, “JM.” Was he a personal friend of yours?
SHOWALTER: I only met him once. I don’t know of any casual fans of Songs: Ohia. The fans that I know of Jason’s are all like me: They seem like a friend of Jason’s. It’s that weird too-deep-of-a-feeling that probably made him feel uncomfortable as a perfomer. But that shit mattered. It wasn’t just a passing fad. Those songs were like a culture that you lived in. When I wrote the songs, I had to write “JM” because I had to tell whoever wanted to listen that, “Look, I rip this guy off.” This guy is — I just want to be his doppleganger when it comes to music. He is the realest, most badass musician of my generation. We lost him way to young, and I need to show him, wherever he is, my appreciation. It was all I could do. But that to me is the song on the record that if the label or somebody was like, “Maybe we shouldn’t include ‘JM,'” I’d be like, “Maybe we shouldn’t put out a record,” because this song will have to be on this record. It’s the core of it, I feel like, in a weird way.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense, especially if the one thread is music.
SHOWALTER: Exactly, it just feels like a mantra. Something else bad happened in my life, but thank God I can put on Didn’t It Rain or Ghost Tropic or Magnolia. Everything in that song is is so autobiographical. It’s not even poetic, it’s just me verbatim retelling things from all of those situations I talked about. I was actively listening to a record probably when I was doing that exact thing that I was referencing. I was sitting in a bath and listening to Pyramid Electric Company. That’s how important he was to me.
STEREOGUM: I feel you did him justice with that song. It gave me the same feeling as like listening to the Magnolia album.
SHOWALTER: There’s nerdy music moments where I did a drum hit that’s the exact drum hit that happened at a point in the record. I was throwing in all the references I could.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been slugging it out without a label for so long. How did you end up on Dead Oceans finally?
SHOWALTER: It was a long time coming. I’m from Indiana, so I’ve known about the Secretly Canadian family forever, since their inception probably. A lot of my good friends have actually signed with Dead Oceans — Tallest Man On Earth, Bowerbirds, Juliana Barwick — all these people are my personal, good friends. And it wasn’t a nepotism thing, it was more like — I was never that anxious to sign to a label. I would rather not be on a label than be on the wrong fit because that’s just a nightmare situation. I was speaking with the Phil (Waldorf) who runs Dead Oceans, and he was like, “Why aren’t we doing this?” And I was like, “I dunno, we should be doing this! Let’s work together!” and it was just like, “Cool!” There’s no other label on earth right now at this point my career that would be better than Dead Oceans. Any label that has A Place To Bury Strangers and Mark McGuire making ambient music, and that whole sonic range of elements — shit, I can do whatever I want on this label. They’re open and they’re ready for it.
STEREOGUM: There’s definitely a great selection of artists there.
SHOWALTER: They’ve got a badass logo too. That’s probably what really sold me.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that when you’re dealing with difficult circumstances, the tour kind of helped you block those things out, so do you have any apprehension about going on tour again, are you is feeling a hundred percent excited? Describe how you feel about it.
SHOWALTER: I’m ecstatic about touring. I felt pretty empty for the past few months of not playing concerts. Towards the end of the last tour I was telling my tour manager, “I just never wanna leave this van. I wanna do this forever.” There’s something in my brain that is very scattered and neurotic and unstable and to be on tour stabilizes those elements. I feel like my mind is a lot healthier when I’m on the road, which seems like the antithesis of what most people say. I actually drink less and lose weight on tour because I’m not just sitting around with nothing do to. I want to work.
HEAL is out 6/24 on Dead Oceans.
[Photo by Dusdin Condren.]