Strand Of Oaks Finds Life Beyond Sex And Drugs
I. THE MARKET STREET BRIDGE
It began with the tattoo on Tim Showalter’s forearm. An arch from a bridge I’d seen countless times in my life.
Under his adopted moniker, Strand Of Oaks, Showalter was playing a solo acoustic set in the lobby of the Ace Hotel in Manhattan. He joked about the fancy room they put him up in, a trade for the gig. This life was new to him. Strand Of Oaks’ fourth album, HEAL, had come out that preceding June and, finally, he was getting some kind of recognition. At the time, those shows felt like last installments in a gradually triumphant year.
Earlier that day, I’d remembered a stray detail in the Strand Of Oaks story. Tim was from Goshen, Indiana but had moved east, and was now known as part of an ascendent generation of Philadelphia musicians. But his waypoint in between was Wilkes-Barre, PA — my hometown, a place I never expected would produce an artist with even the percolating success of Strand Of Oaks. Suddenly, the line “Under the Market Street bridge…” in HEAL‘s smoldering centerpiece “JM” held a different meaning.
“Were you talking about the bridge in Wilkes-Barre?” I asked, having caught him before he started holding court at the Ace’s bar, post-gig.
“Dude, have you seen my tattoo?” he asked excitedly, pulling up his sleeve to reveal that arch I’d seen countless times, maybe a mile from my high school. In excited disbelief, he asked, “Where did you live?”
“Shavertown — ”
“What street? Where?”
“You know the Checkerboard Inn?”
“Man, I used to get drunk there for free all the time! My buddy worked there.”
A week and a half later, I found myself in Philly, and Tim invited me to swing by his place in Mt. Airy — an idyllic Philly outskirt dominated by tree-lined streets and charming, old-school brick houses. There, he and his wife Sue shared an apartment.
I got to the apartment and Tim produced a case of Lionshead beer from the fridge; on the same days I’d pass by those Market Street Bridge arches, I’d pass by an old Lionshead brewery in a crumbling industrial corner of Wilkes-Barre, the lion’s face emblazoned in peeling paint on the wall. We sat on the porch and talked, small red cans and a perpetually steaming ashtray on the table, remains of ash flecked across Sue’s laptop, breath mingling with smoke in the December air.
Turns out, Tim Showalter had been doing Strand Of Oaks for years in Wilkes-Barre, playing the same DIY hardcore venues my friends played. At their first show, the whole Strand Of Oaks lineup wore brown suits and played bucolic folk in a punk club. Turns out, Tim Showalter once got caught by the cops smoking a joint on the Market Street Bridge, out of his mind and shivering in the early morning hours. They took him in and got him warm. Turns out, he met his wife there, a Plymouth girl, and wrote a song about their early days. Turns out Tim Showalter taught middle school there, and we knew all the same people.
Sue came home, looked me over. You got the sense that this was a semi-frequent experience. She’d get home from work and find that listless, magnanimous, drunk touring musician husband of hers throwing back mid-afternoon beers with a fellow musician, or a writer, or a lost soul. She talked about cooking dinner and lit a cigarette and didn’t say much else. The press cycle for HEAL — which focused on a series of traumatic events in Tim’s life, most specifically the revelation that Sue had cheated on him while he was on tour — had put her through the wringer. Piece after piece portrayed the story a certain way, distorting it and casting Sue as a sort of villain in HEAL‘s genesis. It had been hard to see all of that. She had been dragged into a small spotlight, simply because she happened to be married to a person who wrote and released music inspired by his personal life. Their marriage was struggling.
I left before dusk. Tim and I talked about me writing a Strand Of Oaks piece one day. This was December 2014. Over two years later, he’s releasing an album. It’s called Hard Love.
In the subsequent two years, I crossed paths with Tim many times. We saw each other in different cities and countries, at home and on tour. Along the way, I watched him transition from the final days of HEAL to the first days of Hard Love. I heard about all the albums that could’ve been in-between. In those two years, Tim wrote 40 or 50 songs. They broke down, and were rebuilt, and were abandoned, and were mashed together. They collected all the ups and downs of a rapid, blurry stretch of time. There were personal struggles, near-crises; there were victories, and a lot of parties. His relationship with Sue changed, and then it changed again. Each time we talked, I could see how his new life was recalibrating him, and how that in turn was recalibrating his music.
These are snapshots of the road Tim took to Hard Love — and everything that happened along the way.
II. BACK HOME
From afar, Tim Showalter seems like he should be huge. The long hair, the giant beard, the tattooed arms almost always exposed by a sleeveless black denim vest — he just looks like the kind of guy who should be a head taller than you. He isn’t. Even when he wears boots (which he always does), I rival his height, and I’m 5’10”. He regularly gets mistaken for being in a metal band, far from his introspective singer-songwriter roots. Really, he looks like he belongs in a biker gang. From afar, you might assume this is not an approachable man. And yet, he’s a complicated mix: a man with rural and small-town origins and all the attendant “normal guy” trappings those upbringings entail, a sci-fi nerd raised on ’90s alt-rock, a man who even in his settled, domestic twenties had the gravel voice of a weathered traveller, then adopted the uniform of a wanderer, and finally, in his thirties, actually began to accrue the stories of a life spent tumbling over mile after mile.
He is gregarious. His cheeks are often flushed via a mixture of beer and excitement. He’s hyper and discursive when you get him on the right topic. He wants to talk to everyone. Every new fan, each new acquaintance. But there’s a tension that can arise there, for an artist. You give so much of yourself to strangers. You drain yourself of the good parts, and your worst inclinations are saved for those closest to you. That tension would soon become a primary engine in Tim’s new work.
I’m sick of being the sad white guy with an acoustic guitar. We’re done with that shit.
“HEAL was bullshit, man.”
Five months after I met him, we were standing backstage at Barcelona’s Primavera festival and that was one of the first things he said to me. I was taken aback.
“What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, she cheated — but I cheated, too.”
Life on the road had gone the way of the old rock ‘n’ roll fables. The women, the drugs. There had been affairs all over the world.
“I’m re-committing to my marriage,” he continued. “Sue and I decided we were going to make it work. I confessed everything to her and it stops here. I love her more than anything.”
Other things had transpired, too. “I have the good drugs now,” he said. After a particularly transcendent psychedelic experience at an obscure Australian festival called Boogie — it’s a small, word-of-mouth camping festival out in the countryside, and they explicitly advertise it as a destination for hedonistic escape — Tim wanted to move away from the confessional Americana.
“I’m sick of being the sad white guy with an acoustic guitar,” he said. “We’re done with that shit.”
He wanted to spread joy this time. He’d just written a song inspired by that morning in Australia — seeing the sunrise from the top of a hill, tripping on acid and maybe a few other things — that was like Black Sabbath meets Primal Scream. Well, this could go either way, I thought.
I returned to the crowd for Strand Of Oaks’ set. The sun was just starting to come down and the band played songs like “Plymouth” and “Sterling” and I wondered if there was anyone else in this crowd who got the references Tim was making. I looked out at the water and thought: How did either of us get here? How did either of us get to Barcelona from the black hole of Wilkes-Barre? How did I find myself in Spain at 24, watching a man sing songs about my hometown on the main stage of Primavera? Strand Of Oaks closed with “JM.” From under the Market Street Bridge to a crowd of thousands in Barcelona. Not a bad run.
As it turns out, the night grew more surreal from there.
As it turns out, Tim Showalter had become a rock star.
The mood backstage after the set was feverish. The band milled around — guitarist Carter Tanton, drummer Mike Sneeringer (who was once temporarily part of the War On Drugs and played on Lost In The Dream), bassist Deven Craige (who, in addition to playing with Tim in the early days, was in Little Big League, which Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner fronted before abandoning Philly for New York). After a brief FaceTime with Sue, Tim held court once more. Deven and Mike just wanted to drink and see some music. Tim and Carter had other plans.
Off to the corner, Strand Of Oaks’ tour manager, Etjen — a towering Belgian man, coated in tattoos — stood like a sentry. Tim crept up and leaned on Etjen’s shoulder.
“Where’s the fun, man?” You got the fun?” he asked.
Etjen produced two little bags stuffed with white powder and slipped them into Tim’s hand. (Later, it was revealed that a festival stage manager, not Etjen, had procured these.)
We retreated to Strand Of Oaks’ dressing room, one of several such cubicles in a large white tent backstage. I ate a cold cardboard slice of pizza and watched Tim pour the bags out onto a mirror on the table, dividing things into piles. Some was coke. He and Carter took a few lines. The rest, he started dropping into half-empty water bottles, which he and Carter passed back and forth before Tim offered it to me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Well, sure. I took a swig. It tasted bitter like, as they say, battery acid.
The three of us ventured out into the festival. Lights blurred. We got stopped by people every couple of minutes. They were fans from around the world. Everyone seemed to think I was a part of the band, too. Either Carter or Tim told me to just go with it. Tim, who seemed to be rolling pretty hard, swayed in place during conversations, not speaking much. (“I feel like I’m in the womb,” he said during our long walk, one arm around Carter and one around me.) Sometimes Carter or I were the liaisons to the fans. We heard from a Scottish couple who had loved the set. By that point, I was just saying thanks instead of trying to explain I wasn’t in Strand Of Oaks.
I realized Strand Of Oaks were becoming something else. They were already beyond Tim’s humble roots — the Goshen boy, the Wilkes-Barre teacher, the unknown Philly troubadour. HEAL was still burning. Thanks to word of mouth and small-but-steady coverage of his latest album and the band’s increasingly cathartic live shows, Tim was becoming a star in his corner of the music world, his Primavera set perhaps the biggest show he’d yet played.
“We have to go get more drugs,” Tim proclaimed after an hour, and we started to make our way back across the festival grounds. Three Spanish girls stopped us, talked in tentative English about how much they liked the band.
“How old are you?” Tim asked.
Twenty, they said.
“Maaaan, you’re all so young,” he trailed off.
After a few minutes, Tim and Carter politely dismissed themselves.
“What’s the matter with you two?” I asked.
“We gotta go get more drugs,” Tim said.
“They could’ve come with us,” I replied.
“Man, I know I sound like a dick, but I got enough girls to worry about,” Carter drawled. “Besides, being fucked up kills my sex drive.”
“I love my wife,” Tim said. “I wanna talk to Sue.”
Back to the tent. A few more swigs from the harsh water bottle. Tim kept licking his finger after running it across the mirror for any powdery stragglers. Making sure to do the rest of it.
Tim and I found ourselves outside the tent, some time later. He was talking to a disheveled blond man in overalls, and after a few minutes the man in the overalls turned to me.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I live in Brooklyn.”
“Me too. I’m Mac.”
It was at that point I realized we were talking to Mac DeMarco. It was also at that point that I got that Molly effect, the come-up, like a giant fishing hook inside your ribcage that pulls you upward to reunite with your recently departed breath.
There was an awkward pause and Mac stared at me like, “Where is this guy?” And I thought:
How fucked up do I look that Mac DeMarco is looking at me wondering, “How fucked up is this guy?”
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I went back into the dressing room and sat down on the couch. There wasn’t a ceiling over the little cubicle, and I could hear chatter from Interpol and DIIV, all the sound mingling together into a solid, physical layer hanging 10 feet above my head as I tried to catch my breath. Carter walked in.
“You OK, man?” he slurred, eyes both far-seeing and drooping.
Things clicked into place.
“I’m good. Let’s go.”
How fucked up do I look that Mac DeMarco is looking at me wondering, ‘How fucked up is this guy?’
That night, Underworld were playing Dubnobasswithmyheadman the whole way through for its 20th anniversary. The three of us, in a sort of meandering huddle, walked back out into the field as they started playing. Sinuous, dark dance beats blared over the crowd. Tim — still wearing his sunglasses despite it being one o’clock in the morning — danced in front of me and Carter, facing us, with his shaggy head slightly tilted down, one hand gripping a beer and the other held up like he was preaching the Gospel. Like he was playing shaman. Any time I moved my head, outlines danced away from the people and objects they belonged to. As he swayed, Tim left fractions of himself three feet to his left and three feet to his right.
“What the fuck did you give me?” I asked.
“Just go with it, man, just go with it,” he’d say occasionally, one hand on my shoulder.
We all left that set feeling transformed. Caribou were up next. Tim somehow took some acid on our way. Then I lost them in the crowd, but I found the Spanish girls from earlier.
“I can’t feel my mouth,” one of them told me.
“I think she did a ton of coke,” one of the others said.
The first raised her eyebrows, then kinda shrugged.
They kept asking me what I wanted to do next. They still thought I was in the band. The sun was starting to rise — nobody had warned me that Primavera goes until the next morning — and I remembered I had a flight in four hours and said goodbye to the Spanish girls.
A day later, Tim texted me from Switzerland. Their adventure had worn on. He’d been awake for two days, taking more Molly. One of the craziest nights of his life, he said. Talk soon.
III. THE BIG MUSIC
Maybe because we were in Las Vegas and that city tends to do something to your mind, Tim Showalter kept talking about sex.
“If I hear that fucking ‘Boys Of Summer’ drumbeat one more time I’m gonna lose it,” he said as we walked through the Flamingo, amidst anemic pink neon lights and slot machines with cartoonish names and logos. “I’ve been obsessed with ‘Mountain Song’ by Jane’s Addiction lately. All the beats on the new album are going to sound like that. That ‘Boys Of Summer’ indie, that’s like, ‘Uh, I guess we’ll go on a date and have a drink and check Instagram, and maybe have some sex later.’ ‘Mountain Song’ is ‘We’re gonna fuck all fucking night long.'”
At this point, it was October, 2015, and Strand Of Oaks had traded a summer’s worth of festival appearances in front of increasingly fervent crowds for a stint opening for My Morning Jacket on tour. Just as Tim had begun to distance himself from HEAL, or from the faux-sensitive songwriter persona of his past, recent experiences were beginning to culminate and lead him to distance himself from the indie sphere, too. Age had something to do with that. But what it really came down to was that he wasn’t interested in conforming to what made sense at the mainstream festivals or what might catapult him to the forefront of blog fascination by the time his next record came out. He was interested in Rock Music of a form he saw swept to the sides. He was looking at what My Morning Jacket built, what Pearl Jam had built, and beginning to think he’d rather be the smallest artist in that world — one built on deeply devout fanbases, sustainable growth, being able to play into your old age — rather than ascend to the place where he could headline a festival next to the National. (Not that he’d object to that, if it happened.)
Most of all, he was interested in muscularity, magnitude. “I grew up on arena rock, man. Eddie Vedder. U2,” he said. There was never anything so focused as a manifesto coming from him, but it became a recurring topic: stopping short of expressing disdain for the indie landscape, Tim didn’t seem to care whether his next album elevated him to the top of that heap. By his estimation, he’d been an outsider doing his thing for a decade already.
Like Boogie before it, Primavera had proven to be a turning point for Tim. Sure, it was one more night of vision quests, but it was also a moment where he started to “open up.” In the subsequent five months, we crossed paths at Bonnaroo and Governors Ball, too. Not that he’d ever stop chasing those wild, rabbithole nights, but in these moments you could also see a man falling into the serious business of being in a band that people actually know, of being a performer who gives people something special onstage, of having bandmates you’re responsible for. From then on, any time I met with Tim was a confusing, cloudy conversation: There was the wild man, still, and there were new stories from the road and stories he seemed to be telling himself about his own life, and then there were moments of self-awareness, of seriousness regarding his art, and the occasional self-reflection amidst the whirlwind his life became after HEAL.
There was another way in which Primavera was the turning point: At Bonnaroo and Governors Ball, Sue was with Tim. If they were going to make the marriage work, he wanted to share all this with her. After years of her supporting him as a struggling musician — and the predictable bitterness or fights that might come with that uneasy arrangement — it was finally cohering.
Yet other things had transpired in the summer, too. While Tim’s personal life had begun to heal in some ways, he had also experienced one of the most traumatic events of his life. Over lunch at a Cheesecake Factory in a mall made to look like ancient Rome, Tim talked about his younger brother being unconscious in the hospital for two weeks after his heart suddenly stopped, due to a rare condition. Tim had flown back to Goshen and didn’t leave the hospital for a week. He didn’t sleep for five days, either, and eventually he was forced to leave and return home to Pennsylvania. The gravity of nearly losing his brother is one more factor that’s led to Tim dismissing his tendency for “fetishizing sadness” on his records up to, and including, HEAL. It also resulted in a track called “Dream Brother,” a trippy but melancholic song that captured the surreal place Tim went to during his brother’s brush with death.
That was just one of the Hard Love demos Tim played me that afternoon. After wandering the Strip for some time, we returned to his hotel room, on a dinge-y and twilit floor at Harrah’s. (Despite their increased exposure and touring with My Morning Jacket — who have an extensive road crew — Oaks were still keeping it lean: I’d found Tim and Carter outside Harrah’s that morning, sitting beside their van, which had a tiny trailer hitched to it that looked better-suited for a weekend fishing trip than a multi-week tour.) Tim rifled through his bag for a moment and produced one of those tiny square iPod Nanos. I sat down near the window and scrolled through an album labeled “Hard Love Demos.” There were about 14 songs in there, some already destined for B-side status. Tim started picking ones for me to preview.
While I listened, Tim sat on the edge of the bed and watched my every reaction. He was hunched over, hands on his knees, but leaning forward so his face was maybe a foot from mine, examining me with wide eyes, flushed cheeks, and an unreadable little smile. It was some mixture of a guy who’s wildly confident in what he’s showing you and the uneasy excitement of a little kid afraid you might disapprove. As always with him, there was some glimmer of earnest innocence beneath the hard-living rock-star skin.
By Tim’s description, Strand Of Oaks demos are often loops that exist simply for him to get a song idea down in some form. But even at this stage, it was easy to see an album there, even if it was unclear what exact aesthetic or narrative would dominate it in the end. The title track was always going to be (and remained) “Hard Love.” Originally, the demo quality made it sound almost ’80s — an uptempo, hook-filled rocker as played by Born In The U.S.A.-era Springsteen fronting the Jesus & Mary Chain. It bookended the album with, well, something different: “Strange Love,” a song that stretched well past the 10-minute mark, riding solely on a repetitive, heavy riff, the only lyrics a bug-eyed litany of “Who gets high and who drops the bomb?” “Everything” was another uptempo one; it sounded like artists from Tim’s beloved Creation Records, though its riff, in that demo form, also recalled Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Bring On The Dancing Horses.”
Then there were the host of drug songs. The Boogie song — the Primal Scream meets Black Sabbath one — was now called “On The Hill.” (A literal reference to the hilltop sunrise that defined that particular psychedelic excursion.) It was an eight-minute, trippy behemoth — that “Mountain Song” beat was almost there, but above the stomp was a fluttery, oscillating synth; Tim ad-libbing, in heavily-effected vocals, a bunch of druggy koans; a distorted, undulating guitar pattern. Tim had been indulging a love of dub during the writing for Hard Love, which had resulted in a bizarre left-turn called “Wicked Water” — perhaps a nod to his preferred way of ingesting MDMA. Then there was “Back Home” — a lush synth-psych song inspired by that night in Barcelona. “I’m tired of living underwater” went the refrain, and it was indeed one of the album’s most aqueous representations of Tim’s more chemical-addled music.
“That’s what that night sounded like to you?” I asked.
“Yeah!” He laughed. “I took a lot.”
These dreamy, space-y songs formed pillars on this sketch of the album, but they were balanced out by the pop of “Hard Love” and “Everything.” They were balanced out by the sudden vulnerability of “Sober,” a brief and contemplative synth ballad mulling self-control amidst songs celebrating transcendence-via-self-destruction. Much of the music was very exciting — more of a leap from HEAL than I could’ve expected after hearing new music in Tim’s apartment a year earlier, and in a direction I wouldn’t have been able to predict then. Yet it was also a complicated collection of impulses, so far, especially when you considered that a song like “Hard Love” was positioned by Tim as bringing some danger and sex back into rock music (thus dovetailing appropriately with stuff like “On The Hill” or “Back Home”) and yet it was also the title track that reckoned with what he’d put his wife through in recent times. There seemed, at that juncture, equal opportunities for Hard Love to be a sonic and narrative continuation of HEAL, or a blown-out, trippy synth-rock album. It didn’t seem as if the two could coexist.
Between that hour in the hotel room and that night’s show, I thought back to the afternoon, as we wandered through Caesar’s Palace and over to Paris. We sat down at a bar sometime around 2 or 3PM; Tim chain-smoked and nursed a beer while an already-intoxicated couple two seats down drank from a multi-colored drink in a two-foot-tall plastic Eiffel Tower that must’ve cost like $40. Tim was talking about the album he was trying to make — there’d already been a few iterations of Hard Love up until this point, including one he described as a bunch of Replacements-esque rock songs. He was thinking about what kind of artist he wanted to be, returning to the idea that this time he wanted to keep reaching for the big music. “I love Ryan Adams so much and I’m just not going to be as good as him,” he said, once more renouncing his gentler past work. “I don’t want to do that.”
But most importantly, he was mulling over the kind of person he wanted to be, and what stories that person would have to tell. He and Sue had just-barely reconciled as he started touring HEAL, and then his life continued to spiral in unforeseen directions. How do you collect experiences like Boogie and Primavera over and over, how do you become this character outside of normal life’s strictures, writing your way into and through your own life, and then downshift back into your old self? How do you return home and do right by the people you’ve hurt?
“Why can’t there ever be a record where it’s about, hey, the rock star returns home and redeems himself and is good to the people he loves?” Tim wondered. “How come that isn’t the story we can tell?”
IV. HARD LOVE
A few weeks after I saw Tim in Las Vegas, he squeezed recording sessions in between legs of the My Morning Jacket tour. Hard Love was done, and would’ve come out in 2016. But by April of last year, he had scrapped the finished album, started the recording over, and was splitting his time between Philly and Brooklyn. One afternoon early in the month, I went to the Greenpoint studio where Tim and his new producer, Nicolas Vernhes, were putting final touches on some the key songs from the new iteration of Hard Love.
“I just ran out of ideas,” Tim said by way of explanation that, here we were, witnessing the birth of a second record by the same name.
“You seemed pretty set on it when we were in Vegas, though,” I replied.
“It just totally changed. Not different songs, just a different approach.” In hindsight, Tim felt he had rushed into the studio — that, in the end, he was too close to just making another HEAL. “There really wasn’t anything wrong. It just wasn’t as right as it could be,” he said.
The threat of Strand Of Oaks treading familiar ground seemed both premature and like something that had real potential to cripple HEAL‘s successor. In many ways, HEAL is where Strand Of Oaks begins. Their first two albums, 2009’s Leave Ruin and 2010’s Pope Killdragon, were written simultaneously over many years while Tim still worked as a teacher in Wilkes-Barre. On some level, they were never a great fit for him: Leave Ruin offered pretty and skillful folk-rock but stifled the individual Tim Showalter as he tried to fit into a mold he never really belonged in. Pope Killdragon suggested interesting possibilities in the future via its synth/folk hybrids, but it was still a warm-up. After stumbling altogether with 2012’s Dark Shores, it finally fell into place: the twin struggles of his conflicts with Sue and their traumatizing 2012 car crash; his ultimate revelation that who he was, at his core, was a rock musician. It yielded HEAL, an album that mined what needed to be mined from the preceding 10 years — effectively negating the existence of the other three albums — while also featuring his sharpest songwriting within his most expansive sonic palette to date.
Gone were the sometimes-obtuse narratives and premises of the previous albums. Gone were the precious, sepia-toned performances. Tim Showalter the roaring, then wounded, then growling rock star was coming into focus. By his own admission, he was really still figuring out how to make albums up until HEAL. “I think those records were kinda like … a lighthouse guy in an island, sending small signals,” Tim said. “Whoever caught them, caught them, and I was lucky that people did.” And once the test runs had finally proven worthwhile, there was a certain kind of pressure to answer that album in the right way.
With HEAL as the real birth of Strand Of Oaks, Tim used a more focused and personal approach to storytelling to confront the demons in his life in that moment, but also traced back through the past — all the way to his hometown, in the ’90s. “Goshen ’97” functions as an origin story and prologue to the rest of the album, a catalog of youthful moments discovering solace and escape in anthemic music, the stuff that suggested Elsewhere. Whether you grew up in Goshen or Wilkes-Barre, it was a familiar experience.
It was also an unflinchingly nostalgic song, and Hard Love was set to be the Strand Of Oaks album that consumed this moment and this place, right now, and tried to present it in a coherent portrait of a person living, and changing, in the course of a comparatively small span of time.
“When you’re in high school, you think your freshman year takes 20 years. How many times you change, how many girlfriends you have, friend circles,” Tim said. “I feel like these past two years have been like that. Where I land now is completely different than when you met me the first time you came up to our house.”
So, fittingly, one of the songs he and Vernhes were working on that day was “On The Hill,” that song that reached all the way back to Tim’s transformative experience at Boogie. Since I’d last heard it, the song had developed into something else entirely. The beat was massive, like a loping, lop-sided “When The Levee Breaks.” “Have you seen BT?” Tim mutters, heavily processed and distant, in the beginning of the song. (BT happens to be the wild-man hippie mastermind in charge of Boogie.) But while the original demo of “On The Hill” was one cyclical drone, this version switched gears into a climactic second half that partially cannibalizes that dub song “Wicked Water” — “Drop it in the water” Tim howls amidst a growing maelstrom, coupled with the refrain “Bitter, bitter water makes you lose control/All the good people if we know you’d go.”
“It’s a different kind of song than the rest of the record. We’ve been trying to culture it into the rest,” he explained. It was striking to see Tim now, in business mode. He had a levelness to him, almost a detachment compared to the demeanor I was used to. Self-awareness and calculation played more of a role.
“There’s a general wooziness and haze [to “On The Hill”],” he said before adding a disclaimer. “I’m no longer allowed to use the words ‘psych,’ ‘vibe,’ or ‘druggy.’ I’ve overused them.”
As much as the song had flourished — to the point that Tim referred to its centerpiece status on the album as “the sun in the middle of the solar system” — he and Vernhes were still trying to figure out how to make it move more.
“The beginning’s a little clunky, but I think once we switch to the new part, it’s feral,” Vernhes said from the soundboard, his back to Tim as they looked at a dizzying array of sound levels and tracks across several screens.
“Once it’s there, it rides itself into the sunset,” Tim replied.
“Like scary,” said Vernhes. “It’s good.”
“Is this a rhythm we missed?” Tim asked, playing through a heavy Britpop chord progression. He was resistant to Vernhes’ main idea for today: adding bongos to “On The Hill.”
“That background rhythm, that makes it sounds like you’re at a party,” Vernhes argued. “It’s one element to add to see if it makes a difference.”
The other track they worked on that day was a different situation entirely: a song that came to Tim suddenly after scrapping the first version of Hard Love, and soon became one of the key components of the final album: its lead single, “Radio Kids.”
If “Goshen ’97” played as origin story on HEAL, “Radio Kids” is something of a sequel, but a narrative outlier on its own album. It’s the only song on the LP that looks further back, into Tim’s youth. The rest situates itself in the mess and craziness and growth of 2014 through 2016. But it still fits. Where “Goshen ’97” reveled in those teenage memories, reveled in the nostalgia — perhaps marking a dissatisfied but simpler time than the stories that otherwise dominated the record — “Radio Kids” starts to do something similar before Tim reckons with the facts of his life now. It starts romantically enough, but before too long he’s singing, “Now it’s just kids repeating / Maybe I’m as bad as them / I wanna get back, I wanna get back / I’ll never get it back, I know” before basically joking, “I’m feeling sorry for myself.”
This is all propelled by the most massive, infectious riff Tim has ever written, a doubling of guitar and synth that’s hard-wired for bigger stages on the indie-band festival circuit. This is the kind of song that could very well ignite more fervor around Strand Of Oaks. This is the kind of song Tim was talking about in Vegas six months before: loud, and huge, and universal, written for the people in the back of the room instead of the people in the first few rows. He roars, but with desperation — tripping over his own breath as he proclaims, over and over and somewhat ironically, “Play it on the radio!” at the song’s conclusion.
Vernhes played that vocal take isolated a few times, listening for cracks, listening for any signs they needed to go back and punch it up. After a few minutes, he smiled to himself.
“It doesn’t sound perfect … but it sounds good.”
V. I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM UNTIL YESTERDAY
Two years, almost to the day, from when I first met Tim Showalter, I return to his house in Mt. Airy. This time, the occasion is a string of small, stripped-back shows — just Tim and his old friend/new guitarist Jason Anderson — debuting many of the new songs at Philly’s Boot & Saddle.
In the end, Hard Love changed drastically from what I heard in Vegas, and semi-significantly from the first cut. Songs disappeared or were gutted and folded into new songs. “Radio Kids” came out of nowhere. There’s another totally new song called “Salt Brothers,” a sideways-lurching sorta-ballad about the time Tim and Carter were tripping on copious amounts of acid while in a shuttle van at Osheaga Festival; apparently they were riding with Kendrick Lamar’s crew and freaked a few of them out by leaning over the seat and bellowing “YOU GUYS INTO JANE’S ADDICTION!?”
Tim and I walk through Mt. Airy, to a restaurant that feels like the kind of Pennsylvania and Jersey diners I remember from my youth. He takes me through the rest of the songs. “Everything” — which has grown from the more modest version I heard in Vegas into a squalling ’90s psych-rock track — is, hilariously and surprisingly, rooted in a homage to Underworld’s “Cowgirl” (in which Karl Hyde sing-speaks “Everything, everything, everything…”). Perhaps a survivor from when Tim wanted to make a Replacements-esque album, “Rest Of It” is the most straight-up fun song on Hard Love. Another party one. “You remember Primavera when there was a mirror on the table?” he asked, laughing from behind his sunglasses as we sat in the diner. “‘Just do the rest of it. Don’t leave anything. Be a soldier.’ That’s not a Pulitzer Prize-winning lyric there.”
Then there are the emotional anchors of the album. While “On The Hill” is the LP’s fulcrum, the experience it all flows into and out of, it’s paired with as crucial a song in “Cry.” Originally, “Cry” was a wispy acoustic ballad — Tim dismisses that version as being too Todd Rundgren, or a “bad new Beck song,” yet it always reminded me of My Morning Jacket — but it became a naked piano confessional, a spare and broken song acting as direct counterpoint to “On The Hill.” It ends with a warped detour, created when Tim called Sue from the studio, ran the call through the PA, and the engineers went about manipulating the hell out of it. It’s crashing, collapsing representation of an everyday conversation, segueing from “Cry” into “Quit It.” Tim describes the latter as “hopefully a conclusion of the mistreatment I’ve done to Sue.”
There are certain songs where it’s clearly Tim speaking about a very particular experience. But the relationship ones are usually harder to pin down. The shifting narration was intentional; you can’t always tell whether it’s supposed to be Tim talking to Sue or Sue talking to Tim. This is most pivotal in the album’s opening/title track. The whole thing begins with the lyrics: “You ran away, you went searching / You came back, tired of looking / You leave me now, you get nothing / Fired up, and tired of wasting / Hard love.” Tim still insists that, with the title dating back to around Boogie, “Hard Love” was the beginning of him trying to make “sexual music.” “The opposite of wallowing,” he says, “This isn’t gonna be about feeling sorry for myself, this is gonna be about getting you down.”
That’s become even harder to believe, though: The new version of the song is a swelling indie anthem, a dramatic overture to the album and all its twists and turns. Like “Radio Kids,” it seems destined for big moments echoing over a festival field. It achieves what the best Strand Of Oaks songs do, channeling intimate, internal battles into universal catharsis.
Ultimately, dispensing with “Strange Love” was one of the best moves Tim made as Hard Love developed. The album is now bookended by the title track and “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother,” a song that seems to be in line with all the hedonism that precedes it but is actually in line with all the emotional turmoil and reconciliation that precedes it. Tim again recounts sitting at his brother’s bedside in the summer of 2015.
“It’s called that because it was an acid trip being there without acid,” Tim says. “I did all these drugs in the last few years, but the most psychedelic thing that happened was to not be on drugs and to see this and not sleep for five days.”
When he got back to Philly, he was in some state of deep psychosis. He lay down on his bed and talked to the phantom presence of his younger brother. Sue couldn’t get through to him for two hours.
The way Hard Love strings together is that it’s a collection of snapshots of a man’s experience in two of the most dynamic years of his life — the dire, the victorious, the unhinged, the regretful.
“What else could you write about?” Tim says. “I’d get home, I’d have a moment, and what was in my head? Whatever chemical and whatever exciting thing I was thinking about.”
I think back to my first conversations with Tim, to the landmarks we both know in Wilkes-Barre. Aside from him not having yet found his voice as a songwriter, Leave Ruin and Pope Killdragon make more sense in that context. When you’re a schoolteacher in a dead-end town trying to write songs, what else could you write about? Those were elaborate escape capsules in that moment, whether convoluted folk allegories or Tim letting his imagination run loose with fantasy and sci-fi imagery. I knew that impulse. I knew what goes through a creative person’s mind in that town, feeling shut off from the rest of the world, and I knew what happens when you leave.
That’s what else I saw in him in late 2014, even though it took two more years of both our lives changing for me to realize. There’s a kind of self-destructive streak that can develop within creative impulses when you grow up in a place like Goshen or Wilkes-Barre. What is there from your life to really chronicle at that point? So instead you write yourself into being. You adapt your look to rock-star iconography. You adapt your lifestyle to rock-star iconography. And, soon enough, you become that which you’re imitating. You don’t need to make up stories anymore, because you keep on putting yourself in situations purely because they’ll give you a story to tell.
One version of this, for Tim, is positive. He calls it “Giving Into Dionysius.” “I was too much a child of the ’90s to think that having a good time was OK,” he says. “After HEAL, it was like, ‘No, I’m going to have the best time.’ With people.”
And, fair enough, the Tim sitting in front of me in December 2016 is very different than the one sitting in front of me in December 2014. I ask him when he felt his life beginning to change, if he ever wondered if things would’ve been less tumultuous had he chosen a quieter life. But he already did that. “I always say,” he tells me with a half-grin, “I don’t know who I am until yesterday.”
After years of passing in and out of musicians’ lives, after nights like Barcelona, after witnessing a rock-star life that is every bit as intoxicating as they say, figuratively and very literally, a question had started to form in my mind: How do you bring that back home? How do you avoid there being two distinct versions of yourself and your life? Most people understandably don’t have much sympathy for someone who gets to travel the world partying and playing music. But I could look at Tim, and know about his life, and wonder how that is navigable. How you can live through “On The Hill” and come back and relate to the people who were at home, going to work every day?
By his own admission, Tim’s been plenty selfish in the past. It seems to be a necessary flaw if you’re going to allow space for creative endeavors. Since HEAL, Tim’s become one of those people: He’s a gravitational center because people know who he is and want to talk to him. Everyone else in his life, inevitably, becomes a constellation; their lives potential material for his work. I could see that pull, that orbit, in these past two years — it’s exacerbated when you think you see some part of yourself in a person, like if they lived in your hometown. By his own admission, this existence also gives you an excuse to be a complete asshole.
“I’m not two-faced. I’m not two different people,” he says. “But I’m almost worse to the people closest to me because it’s the one time I don’t have to be ‘Tim’ for a little bit, and then the worst parts come out, and those parts are focused on people where it has nothing to do with them. In a way, it’s only the places I feel safe. Because of that safety, the first things that get brought up are the darkest parts, and then I feel like I give everybody else the best parts. I mean, it’s a great excuse to be an asshole to the people you love.”
Two years later, he’s reached a more final reckoning with HEAL and what it did to his life. That whole cheating narrative? He now understands Sue was more of a victim in that situation, and he quietly curses himself for not handling it like an adult.
“Do you regret putting that much of your personal life out there like that?” I ask.
“I regret planting seeds and being naïve enough to not know those seeds are no longer yours, and how they start to grow.”
“You mean how you dragged Sue through this weird press cycle?”
“That’s my biggest regret.”
In 2016, Tim didn’t tour much. He spent the year with Sue. They’d take little bits of shrooms and walk around Mt. Airy together. When he was in New York finishing the album, Sue would take the train up, and she and Vernhes and Tim would sit in bars and just talk amongst themselves for hours. Tim saw her blossoming, writing poetry and painting. Then he realized she’d always been that way.
“It was me realizing you could be with someone for this long, but you only start to realize you’ll never understand them,” he says. “You’ve been so selfish your whole fucking life that you’ve never taken enough time to listen to someone else, until now.” He calls 2016 the best year of his life — better than the attention for HEAL, or any of those misadventures on tour.
Who knows what will happen when Hard Love comes out. Strand Of Oaks could continue getting steadily bigger, but only within a certain circle of rock bands. Or, the transition from HEAL to Hard Love could be the band’s equivalent of the National’s Boxer to High Violet, the War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient to Lost In The Dream, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy to self-titled: the album that capitalized on its predecessor’s slow-burn and elevates an artist to the top tier of the indie world.
For the first time, Tim Showalter is ready. He has the band he always wanted. He has a philosophy behind it. His life is stable. For the first time, he made an album that collects the present and looks ahead to what might come out of these stray moments. He wants Sue beside him — like she was for all the struggling years — for the years coming up, when they can enjoy what they fought together to reach. Hard Love is an album of things Tim experienced, but he did avoid making another HEAL. Because as selfish as that creative process might’ve been, it became about other people. For the first time, Tim Showalter is looking outward.