Photo by MARY LYNN DOMINGUEZ
BY MAX ABRAMS Always opting for honest emotion over perfect execution no matter how raw or abrasive the results, Strand of Oaks unspoken motto is ‘don’t worry about getting it right, get it real.’ From Philly by way of Goshen, Indiana, Strand Of Oaks started out as the one-man band of one Timothy Showalter, slowly evolving from ponderous sad sack acoustic folk ballads to hard partying power chords, badass riffs and gruff vocals. SOA’s fourth album, 2014’s Heal, was their breakout release, winning over critics and listeners with non-stop touring and strong radio play. In the interim, Strand of Oaks front man Timothy Showalter has experienced something of a rebirth. From partying to the edge of madness and psychedelic epiphanies at an Australian music festival, to his brother’s near death from heart disease, to patching up his busted up marriage, Showalter has been on an emotional roller coaster for the last three years, careening in and out of sobriety, and emerging on the other side with a whole new view on life. And his music has evolved accordingly.
Strand of Oaks new album, Hard Love, deals with all of these topics both directly and indirectly. The songs vary in tone and intensity — from the heartbreaking intimacy of songs like “Cry” to the sprawling Floyd-ian psych of “Taking Acid And Talking to My Brother” — but they all have one thing in common: their humanity. The music he crafts takes us to some pretty dark and heady places, but at the heart of it there is always a longing for human connection, and he always brings us back to the light in the end. In advance of Strand Of Oaks’s show hometown at Union Transfer on March 10th, we got Showalter on the phone to talk about the new album. Hard Love is, he says, a celebration of rock-and-roll in all its iconic guises, all its ecstasies and agonies, all its buzzes and hangovers — a potent sonic reminder that “even in those darkest and saddest moments, you can still laugh and have a good time.”
PHAWKER: I heard that you had a completed version of the album and then decided to scrap it and start over. Why?
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: I think, I’ve had like four people say ‘scrapped,’ I think ‘scrapped’ is so harsh. It just didn’t work, you know, because I really liked the first thing we did. I mean, honestly I just smoked way too much weed and had way too much fun for myself, and then ultimately the songs like, I just got into my own head and had a really good time but my ideas were kind of living in a space world, and it was just time for me to bring in other people. A song is so many ideas, it really helps to have someone else come in from a producing perspective, or like my best friend Jason came and just threw down a bunch of guitars and stuff, and it was nice to have new blood in there.?? Sometimes with the best collaborators they don’t change what you want to do, they just get you there in ways you are not sure how. It’s like if you have a friend who knows that you have a problem that you can’t even realize, and then they tell you, “look, stop being an asshole”, or something like that. It is nice to have an outside perspective.
PHAWKER: Was there a moment that just clicked and you were like ‘this is right, this is good’?
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: I enjoyed the first version but I did get the sense that it sounded like a record made by a guy by himself and there were songs that had a lot of charm to them but I think I came to the point where I decided to cut probably four songs and then wrote new ones in like two weeks.
PHAWKER: So it is like a reincarnation of the old Hard Love but with a bunch of new cuts on it.
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: Yeah, for sure, but also each song sounds a lot different.
PHAWKER: Yeah and that’s one thing I love about it. You know, you got songs like “Everything,” talk about a wall of guitars, I love that riff so much…
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: That was a learning experience. I don’t know if you play guitar but I get stuck in certain scales for my solos and that was like me learning something new. I’m 34 and I’ve been playing guitar for most of my life but I’m still learning shit, and I was like “Oh, these notes work with these chords? I never knew that!”
PHAWKER: Yeah, absolutely. And then you have songs like “Cry,” and I love the guitar on that too, you know, how it comes in like two thirds of the way. It’s great.
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: Yeah, that’s one of those tricks. If you do so little in a song, anything additional feels gigantic, because it’s this simple guitar line, but still. Those are my favorite overdubs. They have so much purpose, and with modern recording techniques you can potentially have no editing, so you can just put more and more on it until it’s just nothingness.
PHAWKER: Yeah, then it becomes too much, like how too many colors just becomes black.
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: For sure, and that’s what helps. My mind, I have the propensity to just pile a hundred different synthesizers for no real reason other than I like the feel of it, and it was nice to just have someone to say “Just leave it alone, the song is done.” That was really nice to have.
PHAWKER: One thing I liked about “Heal” was how much you showed your strong ties to Goshen, Indiana and Wilkes-Barre, and now that you’ve moved to Philly and you’ve been on tour a lot for the past couple years, do you think that has changed anything for you? Do you think the location and you travelling everywhere and all that motion has changed your music?
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: Yeah, I mean I was around a lot of people and had a lot of different experiences. I got to see a lot of the world and played in all these festivals and saw all these bands play that were amazing and it was, you know- as far as Philly goes, I first moved here in like 2001 and moved back to Wilkes-Barre for a little, but Philly has kind of been my thing for a long while now, whether that’s living here or just playing here, and I like living here so much because it doesn’t really affect my music but it just affects my life in a good way. Living in this city is just like- we’ve been in New York for two days this week and it felt really fucking good to go back over the bridge and be like, “Alright, back home. I love it here.” This is my town, and pretty soon I’ll have lived in this area longer than I’ve lived in Indiana. The best thing about growing up in Goshen is that I was so isolated so I had no other choice but to find my own thing. And it would have been different if I grew up in Philly because there is such a scene here.
PHAWKER: I’ve been reading a lot about you and I have to ask you about Boogie Festival. My understanding is that you had this epiphany there that changed you music, what the hell happened? What was it like?
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: It was just good timing. It was good timing and good people. Like a lot of music I loved in the nineties and the early 2000’s, I took myself really seriously, and in order for shit to be good it had to be heavy. And not heavy music wise but there had to be a struggle involved for it to be legitimate art. And the Boogie Festival was generally just such a good time and I saw a lot of great music, and danced all night and partied hard, it’s not like I hadn’t partied before that but it was just different feeling, and I’m always hunting for those nights. You don’t learn anything from getting wasted or getting drunk. You don’t wake up and be like, “I’m so much more enlightened”, “that 30th beer I drank really brought me a new perspective on life.” But it was just the right vibe, it was a lot of people I’ve been looking for my whole life and didn’t know I needed them. You know, you party with a bunch of Australian pirates and they bring out the best in you.??
PHAWKER: Those experiences really come through on “On The Hill.”
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: They come through on every song. I mean, “On The Hill” is specifically about it but I think a lot of these songs, you know, there is guitars and all that stuff but a lot of these songs are informed by, there is no other way to put it, just doing good drugs. If you do the right kind of thing in rave culture, even if you don’t make rave music, you still feel the feeling. You go into your music a little differently and there is a little bit more of a swagger.?? There is just a certain walk that you have when you are really getting into something, or a dance. I’d call it this sway that you get, and there is a lot of little moments on the record that are informed by that. It’s like the difference between going to see a pop-punk show and a Brian Jonestown Massacre show, it’s like, “Oh right, these guys are not going for precision they are going for elevation really.”
PHAWKER: Best I can tell, “Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother” is the most psychedelic thing Stand of Oaks has ever put out there and it isn’t really even about taking drugs. What was the inspirations behind that song and its sound?
TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: The title is purposely misleading because the rest of the record probably does have something to do with certain substances, but the last song has nothing to do with drugs or acid, but it is there to reference that psychedelics doesn’t have to be like a Beatles’ cartoon or something. Psychedelic can mean if you are faced with this situation like I was with my brother where it is so surreal and you can’t control it and you are absolutely wishing you could control it and you are wishing everything you could to will him to be better, and you can’t at that moment. He is hooked up to the machine, and it is just a nightmare you can’t get out of.?? What I love about this song is that he is fine now. He is totally healthy and amazing. The song takes its time and it gets pretty wild and it is a psychedelic-based song, but I also love it because it feels very celebratory, and I just like that the album ends on this amazing note. And it’s kind of just thanking the universe for, you know, half bringing him back. ??I feel like if anyone has ever been in that position where they had someone or something they loved that they were in danger of losing, and it was just me bargaining with the universe, like “what do I need to give? What do I need to do right now? I’ll do anything for him to wake up” — and he did. And that is psychedelic. That is just as intense as seeing a dripping goat flaming in the sky.