Graham Reid | | 13 min read
For a guy who has been battered by life and battered himself, Tim Showalter – who performs as Strand of Oaks – sounds remarkable cheerful, funny and upbeat when we catch at home in a Philadelphia suburb, albeit briefly.
“I'm home for about 48 hours after playing in Europe,” he says, “and then we are starting the tour of the US. So we are pretty much going full force. Just time to be at home and do laundry.”
And when he and his band hit the road this time there is a sense of great anticipation from his audience which he admits is new for him.
His fourth album HEAL in 2014 did unexpectedly well and was named in many “best of the year” lists as well as springing something close to hit single with the lovely Goshen 97 about discovering music and a tape recorder while in the family basement in Goshen, Indiana: “I was lonely, but I was having fun,” he sings.
That meant the stakes were higher for HEAL's follow-up, but Hard Love released a month ago doesn't disappoint.
The first single, the power-pop/hard rock Radio Kids is a look back at the thrill of discovering new songs on the radio late at night when the parents think the kids are asleep, and the album closes with the harsh but beautifully tripped out Taking Acid and Talking With My Brother, about being at the bedside of his younger brother who almost died of a brain aneurysm.
Aside from the quiet ballad Cry however, the album is full of dense rocking songs which often address very personal matters. And Showalter's life has had plenty of material he can work from.
He's endured a house fire, his wife having an affair when he was on tour (dealt with nakedly in Mirage Year on HEAL), near death in a car accident (Quit It on Hard Love), enormous quantities of drugs and booze while on the road (On the Hill on Hard Love) and more.
He's got plenty of source material, a mainline into great rock which draws from his diverse influences (the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to U2, Smashing Pumpkins and Joni Mitchell) and a real passion for making meaningful music which connects from heart to heart.
He might look like a biker and somewhat wasted on the cover of Hard Love, but there's a sensitive soul beneath the black t-shirt.
But once again the road, which has literally almost killed him, calls again . . .
Tim, do you look forward to going out on this next leg or do you have to steel yourself to do it given you know the dangers and how hard it can be?
I made the decision for this tour to surround myself with a band who are my best friends and the best musicians that I know, and I'm finding that after the few shows we've done that's how I want to do it now. I want to be satisfied with that and what we do together every night I want to be fresh, not only for the band but for the audience . . . that's probably what's going to sustain you because I'll probably tour for two years off this record.
I got to this realisation that . . . well, how many concerts have we seen where it's play a song then stop, say something awkward, tune the guitars, do it again. It's almost like hearing the record except the beer costs more at the venue than at home.
I don't want to do that any more, it's so much more fun to explore deeper and get into jams. We're really getting there after two weeks so I can only imagine what could happen after a year of touring with this band.
There's a lot music on Hard Love which is pretty full throttle so we'll talk about that in a moment. But do you consider yourself in better physical and emotional shape than you were a few years ago when you were touring?
I'm somewhat of a dramatic person and the album title has a lot of meanings, but the idea of hard love is kinda how I live. I don't do anything subtly, I just go for it. Sometimes it sets you up for a failure and sometimes it sets you up for pure joy. It's not like I've changed, but I've come to point in my life where I'm more honest with who I am . . . and with that I can manage the ups and downs.
I'm say this now but after a year on tour who knows where I'll be in my head. It would change the Pope into Jim Morrison after a year of touring, I'm sure.
When you say are you being more honest about yourself have you just come to that recognition that, 'I'm a flawed individual, but who isn't?' Is that it?
See. That's why you're the writer and I'm the interviewee because that's just a beautiful way to put it. What is 'getting better'? Life is going to be tough and it's just who we are and it's a pretty simple choice of choosing to live with that but not being defeated by it but rather going forward stronger and accept that this is who I am.
My band has been around for a while but we've just been getting noticed a bit more in maybe the last four or five years and I'm so thankful I'm in my 30s and not in my 20s. Because I think I know about life a bit more. If I'd had this attention when I was 22 I would have burned it to the ground, probably in a matter of days, because that's the way I used to live.
I feel a lot more ready for what comes my way at 34 as opposed to 24 perhaps.
I have to say Tim, when I look at what has happened in your life a helluva lot has come your way. And yet you are still here. Are you an optimist?
Yeah I have to be! (laughs)
Sometimes I wish it could all just be put into a movie and not into my life . . . but it is my life and that's what happened. And in the long run I think one of the greatest gifts I was given is the lack of cynicism.
It's because of where I'm from. We're pretty normal Mid-Westerners, generations of farmers and it was mostly like, 'Shit if there's a frost we could lose the whole crop' so there's always this impending doom . . . but you still have to get up in the morning.
I feel so grateful I've inherited that. If you want to see me get pissed off with anybody in the world it's with some cynical person who would rather remove themselves or make fun of something or try to act like they have the secret. All that stuff which is so prevalent in modern culture I feel so distant from. I'm a sincere person, I mean what I say. If it gets me into trouble it's just how I have to live.
Fortunately we have Facebook now which is home for al the people who are cynical and want to make negative comments about everything.
Let me ask you about the Hard Love album. I understand you recorded the album but then weren't satisfied with it so dumped it and started again.
Yeah. I think . . . if I can be honest. I was touring forever but had a three or four week break between shows and so we rushed to the studio because my brain couldn't stop. I go there and I have a tendency to go to that studio and smoke God's green herb a bit too much, and I think I made way too much of a stoner record, so much so that it was pretty out there.
I realised and the record company realised that it was a pretty decent record but the songs deserved a little bit more. I realised what element was missing was collaboration, so I decided it was time for me to step out of my little cave and I went to New York City and worked with an amazing producer [Nicolas Vernhes] and I brought in my best friend Jason Anderson who's in my band now . . . all these elements – like my wife and friends being in the studio – brought out something in me that I didn't know existed.
It was fun to have other people to bounce ideas off.
I never knew making a record could be so fun and so loose. I hear that in it but I don't know if other people get that. But I can hear myself having a good time.
It feels very spontaneous, that was my initial impression. A lot of albums just don't feel like that these days.
Well, if I could have one goal it would be that. That was the mantra in the studio, Nicolas and I had these rules like if something happened that was cool we were only allowed to do it once. Don't make this a formula.
People build records like they do a chemistry experiment these days. That was a beam of light and energy that was going on. What went to tape went straight to tape and there wasn't a lot of . . . See I have a tendency to overdub and overdub and pile on and this was the first time I just went, 'Okay let's have the guitar part' and I didn't care if it wasn't miked right, let's just play it.
Because of that I find myself listening to this record more, and I don't like listening to my records to begin with!
I like to listen to Hard Love because there is spontaneity there and I find something new in it every time I listen, which is pretty crazy when I think I spent so much time on it.
One of things I love is it sounds great in the car with a long strip of road ahead.
Oh, that's called the road test. One time in the studio my wife and the producer and I took a drive around Brooklyn on a beautiful Saturday morning and the record did what I wanted. It was over too soon. That's the best kind of record in my opinion.
Sometimes you get the idea of putting two or three other tracks on for no reason, but why have 12 songs on this if three of them shouldn't be on there?
That's what you're saying, the road test is like that. My dream is that people just want to listen to it again after it finishes.
I'm sure people have come at you from all angles on many of these songs but an obvious standout is Radio Kids because it connects with something people who are into music have in our core. We remember when we first heard a particular song on the radio, the great moments. That could be nostalgia but you make a comment, 'Now it's just kids repeating, I guess I'm just as bad as them'. What do you mean by that?
Well, I have this issue now, I have more in common with someone 50 years older than me than someone 10 years younger. I found I'm right at that age where I've had a good chunk of life and I came of age before the internet and having access to everything.
But I did just fine [without it] and so did thousands of generations before that. I understand that people before that had great lives and great work and passion and they fell in love and all of that happened pretty naturally. But I find in this weird crux of being in two worlds. I don't want to be that old guy wagging his finger and saying, 'It was better when you had to find a record in a record store.'
Even if it is, it's not like a 20-year old would give a shit that you are saying that. They are thinking, 'You're old!' The truth of the matter is that I would have thought that about a 34-year old when I was 20, 'You're old!'
That's kind of the push and pull of Radio Kids, it's like I do miss that excitement and I know I'm not going to get it back, and I know I'm just as involved in the whole cycle of over-consuming culture like everybody else. It's an honest song because I don't know the answer, I don't know who is right or wrong, that's just how it is.
I imagine you know Big Star's 13. When I heard Radio Kids I immediately thought of that, your song seems to me to be in that lineage of reflection.
That's the highest praise I could get. I love Big Star and especially Chris Bell's solo record I Am The Cosmos. And Big Star's records. I don't think they can be touched. I love the Beatles and they are the best band ever, of course. But I think Big Star gave them a run for their money. When Big Star were at their best no one could touch them.
Like the Replacements too. They are those bands which might be slightly inconsistent but when they all hit it together it was perfect music, absolutely perfect music.
Those are two superb reference points for me, I see you in the same spectrum. It's a very honest album but that is your forte because you've been emotionally naked previously. But a beautiful song like Cry stands out in this context. What prompted to you move in that direction for that one.
That was written really early in the process. I always knew it held something special but it wasn't until we got to the studio in New York and the arrangement came to be what it is. A lot of times you have the song but it doesn't come together. It initially sounded like a Beck song when he goes country, it had that country beat and a kind of AM radio vibe.
It was a good song but it wasn't until New York we stripped it to nothing and made it as bare as possible . . . because the rest of Hard Love is pretty stimulating! There's a lot of stuff going on all the time and wildness. (laughs)
And we deliberately put it on right after [the heavily psychedelic] On the Hill which is just bombastic, and I'm such a vinyl nerd that I knew I had to put it there because you'd have to get up out of your seat and flip the record from On the Hill.
And so when you get to the second side you've got Cry there waiting for you. So Cry was like the hangover, this was the reaction. That's what I love about LPs because you can really think about stuff like that.
I remember there was a tribute album to Sgt Pepper and I spoke to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and asked him why they chose to do Within You Without You and he said, 'Because it's the first song on the second side'.
That's so true . . . and that's my favourite song on the record. It's one of George Harrison's best, but it's also when you think about the act of flipping, and I've always thought side B should be like opening another door.
But this door on Hard Love goes to a darker basement and it's like, 'Oh, it's scary down there and I don't want to go there just yet'. But you do anyway. It takes you on another journey.
It does with Quit It and also Taking Acid, a very beautiful piece. That must have been a terrifying period for you when your brother was in that condition. Did it prompt you think about your own mortality as much as anything?
I called it that because it was psychedelic but it was so emotionally intense. This wasn't something that was happening to me, the song wasn't that selfish thing about, 'My difficulties or struggles'. It was so much harder. I know other people who have gone through a situation like that with someone they love and their first thought is, 'Why can't it be me?'
My brother is such a good person it should have been me there not him. But when you try to bargain with the universe you realise you are not in control, it was touch and go for a while. I love that song so much because my brother got better. He's better than ever.
He is this hilarious loud-talking guy like me and to have him just a phone call away is a big gift. I like the fact this record ends with that, I view the song as a celebration and that song is like the sunrise after a long night, and it is that ultimate release at the end of the song.
The whole record is dedicated to him, it is for him.
I'm usually pretty impartial about my songs but I really like that one.
One of the things I enjoy about the album is that it is exactly that, it is an album of the old style with a collection of musical information and diverse yet linked songs. That's how all the great albums are for me.
Yeah. I'm a child of my Mum and Dad's records. One of the first music I was exposed to was listening to Houses of the Holy and Joni Mitchell and Sabbath. All of those people had that adventure about them and they viewed a long player record as without limitations. There are a lot of bands who are a lot more successful than me who are really gripping onto a style that works for them. I can't do it. I could have written a whole lot of songs in one way. Like on HEALl I had a song [Goshen 97] which was a hit in America and I could have written 10 more like that . . . and it would have been the most boring record ever.
I couldn't have looked in the mirror.
I imagine people at labels who work with me would like a few more of those songs but I'm like, 'No, I like psyche-music now'. (laughs)
You've found your audience with HEAL and Hard Love. It must feel very gratifying now to go out with a solid body of work and an audience which is prepared for it.
Yeah, that's what I'm most looking forward to. With Hard Love, this was the first time there was any expectation from people, they were waiting for it. What I'm learning about those who like me, or my band, is that they want me to do what I do. That's the greatest gift a fan base can give an artist. I feel that about my favourite bands.
I want Radiohead to do whatever they want. I don't want them to write Karma Police a thousand more times.
The best thing the audience can do is trust the artist.