Strand of Oaks May Go Broke, But He Still Believes in Rock ‘n’ Roll
Tim Showalter is about ten days out from the release of Hard Love, Strand of Oaks’ fifth album, and it seems like the last thing he wants to talk about is new music. Here’s an incomplete list of subject matter he feels necessary to address during our 90-minute phone conversation, which includes not a single lull: the inevitability of Reddit curiosity Lil Peep; the time he tried to convince the studious post-rock act Foxing to do ecstasy and get into Madchester; his detailed opinions about suburban Philadelphia’s mall scene; how hearing Lil B in 2011 reminded him of the Flaming Lips; escaping a Death From Above 1979 show at SXSW that ended with a police horse getting punched; wishing more bands would just admit they love Oasis.
Such recalcitrance isn’t a strategic move on Showalter’s part, but it’s not exactly unintentional. This is the first time Strand of Oaks has a fanbase waiting on new music, he says, and he’s simply too excited about Hard Love to ruin the surprise for anyone. That’s not a mistake he wants to make twice. Though 2014’s HEAL was an unimaginable breakthrough after a decade-long struggle in the beard-folk minor leagues, Showalter jokes it “came with a manual like when you had Nintendo games, ‘this is how you beat Zelda.’” And while the exhaustively documented backstory behind HEAL surely allowed the listener to get inside his head, he says “more people talked about the story of the record than the record.”
This is a partial exaggeration. Rock records like HEAL haven’t come around too often this decade, an unashamedly ambitious collection of open-hearted, soaring songs for people who had formative listening experiences with the Smashing Pumpkins and wished indie guitar bands had similarly grand ambitions. If Strand of Oaks were a new act—and for many, HEAL was indeed their first exposure—it could be heard as Showalter calling his own shot before knocking it out of the park. But that story revealed the truth about HEAL: It was a guy down to his last strike blindly swinging for the fences.
Showalter recently called the narrative surrounding HEAL “bullshit”, but while he may have regrets about making his backstory such an integral part of its presentation, it unequivocally helped his cause. You had to know that “Mirage Year” was written about his wife having an affair while he was on tour, and that it proved to be an extreme version of couple’s therapy that brought the two closer together. (Showalter made a point to include her in Hard Love’s recording sessions, and he periodically asks for fact-checking help during our conversation while she prepares dinner in the background.) You had to know about his nearly fatal car crash, or how he wrote his debut Leave Ruin after his house burned down and his fiancé left him within the span of a week. You had to know his own drunken indiscretions and the drugs and the depression to fully understand the 7-minute centerpiece “JM”, a tribute to Jason Molina, a guy who battled the same demons and lost.
And you had to know about 2012’s Dark Shores, a record most people wouldn’t know exists were it not the turning point in Showalter’s career. Showalter forever regrets the half-measures he took in both the recording and his decision to deflect any industry interest that had been generated by 2010’s Pope Killdragon, a startlingly unique take on the folkie template that included doom metal interludes and fantasies about JFK’s bastard son and torturing John Belushi’s drug dealer. While it’s not terrible, or even bad, Dark Shores was a collection of agreeable, midtempo and mostly character-free rock songs resulting in something almost worse for a band in Strand of Oaks’ tenuous position. Without anyone but Showalter to push it, Dark Shores could easily be ignored, which it was.
Prior to the release of HEAL, Showalter felt Strand of Oaks “couldn’t get much smaller.” But while it was a success, HEAL only elevated the band’s profile to the point where they can play afternoon slots at mid-size festivals, open for amphitheater institutions like My Morning Jacket and hope for appearances on the lesser late night shows. “We’re mildly popular everywhere,” he jokes, stressing the mildly part. Strand of Oaks can’t play the underdog role this time out, but Showalter admits that he could be one album from going broke again.
Faced with this awkward position, Showalter takes a significant risk with an album that’s nastier, fuzzier and—this is not an accident—much druggier than anything he’s ever done. “It’s so easy to fall into that indie rock thing where i’m gonna rewrite ‘Alex Chilton’ again,” Showalter says. “Nothing on Hard Love feels like rave music but it has that kind of swagger you get when you’re on that level.” His past three years, unsparingly documented in a Homeric Stereogum profile, have served as a kind of method acting, getting deep into early Jane’s Addiction and Primal Scream and consuming massive amounts of molly water at European festivals. While closer “Taking Acid and Talking With My Brother” isn’t quite as self-explanatory as it reads—it details a bedside visit during his younger brother’s near-death experience—his experience at Primavera Sound is recounted during album centerpiece “On the Hill” (“the old life that I used to know/all that went away/I’ll be getting loose on the hill”).
“I wanted this to feel like outside the Viper Room, the dirtiest, nastiest druggiest LA at 5 in the morning,” Showalter claims. But as far as laying such a record to tape, he picked a strange way of going about it. Though Showalter wanted to bypass his usual recording process—a few friends and “hundreds of ounces of weed”—initial attempts to find people who could help him realize his screamadelic visions were not promising. “I talked to this guy who won’t be named but the first thing he said to me within five minutes is ‘nobody cares about guitars, they want cool beats and sounds,’” Showalter grouses. Oddly enough, it was a cold call to Nicolas Vernhes, a guy whose most recent credits include Daughter, Wild Nothing, the War on Drugs and a lot of Animal Collective records, that allowed Showalter to get over “the Indiana in me” and head to New York City to record.
Showalter spent his entire time in Greenpoint in a four-block radius between Vernhes’ Rare Book Room studio and his AirBnB. “I did pick the one that wasn’t gentrified,” he says. “‘Fuck you’ is spray painted on the door and not in a hipster way.” It’s the first time that Showalter truly feels like a Strand of Oaks record achieves self-actualization after years of disconnect between his tasteful, NPR-skewing rock and his real life self, which he humbly describes as “a guy who looks like a Breaking Bad extra but likes synthesizers and drugs and rave music and metal.”
Hard Love doesn’t have the same immediate emotional hooks as HEAL, but it functions as a commentary on Showalter’s conflicted relationship with music, which is how you really get to know the guy. First single “Radio Kids” initially felt like a repeat of “Goshen ‘97”—another tribute to the transformative powers of radio when heard by a self-styled shut-in and misfit, inspired this time by Jonathan Richman instead of Billy Corgan. But “Radio Kids” allows a cynicism that rarely comes across in this style of music, where the absolution offered by rock ‘n’ roll can be just as regressive as it is all-powerful: “Now it’s just kids repeating / I guess I’m just as bad as them / I wanna get it back/ I’ll never get it back, I know.”
That might be where the real emotional center of Hard Love lies. “I feel younger and more relevant [at 34] than I did when I was 24,” Showalter says, before admitting he finds it easier to relate to senior citizens than millennials. “There will be a new Lil Peep every year,” he offers without provocation, before bemoaning his inability to master Instagram. He’s from a different era, anyways—when Strand of Oaks first started in 2003, the Rapture were still “the only band on earth that mattered”, and Showalter toted a banjo on stage while opening for Ex Models. (Ask your parents.) “I came of age when freak folk hit and it was very beautiful. Looking back on this sepia-toned world, I took myself way too goddamn seriously for like six years, seven years,” he says.
It was more like a solid decade judging from the way he talks about HEAL, a record made in an “everything is the end of the world” mindset. But while Showalter’s heroes haven’t changed, he doesn’t have much interest in living up to their standards. “I really wish that instead of having Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain that I would’ve had Mac DeMarco when I was 14 because then I would’ve been a much happier person,” Showalter says. “I went to a Mac DeMarco show a few years ago and I thought, ‘I feel so fucking happy,’ like… We literally idealized people who died of a heroin overdose and had a baby girl, that’s so fucked!”
As much as Showalter admires DeMarco and the tossed-off prolificity of Ty Segall (“I wish I could be him, I’ve got three records on my hard drive for you right now”), his own stoner-goofball persona might not translate as easily to the Vibe Generation. “If a 20-year old hears Hard Love, they might think ‘Hot Blooded’,” Showalter laughs, but there’s a legitimate underlying fear. His producer already gave him grief for a yell on “Rest of It” that sounds unnervingly like Load-era James Hetfield, and not in the way DeMarco maybe, maybe-not ironizes “Enter Sandman.”
Though Showalter boasts of having “an hour of Plastikman [Roland TB] 303 house music” amongst other weirdo side projects that will never see the light of day, the one thing that hasn’t changed since his earliest days is the belief in rock music as his only means of truly connecting. “I want my next record to be a double album, full on The Wall or Mellon Collie. If rock is dying i’m gonna give it a great tombstone.” That is, unless rock gives him a tombstone first. “If I’m on 2-3 year cycles, I guess I got 15 or 20 more records left, or if I keep doing those Stereogum articles, I might have two left. Then I’ll just die in a field at a Stone Roses show.”