Strand of Oaks | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
The High Key Portrait Series: Strand of Oaks
“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in recurring installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
It was by luck of the draw that Tim Showalter became a Philadelphian. Having spent his childhood in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana, the Strand Of Oaks frontman was sold on Philly by a childhood friend of his who’d already pioneered the relocation, and to hear Showalter tell it, it hardly even feels adopted, anymore.
He makes reference to that several times, in a recent interview with us, effusive in his affection for all he feels Philly has been able to offer him over the past decade and a half here. Wearing his beard long and his lumberjack coat red, Showalter reminisced warmly about wandering the Wissahickon, building out his band, getting to see Philly legend Jack Rose play hallowed local stages like Brenda’s — and then, with a sense of genuine gratitude, the good fortune of getting to later play them himself.
Showalter also talks “Winter Classic”: a lineup of several consecutive Strand Of Oaks shows that launches tonight at Boot And Saddle. On deck this week to celebrate a fourth year of these gigs with him are folk-singer Joe Pug, and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel.
THE KEY: So you moved here from Indiana.
TIM SHOWALTER: Goshen, Indiana.
TK: What year was that about?
TS: It was 2001.
TK: Seventeen years back.
TS: It’s a big number.
TK: You moved right to Philly first?
TS: Yeah. I had a friend that was, like, the cool guy in my little town. He moved to Philadelphia and he was like two years or older than me. His name was Lee Green. And it turns out that Lee was this kind of really important “scene” figure in Philadelphia, with like the Dr. Dog guys, and mewithoutYou. It was very “of that era” — you know, like the late 90s to early 2000s. I just really lucked out, because the one guy I knew from my little town ended up being such a cool part of this city, that from the get-go I was just introduced a lot of people. He just is such a sociable guy. I mean, he’s a doctor now, but he just was kind of a socialite, he knew a lot of people.
TK: Were you doing music at that point?
TS: I was I was doing a little music, but I was a schoolteacher for a bunch of years. But I was always kind of doing Strand Of Oaks; I think it started in maybe 2001.
TK: So pretty much after you moved to Philly. What prompted the move to Wilkes-Barre?
TS: I finished college there. I moved up there, and then I met my wife. And then we moved back to Philly because she was going to get her Master’s at Drexel. I’ve been here ever since.
TK: When did you first start playing out with Strand Of Oaks?
TS: Well the first show ever was in Wilkes-Barre in 2003, and we were a three-piece band that didn’t sing. I played organ and, like, samples. And we were like a post-rock band…
TK: So it’s seriously evolved…
TS: Oh yeah, it’s gone through a lot of twists and turns over the years.
TK: How come you decided to keep it the same project? Like what about those iterations of where it was then and now…
TS: That’s a good question, because I didn’t even name it. My buddy named it, and then I just kind of kept it. Because my name — my dad was a car salesman, so I always associate my name with car sales. Like “Tim Showalter” feels like a guy that you buy life insurance off of or something. [laughs]
TK: So where was the first Philly show?
TS: It was either a house show, or a First Unitarian Church show, and I think it was with Kimya Dawson. It wasn’t Moldy Peaches, it was Kimya Dawson solo, in maybe 2003, I think. And it was an awesome show. I’d been to The Church to see a bunch of shows, so it was it felt like I was playing an arena when I played on stage. And Kimya was really popular then, so it was probably a sold-out show. But it felt like 80,000 people and it was fantastic! [laughs]
TK: Was it hot as hell that night that night?
TS: Ah, that was the summer, you’re right! It was I think it was in like July maybe.
TK: Well, it always feels like summer in there…
TS: Yeah. I’ve been in shows in like January, and the steam off of people coming from those shows…
TK: So, the band started evolving, you were pulling in other musicians from different places. Were there ever times when it was down to just you playing?
TS: Yeah! I mean, for a while there it was just me for economic reasons, because I had no money. So I would go on a tour and be by myself. And then eventually I started touring as a duo and with Chris Ward, who is probably the best drummer in Philadelphia — he played with Pattern Is Movement, and a bunch of others. He’s the booker at Johnny Brenda’s now, but Chris and I played as a duo for a few years, which was so fun. And then, it kind of evolved into a band in 2014, and that’s kind of where it’s been ever since.
TK: Do you have a favorite Philly venue that you play now?
TS: I love them all. My main thing with Philadelphia is how amazed I am at how many venues there are now, and how many good venues there are. There was a long time where there was The Church, and maybe The Barbary, or a house show. And now, not only as a musician, but as a fan, it’s so crazy to think like I’ve got like nine different choices in different size venues that are all going to be good. I can go all the way down to like a listening room, like Boot And Saddle, or go to, like — I saw LCD Soundsystem at The Fillmore a year ago, I’d never been there, and I was like, this is phenomenal!
For me, it’s a dual thing. Because I have some solo shows coming up, and I love Boot And Saddle for that, because it’s good for quiet [performances]. But when we play as a band, whether it’s like Union Transfer or something, we can be big and loud there, which is fun. Union Transfer, the sound there is unmatched. It’s so good. And from stage, it’s a wonderful sound stage.
TK: A lot of people say that. Is it the room shape, the engineers?
TS: I think so? Because it’s weird, some of the best rooms around the world that I’ve played are the ones that are kind of built into something else. There’s this venue called Paradiso in Amsterdam, that looks a lot like Union Transfer — there’s the balcony and everything. That was an old church, and Union Transfer’s like an old, restaurant, right? Spaghetti Warehouse? So you never know. But I do think whoever did the sound and installed the PA — that PA’s phenomenal.
TK: So, speaking of Boot And Saddle, you’ve got three shows, coming up…
TS: Yeah! It’s like the fourth year we do these, which kind of started as a lark. “Hey, I’ve played really loud music for the past year, I want to be quiet!” So we decided to do the Boot And Saddle Winter Classic. You know, it’s a perfect venue because it’s got a bar that’s really cool-looking, and people can have as much fun as that want in the bar, but then there’s a door that you can shut, so it’s like those two things can be separated.
I never require…I think it’s bold for a band to require silence. I think they need to earn it. That’s my philosophy, at least. So I never expect, I think, if people pay the ticket, they can do whatever the hell they want, within reason, and if that means talking, then the musician isn’t doing something good enough to keep them. [laughs] It might be an asshole, too, but who knows.
But yeah, at Boot And Saddle we do this Winter Classic, and this year is the fourth year. This year I have Joe Pug and my friend Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket. And we’re just playing all three of us every night. We like to have every night different, and we have this long email chain now of all the things we want to do and covers we want to play together. And they’re both just excellent musicians.
And it’s fun to talk about jamming on each other’s songs, but then it comes to…I mean, I’m pretty good at playing my own songs, but Carl Broemel’s one of the best sidemen, best pedal steel player guitar players in the world. And I’m like, “I don’t know what I can really add to YOUR songs… [laughs] I could strum, maybe?” But…yeah, it’s going to be fun.
TK: You guys opened for My Morning Jacket, a couple years back, at the Tower…
TS: Yeah, Tower! Yeah, god, another great memory. I’d never been to the Tower with GA standing room, where the seats were taken out. The Tower to me always felt big, but I was always there for seated shows where, you know, the seats go all the way down to the stage.
So I when I stepped out — and that was a big sold-out, no seats at all — and I was like, The Tower actually is enormous! It was like, man, if you take those seats out, it is huge! But that was a blast of a show. It’s a dream venue for us to headline someday, hopefully soon. That place is just, I don’t know, I have David Bowie Live At The Tower Theater [on vinyl]. It’s a legendary venue. [laughs]
TK: Since you mentioned it, I’m curious — when you’re a fan of a band and you’re coming up as musician yourself, and you ultimately get to play with some of those guys that you kind of idolized…when do you get to a point, and what does it feel like, when you start to think, “I do have something to bring to the table here”? When you think, “I am competent enough and confident enough to be able to do that”?
TS: It’s an amazing feeling, and you first have to get over an existential crisis to feel like you’re allowed at the table, right? And then once you do, it’s the best! I hope to do that for younger artists coming up. I’ve lucked out, really, for the most part, in meeting people that I’ve been a giant fan of and then becoming friends with them. I haven’t run into many bad seeds, luckily.
TK: So, Philly, in terms of the art scene – what do you find advantageous about being a part of Philly’s scene, specifically?
TS: I’m not very versed in like the “new-new” Philly, like a lot of the very young bands that are coming up now. But as far as from my experience playing around, you know, I played Johnny Brenda’s probably the first few months it was open, I felt like that was this new wave of Philadelphia that was coming in. And I think Philly is just, it’s a town where you really have to earn respect, and it’s the best possible respect. Because I tell people, there’s no better feeling than when Philadelphia likes you. I’ve played all around the world, and Philadelphia, it’s not a tough town to please, but it’s a town where people are going to tell you if they, you know…
And I think it’s really healthy for bands that are from Philadelphia. I’ve found in my experience that it’s scary for bands to become huge in their hometown, right away. Because then, it’s all going to be disappointments the second you leave the 30-mile radius of your town. You’re rock stars in wherever, but you move out of there, and [that changes]. I think Philly is like, you got to really earn it!
And on top of that, it’s like, we’re sitting here in this XPN studio — I feel like a broken record saying this, but it’s true — how XPN is a rare situation where they make local bands national bands, and then international bands. I’ve had calls from journalists in, like, Germany, and they’ll be like [German accent] “tell me about the ‘Philadelphia Rock’ sound.” And I’m like, really?! That’s awesome! I take pride in the fact that this is my scene, that I came up with. And now it’s even better, because you can see bands start to build. You could always build in New York, there are these stepping stones you take. And now the same thing can happen in Philadelphia, which is fantastic. Because a lot of times, bands are going to play the punk rock house show, the tiniest bar you can find and they’ll pack it with friends. But then a lot of cities the problem is, the next size room is 500 people! And it’s like, now there’s just a nice gradual progression.
TK: So you do think there’s the infrastructure here to go outside the city from here.
TS: Yeah. I think it’s a great town. Hopefully it stays affordable for a little while longer, but it’s a fantastic town for bands. At least it was for me. There are a lot of musicians. Everybody’s good, you know. And it’s just neat to see people today speaking of Philadelphia the same way people spoke of Brooklyn when I was 19. Like, “you gotta go to Brooklyn!” And like now I see 19-year-old young bands saying the same thing about Philadelphia! I would’ve never thought that, but that’s pretty cool to think about.
TK: Do you feel any kind of disadvantages at all, or any frustrations in particular, that are specific to Philly?
TS: Not really! When I finally moved down for the last time in 2009, I just felt like it was the place for me. And I want to stay here. [When I tour], I see all of these different towns, the cool parts of towns and uncool parts of town, and I just get home to Philly and I just feel good. This year, I’m going to be kind of around this area for longer than where I grew up.
TK: So you’ve now spent more time in Philly than you spent in Indiana?
TS: Yeah, you know Philly and PA, basically just straddling 476. A lot of people associate me with Indiana, but when you’re a kid, especially in the middle of nowhere, you only really know where you live after you get a driver’s license.
I lived on a county road. The active social life was the Amish riding by. So if you think about the first ten years your life, you don’t remember, and then for a few years you’re a weird awkward teenager, and then you’re gone. So people try and ask me a lot of questions [about Indiana] and I’m like, I don’t know, I just, I don’t remember! Philadelphia now has more memories.
My parents live in Indiana, I love it there, but my brain now has more memories of here than it does anywhere else.
TK: You’re in Mount Airy now, did you live in other parts of the city before?
TS: Oh, no, just kind of there. I love it up there. I need a little bit of woods. I like to go in the woods. I spend a lot more time being social by myself in the Wissahickon than I do like, out and about. [laughs]
TK: How have you seen the city change? Has been for the better overall?
TS: The music scene, it’s for the better. I mean, it’s incredible. I don’t think it was that long ago that Philadelphia was kind of like a “do we hit that on tour?” kind of scene. Or, like, “are we just going to book it from DC to New York?” But I mean, as far as the business side of things, It’s become the Austin’s or Nashville’s or LA’s, Seattle’s, you know, New York. It’s become that, like, BOOM, can’t wait to get there. Can’t wait to play it.
As far as the other stuff, I mean, I love where I live. I hope it stays artist-friendly. The scary thing is we’re not going to have a future where there’ll be places like Viking Mills with practice spaces for bands; those are gonna go away, because those are going to be some stupid glass condo. That scares me, because then you’re gonna lose your artists.
But the thing I think about Philadelphia is, New York is contained, there’s boundaries and rivers and bridges and you can’t [sprawl easily]. But like Philadelphia is a big, big, wide area. And it may not have the population, but it has the square miles. You know, so, be creative with it! That’s my main thing. It’s benefited the music scene, but hopefully you can still be original and weird and, like, a true artist, and not an artist whose parents have set up a healthy trust fund for you, you know? They’re never going to make as good art as someone who’s fighting for their every being to be an artist.
TK: Do you have a favorite Philly artist, or most influential Philly artist, one or the other?
TS: I love Jack Rose. I miss Jack Rose. I saw him at Johnny Brenda’s. [pauses] Yeah, haven’t thought about him for a while. Right when I was kind of coming down to Philly from Wilkes-Barre and stuff, he was the legend. So that was such a bummer [when he passed away suddenly].
TK: Did you ever play with him?
TS: I never played with him, I just saw him a bunch of times, and he was outstanding. A lot of people think they’re doing what Jack Rose did, because they’ve tuned their guitar strangely. But it’s not. He was a force of nature.
But I love the fact that Philadelphia’s become, you know…I love playing New York and I’ve got nothing against it, but it’s nice to know that we’ve at least evened the playing field. Like I said, I can’t speak for the brand-brand-new generation — but you’ve got Kurt Vile, War On Drugs and bands like that. That era, it’s all original, because there wasn’t like a lot of scenes too attach to, you know? It wasn’t like “hardcore music” or [genre scenes] like that, it was little islands of a town that was cheap enough for creativity to thrive and you could have a house. You could have a practice space. You have all these things. And I think that’s what’s neat about it.
I bet the same thing happens now with kids that are getting a big row house with a basement. And that’s another good thing: there are so many people with basements! The problem with the tiny staircase is to get a kick-drum down, but….
TK: Hey, John Bonham did it for “When The Levee Breaks,” right?
TS: I know, yeah! [laughs] For sure.
The Strand of Oaks Winter Classic begins at Boot and Saddle on Thursday, December 6th and runs through Saturday, December 8th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.