Strand of Oaks | photo by Angel Melanson | courtesy of the artist
Strand of Oaks on the sacred space of the studio, the ecstasy of live music, and the making of ‘In Heaven’
There are some for whom live shows are simply an extension of their recorded music, an add-on, an exercise they participate in which allows them to record more albums. Strand Of Oaks’ frontman Tim Showalter is not one of those people. “I believe that ecstasy happens when we all get together, standing right in front of me feeding off the energy together,” go the opening lines of “Galacticana”’, the first song from his excellent new record, In Heaven.
If you ever gotten the chance to see Showalter and his band live, you know these are not empty platitudes. “It was hard, there is no other way to put it,” said Showalter of the interminable gap in live shows he and every other musician had to endure over the last two years. Back in September, we in Philly were lucky enough to witness Showalter and the rest of the Oaks exercise that frustration on the River Stage in Wiggins Park as part of this year’s XPoNential Music Festival. To say it was a cathartic experience would be to undersell the collective atmosphere of jubilation that permeated through the crowd, everyone elated to finally getting back to something that resembled normal. Unfortunately for Showalter, this proved to be a bit of a false start. At the time of his performance in Camden, Strand Of Oaks was poised to head out on tour to support In Heaven, something he admitted he was “cautiously optimistic” for even at the time. As it turns out, that caution was more than warranted, as the band made the tough decision to postpone the tour, taking into the consideration the Delta variant and COVID’s continued presence in this country.
Thankfully for those in Philly, Showalter decided to make one very important exception; The Winter Classic. Back in 2015, Strand Of Oaks played the first in what would become an annual set of shows held at the now extinct Boot & Saddle. Part homecoming, part reunion, part celebration, The Winter Classics came to hold a special place in the hearts of Showalter and countless Philly music fans. “In the dark days of the pandemic, all I had to think about was what happens at Winter Classic nights,” said Showalter during our recent conversation. “I call them my family, and that isn’t a hippie thing, they are my family, especially in Philly.” This December, Strand Of Oaks will bring their brand of heart-on-the-sleeve rock to the Johnny Brenda’s stage for two nights — December 9th and 10th — capturing the magic and love Showalter brings to every single performance.
I caught up with Showalter back in September to discuss, among other things, the catharsis of labor, musical saints, and his excellent new record, the cosmic, pulsing In Heaven.
The Key: It seemed the experience holing up in Wildwood to write the last record was essential to how Eraserland came together. Can you tell me a little bit about the set and setting this time around?
Tim Showalter: That was such a cathartic experience, writing the last one. There was all of this conjuring I had to do to make those songs. This time around, I started writing the songs a little bit before the pandemic. But like most artists, I had so much time on my hands to work on this album, which was great because I needed a purpose. I felt really lost not having shows. I’m the type of person who is happiest when I’m doing something. So I took it upon myself to spend every day from March till the last song I wrote, “Jimi and Stan,” which was a week before I went into the studio. I’d spent about six months every day writing, changing, throwing away songs, making new songs, eventually whittling it down to the eleven that are there. The last time I actually wrote like that was for my record Heal — where it was this open ended writing process, as opposed to having two weeks before a tour where I had to write a record. As an artist it was pretty awesome to have the luxury of that much time to write.
TK: Did you keep that process more workmanlike in the way you’d write, giving yourself set times to work and whatnot?
TS: It was always two processes. Lyrics always come last, so for a lot of the songs, I would get up and work in my little studio till the afternoon. That would be mostly writing the instrumental parts, creating the rhythm tracks, creating the structure of the song. Then at night, after my wife would go to bed, I would come back and work on what I call the ethereal. How I want the vocal melody to be. Then I do this kind of half words, half-singing language that I make up, but within that language there’s subliminally most of the lyrics to the songs. It’s almost like a treasure hunt where I will do this vocal take and I have to re-listen and think, what is in this vocal take? I’ll find phrases and words and key things, kernels to build lyrics out of. It was a really conceptual songwriting process which was pretty new to me.
TK: I saw you spent a lot of your quarantine doing a lot of hands-on projects and, as you said, keeping yourself busy, how do you think that seeped its way into your songs?
TS: Yes, it’s so true. I haven’t been asked that, but it is as important as anything else in creating this record. I am an active person, but the problem with art is there is never really an end to art. You can’t say that you are done for the day. But when you do landscaping or you build a table or labor, there is an end to it. If I am weeding my garden bed, I know when I am done because there are no more weeds. To have that very pragmatic activity, mixed with chasing the muse and writing songs, I think it helped me stay a lot more creative and just a lot more calm. Before, when I had all that energy, I would normally just pace around my room, but now I just go outside and work and get something done that added to something or helped my wife out.
That was hugely beneficial. Sweating as well. I really like to be hot and it’s not hard to find in Austin. I feel really alive when it’s 100 degrees. It is absolutely hand in hand with this album. It makes the whole record more human and approachable because I didn’t spend days of my life just wallowing in whatever problems I may have been having. There were some issues and some sad times and a whole bunch of stuff that went into this record but to be able to balance it with a job that gets done is priceless. I always tell people if they are feeling sad or kind of hopeless or they’re spending too much time on social media or life is getting them down, the best advice that works for me is do the dishes. If you have dishes in your sink do the dishes, because when you’re done, you will see an empty sink and you’ll see a task being completed. I truly feel it gives you a purpose. Especially when I am swimming in the conceptual seas, it’s good to have a tether sometimes.
TK: I was wondering how different it was to be working with this crew, namely the My Morning Jacket guys, the second time around rather than last time when you were kind of starting from scratch?
TS: It was amazing. It wasn’t exactly as we planned it because no one’s plans were able to be fully realized with the state of the world. We were going to get all of the My Morning Jacket members but it was just too hard to move everybody around during that time. I was able to go to Los Angeles and be there for the whole time but, for instance, Carl Broemel has a studio in Nashville so we were able to do the basic tracking in LA and send him all the tracks and give him three or four weeks to do whatever he wanted. It was great because even with Eraserland, we only had one week with the Jacket members, so we had to do everything in seven days which means two songs a day. For this, I was able to give Carl carte blanche. Every day was like Christmas because he would send a new solo that would blow our minds. We had James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins come in to contribute. We only asked him to do a guitar part and he came back with a vocal part, synthesizers, glockenspiels, all these guitar parts. It was just this crazy narrative running through it of pretty amazing things happening and not necessarily planning for them to happen.
TK: I imagine it was big to have that trust from Eraserland already established when tackling this very weird album recording process this time around.
TS: That was really important for me because I am a person who really does like routine. To be able to work with [producer] Kevin Ratterman again…that language is already established so there’s no grace period of getting to know each other and you’re just ready. I love working fourteen hour days in the studio, it is my favorite thing. The difference with this record is I just felt like a little kid at summer camp. We just woke up, had coffee, looked at each other and said, let’s chase it today. There was never a lot of talking. We didn’t need to talk a lot. I walked over to a synthesizer and Kevin just knew. All the magic you think about when you are making a record, it was like that. I had an idea of what I thought the record was going to sound like, till the moment I stepped into the studio. Then it was like, oh we are going to do something totally different and I can’t wait.
TK: Why do you think musician influences, whether that be Jason Molina or Malcolm Young or this time Jimi Hendrix and John Prine, why do you think that’s something you continue to turn to for inspiration in your songwriting?
TS: I’ve tried to come up with an answer for this because I am not sure why that always happens but I think part of the reason is that I view music as my temple and my sacred place. A lot of time when these names and inspirations come up, they feel like guardian angels or saints. I am not religious but I tend to take that structure, so I do feel like Jimi Hendrix is watching over me, I hope he is. It’s the symbol of them as people and also just them as artists that they kind of make me feel safe when I think about them.
TK: Someone who seems motivated in such a profound way by the music you love, do you ever think about your own music doing the same for others?
TS: If it does that is the greatest gift I could ever ask for. There is no bigger compliment than having a band list me as an influence or they say they did a certain thing because it was on one of my records. If I could, at all, be a part of that narrative that is music’s influence on people, that’s a true gift. It’s nice to be a more established artist and know I’ve been doing this for a bit now. I hope that gives inspiration to not only musicians but anyone who wants to create. You don’t have to be the greatest shredder or singer, just make your art and make it as genuine to yourself as possible. Whatever happens with that art, you can feel good lying in bed at night knowing you got that from your brain out into the world.
TK: I was curious, because you mentioned he made a comeback on Eraserland, whether Pope Killdragon made an appearance on this record at all?
TS: He was definitely on the last record, but I look at Eraserland as the end of an era, and I think it finished with “Forever Chords.” In a way it was a good death that happened, and now there is this rebirth that is going on. Letting go of some rules. I don’t need to be the rocker who is always so loud. I will still be loud as hell when I play, but on records I don’t need to prove it all the time with a guitar solo or fifty synth parts. It’s one of the benefits of getting older, you just get more comfortable with who you are. It feels really rewarding to listen to this album. I wanted people to walk away from the album feeling better.
TK: Between “Goshen” and “Weird Ways” and now “Galacticana,” your records seem to open in pretty epic fashion, what do you look at as the role of album openers?
TS: I think of it as a curtain opener. I always view things in how a play or musical works so you always want that overture welcoming you to this new thing. I really wanted it to start on a positive note with this record, to let people know this is going to be a different Oaks sound. It’s not all positive, there are some real dark moments on this album, but I didn’t want to wallow in it. Life is really hard but I am trying to find ways to celebrate and be excited that I am alive. Kind of like a New Orleans funeral, pure jubilation.
Strand of Oaks brings the 2021 Winter Classic to Johnny Brenda’s on December 9th and 10th; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Tim will also perform as part of the XPN Home For The Holidays virtual concert on Tuesday, December 21st; more information here.