Features | Interviews

Strand of Oaks

By Andre Perry | 28 August 2011

Timothy Showalter, the man behind Strand of Oaks, emerged quietly in 2009 with the subtle, folk-tinged charm of Leave Ruin. A homegrown and intimate debut, it set the stage for Showalter’s compelling upfront vocals and smart lyrics, which come across with both personal and narrative-based qualities. The arrangements were familiar Americana—acoustic guitars, banjos, piano, organ, and stripped-down drum kit—but the songs were very effective and emotional. On his next effort, 2010’s Pope Killdragon, Showalter stretched out a bit; his narratives expanded and his characters turned a bit darker, and his arrangements bent towards his taste for ethereal synths and treated electric guitars. Though the earlier folk arrangements served his voice well, the newfound atmospherics announced the arrival of the unique sound that we will associate, at least for now, with Strand of Oaks.

Stepping out into the world with a record label and a booking agent (at least at first), Showalter made his way across the country slowly turning ears towards his music. I first connected with him on his support tour with woodsy folk artists Breathe Owl Breathe and by the time I saw him again on his recent support tour alongside budding folk star Joe Pug, Showalter had turned Strand of Oaks into a mesmerizing one-man show: his voice and lyrics strong in the mix and a wildly affected guitar creating a lush wall of sound. Having recently returned home to Pennsylvania to work on his third album, Showalter and I touched base for this interview which finds him in positive transition.

Andre Perry (CMG): What are the origins of Strand of Oaks and what path led you to the completion of the Pope Killdragon album?

Timothy Showalter (TS): Strand of Oaks has been fermenting for quite a while, mainly formed around the fact that there were instruments laying around the apartment we used to party in. I’ve written songs for as long as I can remember but mostly as a hobby. I became an elementary school teacher right after college and focused most of my time on that. Playing music provided a necessary creative outlet to unwind after work. So over the course of a few years I had written enough material for my first record, Leave Ruin, and a good portion of the songs from Pope Killdragon. Although both records were written around the same time, they both come from completely different places. From the beginning I knew that Pope Killdragon was going to need a bigger sonic landscape than Leave Ruin.

CMG: There is a lot of really compelling storytelling happening in your lyrics. Most of the songs, particularly on Pope Killdragon, create wonderful narratives. Do your lyrics come from more fictional influences or are there parts of your own life worked into words?

TS: It’s funny, I think the stories in Pope Killdragon are more personal than my previous record. When I first started writing songs they were very circumstantial. At the time that was very theraputic, mostly because I needed to find a way to articulate those feelings. When it came to Pope Killdragon, I had much larger and obscure feelings that I was trying to express. There was a huge mixture of conflict going on in my head at the time. The songs had to be fantasy based because I didn’t know anyway else to describe them. In some ways I’ve always used fantasy as a creative outlet. I remember constantly making comic books when I was younger about skater punks, weirdos, and outcasts. When I read them now I find them hilarious and sad at the same time. Those characters provided a great outlet to express myself at a young age. I don’t think there is any difference between my comics and characters like Alex Kona or the ones in “Daniel’s Blues.” They are of course fictional but each represent very real emotions and experiences in my life. I realize that probably sounds like creative writing 101 but I didn’t go to college for that so its new to me.

CMG: In terms of atmospherics and arrangement there is a really interesting shift from Leave Ruin to Pope Killdragon. I mean, there are more synths on the second album, more ethereal guitar textures, more space. How did this come about?

TS: My love of synthesizers very much predates the use of banjos and mandolins. I’ve always been able to escape into the deep textures that they create. When I set out to make Killdragon I knew it would have synthesizers but I also wanted there to be very simple acoustic songs. It was so invigorating to be able to produce the exact sound I wanted for the songs. In the past I always had this disconnect between what I wanted and what the final product became. I played 90 percent of the instruments but the record would have never happened without the help of my co-producer Ben Vehorn. It was my first true collaboration. The synths are a very obvious sonic element but there are a lot of intangible textures that give the record its true character. One of Ben’s greatest strengths is his subtle manipulation of certain elements. For instance, we used very little reverb on the record. We mostly used a combination of natural flange and tape echo. Little shifts like that added up to the overall aesthetic. This record was never meant to pop out of your speakers like some sweet house jam and I’ll always love it for that. There is something hesitant and paranoid about the sound that fits the mood perfectly.

CMG: How did you end up working with Vehorn?

TS: It was very random, which seems to be a recurring theme over the past year or so. I was on tour with Joe Scott in the winter of 2010. He introduced me to Ben in Akron, OH. We met after a show and found we had a mutual appreciation of synths. He invited us over to the studio the next day and my mind was absolutely blown: room after room of vintage synths and all other kinds of gear. All of it hiding away in an obscure neighborhood of Akron. [Vehorn’s] really good friends with the Black Keys dudes so they collect gear together. It could easily be a museum, just an amazing collection of instruments. We hit it off right away so I decided that day that we we’re going to work together. Most of the songs had the basic tracks, so we worked on overdubs and mixing for a week. I’m still amazed we did what we did in the matter of four days. I think total studio time for Killdragon clocked in around ten days worth of work.

CMG: That’s amazing that you were able to finish that record with such a burst of creativity and focus. What are your plans for the next record?

TS: The next record is already in the demo phase. I have a few more songs to finish but where it stands now, I couldn’t be more excited. This is the first time I’ve ever had to start with a fresh batch of songs. Most of Killdragon was written around the same time as my first record. So far, the songs are moving even closer to how I want Strand of Oaks to sound. I’m getting older and much more comfortable in my own skin and I think the songs are reflecting that. The overall feel is much more synthesizer-based and more expansive than Pope Killdragon. Now I’m just getting mentally prepared for this whole next cycle to begin.

CMG: Before this interview you mentioned feeling a little stressed about the pull between hitting the road and pushing your career and spending time at home or elsewhere just being an artist. It sounds like you’re in that latter mode right now. Is that a relief?

TS: Well, I think the sense of relief has come from understanding how to balance the two better. I believe you need to take both elements very seriously. I have a lot of personal goals that I’m constantly updating for this band. I’ve barley scratched the surface with most of them. I love making music but I also love to learn how all the gears underneath it work. I see a lot of musicians pretending to be gurus on the mountain who just strum guitars all day, but in reality they are just Googling themselves constantly. I care about this music so much that I want to make a career out of it. I am still an artist first and foremost but I think it’s my responsibility to have an understanding of all the layers that go into making that career happen.

CMG: Obviously, I am not the first to point this out but…we are certainly living in a time where the various paths a musician can take seem more open than they were in the ’80s and ’90s. The white/black divide of either being on an established label or just being totally underground has collapsed into what I think is a wonderful grey area. I think the last time we spoke you weren’t signed to a label yet but were very close to working with a booking agent—and it seemed like that route was a very attractive one for you, at least at the time. Do you still feel like it’s feasible to play shows and sell the records on your own?

TS: It’s pretty amazing to see how much stuff has changed even in the past five years. I self-released Pope Killdragon because it was the best option at that time. I’m totally pro-label as long as the label is a valid part of the team. I will still explore that option again for my third record. There are a few labels that I’ve been in contact with that I’m excited to show my new batch of songs to. I’m also extremely excited about the idea of touring. After spending two months on the road with Joe Pug, I really learned what it’s like to tour at such an exceptional level. I’m currently building a band at the moment and can’t wait to take these guys on the road. Nothing feels better than to make positive connections with people in different cities. It’s very easy to get sucked into the matrix of the internet world and connecting with people electronically. My family is a very social crew and I love shaking people’s hands and learning about their world. I might enjoy that just as much as playing music. But going back to your question, I really just want to make smart decisions from here on out. As far as booking agents are concerned I view them as an integral part of moving forward. I’m in the process of some great discussions with agents and am just excited to get to work!

CMG: What’s your vision of a full-band Strand of Oaks?

TS: Well, our current set up is a three-piece. We share many different responsibilities. My main goal is not to be super-loud but instead create as full of a sound as possible. I was experimenting that idea for a long time with my effects pedals but it can’t even come close to playing with these guys. We’re using a lot of synths and actually just started working with some samplers. I have no idea how to use them but my guitarist Joe reassures me that he’s more than capable. Probably the best way to describe the band is this: we are an evolved version of the sound that you hear on the record.

CMG: That sounds intriguing. You’ve spent a lot of time on the road this past year playing shows across the country. How do you think all of this traveling—seeing new places, people, and playing with different folks—has affected you?

TS: Absolutely. I love my domestic life. I have the best wife in the world and live in a great little part of Philly. But it’s essential for me to get out—mostly because I have a really strong sense of purpose when I tour. You work with so many intangibles in the music world and going out of tour is the best cure for that.