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Strand of Oaks: Spring Awakening.

July 10, 2014

StrandOfOaksmall07Text by Chris Brown. Images by Michael Bucher.

Tim Showalter would like to apologize to the people of Sweden. As Strand of Oaks‘ European tour drew to a close last September, Showalter, well, lost it a little bit while on stage.

“I put on a good concert, but I think I cried. I think I was just like…,” he says, trailing off while talking from his Mt. Airy apartment. “They were probably thinking, ‘This American already looks scary enough and now he’s kicking his pedal board and hitting the cymbals with his fists.’ It wasn’t a breakdown. Actually, It might have been a breakdown. Yeah, I guess that would be a good way to put it.”

Last month, 32-year-old Showalter released his fourth album as Strand of Oaks. Appropriately enough, it’s titled HEAL.

“I had been gone for two years of touring straight,” he says. “I got back home in September, and it’s been the longest I’ve ever been home since I lived here.”

In fact, this past spring was actually Showalter’s first ever spring in Philadelphia, as constant touring always had him away during that time of the year.
“We always say the word ‘feral’ if you’re on the road too much because you kinda get disconnected with reality,” he says. “And I was disconnected with reality. I honestly think that was the best time to write a record because I was completely not in my head. I was basically just mad. Not mad mad, but like a fucking mad man. I came home and immediately went into writing songs.”

Left in the house all day while his wife was away at work, Showalter immersed himself in working on a new record. Taking inspiration from songwriter Nick Cave’s workmanlike approach of going to the office and sitting down and putting in a full day’s work of writing, Showalter cranked out 30 songs in just three weeks time.

“I had these weird OCD rules,” Showalter says. “The apartment would need to be clean. The room where I would record needed to be in order. I would dress like I was going to play a show. I would put my boots on. That was how I would get into that head-space.”

Ben Vehorn, HEAL‘s co-producer and producer of the two previous Strand of Oaks albums, was on the receiving end of Showalter’s creative outpouring.

“Tim was basically sending me songs as he was recording them,” Vehorn says. “He’s so meticulous about his songwriting, so to see this massive, creative spurt coming out of him was incredibly exciting.”

From the 30 songs crafted, 10 made it on to HEAL. Showalter says that it could have easily been a double album. The songs that did end up making the final master came from all over. Four of the songs on the record were all put together in one day, from concept to completion, while another is a Frankenstein-like creation of pulled melodies, lyrics and ideas from multiple other songs to make one cohesive track.

“Going through and honing the sounds on this record, it was nice to watch it all take shape,” Vehorn says. “Every step was exciting. There were no backwards steps with this record.

The title track has a paranoid, insulated sense of urgency to it; one that is driven by tremendous synth while another, “Same Emotions,” sports a literal “a-ha” moment. The music stops entirely and Showalter exhales into the microphone before the track swells up again. It’s on the track because it could be on the track. He wanted to see if he could get away with it.

“Dark Shores [Strand of Oaks’ previous album] was me going through the motions,” Showalter says. “I could see myself holding back from really saying what I wanted. HEAL should have been written when Dark Shores was written but it took me two years to catch up and actually be honest enough with myself to write that record.”

“It’s almost like a love letter to all the stuff that he’s ever loved,” Vehorn says, “a tribute album to all that he’s been though.”

In keeping with his desire to truly go the distance with the new record, Showalter stripped considerable layers off in order to achieve this new sound. He also brought in renowned producer John Congleton, who has worked with other similarly ambitious artists such as Baroness and St. Vincent, to mix the record.

“I had been an enormous admirer of his work,” Showalter says. “I love particular things that he does. Ben and I were more than capable enough to mix the record on our own but sometimes it’s good to know when to let your kid go. It was time to put this in someone else’s hands.”

“It’s scary dropping off something that you’ve been working on like that to someone else because you aren’t sure what you’re going to get back,” Vehorn says of handing the album over. “But [the decision to bring Congleton in] supported Tim’s vision for the record.”

Congleton isn’t the only notable name who has left identifiable fingerprints on HEAL. The lead single for the record, “Goshen ’97,” features guitar work from alt icon J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.

“I wrote the song and I sent it to my label and they got this idea in their head,” Showalter says. “They said ‘Tim, what would you think if J. Mascis is on this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. What would I think if I were 5 years old and I got every G.I. Joe [action figure]?’”

With lyrics on “Goshen ’97” about being lonely but having fun, and singing Smashing Pumpkins to himself in the mirror, Showalter isn’t just going for dramatic effect. He’s letting people in.

“There’s no poetry to it,” he says. “It’s literally just me saying what I did. With this album, I said there would be no metaphors, no symbolism. I didn’t want to make another weird fantasy record.”

With the record finished, Showalter’s attention is shifting toward upcoming live shows. He’s assembled a full band to back him up, including Deven Craige from guitar-driven indie rock outfit Little Big League on bass, Eliza Jones from Buried Beds on keyboards and Mike Sneeringer, formerly of Purling Hiss, on drums.

“I have no time for mediocrity,” Showalter says. “If I’m going to see a band, I want to see them go for it. I’d rather miss big then not go for it.”
After two years of straight touring, to three weeks of writing, to four months of putting the album together, there’s no denying that he’s going for this one.

Now, it’s just a matter of seeing whether it’s the big hit that he’s hoping for.

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