His giddy laugh comes booming through the phone. It’s only 6 a.m. Seattle time when I place the call to Philadelphia and I’m working my way through a pot of coffee. But within seconds of chatting with Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter, it’s hard not to get caught up in his infectious spirit as he recalls spending the morning petting his cat. By his own self-admission, Showalter is not subtle. The same grinning enthusiasm he has while shredding on his guitar and whipping his hair across the stage is the same he has when talking about the underrated virtues of Jane’s Addiction or retelling his favorite moments crate digging for dub records.
For those familiar with the Strand of Oaks back catalog, Showalter’s giddiness may come as a surprise. For years he released murky, acoustic-heavy records like Dark Shores and Pope Killdragon that felt akin to bleak diary confessions. Even when he plugged-in, embraced distortion, and made sonic leaps on 2014’s HEAL, he was using music as an outlet to explore his personal tragedies: marital troubles, a house fire that left him homeless, a near-fatal car accident, and feeling so low that he didn’t want to leave the house. But just from looking at the cover of his latest record, Hard Love, it’s easy to tell there’s a change. HEAL showed him teary-eyed and fragile with soft green tones. Hard Love has him smirking, wearing aviators, and surrounded by a fluorescent pink border. What happened?
“I was getting pretty fed up with the heartbroken beard dude after a while,” Showalter says. “It was like, 'We've had a lot of these records, I need to change slightly.'”
Showalter still has the beard and there’s still plenty of heartbreak on the new record, including maybe his most fragile ballad yet with the song “Cry.” What changed was his approach to life and, consequently, his approach to music. Showalter describes HEAL as a story he needed to tell, which meant the music functioned merely as a support structure to hold up his meticulously crafted lyrics. Hard Love, on the other hand, was conceived around impulse.
“If HEAL is me getting the confidence, I think Hard Love is me feeling comfortable enough to make the record that I want,” he explains further. “There was this kind of hungry, psychologically starved person when HEAL happened. I don't know if I'm any more well adjusted. I just felt a lot more comfortable risking things even more and pushing myself into the unknown with Hard Love, which is great because sometimes you find the best stuff when you don't have intentions.”
He may have not planned the lyrics as meticulously as he had on HEAL, but there was no avoiding channeling his life experiences into the record. When Showalter began writing the record, he was coming off of touring around the world. Meeting new people, partying in different countries, and reveling in the excitement of the crowds he was playing for. His voice rises passionately as he remembers indulging in the excess of festivals; galavanting the grounds with his bandmates and performing with just the right mixture of “chemicals.” It’s hard to imagine the same guy who wrote the harrowing HEAL could exude this level of joy and love for life. There’s a bit of irony that a record that opened up his deepest wounds ended up leading to some of the most jubilant times of his life. HEAL connected with audiences because of his brutal honesty. Even if the exact experiences he was retelling were unique to him, the feelings behind them had a universal appeal. Paired with the fact that he was still trudging forward despite his losses was downright inspirational – especially for those who were lucky enough to see one of his exuberant live shows.
While the opportunity to travel the world and share his music with bigger audiences was thrilling, Showalter admits that he typically has a tendency to feel guilty for feeling so good and having amazing experiences. This time, rather than close himself off with regret, he tried to intentionally avoid that mentality and let himself feel all those things without shame. When he got back home, he then tried to put all that energy into his songs.
“That's the major character in the record, I think; what it meant for me to fully experience life and the ups and down of what happens when you're living a pretty stimulating life and then balancing it with having a partner at home and a wife that you love, but you're still trying to figure out how that relationship works,” he says. “Sometimes it really went astray and then other times it got really strong again. It was that understanding the balance”
This idea bleeds into the naming of Hard Love and the amorphous title-track itself. Showalter recalls some profound advice he once received: “You only have two decisions when it comes to life: am I going to make this decision out of fear or am I going to make this decision out of love?” He says it’s something he often thinks about.
“It's hard a choice to make – hence ‘hard love,’” he says. “But it's worth it. It’s little things, like, I love playing guitar solos but I'm not Jason Isbell when it comes to playing guitar. I'm not a virtuoso to any extent, but I still love playing the guitar and I might hit some wrong notes and not know what chord names are, but it's part of it. Going from guitar to being in a relationship. I want to be as good of a partner and friend and son as possible, but I fuck up all the time. As well all do. It's just this general principle to life.”
“And it's also probably about sex," he adds with a laugh.
When he began writing songs for the record, Showalter prioritized the physical feeling he got from the music instead of thinking up a narrative. He says that most of the songs started with him just playing around the guitar, not thinking about lyrics. It was more important for him to make music that he could dance or smile or generally emote to rather than an inwardly focused emotional process.
In attempt to capture the sound he wanted, Showalter made his way out to New York, got studio time in one of the fanciest studios he’d ever worked in, and enlisted the help of producer Nicolas Vernhes (Steve Gunn, Run The Jewels).
Working in such a luxurious studio, Showalter was worried he’d have to get his act together and make a record that was “by the book.” The opposite ended up being true, thanks to Vernhes’ own impulsiveness. Showalter describes Vernhes’ role as more of a facilitator and a “deceiver, in a good way.” Vernhes was always looking for a way to capture the loose spirit of the studio. Once when the band was warming up and running through songs and still getting the gear properly placed, Vernhes was secretly recording the whole time. That’s how the song “Everything” emerged the way it does on the record, with the rhythm guitar and drums recorded with a single drum mic. No amps were even mic’d. This type of haphazard, rebellious style resulted in the sound Showalter had been searching for.
That spontaneity in the studio extended to some of the album's most somber tracks as well. The aforementioned “Cry” features Showalter’s voice accompanied only by piano and low, ambient hums. When he first brought the song into the studio though, he says it sounded more like a Mojave 3 song – a thick and reverb-laden ballad. He had to fight against his own maximalist tendencies to give the song the stripped-down treatment it deserved. Instead of recording in the live room behind the glass, Showalter opted to perform the track in the mixing room with his friends and bandmates within touching distance and the lights turned off. The key of the song is too high for Showalter’s voice and his voices goes out of tune at certain times, but he wanted it that way. The way his voice stretches and swerves around the soft piano chords adds to the intimacy. At the end of the track the spell is broken by an audio collage of guitars tuning up and studio conversations, including a phone call with his wife Sue (unbeknownst to her at the time). It’s a total devolution from the starkness of the track, but one that feels natural as it breaks apart in front of the listener.
Showalter’s always been unabashedly a fan. A true fanatic who will spend hours digging through stacks of records. When he was younger he would buy Secretly Canadian records through the mail, not even knowing who the bands were. He can even distinctly remember hearing a song in a GAP commercial as a kid, calling their retailer’s hotline, and getting tossed around from operator to operator until he finally got someone who could tell him the song was Red House Painters’ “All Mixed Up”.
“My hobby is collecting records when I'm not playing music,” he says. “That's my go to thing that unlocks emotions, that's kind of therapy, and all those other beautiful things that music does. Because of that, it's just natural for me to talk about music in my own music, I guess.”
In just our single conversation he name drops Songs: Ohia, the Replacements, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, and so on and so on. Talking with Showalter is like meeting up with a friend for beers and debating the merits of whether Ritual De Lo Habitual is the best Jane’s Addiction album or not (Showalter says yes, for the record). That familiar enthusiasm is an asset and never feels short of earnest.
All of these themes – impulse, transparency, and nostalgia – come to a head on the album’s final track: an eight-minute psych opus titled “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother.”
“I was living a pretty wild life on tour. Writing songs and doing everything,” he says. “And then all the sudden I got a call from my mom and she said, 'you've gotta come home right now.'”
His younger brother, Jon, had a cardiac arrest and was in an induced coma. Showalter gathered with his family at the hospital. While his 27-year-old brother laid in the hospital bed, Showalter sat by his side and played him Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and some of their other favorite songs. Thankfully, Jon was able to pull through and woke up.
“I probably will never fully be able to talk about it,” Showalter says. “The weirdest thing was, it didn't happen to me and my little brother doesn't remember any of it. It was such a weird experience that he was the one having to go through this horrible situation, but it was more of this community gathering of my family. Everybody just around him not really knowing what to do. Then all the sudden he was awake again and we had him back.”
“Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother” isn’t about taking acid, but it is inspired by his brother’s near-death experience – at least partially. Showalter says he called it “Taking Acid” because it best describes the feeling “when life gets so heavy it becomes psychedelic,” especially when you can’t make any rhyme or reason as to why things happen the way they do. He jokes that he’ll still likely have to field questions from his mom about taking drugs (hopefully she doesn’t ask what “rolling” is either).
It’s an abstract idea for an abstract song. Like most of the songs on the record, he’s still trying to figure out what it all means but says he’s pretty sure the first part is about a rave with lyrics like “Light in the field/We all move in time”. However, he does call out Jon by name, singing, “Jon you are made of light/Jon you are real/Wake up and see it all/Everything/And live it all again.” Each chime of the guitar and looming boom of the bass creates a thick haze over the track. Showalter’s voice reverberates from a distance. It shakes, it crawls, and eventually it erupts.
“It's the best song that I've ever written simply because it's the closest I ever got to my intention to actually following through with it, musically,” he says. “The way that it crescendos, the way that the band plays, the way that I scream at the end; all of that is so unfiltered that I feel like that that's kind of my proudest moment so far.”
This willingness to give into an impulse, especially one that wasn’t his own, was what Showalter sought out in the first place. As the distortion fizzles into silence, it’s an affirmation of the work Showalter set out to create. Hard Love is birthed from hard love. Love that transcends even its creator’s intentions.
Dusty Henry is a Seattle-based music journalist. His work has appeared in Consequence of Sound, Seattle Weekly, CityArts Magazine, and more. He also operates PRE/AMP, a music blog and zine dedicated to emerging artists in the Northwest.