Tim Showalter, the native Hoosier who resides in Philadelphia and makes music under the moniker Strand of Oaks, is having a banner year. That's thanks to the gushing reception for his new album, HEAL, a monolithic-sounding headfirst plunge into devastation and emotional wreckage. But first, he had to deal with some actual wreckage. We'll get to that.
HEAL is an artistic breakthrough for Showalter in every conceivable capacity: guitar riffs snap into violent solos and ramble on like a feral Crazy Horse ("Mirage Year,” "JM,” dedicated to the late Jason Molina) and classic Dinosaur Jr. (See: J. Mascis' own contribution to opening track, "Goshen '97"). The drumbeats echo like IED blasts, choruses are raw, memorable and often gorgeous.
In previous interviews, Showalter has likened the record to scream therapy. The stylized title is essential; he's a burning man shouting out an air raid siren plea to get better by any means necessary. Dredging up real life heartache after marital infidelity and felt distance ("HEAL,” "Mirage Year"), Showalter pulls the audience into his world with such nakedness and disregard for grace that is thrilling and wholly transcendent. It is scarred and gorgeous, seething and poignant, and as tragic and triumphant as any record you're likely to hear this year or any other.
Strand of Oaks will play Friday at Russian Recording in Bloomington.
NUVO: At which point of the creative process did you know you were tapping into something really special on HEAL?
Showalter: I think it was when we started paring down the songs to the ten that were going to be on the record. My head was moving so fast, and I wrote 30 or 50 songs in like two weeks. Songs were coming out so fast. It really was when I pared down and got those ten songs when I went, "Okay. This is going to be a record. This is not going to be a collection of songs. This is going to be a cleaned up work - or at least try to be a cleaned up work." And just working with the people I did in the studio, they would take my demos - we all would take my demos - and move them towards an epic we could try and get to. The only rule was you have to go all the way with everything. When recording, it was like if you're doing a guitar solo, you turn the monitor up as loud as you possibly can. Like, there is no pussying around this shit.
NUVO: At Christmas of 2013, you had a car accident with a semi that almost killed you and your wife. I know you were set to start mixing the record on the 26th and still went ahead and did exactly that. How much did the knowledge that you almost just died factor into the decision to go all in and push towards the epic?
Showalter: Yeah. The record is - it's funny, Justin, because I get in a near-fatal car accident and it's not even around a record cycle. The record has already been written. I could've used some extra mojo going into the studio. It had been written and I got in the car accident, and then I started mixing the record 48 hours later with one of my heroes, John Congleton. I think it was us getting together and him being such a genius and being so bold with his sound. We just decided we're not going to make this a soothing sounding record - we're gonna push everything wherever we can, whether it be removing reverb and making it dry so you can't hide, just pushing drums louder than they probably should be. You know, we broke rules that you're supposed to follow when you're mixing a record, and we were like, "We're not gonna follow that shit. Let's do it different."
NUVO: You made a huge detour in your lyrical approach with this record. It's so much more direct than anything you've done to this point, and I read where you talked about how you broke some of your own writing rules, such as rhyming uncomplicated words. The approach seems like it's even more relatable for listeners given the subject matter of this record.
Showalter: Yeah, because I think you can never take advantage of how smart listeners are. I'm a serious fan of music, and I can tell when I listen to the music that this person was going through the motions or bullshitting me or whatever; or, I can tell if someone gave it everything on a record, whether it be the songwriting or the music. I wanted to try and convey that same feeling on this record. Part of it was, like, these songs do not need to be labored over. I wanted it to be fresh from the point of conception to the point of it being finished. You know, I didn't want to ruin that initial excitement you get when you write a song. In the past, I have been so overly protective of my songs that I might have compromised the original excitement by thinking, "Oh, I can make this one thing better or I can make this lyric better or this chorus can be changed," and you can get lost in improvement when, in fact, the first take was probably the best a lot of times.
NUVO: I know you've said you're not the kind of guy who wants to play basements forever. You'd love to play big clubs and be able to make a comfortable living as a musician. With a full band for the first time and a big sound on this record, what are you most excited about for this tour?
Showalter: I think gathering a full band for the first time, and they are so much better than me at playing music. They make me be like, "I've gotta get my shit together because these guys are much better musicians than I am, and I have to step up my game," and because of that though, I'm excited to play shows now. I'm excited to play every night and plug in my guitar and try and get better at guitar solos and try and do transitions even deeper and vibe off the band even more. I love playing live, but this is the first time where I'm excited to get on stage. There are no nerves. There is no stage fright or anything like that. It's like: "This is it. This is the battle. Let's go for it."
NUVO: What do you hope people take away when they see you play, whether it's in Bloomington or New York or anywhere else?
Showalter: It doesn't even matter how many people are in the room. Obviously, I'd be happy if all these shows sold out, but more importantly I just want people to know, like - I want people to walk away knowing that we gave everything we could no matter what show it is and whatnot. We want them to come here and experience something. You know, we all could be sitting at our house watching Netflix, but we made the decision to come out on a Wednesday, Tuesday, Thursday night, especially the audience: they made the decision to spend their hard-earned money and come hang out with us for a night. That's the most humbling thing: the fact that people decide to spend their night listening to my tunes, and I want to do my best to make it worth it. I want every fucking dollar that they put into that show to be worth it and have them walk away satisfied.
NUVO: I think what I love most about this record is how I can hear all these influences that I also love, and how you've soaked up many of the same pieces that have meant so much to me, and you've turned around and looked at your own journey through your own personal lens and turned it into a powerful statement that is all yours and can stand alongside all those influences. You're also working with John Congleton, you have J. Mascis playing guitar on a song about falling in love with music and finding your voice as an Indiana teenager, and you made a knockout anthem dedicated to Jason Molina and how his music got you through everything.
Showalter: Yeah, totally. My wife is a lot smarter than me and she always talks about things being "meta". I don't really know what that means, but I like saying because it makes me look a little bit smart. But if that's what "meta" means, then it's definitely "meta". I am writing a record about records. You know, and I tried to be pretty transparent with who inspired me and who moves me, and I want to give them proper credit.
I've listened to and have loved music since I was a kid, too. I would get into bands that I loved and it meant the world to me. And if I'm in somewhat of a close position to that then... I should quit music if I ever take advantage of how special that experience is. Like, I just need to fucking get out of it and do something else - dig ditches or whatever.