STRAND OF OAKS: SURVIVAL OF THE FICKLEST
“Everything that happened, happened for a reason.”
-Timothy Ross Showalter
Words by Jasper Willems
After arriving at Amsterdam’s Backstage Hotel, Timothy Ross Showalter playfully yanks the Tim Duncan jersey I’m wearing. “Yeah, The San Antonio Spurs!” he raves, rejoicing a sense of familiarity within these somewhat foreign confines. The Spurs have six more games to win in order to redeem a heartbreaking Finals loss to the Miami Heat a year ago. Eventually, my Spurs would defeat Miami in five games and triumphantly bring the trophy back to the Riverwalk. Not only a fulfillment for a team that was presumably down for the count (a year ago, I felt completely, utterly thrashed), but a victory for all purists of team basketball.
Turns out that Showalter is one of those purists.
It’s no coincidence he hails from Indiana, one of the true strongholds for the game of basketball. From Larry Bird to the Hoosiers, the fans are downright rabid down there. Not surprisingly, Showalter once had hoop dreams of his own, before eventually embracing a life of writing and performing music under the moniker Strand Of Oaks.
His fourth album, HEAL, embodies a comparable journey to my Spurs: the album’s title presents a ‘tough love’-mantra that spurs (oh, most definitely pun intended) Showalter to pick up the pieces of his — often fickle — existence. It’s a wonderful, charming record: earnest, self-effacing, vulnerable, funny. And at specific moments, kind of dark. For one, the direction of the album was incited by a near-fatal car accident that involved both Timothy and his wife Sue. But despite its grimmer moments, HEAL consolidates all of Showalters past and contemporary heroes, making them palpable and often endearingly tacky.
In a way, HEAL is more Wes Anderson than Lars Von Trier, with its off-beat kind of depth and vividness: even when Showalter is down for the count, he’s never a complete downer. Opener ‘Goshen ‘97’ is instantly buoyant, thanks to J. Mascis’s signature guitar spasms. To offset the songs initial wide-eyed sentiment, Showalter wistfully sings “I don’t wanna start all over again.“ Isolation, indeed, takes on a different meaning once you turn 32, as opposed to when you’re a teenager.
Needless to say, listening to HEAL really gives a sense of getting to know Showalter intimately, which made the transition to interviewing him all the more natural. He’s not into that ‘tortured mysterious artist’-shtick. Nope. He’s the kind of guy you want to take out for a beer and unabashedly share conspiracy theories with — without being frowned upon.
Above all, whether it’s on the hardwood or on stage, Timothy Ross Showalter is the kind of guy you want to root for.
So were you any good at playing basketball?
I was a pretty good ball player. But eventually, I got horrible joint problems.
Yeah, I had rheumatic arthritis. It’s okay now, but back then I went from being the star in my hometown to just being…well, for one I couldn’t walk! So when I couldn’t play basketball anymore, I decided to try my luck with music instead.
Nonetheless, you’re subjecting those digits of yours to some abuse there.
Exactly, exactly. Like I said, quitting basketball is the only reason why I play music now. My brother played basketball and my grandpa was a basketball coach.
Did your family encourage you to play music at first?
No! No, my family is not musical at all! It was really weird. Nobody gave me records…some people have their dad’s vinyl that they can listen to and stuff. My dad didn’t really like music. He likes what I’m doing right now, but at the time he didn’t. He was like: ‘Why are you dressing weird?’ All of a sudden, I was like a punk rock kid. I basically went from basketball to punk rock, I just started changing the way I dressed. It took a long time. I’m 32 today and just now my parents are starting to think of my music as something pretty cool. We’re very close, but they still don’t know why I chose to do this. I got a text from my mom saying: ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ And I text back saying: ‘Well, I’m visiting Amsterdam!’ But yeah, the basketball thing is funny. I never talk about it, but it’s such an integral part of my life. Every summer I went to basketball camp. Did you ever see the movie Hoosiers?
But of course!
Marvin Wood [whom Gene Hackman’s character Coach Norman Dale was based on] actually coached my dad for one season. My grandpa was a good friend of his actually. Okay, let’s go even deeper: the guy who always gets in trouble because he shoots before he passes [Jimmy Chitwood in the movie; real name Bobby Plump], he was my dentist! Shawn Kemp was from my hometown as well, I used to see him play when I was little. My hometown had mostly short white kids playing pick-up games in the gym, and then 6'11 Shawn Kemp would show up doing 360° dunks. He actually broke a backboard once. We had never seen a player like that up close up to that point. Ever.
The guy was an athletic freak in his Seattle days. Too bad he kind of flew off the rails.
Yeah…drugs man. And he has like twenty kids.
Hate to say it, but with your arthritis you might’ve gotten the better end of the bargain. Did you or your family run into Larry Legend once?
Larry Bird was like three or four years older than my dad, so he never played basketball with him. My dad used to see Isaiah Thomas play in high school. I’ve always been upset about the fact that Isaiah didn’t play for the Bulls. But then again, if that would’ve happened we would’ve never seen MJ play for the Bulls either.
They wouldn’t play nice, for one.
I know, they hated each other. The Bad Boys-era Pistons walked off the court prematurely when they lost the title to the Bulls. Like little babies.
The Bad Boys kind of unleashed the monster in Michael Jordan, didn’t they?Joe Dumars guarded MJ better than anyone, I reckon.
He was a beast! And Dennis Rodman was probably the greatest defender in history during that run. Have you ever heard of the band Archers of Loaf? Or Crooked Fingers? I toured with them once. Their singer/guitar player Eric Bachmann is about 6'7 or 6'8. He’s older than me, probably around 47 or 48 years old. He grew up in North Carolina and went to high school there. [Former North Carolina coach] Dean Smith actually recruited him to go to summer camp in ’80 or ’81. Bachmann was set to go to North Carolina but he quit basketball because when he went to summer camp, there was one student treating him horribly. He said that guy made him hate the game of basketball. So I asked him who it was. He answered ‘Michael Jordan.’
Jordan was a junior in college at the time and made Bachmann not want to play basketball anymore. I’ve got so many Jordan stories…I played this show in North Carolina once. The owner of the venue that night used to play for North Carolina as well, and he played with Jordan. He said ‘Do you want to know why Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete of all time?’ This is the best story actually. They had organized a ping-pong tournament for charity. So Jordan came as well and played the venue owner’s daughter, who was only fourteen back then. He beat her mercilessly that game, talking trash the whole time. He can’t just DO something, otherwise it’s no fun. I feel that if Shaquille O’ Neal had the drive and the competitive spirit that Michael Jordan had, he would’ve been the greatest basketball player of all time.
Forgive me for flipping the subject to music. Your new album HEAL feels testimonial to all the records you’ve embraced over the years. Is this what you were aiming for?
Yeah, it’s the same thing basically as what we were just talking about with basketball. You have this love for it, and this ‘record love letter’ to music. I know that sounds cheesy. But all this record did was me getting shit that I built up on my entire life. You store it and keep it enclosed. And to be perfectly honest with myself, I just needed to make the music that I personally love. I was sick of making the same fucking record every time. I was like ‘Nope, I’m gonna draw something from the records I love!’ A record I enjoy making and playing on. I want to play my guitar as loud as possible. I want to put in as many synthesizers as I can. I want the drums to be as loud as I want.
In that sense, this album is unabashedly ambitious, which at this point must be a huge revelation to you.
It’s ambitious, yeah. There Is such an urgency to it. A lot of bands take a whole year to make a record. They change stuff and suddenly they think, ‘Oh, that’s not a good idea after all.’ This record is the opposite for me. I’m not going to edit myself, I’m just going to write these songs and lay them down. I’m not going to change lyrics even if I don’t like them. Everything that happened, happened for a reason.
Did that mindset spark you after your car accident or before?
I had the accident right at the end. So the record had been written and recorded, but then suddenly I got in this crazy accident. After that we went to mix the record. Before we mixed it, the record sounded very reverby, hazy and dreamy. After the accident, I changed my mind. I wanted it to be loud. With a lot of the past records I’ve done, I kept the music and myself as a person at a safe distance from one another. I hid myself behind the reverb, the lyrics…what I thought kept me safe was actually killing me. The thing I was most comfortable with, writing certain songs and singing certain lyrics, was actually destroying me. You’re lying to yourself and you’re in denial. You’re telling yourself it’s fine when it’s actually broken. And then it gets worse and worse. That’s what really happened. It was like this infected wound festering and all this time I didn’t take care of it…
So you’re saying the accident was serendipitous in a way? That it shook you out of your inertia?
Yeah, but the thing is, I already started thinking about the idea. Before [the accident] the record was already called HEAL. It was already about getting better. Suddenly right as I was writing this record about getting better, I almost got myself killed. And really, I should have been dead. Me and my wife got hit by two trucks. One of them ran over our car. I was unconscious for I know don’t how long. I broke my ribs. I shattered the windshield with my head. My wife saw me get taken out of the car, she was awake; and she [had been] driving. She saw the police cut the car open and saw her husband being pulled out. I was unconscious, but she thought I was dead when she saw me going into the ambulance. It took an hour before she finally knew whether I was alive or dead. I felt that this was a turning point. I didn’t want the accident to happen. I wish we didn’t have to talk about it, to just say I went to the beach and listened to some reggae or something. But for this record it was like, if it wasn’t already intense enough, this only added to it.
HEAL is far from an indulgent record. Some of the more retro influences aren’t ostensible in the way that a lot of contemporary artists tend to apply them. I really like that tackiness not being used semi-mockingly or ironically. These songs channel a boldness, a certain charm because of that. I mean, on ‘Woke Up To The Light,’ you utilize these cool Phil Collins-drum breaks…
Exactly…and we made the drums even louder! After the accident I was like, if we have loud drums let’s make them louder. If we have a guitar solo, let’s turn it up a notch. I mean, everything was pushed further and further!
‘JM,’ your touching tribute to the late Jason Molina, is another shining example.
On this record, I’m going to let musicians know that I love them, to let Jason know that I only make music because he did. I rip you off any chance I get and that’s the only thing I can try and do to say thanks. The lyrics to these songs tell exactly what happened. Every lyric is about the times I drove in my car or fought with my dad. And all these other things.
You pinpoint certain times when his music became significant in your life.
That’s true. At one point I say ‘It’s hard to hear you sing,’ because I can’t listen to him anymore. It’s just so heartbreaking now.
His lyrics always felt like you popping your own zits at a prom dance. He was able to carve out the slightest, most specific set of emotions like a scalpel with his imagery.
I think I was most influenced by him because he had an acoustic guitar, yet he sounded like a heavy metal band. He sounded bigger and scarier and meaner than every heavy metal band. You know, ‘There’s a dead archer in the tower,’ what does that mean? That sounds like some kind of Black Sabbath lyric. He was just a genius when it came to that kind of stuff. And the thing is someone like Elliott Smith allowed himself to be destroyed. Jason’s lyrics were always like ‘Keep trying! Don’t give up! Don’t let your demons win!’
HEAL seems to really echo that sentiment as well.
Yes, I mean…[Showalter shows large tattoo on his forearm spelling SURVIVE.]
I actually got this tattoo right before the accident. Which — in a way — is kinda funny. The tattoo is kind of scarred, as I got in the accident…[Showalter runs his finger across a large scar.]
That was a piece of glass that cut across my arm there.
You actually mention Sharon Van Etten and Kristian Matsson (The Tallest Man On Earth) in your lyrics. It’s refreshing to have an artist reference his contemporaries instead of some rock icon from a previous generation.
Yes, I’m not saying Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen…when I wrote the title track, I had ‘Give Out’ by Sharon Van Etten playing on my headphones. Why lie to people!? I’m not going to say I was listening to The Clash. My song doesn’t sound like Sharon, but what she was singing about…the spirit of that song inspired me the same way classic records do. My contemporaries are making some incredible music. That’s why I wanted to say thanks to both Sharon and Kristian. You know, Kristian and I spent two years together, we were driving the same bus. We would call each other warriors, that ‘Painted like a warrior’ line is my favorite line of his. I borrowed that line from him.
Tell me about that opening line to ‘Shut In’: “I was born in the middle/maybe too late/everything good had been made.” It seems to contradict what you said before.
Well, you might relate to this as well. I felt like I was too young for Seattle grunge, as well as all the awesome punk rock. I had no identity. Everyday when I write music I feel like people have already written better songs. Part of the inspiration of saying that is, ‘No, but I can make music and we’re trying in our own way to get better!’ Not only mentally, but writing better songs. Or writing better articles. Or painting better pictures.
It seems that you’re doing your share of that right now, just by not thinking things through too much.
It’s what drives me. You know I don’t want to say — as I’ve said it before — the word crazy. Because when you say crazy, it’s kind of takes away the importance of doing it in the first place. It’s just an easy placeholder way to describe it…[puts on faux sarcastic verbalization] ’Oh, I was crazy!’ But, I was not mentally right when I made HEAL. I was NOT in a good place, to such an extent that I probably should’ve either been in therapy or in this case, making a record! What I sing about on this record is basically what I would’ve told my therapist. I was screaming a lot and the guitar solos…
I’m assuming you’re talking about ‘Mirage Year.’ You ripped that one up big time.
My hands were bleeding after that take. I really wanted to feel my guitar. That scream I let out was not meant to happen. Those lyrics are so hard for me to sing…and I just drank so much whiskey that night! I was so wasted. Then I finished the last line of the lyric sheet and the tape was still rolling. It’s not like a heavy metal scream, it’s just like…(pauses)…After that I basically couldn’t talk for two days. It was like a war cry or something. Initially I didn’t want to keep that scream in. But then [producer] John Congleton was like, ‘We’re keeping it.’ It ended up becoming one of my favorite parts of the whole record. Because that moment to me feels like everything I intended to say in the lyrics, just resounded within that scream. Same thing with the guitar solo. Whomever the guy was my wife cheated on me with…I wanted to kill him. I wanted to fucking kill the guy. But instead I just killed my guitar!
It’s that lightning-in-a-bottle thing. Even amidst all that anguish it’s kind of a special thing to capture in a recording.
It was supposed to be a normal solo. All of a sudden when I started playing, the guitars were so loud. I took all of the strings in my hand, and instead of plucking them I just grabbed them and started wildly shaking my guitar. The strings cut through my fingers. After I was done, I was just puffing and wheezing…and probably crying. And John said, ‘I don’t think we should do that song again. Let’s not do a second take.’ He didn’t really know what to expect. He asked me if I was okay, and I told him I had to take a walk. I wasn’t feeling well, I felt like throwing up or something. It was violent stuff.
Have you and your wife patched things up now?
We’re trying. Because the thing is, it would be a hell of a lot easier if we hated each other. If we didn’t get along, it would’ve been over and I’d be moving on. Like with most relationships, you love each other and because of that you hurt each other.
The new Sharon Van Etten record Are We There explores that tenuous fortuity in that same bold manner.
Yeah, and for me the saddest lyric on that whole record was ‘I was in love/but it was changing.’ Because it seems so simple. Yet if you love something, the one thing in this strange difficult lifetime, the one thing that’s righteous, that you lean on and are able to build your strength from…when that goes south, I feel like I have nothing now.
But the fact that you were slow burning that guitar solo on ‘Mirage Year,’ that visceral emotion becomes like the medieval brandishing of a sword to defend the one you care most about.
Exactly, otherwise it would just be another boring guitar solo. I don’t want my wife to be the ‘bad person,’ because she isn’t. And I don’t hate her. It’s like a movie with no villains. Everybody is ‘kind of’ bad or ‘kind of’ good. I wrote so many songs for HEAL. The song that was supposed to end the record was one of my favorites I’ve ever written…but it was so horribly sad. It was stripped of all hope. There was NO hope. That was how I was going to close this record. So when I listened to the record from beginning to end, I didn’t want that song on the album anymore. So then I wrote ‘Wait For Love’ in three hours in the studio. I wanted to end on a high note; it’s not all fucked up. It’s kind of an easy, soothing line, you know, ‘Wait for love.’ But it really means we’re not here yet. We haven’t figured it out yet.
You had all this bizarre, cryptic, sci-fi/psychedelic imagery on your previous LPs, most notably Pope Killdragon. It seems you’ve shed some of that armor now.
It was the same thing we were discussing earlier, how easy it is to hide behind things! I wrote a song (‘Daniel’s Blues’) about Dan Aykroyd murdering someone. But that song was actually about me. I was just so afraid to talk about myself I had to write it down as this whole other persona. I told a friend of mine recently that a lot of people write break-up records — as in breaking up with a girl. But HEAL is basically about me breaking up with myself. And that allowed me to be completely honest with myself. Everything happened exactly as the lyrics describe, I really had porn underneath my bed you know! (laughs.) I even wrote some exact things I said to my wife as we were fighting. Not the most creative lyrics I’ve ever written, but in a way they are my favorite. It’s the opposite of poetry. The title track ‘Heal,’ I wrote that song as it played. That was me talking, improvising into the microphone because I didn’t have any lyrics yet!
I once read somewhere you tried to write your own play. You were at one point a big fantasy kid.
Well, Pope Killdragon was supposed to be a play! Again, back to the basketball thing. I couldn’t play sports anymore so when you stop doing physical things, the mind pulls inward. You kind of get lost in your head. I lived that way, and Goshen ’97 is about coming to terms with that. The scary question is: What’s the difference between being lonely at 15 and lonely at 32? It’s fucking hard to deal with! That’s the only time…I guess I still don’t have an answer to that!