Thursday, August 16, 2012

Strand of Oaks (Timothy Showalter) Reflects On His New "Dark Shores"

Timothy Showalter, otherwise known as Strand of Oaks, has recently released his new album Dark Shores. The songwriter has been steadily building a loyal following over the years due to the high caliber of his two previous full length albums, Leave Ruin and Pope Killdragon, as well as his live performances opening for such artists as Joe Pug, Crooked Fingers, and many others.

As if releasing the excellent new album Dark Shores was not enough to spread the word on Showalter's talents, Strand of Oaks has landed the opening slots for the fall tours of both Tallest Man on Earth and Bowerbirds, which I am sure will significantly expand the artist's audience.

It is a very exciting time for Strand of Oaks, and as a fan who has closely been following their progress for quite some time now, I am absolutely thrilled to share my conversation with Timothy regarding his musical trajectory, leading up to and including the making of Dark Shores.

Before we dig into your work as Strand of Oaks, I'd like to go back to your beginnings. When did you begin writing your own material?

Timothy Showalter: I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember. I think the first songs I wrote were all electronic. I used my Yamaha Cs 1x and made techno jams on my dad’s Dolby tape recorder. Then in high school I got pretty adventurous and wrote a folk opera called “Much Needed Rest”. I look back and appreciate the effort but also have to laugh at how my ideas were still way behind what I was capable musically. I still feel that way about my songs. Honestly, I hope to never lose that.

Which artists and albums were your biggest influences early on?

Timothy: My biggest influence had to be my public libraries music collection. I would ride my bike and just pick out random tapes they had. I remember getting Jeff Buckley’s Grace and Tom Waits' Rain Dogs on the same trip. For a seventh grader that changed my life.

I haven’t thought about this much up until now but there was some great stuff to be discovered. They had Talking Heads Sand in the Vaseline and the entire Robert Johnson collection. My town was too little to have a punk scene so I really skipped over what most teenagers got into. It was great to create my own scene with those tapes. I’m very thankful for than diversity.

For readers who may be new to your work, I’d like to briefly discuss your discography and previous works before moving onto your new record, Dark Shores.

Timothy: Strand of Oaks officially started in 2006 when I released a split seven inch with Dragon Turtle. Then I released two full lengths, Leave Ruin and then Pope Killdragon.

Can you discuss the writing and recording process of your first album, Leave Ruin?

Timothy: That was the first time I’d ever spent in a studio. So it was a lot of learning what and what not to do. There were many delays and hold ups. I was still teaching then so music was more of a hobby.

I still enjoy the record, but I would love to take another shot at recording it. I can imagine other artists feel the same way. I do imagine if I ever get the time, I’ll jump in a studio see what happens. After all they’re my songs and I don’t think they’ll ever stop evolving.

How did those experiences of making Leave Ruin, and subsequent touring prepare you for Pope Killdragon?

Timothy: Great question. The frustration I found with recording Leave Ruin was exactly why Pope Killdragon came out the way it did. During Leave Ruin, I gave up way to much creative control and really lost what I believed made the songs great. This was a result of listening to the wrong advice and most importantly not trusting myself.

So when it came time to record Pope Killdragon I made the record that I wanted to hear. I didn’t care what others might think. That was definitely a gamble but with the reception that the record got it really inspired me to trust my own instinct. I may never make a record like that again, but it will always mean so much to my development as a musician and a person.

What would you say was the biggest progression in your work from Leave Ruin to Pope Killdragon?

I learned how to tap into myself and what makes me unique. I’m a very strange person, plain and simple. My head has always put things together oddly, and on Leave Ruin I ran away from it. There were even people who said I shouldn’t pursue my individuality when it comes to writing songs.

Obviously that’s the worst advice ever and luckily I was smart enough to catch on to that. The world has enough scared artists who only try to do what they think they should instead of what they want too. I still have a long way to go but I do believe I’ve grown much more comfortable with my strangeness.

You have toured with a number of outstanding artists. Can you discuss how some of your previous touring experiences touring with an artists that has influenced and inspired you?

Timothy: I’m a lucky son of a bitch. In the past year alone I’ve gotten to tour with Crooked Fingers, Joe Pug, and The Tallest Man on Earth. There are way too many experiences to recount. Basically I love these people. Not just as a fan of their music but as friends and people to admire.

I’m really attracted to the fraternal element in professional touring. You spend this intense time with one another and share both good and bad experiences. Personally, it’s hard for me to make friends these days and I find it so easy to relate with other touring artists. It’s a bizarre life that we all have chosen to live and that alone draws us closer.

You have offered your albums for free online and inexpensively via bandcamp (including the Pope Killdragon demos) How does working in such an independent manner liberate you artistically and commercially?

Timothy: I just want as many people to hear enjoy the music as possible. What’s amazing to me, is that even when we offer our music for free most people still pay for it and sometimes quite generously. I believe to make a fan is far more important that making a quick dollar off of someone. I want to have a positive relationship with my fans because I want to be doing this for a long time and hopefully they’ll be along for the ride.

What were you listening to during your preparation and writing of the material that would become Dark Shores that was significantly influential and inspiring?

Timothy: I honestly don’t know if any music really influenced the record. Of course all the music I listen to seeps into the songs, but I’ve never been good with details. The one thing that really did provide inspiration was Steve Martin reading his autobiography Born Standing Up. So that probably was my biggest preparation for the record. Also, David Bowie’s Low but that one’s just obvious.

Can you discuss your lyrical influences?

Timothy: Personal experiences mostly. Don’t really want to discuss those any further than what’s in the songs. Probably my favorite lyricist is David Berman (Silver Jews). Anytime someone can be heartbreaking and funny at the same time is my hero. So I guess I should include Richard Pryor to the list as well. He is the king.

What are some of your biggest non-musical sources of inspiration?

Timothy: William Adama, Jean-Luc Picard, and Richard Pryor.

Did you have a preconceived direction set for this record- thematically for Dark Shores?

Dark Shores is about space. I wanted to write this giant fantasy record about wars and exploration but it ended about just being a metaphor and getting older and more lonely.

Was there a tune that set the course, and/ or influenced the direction of the material overall?

I wrote "Dark Shores" first. I provided a great template to work from. I mention an ice moon and that basically sums up the feeling of the record. I knew after writing this song it was not going to be the happiest of records.

The instrumentation and arrangements on Dark Shores are some of your most layered sonically. The first time I heard the album, the second song "Satellite Moon" and then "Trap Door" (among others) really hit me hard with the notion that this record IS different in approach, sound, instrumentation, and in arrangements.

Timothy: As far as arrangements go, Dark Shores is a very minimalist record. Many songs have four or five tracks total. The real difference is how we captured the each individual track.

"Tiny Telephone" is one the top studios in the world when it comes to both engineering talent and equipment. Anybody can pay a lot of money for a good microphone, but I was fortunate to work with a genius like Ian Pellicci. I really want to give Ian his proper credit for making this record sound the way it does. More with less would be an understatement.

Both John Vanderslice and Ian wanted to strip down the songs to their core in order to get the most out of my voice and the songs. But the voice really is just the start. I’m still surprised at how well this album was recorded. This is a record hopefully will give something different with each listen.

What would you say connects Dark Shores most to your previous works?

Timothy: I never want to make the same record. It’s boring to me as musician and a listener. In the simplest terms, it will always be me that connects the records. I’ve come to understand that if I stay true to what I want to create people will be along for the ride. There are so many good records being made and nobody has time to hear the same shit twice, especially me.

Please discuss your musical and lyrical songwriting processes? Are these independent from each other? How and where do these overlap and/ or coalesce in your work?

It’s really on a song to song basis. Some songs take a very long time to write, but others are written in one pass. I think this is a hard question to answer because I don’t know why I’m compelled to write songs, let alone how they’re done. It sounds weird but I feel songs in my head before they are written. I believe they exist in a complete form, it’s just a matter of releasing them.

Even now I have a whole new record that is just waiting to be written. It might take a few moments to write or a few months. There probably are more formulaic approaches but that doesn’t interest me. I basically need to give myself the time to write and usually the songs come. I think writers block is something that happens to people who actually know what they’re doing.

I love the artwork of Pope Killdragon and Dark Shores. Can you talk about the artwork for your albums, and how the visuals connect to the audio content?

Timothy: Pope Killdragon and Dark Shores art work owes 100 percent to the King Brothers. Morgan and Alex are two incredibly talented people that live in my neighborhood in Philly. Alex created the art for Pope Killdragon and Morgan created the art for Dark Shores.

They both seem to share to exact same approach to artwork and design as I do in songwriting. The King Brothers have really grown to be my collaborators. I show them all the demos and we usually walk through the entire process of making a record together. I’m amazed at how perfectly each design fits with the records.

Which records in your collection would your fans find most surprising?

I think it’s the records that aren’t in my collection that are the most surprising. Besides Neil Young records and a few others I’m not at all interested in folk music. Most folk music doesn’t move me. I gravitate towards ambitious records. What I love most is hearing an artist striving for something bigger than they are, even if the ultimately fail.

I’ve recently discovered what dubstep is and love it. Skrillex makes music for millions of people to get off on, not forty people in a coffee shop. Granted both are cool, but I love music that commits to its own ambitions.

That’s why I’ve always loved Black Sabbath, Smashing Pumpkins, U2, Pink Floyd, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and so many more bands like that. It feels like those artists will settle for nothing less than world domination. Whether it’s in their own heads or everyone else is with them, it feels important. 

What’s next for you in 2012?

Timothy: I’m in the midst of a national tour with The Tallest Man On Earth until September. Then I’m heading out right after that for a tour with Bowerbirds. Then after that is done I’ll start writing a new record.

What have you been finding significantly inspiring lately as you release Dark Shores and look ahead?

Timothy: I’ve been reading a lot more than listening these days. I’ve read a few books on the history of Australia and I’m always fascinated by the British Empire. I have an inclination that those will play a major role in my next phase of writing.

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