Strand of Oaks to Open for The Tallest Man on Earth | Q&A

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It takes a rare kind of artistic fertility to release four records in five years, record a different version of the third one on a whim and look to make it five in six years while on tour with The Tallest Man On Earth.

Timothy Showalter (Strand of Oaks) has more ideas than he can articulate. He talks about what he likes and doesn’t like about his music. He talks about the world of writing and performance at large, but they might be unrecognizable tomorrow. That’s part of what’s driven him to produce albums as often as people produce Christmas gifts: What drives him is a desire to gratify his musical taste du jour.

“It all depends on my mood,” Showalter says. “I might come across to friends and family as a flaky person, but I genuinely like what I like in the moment, and it changes. There’s always some aesthetic I’m searching for, and I get scared if it becomes too solid because I don’t want it to become stagnant.”

The string of albums began with 2009’s Leave Ruin. Strand of Oaks followed up in 2010 with Pope Killdragon. The album featured the breakout song “Sterling,” a seven-minute yarn that weaves a portrait of Showalter’s grandfather together with a remembrance of the time John F. Kennedy stayed at the Hotel Sterling in Showalter’s hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

“I’m a metal-looking Slayer guy who’s trying to write Phil Collins power ballads.” — Timothy Showalter, Strand of Oaks


With 2012’s Dark Shores, which was produced by John Vanderslice, Showalter said he intended to make a bigger record than his first two, a fuller kind of shadowy pop that nodded back at his love of FM radio as a boy.

“I grew up with the radio,” Showalter says. “I would see Eddie Vedder climbing scaffolding and stuff. I’m a metal-looking Slayer guy who’s trying to write Phil Collins power ballads. I already know it’s starting from a weird place, so why not go with it and see it through?”

Earlier this year, Strand of Oaks released a tweaked version of Dark Shores, which featured the same songs but retooled for synthesizer. The record was called Darker Shores. It’s that enveloping, more synthesized sound Showalter says he’s taking around the country right now as he opens for The Tallest Man On Earth.

The Tallest Man On Earth and Strand of Oaks will play Monday night at The Waiting Room in Omaha. The show is sold out.

But first Showalter spoke to Hear Nebraska on the phone from Missoula, Mont., about his constantly changing goals for his sound, his blue-collar approach to the stage and why the Kennedy name keeps audiences hooked on “Sterling.”

Hear Nebraska: The first time I saw you was at Town Hall in New York City last summer with Tallest Man.

Timothy Showalter: Woo! Yeah, that was fun.

HN: Yeah, it’s a hell of a venue. Now, I know you like to tour and play with a lot of different lineups, but that night in New York, it was just you and a drummer. What do you like about that particular arrangement?

TS: That was kind of the beginning of me playing with Chris (Ward) as a duo, and since then we really haven’t stopped touring. We’ve played a lot of shows and something eventually — we went to Europe together — and something happened. It might be just growing up or confidence or experience, but it went from, like, playing the music to experiencing the music together.

And not to sound too hippy, but it was, like, “Wow, this is what it’s like when you see people on stage losing themselves in their songs.” I think we were getting there when we played Town Hall. But it’s funny to look back and access your life and think, “Ah! I didn’t know what I was doing.” And I sort of hope it will always be that way.

HN: Well, it’s interesting because you’ve made three records in three years. How often do you get to stop and reflect on what you’ve done?

TS: Not enough. I’m not really a reflective person. If anything, I’m a revisionist. I always look back on everything I’ve done and think I could do it better. There’s this almost instinctual feeling I get of needing to evolve.

And it’s my definition of “better.” It’s not anyone else’s. And it’s not even critical. It’s motivating myself. Especially because music was my hobby my whole life and now that it’s my job, so I better take it seriously. Not many people get to do that. And it’s like, “Shit, if I get to make a living doing the thing that brings me the most joy, I better grow with this.”

HN: You seem to have a very interesting relationship to space in your music. Maybe that comes back to the varying lineups you play with. And I know you like synth a lot and that fills a lot of space. Sometimes it’s just you and guitar: sometimes an ambient guitar and sometimes not. How often do you find yourself revising how much space or open air you want in your music?

TS: It all depends on my mood. I might come across to friends and family as a flaky person, but I genuinely like what I like in the moment and it changes. There’s always some aesthetic I’m searching for and I get scared if it becomes too solid because I don’t want it to become stagnant.

But at the same time, I feel like my first three records were determining a brand or a vision. Each one has a little ingredient that I want to pull from. I look back and think, “I could re-record those records.” And I did! I re-recorded Dark Shores and released a synthesizer version.

HN: Darker Shores?

TS: Yeah. But I feel like I’m in the beginning stages of writing the next record and I think about what brought me to write those records. Mistakes and good things. It’s like a formula that’s cooking up in my mind. It’s in mind, but it’s manifesting itself. Most importantly, it’s just going to take me being home for a month or two in my practice space. Because I know the whole record is in my head. I don’t know what the lyrics are yet, but I’m just waiting for it to come out.

HN: Let me duck back for a second. You said part of the reason you follow your mood from moment to moment is because you say you’re scared of a kind of stagnation. So how much does a fear of repeating the same thing drive you forward?

TS: I think it always drives me forward. The bands I like the most just constantly grow. When people say “prog rock,” it doesn’t mean nerdy kids playing weird time signatures. I view it as the word “progressive” is awesome. It’s progressing forward.

It’s easy to do something that works. And I’m not like a musically trained person, so I know what I know and I feel like I do it well. But it’s taking my own limitations and knowledge of my music and working within those parameters and building things as big as possible. I could see a guy play the craziest guitar solo I’ve ever seen and it’s boring to me. Like that’s boring, man!

You know, if I knew more about music, I might not be so adventurous to try and do this. I might write a song and think it’s a reggae song. It’s not. I don’t know how to play a reggae song, I just think it is.

HN: So you think the technical side of things could in some way hold you back from doing what you want to do with Strand of Oaks.

TS: I don’t know if it would hold me back, but there is a kind of magic. You know, I’ll sit down and play keyboard or synthesizer or something and I’ll feel like I just invented a new chord. I’ll think I’m the only one who’s ever found this. And I’ll play the chord for someone who knows something about music and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s just a diminished ninth.” And there’s something about the purity of not knowing what I’m doing and the discovery that makes it. If I knew how to write a song, I don’t think my songs would sound like they do or be as interesting.

HN: I had read that during the making of Dark Shores — and maybe this is somewhat moot now that you’ve done Darker Shores — but that you’d wanted it to be a gigantic record, the kind of record that would fill speakers. What about that moment felt like the right time to go bigger?

TS: I had the songs, and the thing about Dark Shores is that it’s just a schizophrenic record because I really like both versions. Initially, I really wanted to work with someone else and collaborate and that’s why I went with John Vanderslice. We had an amazing experience, but I also don’t feel like the songs need to end with the record.

And the whole synthesizer thing was in my head. And it’s easy to say the word “synthesizer” and have that be the catch-all. But I think it’s more that making Darker Shores feels like me communicating with fans and discovering the music and me saying, “This is where I want to take it.” This could be a foreshadow of where I want to go.

HN: And what are you playing on this tour? Do you play a mix of both versions of that record? Which appeals to you more right now?

TS: It’s funny. I always feel like the live version of the Dark Shores songs have always been closer akin to Darker Shores. They’ve always reached more toward that. so it’s not surprising for people who’ve seen me live in the last year. “Oh yeah! They sound like the EP version.”

(Dark Shores) is more like traditional rock, but I like the live experiences, too … like for instance I just saw Sigur Ros at Sasquatch. And that band is the high watermark for me. I’m not old enough for Pink Floyd, but that band for the past 13 years for me has been an inspiration point. If I could ever get to a quarter of the intensity and emotion and epicness that these guys do…

You know, we have two people in the band, but I feel like we bring so much sound. It’s continually getting louder, not ear-hurting loud, but louder as in presence. I want it to feel like you’re being enveloped in something. My career in music is basically just emulating the records and shows that I would like to see, like, “Oh, I don’t know if there’s a record like this upstairs that I have. Why don’t I make that record? Or try to make it?”

HN: One more point about Dark Shores. When I listen to it compared to the first two records, I hear you taking on bigger challenges in your vocal registers and tones with songs like “Trap Door” or “Spacestations.” How do you think your vocals evolved on that record?

TS: Growing up, it’s just like if you play a sport, you practice. I think I’ve always been able to sing those notes, but I just don’t think I had the confidence to sing those notes before. In your early twenties, you just think you couldn’t do that. And then you kind of stop caring, like I don’t give a fuck. The world be damned.

This is the way I want to sing these songs. I’m a metal-looking Slayer guy who’s trying to write Phil Collins power ballads. I already know it’s starting from a weird place, so why not go with it and see it through?

HN: Do you think, like we talked about right at the opening, that experiencing the songs as opposed to playing them note-for-note might help you work through the self-consciousness or the fear of failure? Do you think that goes away as you lean more toward the experiential?

TS: Yeah! And I love doing interviews like this because I don’t get to think through these emotions a lot. Once you abandon the fear of failure, it’s funny how success comes. I’m not scared of this anymore! To absolutely go for it.

You know, I didn’t grow up with punk rock or hardcore or these DIY communities. I grew up with the radio. I would see Eddie Vedder climbing scaffolding and stuff. That’s what I thought shows were and that’s what I want shows to be. I would rather go for it and fail. The song, the singing, the guitar-playing. I’m not a shredding guitar player, but I’m playing solos and I guess it’s working. If I could play this one note and mode it and make people feel something, then why not?

And of course there are guys who play guitar way better than me! But again. Fuck it! I’m going to do it (laughs). Life is so short, and I think I wasted so many years in doubt of myself and my capabilities.

HN: Well, you’re inspiring me right now, Tim (laughs). Let me switch from the performing side of things to the writing side of things. I know you must answer or try not to answer a lot of questions about the song “Sterling.” So I’ll try to shy away from content. But I had read that song came to you at least partially in a dream. Does that happen often?

TS: That song definitely came partially in a dream, but I think a lot of my songs come from the fact that I never gave up the childhood part of myself that wanted to play Zelda or Star Wars or ninjas in the backyard. That same kernel of imagination hasn’t really left me and maybe it’s drugs I’ve done (laughs).

But that thing never clicked off. When I started writing songs, it goes back to what we were saying earlier, thinking that I had to write certain kinds of songs that had to be autobiographical and not swerve too far into metaphor.

With Pope Killdragon, it allowed me to write songs from a character instead of me. That allowed me to step away and even though I was writing about myself, it didn’t feel like it was me writing it. It allowed them to get stranger and more out there. What’s funny is — again, the new songs are so fresh, barely started — but I’ll have a loop going of chords and I’ll babble out a vocal melody.

But as I mumble, I find these really great lines in the random syllables and I have no idea where they’re coming from. I start putting them together and there’s no concept or purpose except that it’s being mined from somewhere deeper. It’s getting even further away from what I think autobiographical writing is, but it is autobiographical because I’m writing it. And they come from a mysterious place which is really exciting.

HN: You think most of the time when people say autobiographical writing they’re talking about things they encounter externally? You’re taking an opposite approach to that?

TS: Yeah. And “Sterling” really is this kind of fantasy experience. But it truly is — if you’re from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where I’m from — just a map of the city. Kennedy gets involved, but Kennedy did stay at The Sterling. And my grandpa liked Kennedy. And that song feels a lot more real than some bullshit song I wrote about a girl breaking up with me. It’s a more of day in my life than anything.

HN: What do you make of the fact that that song, in particular, receives so much attention from fans and the press?

TS: I really don’t know. I was in Europe for the first time playing some small province in The Netherlands and people were yelling out “Sterling”! And was like, “How did this song get to The Netherlands?” I’m talking about a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania here. What’s going on?

HN: Must be that Kennedy brand.

TS: (Laughs.) Exactly. And everybody loves that “Daniel’s Blues” song, the weird, crazy one about John Belushi’s drug dealer or whatever. I don’t even know what’s it about anymore. But I was in Europe and people were yelling it out, but I have no clue why they like them.

HN: Talking about story, the songs on Dark Shores: I’m not sure they’re any less narrative, but you don’t have the five-, six-, seven-minute stories that were on the other two records. Did the stories get shorter and more ambiguous or were the musical moves you were making make the frame smaller?

TS: That was really John Vanderslice because he’s such a master of pop songs. He really had a concise vision of the songs and my stuff drags out forever at times. It was unique to see a song at two minutes fifteen seconds. That’s like an intro to my songs sometimes, man. Crazy. But it’s funny how people latch on and say things about records. I personally think the lyrics on Dark Shores are weirder and stranger than Killdragon. I still don’t know what some of those songs are about.

“Satellite Moon”: I envision a guy on a moon somewhere and there’s farmer farming moon stuff and his wife wants to divorce him.

HN: Well, one of the most common grievances we hear among artists who put a lot of detail into their lyrics is that they’re not sure people listen. What do you ideally like a listener to bring to the table for a Strand of Oaks show?

TS: I want it to be kind of like a, uh, libertarian or democrat, I don’t know. I’m not good with politics … (laughs) … but I want it to be completely up to the people.

HN: So, libertarian…

TS: Sure. I want it to be up to them. If they want to be quiet and enraptured, then that’s amazing. But sometimes people are sometimes so quiet and attentive that my performance changes. Last night, for instance, we were in Wenatchee, Washington, and it was the most respectful crowd I’ve ever seen. But I’ve also been on tour with Phosphorescent and that brings out a rowdy crowd sometimes. And that’s fun, too.

For anyone that’s going to be fan of my music, I’m the lucky son of bitch who’s 30 and gets to travel around the world playing music for a living. If you’re choosing to buy a ticket, then you do what you want. It’s not the audience’s fault if they’re not paying attention; it’s your fault most of the time.

Play well. Don’t be an asshole. It’s really blue-collar. I don’t come from a really artistic background. And I’m really happy about that. I think this job would drive me crazy if there was more of a preciousness about it. Some people want to have everything a certain way and I’m like, “Man! This is your job. Write a good song and get out there and play it.”

HN: So the stage to you is not innately a reverent place? The blue-collar mentality means earning every moment?

TS: Exactly, I’ve done a lot of supporting tours, and the people are there to see the headlining band. I want these people to walk away with something. I know they’re not here for me, but next time, I want them to be. It’s really cool to tour and see communities of Strand of Oaks fans rise up. I could hang out with these people!

HN: Last one. On that note, I’m looking forward to seeing you again, but I’m a big Tallest Man nerd. Like I don’t know if he has groupies, but I’d like to be one (laughs). After touring so much with Kristian over the last year, what do you take away from being so close to so many of his performances?

TS: I wasn’t familiar with his music when I started the tour. It was amazing to approach him, and I had no idea how special he was to so many people. And truly special. What I love about Kristian is it’s not something built off this modern internet hype world. Fans of Kristian, it’s their secret that they’re OK with sharing. It still feels that special to them.

He’s such a dear friend of mine now, and I can go back listen to his record and his records feel like him, like his world. Like you’re sitting in his living room. It helps me as a performer and a songwriter and a person to see one guy go out there every night and just destroy audiences.

You know, I saw him play Sasquatch in front of fifteen or twenty thousand people. It’s one guy sitting on a giant stage in a folding chair enrapturing twenty thousand people. That is something to behold.

HN: Is that a fanship you aspire to, Tim? Would you like to cultivate something similar to what Kristian has?

TS: Yeah, I always look up to those people. You know, I like anyone who likes my music, and if you want to listen to something on iTunes one time, that’s great. That can be how it works. But I want people who enjoy my music to be in it for the long haul and part of that comes with my responsibility. I don’t want to disappoint people.

I hope it turns into something where I roll through Omaha in the future that people will come hang out at a Strand of Oaks show. It’s easy to call it the Dead Heads mentality, but shit! That’s amazing. I would be more than happy to embrace that.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is a Hear Nebraska intern. He wouldn’t miss this show for the world. Or the end of the world or any kind of cosmic happening. Reach him at