About two weeks ago I went to see a friend play in a basement in Madison, WI. Before and after the set Tim Showalter, the man behind Strand of Oaks and I didn’t cover anything too heavy. In a short period of time we touched on the stigma attached to the Grateful Dead, the musical chops of Robbie Krieger, pre and post ‘hair’ Billy Corgan, and Michael Jordan’s retirement speech. And when I saw him the next night we talked about baseball, Lebron James and whiskey. In those two meetings it seems that we talked about almost everything except his fantastic new record, Pope Killdragon, that was set to be released as an eMusic exclusive four short days after his three stops in the Midwest.
Now he may be humble and he might have been excited to be amongst friends, old and new, but I can only assume that he wants Pope Killdragon to speak for itself. An album that blends proggy sytnths with reverb-laden folk drenched in echo can only be expected to recite its own glory. Or I can assume that after telling him that the first interview I ever did with a musician was full of one word responses and awkward silences, that he saw a week into the future and wanted the interview that I had yet to ask him to do to touch many of the bases that we didn’t cover over those two days. And that’s exactly what this interview does.
Meet Tim Showalter, the album that is the result of the ‘hardest work he’s ever done’ and some of the many people that he takes with him wherever he goes.
Can you take us through a brief backstory of’ “Oaks’ and it’s many incarnations. Where it started, what you thought it would be…
Strand of Oaks’ first “official” show was in the Summer of 2003. The band was a three-piece and I played the organ. We didn’t have a vocalist, but we played a Noam Chomsky speech over the music. It was really loud, but I remember it being quite good. I actually can’t take credit for the band name. My friend Josh thought it up.
Then the fire happened and all of my cool gear burned. So this changed my original “post rock” pursuit of the band – not because I liked acoustic more, but rather because that’s the only instrument I had. This began the long journey of writing songs, going on awesome tours, and making records over the past seven years. Honestly, Strand of Oaks has been such a consuming part of my life it’s getting harder to sum it up. It’s just a big chunk of my biography.
The best way to explain where the band started would be to describe it like high school. Initially, I was an awkward freshman with absolutely no clue how to achieve the few goals that I had. Now I feel like a senior. Obviously, I’ve grown in confidence and vision but I’m also constantly aware that I need to move on to college. I’ve reached most of my initial goals but now I have an entire new set of them to strive for. It’s exciting but also daunting at the same time.
There’s a lot of interesting stories behind your new record, Pope Killdragon, can we start with the title and then can you maybe tell us a bit about the rad cover art? Someday I’m hoping to see you play out with the cover of this record as a huge backdrop.
Yes! Now we’re working on the same level! That backdrop would be AMAZING!
Pope Killdragon has been with me for a long time. The title actually first made its appearance way back in 2005 on a cassette I made for my friend Peter. I used to record in the bathroom where the reverb was good. Often I would just make up songs and stories and dictate them into the tape player. The night I made the Killdragon tape I must have felt especially inspired. I wrote the basic structure to the songs, Sister Evangeline, Killdragon, and a few others, all in one pass.
So the concept of Pope Killdragon started from a random place. As the years and songs grew, I think that’s when the idea of Killdragon became much more solidified. It’s all very autobiographical. Listening to the record I’m still not sure if that’s obvious or obscured by the lyrics. Either way, I feel like this one has more room for interpretation than Leave Ruin. I’d prefer to just leave that up to the listener.
The cover art is a perfect example of how this album was created – meeting new people and totally trusting in their talent (often blindly). When I moved to Philly, I struck up an instant friendship with a guy named Morgan King. He lives right in my neighborhood and is the founder of Yer Bird Records. It’s not often that a folk connoisseur just randomly lives down the street from you. As Morgan and I become closer, I got to know his brother Alex really well. I quickly learned that Alex is a quiet artistic genius. As the record started to come together, Morgan suggested that I look at some of Alex’s work. Needless to say, within five minutes in Alex’s apartment, we had the cover art. It was almost scary how perfect his work represented the songs. We are already planning the artwork for the vinyl release. The only clue I can give now is that it will include a map.
Can you talk a little about the recording process and the mixing of it? You know; Akron, OH, synthesizers, and all that?
I approached recording the same way I blindly trusted the King brother’s talent. The only plan I had initially for recording was to do it somewhere outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to really test my abilities in making a record on my own.
The record was recorded in two parts. The initial tracking was done at my friend Nicolas Lill’s studio in Grand Haven, Michigan. I met Nic by chance earlier this past Fall and we both nerded out over Billy Corgan. I instantly loved him for that. I spent one of the most special weeks of my life living and recording in Grand Haven. It was during the Christmas season, so we spent many late nights after recording walking to Lake Michigan and seeing the lights reflecting off the water. Nic is very patient and precise. He is an amazing electronic musician which really complemented the recording. His personality was the perfect counterpoint to my often extremely manic behavior. His quiet but confident taste helped me stay focused through the recording. I ended my time in Michigan with the most beautiful sendoff. Nic’s family invited me to come to their annual party. Usually, I dislike jumping into other people’s traditions, but this was different. At the end of the party, we all sat in a circle and shared what we were thankful for. Hearing everyone share their stories was something too special to describe here. That experience in Michigan healed many things in my life that had been broken for a long time.
The second half of the record was made in Akron. Again, I randomly met Ben Vehorn while I was on tour. My tourmate Joe Scott suggested I check out his studio. Meeting Ben was probably the smartest thing I did all year. Having only the tracks finished, I lacked a clear idea as to how I wanted the finished record to sound. Going to Akron made this record a reality. I’m going to let Ben’s inevitable Tape Op interview describe his approach and techniques to recording (I would never do it justice). I was almost intimidated by how strong of a force he was. In person, Ben is a gentle, wonderful soul. But he quickly becomes a wizard when it comes to sonic exploration. He essentially recomposed the record without playing any instruments. The most important aspect of our collaboration was Ben’s ability to make me feel comfortable with my ideas. He was able to interpret sonically the insane ramblings of what I wanted things to sound like. A typical studio conversation between us:
Tim: “Ben, can we make that synth sound like an angel, riding a comet, while yielding a pink lightsaber?”
That basically sums up the genius of Ben. We are already plotting the next record. I want him to play a much larger role in the process next time.
As for synthesizers, we used probably 20 various vintage keyboards on the record. I messed up a take once because I realized I was playing a synth that I’ve been dreaming about for the past 15 years. His studio is equivalent to me visiting the Playboy Mansion when I was twelve – a surreal experience.
SUPER LOADED QUESTION- Moving on to the pulp, content wise, Leave Ruin was the product of incidents and accidents or devastating things in your life that writing and recording about helped you through. It was a major look into just what was going on in your world when you were writing those tunes…How would you say that writing this record was different? Was it more difficult? Challenging? What was your inspiration this time around?
The writing of this record overlapped with Leave Ruin. It took so long to make Leave Ruin that by the time that came out, Killdragon was 90 percent written. Leave Ruin was very singular in content, while Killdragon is pretty expansive. I like to think that both records are sad in nature, but rarely negative.
Actually, making Killdragon was more emotional than Leave Ruin. Killdragon is trying to find healing from much larger topics and issues in my life. There was a certain desperation in trying to find peace in a lot of the lyrics.
I’m still not exactly sure if there was any main inspiration with the record. I would say that a major theme was a desire to be a child again. At a certain point, I realized how terrifying adulthood was becoming. Stable forces in my life were changing rapidly and even dying. Thinking about it now, Leave Ruin seemed to be hell-bent on escaping parts of my life but Killdragon often desires to return to the safe places. If that sounds too self referencing, I’m sorry, I’m crazy.
Did the move from Wilkes-Barre to Philly effect you in anyway?
Absolutely. I really haven’t been the same since I left Wilkes-Barre. It felt like I had to leave a wonderful relationship for reasons beyond my control. Obviously, I will go anywhere my wife needs to be. She is the center of my world. In a way, moving to Philly made us much closer. Our world really just became us then. That is by far the best thing we got out of moving.
It’s very hard for me to go back to Wilkes-Barre though. In a way, it saved me and brought upon everything great in my life now. I enjoy living in Philadelphia, but when the time is right, we will most likely move back the Wyoming Valley.
The addition of synthesizers is quite a fun experience. I feel that it adds depth and dimension to your sound, where does your love for synth sounds come from?
I had a really tough adolescence. I was diagnosed with a severe case of juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis when I was about 12. It was a terrible struggle to even get out of bed in the morning. Certain joints on my body actually started to freeze. I had gotten through intense physical therapy sessions that only seemed to make me feel worse. I was then over-prescribed medication that gave me constant stomach problems. This, on top of puberty, made me sink into some really dark places. The natural cycle of isolation and rebellion was only magnified by the physical pain.
I’m not telling this to garner any sympathy, but to show how much I needed to escape. In seventh grade, I met my friend Dustin Howie. He started giving me all of these incredible acid house, breakbeat, and trance records that just blew my mind. I would put my headphones on and be able to completely escape into the music. After a while, Dustin got a hold of some gear and we started to mess around with making music. He was already light-years of ahead of me, but my main job was tweaking his Novation Bass Station. We spent the next few years playing together and learning more about electronic music. Since synths were very faux-pas in the “grunge” years, it was hard to find much information on them. We eventually got better equipment and actually made some beautiful stuff. But we ended up moving to different sides of the country, so that kind of ended. Dustin went on to make some exceptional dance music, while I started a folk band.
I will always be deeply grateful to Dustin for those moments in his basement. It just makes life a weird game, too. I’m certain I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it wasn’t for Arthritis. It made music something much more important than a hobby. That’s probably why I still take music way too seriously and I always hold in that reverence.
I know that you played a couple of these songs out before you put them to tape; “Daniel’s Blues” and “Sterling” for instance, did these songs go through any changes, major or minor, by the time that they were ready to be put on Killdragon?
I was very sure of how I wanted most of the songs to be structured. My main weakness is rhythm. So the biggest change was the chance to work with a spectacular drummer (see next question). As I said earlier, I had obscure thoughts of what the record should sound like, but no real clue how to get it there. That’s why it was so important to work with Ben. I like to compare it to Mike Ditka envisioning how he wanted a particular offense to be run, only to then see Payton execute it to perfection. Maybe that’s reaching, but I just love the Bears.
Who plays with you on the record?
I wanted to stretch myself for this recording. In the past, I lacked major confidence in my musical abilities. This was a chance to get over that, so I played the majority of the instruments. With that said, the record would have been boring without some key outside help.
When I went to Nic’s studio, I also had the chance meeting with Kevin Depree. At first glance, he looks like he‘s way too young and handsome to be a good drummer. Again, I had this feeling that he was the right person. He was almost too good to play with me. His instincts were so advanced and he was able to judge the mood of each song masterfully. I barely gave any instruction. Kevin also added the bass line to Daniel’s Blues and Giant’s Despair. This was essential because his playing was extremely unique, but paired perfectly with the flow of the record. He was definitely the secret weapon to Killdragon.
I also lucked out by having Nic’s brother Kaja around. The talent in Grand Haven is unbelievable. Kaja studies music theory, so he added brief notes here and there that added an air of legitimacy to everything. I also got him to play standup bass on Alex Kona.
Finally, Ben was the last major contributor to the record. I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but he is going to be credited on the record for, “Echo Composition”. Let me say it again – he is a genius.
You’ve decided to, for now, to only release Pope Killdragon as a digital release exclusively on subscription site Emusic, can you talk to us a little bit about that decision and the process of it?
This entire year has been about jumping into the abyss and trusting that the outcome will be positive. Not putting this out with my label was the biggest of all these decisions by far. La Societe is my family. But I came to a point in my own growth where I needed to see if I could do things on my own. Leave Ruin could not have happened without the help of Lou – no question. I guess it feels like a teenager who has a perfectly loving home but needs to leave it and make his own world.
So after I made that choice, I was then approached by eMusic to sign to their Selects Label. It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m humbled that they even asked me. This allows me to take a deep breath and decide what the next step for the record will be. Obviously, a physical release will happen as soon at it makes sense to do so. But for now, I’m beyond excited for people to hear it.
I know from talking to you that you were pretty excited and a also little nervous about Killdragon before and during the recording of it, how do you feel about now that it’s finished and possibly being consumed right now?
Well like everything else in my life, I’m manically excited right now. But you never know, I could be crying in the bathtub tomorrow.
Making Killdragon was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. I have so many emotions wrapped up into it and I’m just beginning to process it.
What music, new/old, conventional/obscure has been keeping you company on those long drives across the middle west? Is there anything that you’ve discovered that you’re sure that WE should be checking out?
Well I almost exclusively listen to Coast to Coast podcasts on the road. You’re missing out in life if you aren’t a member of the “family”. Recently, I have gotten back into actively listening though.
As for old music I’ve been listening to a lot of Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Steve Roach, Kluas Schultz, and a ton of other old synthesizer music. Mostly, I’m listening to the same music that I’ve always loved like Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin – the records I had in fifth grade.
I’m actually a huge fan of the band Washed Out. I randomly found his EP and can’t stop listening to it. I’ve also really been digging Future Islands, Licorice Roots, The Wailing Wall, The Black Swans, Elephant Micah, The Wooden Sky, Soars, and so on. I think my favorite record by far this year has been Jonsi’s solo record. I’ve loved everything he has ever done. He’s one of my musical heroes.
Lastly, if you were could research and write the biography of ANYONE, who would it be and why?
I would definitely write it on my father-in-law, Bob Gryziec. I‘m shocked no one has yet. He’s secretly been involved with almost every musical movement since the sixties. He started playing bass in garage bands and has gone on to play with almost everyone. He’s invented a style of playing bass that is all his own. Beyond his musical ability, he is a quiet, intense philosopher that doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t say something if it’s not important (which is the opposite of me). I’m not going to say anything more about him, because frankly you should interview him next. If you want to speak with someone who was actively participating in the times that we all view in mythical context, then he’s your man. He and I are going to be hanging at Levon’s Ramble in a few weeks. I’m very lucky to have him in my life.