Timothy Showalter of Strand Of Oaks has made his name as a confessional songwriter, even as his music has veered from the hushed folk of his early records to the roaring synth-rock of his 2014 breakthrough LP, Heal. But on his latest album, Hard Love, Showalter ponders the damage that too much honesty in his art has wrought on his personal life.
During the press cycle for Heal, Showalter recounted the album’s origin story, which included highly sensitive revelations about his marriage. A former schoolteacher with a friendly, gregarious manner, Showalter is an open book in his songs and in conversation, almost to a fault. On previous records like 2009’s Leave Ruin, a quietly crushing meditation on a failed relationship, Showalter wrote bracingly about his personal life. But Heal took this introspection to a new level, with Showalter writing about hurt, betrayal, and forgiveness over thunderous power chords (provided by guest shredder J. Mascis) and New Order-style electro-rhythms.
In retrospect, Showalter wishes he had talked to a therapist “and not done 4,000 interviews,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was so raw that I needed to just talk about sh*t. I’m a talker anyway, but it was just that diarrhea of the mouth. I didn’t know how to stop.”
For Hard Love, Showalter sought to shed the trappings of the sensitive singer-songwriter in favor of a more visceral musical approach. While Heal found Showalter moving in an arena-rock direction, he has now full-on embraced a hypnotic, stoner-rock sound informed by recent experimentation with psychedelic drugs.
Before we talk about Hard Love, I feel like we have to address the current state of Billy Corgan. I know you’re a big fan, as am I. But he’s really gone off the alt-right deep end lately.
F*ck that guy. I’m done, man. I know all heroes eventually disappoint you, but all heroes aren’t supposed to become Alex Jones supporters. They don’t need to fall that far. Come on.
The key to understanding Corgan, I think, is recognizing that he projects his own disaffection over being dismissed by Pavement back in 1994 on to other people. So, when he sees Trump being “abused” by the media, it triggers his worst instincts.
Bill, it’s like, “Dude, you’re more successful than 99.9 percent than all other bands will ever be. You did it. You won. You don’t …” It’s good to have a fire in your belly to want to succeed, [and] even perhaps vanquish others because they wronged you. But it’s like, dude, you would make a million times better music if you just grew up a little bit.
When I first heard your recent single “Radio Kids,” it did make me think of Smashing Pumpkins — it sounded like your attempt to make a big, widescreen pop-rock song in the vein of “1979.” Did you have that in mind when you wrote that song?
When I first started turning in all the songs from Hard Love, the demos were these 20-minute rambling acid house loops. The label said, “Could you write a song with a chorus?” I was like, “Oh, I take that as a challenge.” I wrote “Radio Kids” to be like, “I’m going to write a song with as big a chorus as I possibly can muster right now.” I tried to do with “Radio Kids” what Corgan often does, [with] the second chorus building off the actual big chorus. That’s what the end of “Radio Kids” is. I’m like, how can you take something even further than the peak? I’m at the peak of Everest, but there’s a space station up there I want to get to.
I think I’m disappointing a lot of these interviewers, especially this round, because they think everything I feel is so intentional and planned and prodded through and pulls from such deep sources, but a song like “Radio Kids,” I just had a lot of fun writing it. It didn’t have a grand arc or anything. That’s part of why I love it so much, because it didn’t need to be some journal entry from a manic, depressive beardo. It was like, “Ah, I just really like this riff.”
A lot of the songs on Hard Love have a hypnotic, drone-y quality. How influential were drugs in the making of this record?
I have to be careful of that answer, because I think if I just say they were the most influential, I think it does a disservice to the record. I did some incredible MDMA at Primavera in Barcelona, and I raved to Underworld. When you get drunk, you don’t have any epiphanies. It’s the opposite of that. It makes your world smaller and less interesting. If you do certain psychedelics or rave culture drugs, it lives in your blood for months. After that Underworld rave, I walked to 120 bpm for six months.
I don’t need my listeners to have those same experiences. I hope they don’t have most of them, but it is just that situation where global universal psychedelics this time were just a much-needed influence for me, especially to combat the deep selfishness of Heal.
Heal needed to be selfish, because I had to get sh*t out, but I can’t sustain that level of looking inward. If I would have made another record like that, it would have been forced and formulaic. I just wanted to start making music that pushes outward. This is for everybody else. The last one was for me. This one’s for all of you.
You described Heal as a selfish record. Is it fair to say that Hard Love is informed by feeling remorse about being too open about your personal life on the previous album?
Wow. I never thought of that way, but I think so. I think songs like “Cry” are me feeling that remorse and not … Again, people really connected with Heal, and I don’t want to take away from their experience. I’m glad I opened up about the things for my own good, but I do deeply regret not involving others that didn’t have a voice in it, specifically my wife. I think if I could do it all over again, she should have been at every interview, and she should have been interviewed as equally or more so as me, because it was just unfair. Even now, every article I read about the band talks about my “troubled” marriage. She has to read that. She’s like, “Are you kidding? We just went to the grocery store and had an amazing day. What is this troubled marriage?”
Did that experience make you reconsider how you write songs?
I don’t know how I write songs still. I don’t know. I’m not trying to be naïve or … I’m not trying to state a purpose or trying to be coy, but truly I don’t know why “Quit It” was written or “Rest Of It.” I play a guitar riff or a drum beat or a vocal thing and then they come out, so it was real natural, especially with these. I don’t know what half the lyrics on this record even mean yet. They mean something, but it just was really refreshing for me as an artist to be like, I’m going to put these words together for “On The Hill.” They have meaning. They have references, but they’re just meant to live with the song right now. I want them to be swimming in the music instead of floating on top of it.