Timothy Showalter: The Strand Of Oaks Mastermind’s ‘Harder Love’ Exit Interview

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It’s probably easier to explain what Strand Of Oaks’ latest project Harder Love isn’t than to definitively describe what it is. It’s not meant to replace Hard Love, the record Oaks dropped in 2017. It’s not a scraps collection or a re-imagination of that previous effort either. It’s an album, yes, but it’s not fully finished either. Hell, the tracks themselves weren’t even mixed and mastered. Harder Love wasn’t even Oaks’ mastermind Timothy Showalter’s idea. His label came to him several months back and asked whether he’d like to re-package a batch of songs he recorded back in 2015 and get them out into the hands of the people. “It took like, two emails,” he said.

Outside of this interview, and a few social media postings, he’s done almost nothing to promote it. That didn’t stop the vinyl print from selling out almost immediately. Still, for as nonchalant as he was about the process of releasing Harder Love, it’s pretty obvious that simple act of putting it out has freed up a lot of emotional baggage that Showalter has been carrying around over the past year. The relief in his voice throughout our nearly two-hour chat, which he calls a “Harder Love exit interview,” is palpable. The future is bright.
A bit of backstory. In 2015 Showalter traveled to Northern Ohio to work once again with producer Ben Vehorn on the much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough album Heal. They spent about two weeks in the studio together, along with his bassist and drummer, laying down a collection of new, trippy music, entirely without his label Dead Ocean’s knowledge. Needless to say, when Dead Oceans randomly received a set of Mp3 files in an email one day, they were pretty taken aback.

“Sometimes my confidence is way up, sometimes it’s down, and at this particular moment, it was through the roof,” Showalter explained. “I finished tracking the songs in Akron, and I sent [the label] an email like, ‘Here’s the album, it’s done!’ in like all-caps. And I think that’s why their reaction was what is was, like, ‘Wait a second, you made a record and it’s done?'”

Perhaps because of the shock of receiving such an out-there collection of material without even a head’s up first, the label wondered if what Showalter had sent them really constituted an actual album. “They were like, ‘Some of these songs are too weird, can we work on it?'” he recalled. “In my head, I just crashed, like, ‘I’m a failure! I’m a f*cking failure! They don’t like it! How can they not like this?'” After that, I sought out a producer, and that’s how the New York thing happened.”

The “New York thing,” as he calls it, was a set of sessions that took place in 2016 with a different producer, Nicolas Vernhes, that ultimately came to be the album we now know as Hard Love. As far as the songs go, they are certainly tighter than the ones he’d recorded previously. “Radio Kids,” for example is a classic, ra-ra rock single, and one of the most accessible songs Showalter’s written to date. The album closer “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother,” is one of the most powerful. Still, for whatever reason, the album as a whole didn’t resonate with the same level of impact as Heal. Putting his head down, Strand Of Oaks hit the road, packing “two years worth of touring in one year,” including a run opening for My Morning Jacket.

While he won’t outright call the reception to Hard Love a disappointment, he instead prefers to say that the record, “Didn’t get received the way I wanted it to.” He’s not really referring to the reviews of the album itself, which were mostly positive, but rather the perception about who he was that took shape during the promotional cycle. “The message I was trying to get across quickly turned into I was an assh*le coke-addict.”

Most of that perception was formed in a lengthy profile piece of Showalter that was published by Stereogum, the heart of which is a scene that finds the singer tripping balls on MDMA at a festival out in Europe, an experience that inspired the standout song on both albums “On The Hill.” Showalter doesn’t blame the author Ryan Leas for running with the portrayal, but he certainly seems to regret that it shaped people’s perception about what Hard Love was or wasn’t.

“The profile piece was insane, it was huge, and there was so much detail and everything and Ryan who wrote it is a dear friend of mine and he was just writing about what I was giving him,” Showalter notes. “Everybody that read that probably just thought, ‘Oh this guy does MDMA and he’s an idiot. My mom read it — I knew she was gonna read it — and she was like, ‘I read that big thing Timmy.’ I tried to explain to my Mom, ‘It’s just smoke and mirrors, it’s just rock and roll.’ And she was like, ‘Well, from reading it, there was a lot of smoke and a lot of mirrors.”
The perceptions, whether real or merely perceived took a toll, whether the public knew or not. “You can’t put out on Instagram you’re struggling,” he says. “It’s not a good look. It’s not sexy to say you’re an alcoholic or you went out on tour and had marital problems. It’s not sexy to say you lost your confidence. It’s not something you write about on a selfie post or something like that.”

While he was normally the uplifting force in the Strand Of Oaks world, Showalter found it hard to maintain the same fire that helped motivate everyone else around him. “I remember my manager saying to me, ‘Tim, in 10 years this is just gonna be a record…think of the career'” he said. “But it’s like, everything you put out is the beginning or the end of the world almost. I put all my life and money and time into this.”

While it’s definitely true that there are several, intense MDMA-fueled jams on Hard Love, and several more that are in my opinion at least, even better on Harder Love — the alternate version of “On The Hill” nearly sounds like a doom-laden Tool song — Showalter regrets that some of the more personal statements on the original album — like the song “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother,” which recounts his experience of sitting by his brother’s bedside while the latter was deep into a coma after his heart suddenly stopped, an event he still has difficulty talking about three years after the fact — were lost in the miasma of his image as the fun party guy. And frankly, he didn’t feel like making another album cycle all about his personal life anyway, especially after the way his marriage dominated so much of the chatter that surrounded Heal.

“I was also sad about mistreating my wife,” he says about that time-period. “I was horrified at the thought of losing my brother, but I didn’t want to drag my wife through another round of interviews, and I sure as sh*t didn’t want to bring my family and my brother, so ultimately people found Hard Love through me partying. And I think the party record is fun, but it did a disservice to the ultimate theme of what the record was and with Harder Love, there’s a little less of that cocaine, L.A. edge. It’s a little softer, but it’s still psychedelic and it has a little bit more heart to it.”

The past few years were tougher for Showalter than many people understood and the path to both Hard Love and Harder Love was fraught, mentally and physically. “It’s not an excuse for anything but I was incredibly manic,” he said. “I would do things I had no idea why. I would have outbursts. I would get real angry or really really sad. I later found out by going to the doctor that I got in a car crash really bad in like 2013 right before Heal came out and I got a terrible concussion. My brain was healing and part of the process of recovering from brain trauma is that sh*t doesn’t really plug in correctly. Then you mix that with psychedelics and you’re gonna turn into a crazy person real fast. I distanced myself from my wife who I loved and I got into fights with my band. Looking back now, it created this intense, like bi-polar thing in my head that I very little control over.” All of that mania, confusion, anger and sadness fed into the creation of what became Harder Love.

When trying to summon the real impetus for returning to these songs he’d put together nearly three years ago now, Showalter relates the outlines of story from Jimmy McDonough’s incredible biography of Neil Young Shakey about the creation of the singer’s seminal 1975 album Tonight’s The Night. “I’m haunted by this but [Young’s producer] David Briggs said ‘We recorded Tonight’s The Night and it was the best rock and roll record I’d ever heard. Then Neil Young went back in and f*cked it up.’ And I was like, Tonight’s The Night is a perfect record and it was better? What did he do to change it? But I felt a lot of kinship with Neil Young like that. ‘These are the songs, and how do you know when they’re finished? How do I know what’s good because I get excited, then the next day I don’t like it, then two days later I like it again.”

To put on my David Briggs hat for a minute, I do think Showalter’s first instincts were best. Harder Love is a far more interesting document than Hard Love. It’s less safe musically, but more rewarding in the end. Maybe you’re a “Goshen ’97” head, but my favorite selections from Heal include the apocalyptic ode to Jason Molina “JM” and the blown-out synth-drenched “Same Emotions,” so for me, tracks like twitchy “Wicked Water” and the Blade Runner-esque “Chill Tent” are pure manna from heaven. I still can’t wrap my head around how a song as good as “Passing Out” didn’t make it onto Hard Love in some way, shape or form. Showalter is totally fine with you picking and choosing your favorites from either record for a best-of style Hardest Love playlist.

With two albums now on the books, Showalter finally feels ready to turn the page on this three-year period of his life. He’s already writing new material for another album after struggling through a period of writer’s block, and seems pretty optimistic about things going forward. “Putting out Harder Love was like…I could just say, ‘It’s a career, it’s an arc, and now this time is done, it’s over,'” he said. “It’s time for something new.”