After less than sixty seconds on the phone, Tim Showalter and I are talking about music.
We’re talking about Hiss Golden Messenger and his new album, Lateness of Dancers. “That record is going to be one of my favorites of the year,” he tells me. “We’re bros. We’re total new bros… When I met him in Europe, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is gonna be my new bro. I totally love you dude.'”
We’re talking about music festival coverage and why he’s not cut out for it. “Being in a band, you just have a singular job,” he explains. “I have enough sensory overload just walking around, let alone having to write down what I’m seeing. I definitely couldn’t do it.”
We’re talking about the Deafheaven record that he’s playing a lot lately. “It took me a long time to discover them, but that’s the kind of songs that I want to listen to. It washes you over. There’s no escape from its wrath,” he shares. “Gillian Welch has that same power over me. Angel Olsen does too. It doesn’t have to be a metal record. That what turns me on with music the most. I listen to music to escape. I don’t listen to it to get distracted.”
We are not talking the music that he makes as Strand of Oaks, or its phenomenal new record, HEAL, and you get the sense that, unprompted, Showalter would be happy to shoot the shit with me for a couple of hours and not even touch on it. He’s a gregarious and friendly guy, and on the Monday morning that I catch him in Dallas, Texas – leaving a hotel and “sweating [his] balls off” – he’s just excited to talk about what he loves.
Showalter’s relationship with music is in many ways the story of HEAL. There are heavier elements of his life discussed quite explicitly on the record – infidelity, addiction, depression – but through all of it, that relationship – something that developed as a boy in Goshen, Indiana – is never far away. In fact, he’d tell you it’s big part of what got him through it. “There was the dark, personal shit that went on with this record,” he says. “But part of the process of getting better was rediscovering what saved me when I was teenager: listening to music.”
How has the tour been going?
This tour is kind of my first headlining tour with a full band. It’s been the best tour ever. We’ve sold out some shows and had all of these people come. And it’s not just the fact that people are coming – it’s that no one is coming casually. We’ve got some really serious fans, and it’s awesome, because it’s not a fashionable thing. People aren’t coming because it’s what they think they should do. There are coming they love the album or the band or whatever. Because of that, the shows have been crazy. Even if we have 50 people at the show, it feels so much bigger, because everyone’s excited.
How has playing with a band changed the act of performing and, more generally, touring?
There’s more safety on stage. When you play solo, or even as a duo, there was so much responsibility. Performing was more difficult, because I could perform the songs, but actually getting into them was so hard. if I stopped playing guitar then there would be no melodic sound or element. Now I’ve got such a tight band that there’s space and I can totally breathe a little bit more.
Socially, it’s so good to have a unit. You become this family. I’ve spent more time with these three people than probably my family in the past ten years. You’re all in a van the whole time or sleeping in hotel rooms. I love it, because I never got to go to summer camp or anything. This is my relapsed summer camp
HEAL is such a deeply felt and open record. You mentioned feeling people’s connection with it. What sort of interactions have you had with fans?
We’re a growing band. We’re getting his thing started. But what’s so inspiring to me is that people will come up before the show or after the show – people I haven’t even met yet – and within, like, ten seconds, we’re sharing some of the most personal things in our lives. We’re talking about what their experiences are and how it ties into the record, and then what my experience are when it comes to the record. It almost feels like its beyond the songs now.
It’s not just a one-sided street – it’s people telling me about their lives. I’m kind of an oversharer to begin with, so it helps me get over some stuff by just connecting with people and making social connections that aren’t on distant e-mails or online. Person-to-person contact is so important to me, especially people don’t bullshit – if they’re being totally honest. That’s the way that I want to talk to people.
It’s just been amazing. I’ve had some of the best talks with strangers. And they’re not strangers anymore. I feel like everyone that comes to the show has a shared purpose with me. I know that sounds hippy, but it kinds of feels that way. It feels like this something that’s important to me and it feels like something that’s important to the people that are coming to the shows.
There are a number of moments on the record that acknowledge your own relationship with other people’s music. What sort of listener are you? How would you describe that fandom?
There was the dark, personal shit that went on with this record, but part of the process of getting better was rediscovering what saved me when I was teenager: listening to music. It’s almost an addiction. I struggle with addiction anyways. I have an obsessive personality. I am constantly listening to records. Thirty second before I go on stage, I have headphones on, because I want to hear a song. I’m late to go to concerts because I’m talking about records with random people at the show and I’m writing on my phone in the notepad area different records that I should check out. I have an ongoing list of probably a hundred records that people have told me that I should listen to on this tour.
I don’t think enough bands acknowledge that they listen to music. It feels strange to me. It’s not that they act like they’re above music, but it acts like their music comes from this solitary point of inspiration. I’m like, “No! It’s a democratic thing!” We soak in so many different forms of music throughout our lives. This record in particular was just acknowledging the fact that all of these styles and bands and people have been in those places where I needed them. It’s helped so much, because it’s just a good starting point with everybody – it’s universal that people love music. I love talking to total nerds when it comes to music. I just always want to discover something.
It was crazy: We signed to Dead Oceans, and that’s part of Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar, and of all of the things that have happened in the process of releasing this record and getting more attention, the best thing that’s happened is that I got to go to the Secretly Canadian warehouse and just pick out any record that I wanted to. [Laughs] That’s been the highlight. I got to walk around the warehouse and pick, like, 70 or 80 records. My whole band got to. That’s the only reason that I want to be home from tour. I have all of this vinyl sitting at my house that I can’t listen to.
Anything in particular that you were excited to get your hands on?
I got a bunch of the Songs: Ohia vinyl that I didn’t have. I got Pink Mountaintops’ Outside Love, which is one of my favorite records. It’s tough at record stores often to get certain records. New releases are easy to find, and you can get a Jefferson Airplane record wherever you want, but vinyl that came out in, like, 2005 is really hard to find. The stores aren’t restocking back catalogues. That’s what I totally nerded out about. I could find record from maybe ten years ago that aren’t in stores often, and I could grab them all. I kind of lost my shit. It was awesome.
You’ve described the Jason Molina song as the core of the record, which struck me, because so much of the record is about very intimate things in your personal life, and “JM” is about your relationship with someone else’s music.
It’s really what defines me. It’s the definition of who I am. I don’t know if I’m a deep person, or if I have a lot of interests, or even if I’m interesting person, but when it comes to music, that’s the thing that defines me, whether it’s through he way that I dress or what I play or what I listen to or even my friends. That’s what I’ve always gravitated around. That’s why “JM” is so important. It’s about him, but it’s mostly my own biography. It’s about the different phases of my life and his music was with me in those times. To the day, I can remember what song I was listening to when those events in my life happened. That’s how music has been for me.
I’m glad that people are catching on to it. It’s easy to be sensationalized. I did it myself – I talked about really personal shit in my marriage and my problems with substance. But I’m really glad that I can talk about the fact that it’s mostly about music. Those other personal aspects may jump out, but I think it’s even more personal to say, “I was listening to Sharon Van Etten.” That’s such an intimate part of my life. I think that everybody has those moments where they have their headphones on and they’re so deep into that feeling. That’s a window in my brain.
HEAL feels unabashedly uncool – and I mean that in the best way possible. They sort of blissfully exist out of time. It reminds me of the War on Drugs album in that respect. How did you hear this record in your head before you started making it?
I didn’t even hear it. It was such a natural creative process that I was just like, “Fuck it. I’m going to make whatever I want to make”. It started as a random collection of songs. I would get up in the morning and be like, “I’m going to write a really fats song.” Or: “I’m going to write a song with a lot of keyboard today.” Or: “I’ll try to write a heavy metal song.” It was this songwriting experiment. I wrote most of the songs before I wrote the lyrics. I had these palettes that I started to make. There are ten songs on the record, but there are probably thirty or fifty songs that I made. They were almost test patterns of songs. Then I started gathering them and wrote lyrics for most of them. I feel bad for the label, because when they asked to hear some songs, I sent them, like, thirty or forty. [Laughs] I was like, “Here’s what I’m working on, guys!” It was cool, but it was also like, “Holy shit, we have to actually make this record. It can’t be a quadruple album. We have to nail this down a little bit.” The experiences leading up to the record were very difficult, but the creation of the record was very fun. It was pretty easy.
As far as the War on Drugs guy, I think I need to hang out with this dude. I only met him once, but it feels like we’re pretty fucking similar or whatever. I listened to that record a few times, and I think it’s that people get to a certain age – and I think he’s around my age; I’m 32 – and you don’t give a fuck anymore. I don’t care about being cool. I don’t look like I’m 20 anymore, so why should try to make records that sound like I’m 20? I’m trying to find new post-hardcore bands, but I’m also loving some, you know, Bruce Horsnby. I listen to Tears for Fears. Even cheesy 80s music that my mom did aerobics to now sounds really fresh and cool to me. It’s about keeping an incredibly open mind. I mad so many rules for myself in my 20s, like, this is what I like, and this is what I don’t like, and this is how I dress. Those things become much less important as life continues on. That definitely shaped how the record came out. And I’m hoping that it continues. I want to make another record, like, right now. I’m ready to record again. I mean, we’ve got a lot of touring left, but it feels like I had some sort of breakthrough where I stopped caring and I just made the music that I wanted to.
There’s a quality to the drums that jumps out – they’re cavernous and huge and a little 80s. What was the sound that you were trying to capture?
As far as the drums go, I can’t take any credit. I recorded the drums with my friends Steve Clements, and he’s so talented. He laid down these killer, powerful drum parts, but then we sent the mixes to John Congleton in Dallas. That guy does Explosion in the Sky and St. Vincent and even those Pink Mountaintops and Black Mountain records. He just has a way with drums unlike anybody on the planet. He sent some of the mixes back, and I was like, “Are these even fucking drums?!? What is this?!? This is a new hybrid form of rhythm!” They’re so big.
That was such a philosophy when it came to mixing the record: Nothing is safe. Nothing is sacred. We will push things louder than you probably should. The kick drum will be louder than any other band would probably allow. That’s what’s so cool about Congleton: That guys doing huge records, but he still has the balls to do stuff like this. People have told me, “This record sounds horrible!” And I’m like, “Thank you. I’m glad you think that way.” [Laughs] I would rather have a strong reaction than a lukewarm reaction, like, “Oh, it sounds OK. I put it on quietly on my laptop.” [Laughs] I want people to have reactions to it. That’s why working with Congleton was so important. He was ready to take the ride down my crazy sonic hole.
Along the lines of owning who you are, the art direction for the album and singles have put you very front and center. What was guiding that?
That was all my decision. I don’t look like St. Vincent. I look like a strange member of the hobbit tribe. But I was like, “Whatever. I’ve hidden behind things for too long.” I love my past album artwork. I worked with my friend, and he does all of the designs and stuff. I stand behind what I’ve done before, but it was like, “Well, this is my fourth record. And it’s so much about me that I could probably make some cool design of, like, a falcon or Trans-Am car.” And I kind of wanted that for a second! [Laughs] But it was like, “I’m going to take a picture of my face.” The guy that we worked with is named Dusdin Condren, and I’ve stared at his album covers. He took the picture for Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp and Phosphorescent’s Muchacho.
That’s a guy that look to. I just contacted him. It was such a neat process. The picture that’s on the cover is the last picture we took out of, like, 300 pictures. That’s the last thing on whatever roll. I know it sounds super dramatic, but the two pictures – the one on the inside sleeve and the one on the cover – are the last two pictures taken. That’s my wife arm over my shoulder. The chair that I’m sitting in is the chair that I listen to my music in and get wasted in. It’s such a look inside of whatever life I’m living. There’s no barriers. It’s like, “That’s what I look like! I’ve got a weird face! This is me!”