Tim Showalter // Strand of Oaks
“Woo hoo! I feel so energized!”
This was Tim Showalter’s first reaction when I told him we were wrapping up our interview, which had gone for over an hour. His next reaction? “Let’s do this again sometime!”
I could feel Showalter, the man behind Strand of Oaks, smiling during most of our phone conversation. He loves to talk about the creative process. I’m also confident that he was walking frantically since an important part of Showalter’s process is movement. He can’t sit still when he writes lyrics. He takes a demo out for a walk when it’s nothing more than half-baked sounds from his mouth and there are few fully formed words. It’s on this walk that the lyrics start to take shape. But this is no stroll: it’s a workout. “I burn a lot of calories on those walks,” says Showalter. He’s gesturing, flailing, dancing, working up a sweat. For his latest album Eraserland, these walks happened on the Jersey shore in the winter. It was great, Showalter says, because he had the beach all to himself. Who else walks the Jersey shore in the winter? He told me that by the time he gets back home from his walks, “I'm usually able to unravel the mystery of the song.”
Showalter is anxious to dispel the idea in some circles that he’s nothing but a “space case, Cheech and Chong type of artist” who doesn’t take his craft seriously, when in fact he’s incredibly meticulous about his songwriting. He’s constantly revising his lyrics, all the way up to the vocal take in the studio. If an -s doesn’t sound right, he’ll do it over. Showalter has an endless supply of completed songs in his head, and he’s just waiting for someone “to hook a Zip drive” up to his download them—including, as you’ll read, his version of OK Computer. He also takes his craft seriously in his attire: “no writing in boxers” for Showalter. He puts on his boots, jeans, and sleeveless shirt, then gets to work. Showalter’s creative process is not limited to Strand of Oaks songs, by the way. His idea of journaling is “oil pastels and listening to Miles Davis for three hours.” And there’s a ton of Brian Eno “Another Green World” inspired music that you’ll never hear.
There’s pride in Showalter’s voice as he talks about Eraserland. (And for good reason. It’s fantastic.) He’s especially proud of the lyrics because Eraserland is the first album in which, he says, the words stand up on their own without the music. One of the album’s themes is the intersection of comedy and tragedy. Small surprise, of course, that Showalter counts Kurt Vonnegut among his biggest inspirations. One of his favorite moments of his live shows is when he hears someone in the audience chuckle in an unlikely place during a song. “My reaction to that is You got it! Good!”
Outside of songwriting, how much writing do you get to do?
First off, my wife has the family’s share of talent when it comes to long form prose. She’s a technical writer in her day job. We’re a great team. I have a lot of heady ideas, and she structures them if I ever get the chance to write long form. But to answer your question: I love doing it, but it has to be prompted. I can’t sit down and write without a purpose. That’s why songwriting is so much easier; the music is the prompt.
As far as creative outlets, I love the visual arts. What I do is very amateur, and it’s just for me. My version of journaling is about putting down the guitar and picking up my oil pastels for three hours and listening to Miles Davis. Strangely enough, that helps me with songwriting because it gives me separation from it. It gives me a chance to think about the broader context of tone and themes. I don’t know what I’m doing with the visual arts, and love that I’m no good at it. There are no expectations, so it’s a psychological trick for me to lead into songwriting because I live in a surreal zone when I paint. It’s like meditating, so when I return, the songs feel fresh and less formulaic.
Other songwriters have mentioned forays into painting. Sometimes that art gives them song ideas, but it sounds like that’s not the case for you.
Not at all. It’s more like psychedelic therapy. It’s a zone. There’s a lot of mixed medium and smearing, a lot of layers upon layers. I write the best songs when I trick myself into thinking that they are not Strand of Oaks songs. I can distance myself from the career and focus on the passion of it. The visual arts help me do that. When I write a song, it will quickly become a failure if I start thinking about the people who will be working on the song with me. If I’m not careful, I’ll start thinking about the radio people and the label people. I mean, I’m a populist: I’m making rock music, not avant-garde jazz. I’m lucky to have a fan base that is open to anything I do but that can also sniff out when I’m not being true to myself. I like that pressure.
Without getting too meta, how do you not think about those people when it sounds like you are acknowledging that you aren’t thinking about those people?
Because my true litmus test is if my wife likes it. She’ll tell me if she doesn’t like it. When you hear a record of mine, it’s pretty much all the songs my wife got excited about when she came home from work. I have no shame. I’m not afraid to share something with her early in the process because what I don’t want to happen is spend four days on something then realize it’s garbage.
Do you think it’s important to write every day?
I know some songwriters who spend an hour each morning just freewriting, which is a cool approach. I do write every day, but it’s more about picking up my guitar or thinking about lines in my head. I also enjoy making synthesizer music, Brian Eno Another Green World type music that no one will ever hear. I consider that writing.
How do your songs start?
Lyrics never come first. They come all at once with the song, but never first. I used to teach second grade. I related to a lot of the boys I taught who I had to put in the back of the classroom not because they were bad but because I let them take tests while they were standing up. And when they did that, their test scores increased dramatically when they could move around. I’m the same way.
Movement is important to my process. Literally, I need to move. I’m a tactile learner. I need to make a ten minute loop on my feet and take a walk around. It’s in that time that I find the world. In that sense, I view my songs as world building. When you dive into my records, you are diving into a culture. There’s a road system, an electric grid, houses—it’s like Sim City.
On a practical level, do you write your lyrics standing up?
Laughs. I need to be alone. Not because I need solitude, but out of embarrassment. I’m moving, dancing, working up a sweat every time I write. Again, it’s the tactile approach. I burn tons of calories when I write lyrics. It feels great. But when I’m crafting guitar solos, I'm always sitting down. Eraserland was made with five hour walks on the beach during the day and another four hour walk on the beach at night. All of me needs to move.
I’m my own worst critic. I revise all my writing and always look back and think of ways I could’ve done things better. But I’m proud of Eraserland. It may be the first time that the lyrics on paper stand up by themselves, at least for me. Usually they’re so tied up with the songs, but these stand on their own without the music.
The album is informed by psychedelics, but I don’t want to give all the credit to mind altering substances. That world gives me sound in weird ways. The sound of the words is just as important as the meaning, and there’s meaning just in the way those words are spoken. There’s a lot of that on this album.
Let’s talk about those long walks. Do you start them hoping that a song will come, or do you already have a song when you start, and you use the walk to refine it?
I’ll first make the demos. That’s the structure. Those demos contain half-talking, half-singing in my own language. These are syllables that only I can understand. That’s on the recording, and I use the walk to listen to that recording and unlock the song. The Jersey shore is great for that kind of stuff in the winter. It’s all yours! I think I saw three people when I was there. By the time I get back from the walk, I'm usually able to unravel the mystery of the song.
Those first demos are nothing more than random sounds coming out of my mouth, but if you listen closely, a lot of the words are already there. I know this sounds weird, but the songs are already finished before I even think of them. They’re up there somewhere, already done. Here’s an example. I have this memory of the night before OK Computer came out. I dreamed the entire record before it was even released! I woke up and had the entire record in my head. Of course, it’s not OK Computer, but I dreamed an entire record.
That’s why it’s tough for me to collaborate, at least before a certain point. These songs are already done in my head. They’re already mastered. I have a difficult time verbalizing that to other people. I need to attach a Zip drive to my brain so that I can download my songs. Laughs.
Is there an ideal environment when you get your best writing done?
I remember reading an interview with Nick Cave where he says that when he writes, he puts on a nice shirt and shoes, and even takes a briefcase. That’s how I am. I take it seriously. I'm not going to write in my boxers. It’s a sacred event. I wear my boots, my jeans, and my sleeveless shirt. If I write at home, I take my wife to the train station, then have between 7:30am and around 4pm when she comes home. A lot of my songs are written around 8am. Like I said, I need to be alone because I'm loud and I move a lot.
The big question: computer or pen and paper for your lyrics?
I'm actually a computer person because my handwriting is so bad. I had a bad case of arthritis when I was a kid, so I have a difficult time holding anything with my right hand. I have to use a computer.
You mentioned earlier that your lyrics often come all at once. Does that make you more hesitant to revise them?
Not all all. In fact, I’m revising all the way up to the point of doing the vocal take for the record. And even live. I may switch up the lyrics onstage partially because I have a bad memory but also because I believe a song is always alive.
Often when I talk about being an artist, people just think, “This guy is just a space case, like a Cheech and Chong kind of guy.” But I’m surprisingly meticulous when it comes to lyrics. If we lose an -s sound on a vocal take, I’ll redo it because we need that --s. It’s a huge difference for me. We did that on the song “Keys” on the new album.
Nothing takes precedence over anything else in my music. I need the words to fit the phrase and sometimes the phrase to fit the words. I get upset because there are some words I just don’t like. I hate seeing them on the page. I have to find another way to present that image. I like taking words far and stretching them, like taking a two syllable word and making it five syllables.
When I interviewed Paul Banks from Interpol , he told me that melody is king. He’ll switch a word out just to make the line sound better even if it changes the meaning. When you switch the words out, are you looking for one that means the same thing or one that sounds like it, even if it changes the meaning?
It depends. If I replace a word, it creates a waterfall effect where I look back three lines. And that word becomes a lynchpin and can change the meaning of everything around it. Then I have to do more revising.
Let’s end with this: who are you reading now?
My house is filled with books. But I either read really dry books—I have a 900 page book on the Dutch East Indies Trading Company. Why do I care about the price of cotton or flax in 1640?—and then on the flip side I reread books constantly. I'd say my favorite book is Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read everything he’s written. Vonnegut is so approachable yet so rewarding. I’ve read Cat’s Cradle hundreds of times. He’s funny and tragic. His way of coping with tragedy is with laughter. That’s why I love Richard Pryor.
One book that had a huge impact on me is On the Beach by Nevil Shute. The two things that set the tone for Eraserland were Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and that book. I love that book because it reads like a dime store novel. It’s not superheady, but there’s a dark undertone. It’s set in Australia in the 1950s, and there’s been a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. The cloud is moving down, and there’s a lingering date of extinction. You know death is coming. That’s kind of the theme of Eraserland. There’s a date for all of us. How you face that is up to you.
What song on Eraserland best illustrates that theme?
The darkest song on the album is “Visions,” but there’s a funny line in it. That song has Vonnegut written all over it. I love when people talk about bands influencing my music, and these are bands I’ve never listened to or have anything in common with. But I'm just waiting for the moment when someone finally realizes that all I’m doing is copping David Berman of the Silver Jews! “He’s just ripping him off,” someone will eventually say. Because he’s put such tragic lines in his songs about the most unlikely topics. I love when I play a show and hear someone chuckle. My first thought is, “You got it. Good!”