When Reality Is More Intense Than Psychedelics: Strand Of Oaks On 'Hard Love'

Feb 17, 2017
Originally published on February 17, 2017 8:15 am

Timothy Showalter is a tough-looking guy with a beard, tattoos and a flat Midwestern accent, who's pretty open about taking drugs. He thinks a lot about where life is taking him.

"I read somewhere that the idea of joy, and to live a joyful life, is different than living a happy life," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Happiness is fleeting. Happiness is something that you're always going to reach for but you're never gonna quite get or be satisfied with."

For Showalter, who performs music under the name Strand of Oaks, "joy" is being fully engaged in life, whether it goes well or badly. His new album, Hard Love, deals with some of the highest and lowest points of his own life.

In the case of the song "Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother," Showalter says, he was reflecting on the lows: Two years ago, his younger brother John was stricken with cardiomyopathy, a disease affecting the heart's muscle tissue.

"When he was having dinner with my parents in Indiana, his heart completely stopped," he says. "My dad revived him to a certain point until the ambulance came, and they induced a coma. So I flew home and proceeded to sit with my family by my brother's hospital bed."

Within two weeks, Showalter's brother had made a miraculous recovery. But the suspense he experienced in the intervening time was consuming — and the strain it put on him inspired the song's title.

"It has nothing to do with taking acid. Strangely, it's the only song on the record that may not have to do with stereotypical psychedelic experience," he says. "The reason why I called it 'Taking Acid' is because it's more psychedelic than any drug could ever give — when you're put in a position of not being in any control, and knowing that you have absolutely no way to help.

"I remember my little brother's cell phone was still on [while he recovered]," Showalter adds. "I didn't read them, but occasionally he would get text messages from my dad saying that he loved him. ... That's this record! That's the idea of what hard love is. You have as high as it gets and as low as it gets."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The musician Timothy Showalter is a tough-looking guy with a beard, a guy with tattoos - pretty open about taking drugs, has the flat, Midwestern accent of my home state of Indiana. He's also a guy who thinks a lot about life.

TIMOTHY SHOWALTER: I read it somewhere about the idea of joy. And to live a joyful life is different than living a happy life. Happiness is fleeting. Happiness is something that you are always going to reach for but you're never going to quite get or be satisfied with.

INSKEEP: For a Showalter, joy is being fully engaged in life, whether it goes well or badly.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAND OF OAKS SONG, "REST OF IT")

INSKEEP: Showalter's been through some of both while performing under the name Strand of Oaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REST OF IT")

STRAND OF OAKS: (Singing) You were my car. You were my piston. Oh, lord, I'm trying to get her out of the way.

INSKEEP: Listen to this 34-year-old and you hear the way that music can grow out of the way you live. Showalter's life started amid the farms and old factories you find around the Great Lakes.

SHOWALTER: Since there wasn't kind of a burgeoning music scene in Goshen, Ind., in the mid-'90s, it kind of forced me to find my own path. And I think it still continues to this day when I write songs. Just the idea of really anything can go and just be open to wherever the song goes and not limit yourself to anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRAND OF OAKS SONG, "RADIO KIDS")

INSKEEP: Where were you doing this in Goshen - in a basement, in a garage, a bedroom, where?

SHOWALTER: My poor mom - I kind of took over her sewing room in the basement, and I stole my dad's tape player. And I started recording my voice and guitar on that. And the wonderful thing back then is you could go to Salvation Army and buy a giant organ for $5 or...

INSKEEP: And you did that?

SHOWALTER: And I would - (laughter) yes. And then I'd call, you know, like, my older brother and say - can we get this organ in the car, you know, see if we can get it home?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SHOWALTER: And, you know, it would be too big that down the stairs.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SHOWALTER: And then it would just be sitting in the garage for no reason.

INSKEEP: Did your mom still try to sew in there?

SHOWALTER: Oh, yeah. We kind of shared the room. It was a nice shared space.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO KIDS")

STRAND OF OAKS: (Singing) So we play it, play it loud on our radio. I got my headphones on, and my parents will never know.

INSKEEP: Today, Showalter sings about those times, like in this song about listening to the radio on his new album, "Hard Love." You heard him sing - I got my headphones on, and my parents will never know. Today, he's a grown-up musician who travels the world. And some people might wish he would use headphones when listening to the car radio now.

SHOWALTER: I get in a lot of trouble (laughter) because - it's almost a neurotic behavior, but I can drive for three hours just scanning. It's so comforting for me to just keep the dial rolling and to keep just scanning through all the stations.

INSKEEP: Do you mean every few minutes, or do you mean every few seconds - just scan, scan, scan?

SHOWALTER: (Laughter) Every few seconds.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) For three hours? Wow.

SHOWALTER: It's probably a - very annoying for the passengers. But I have that feeling of just hoping that maybe I could catch the beginning of "Where The Streets Have No Name."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE HILL")

STRAND OF OAKS: (Singing) I seem to fell on a common road, the old life that I used to know. All that - all that went away when I got loose on the hill.

INSKEEP: Maybe you get the idea from Showalter pressing and pressing that button that he's the kind of guy who's seeking something. He tries to find it at some of his more distant gigs, like Boogie festival, a psychedelic rock festival in Australia, which inspired one of his song lyrics.

SHOWALTER: Bitter, bitter water makes you lose control. All the good people - if you'd know, you'd go.

INSKEEP: Bitter water is the Ecstasy of many festival-goers take as they watch the music on an Australian hill.

SHOWALTER: The entire song, I wanted to emulate the way that you walk on this hill, the way that you sway, the feeling you get when you're amongst these people and you're not in a hurry and you kind of take your time. And whatever choice or path you choose that night, it kind of follows this not-so-fast tempo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE HILL")

STRAND OF OAKS: (Singing) Bitter, bitter water makes you lose control. All the good people - if you'd know, you'd go.

INSKEEP: OK. Obviously, Timothy Showalter loves that festival. But remember the way he described joy - embracing life, even when it all goes wrong.

What's happening in this song called "Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother"?

SHOWALTER: That is (sighing) - it has nothing to do with taking acid. Strangely, it's the only song on the record that may not have to do with stereotypical psychedelic experience because two years ago, my little brother, John, he - turned out he has cardiomyopathy. And his heart - when he was having dinner with my parents actually, in Indiana, his heart suddenly completely stopped. And my dad revived him to a certain point until the ambulance came, and then they induced a coma. So I flew home then proceeded to sit with my family by my brother's hospital bed.

And the reason why I called it "Taking Acid" is because it's more psychedelic than any drug could ever give when you're put in a position of not being in any control and knowing that you have absolutely no way to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKING ACID AND TALKING TO MY BROTHER")

STRAND OF OAKS: (Singing) Light shows your heartbeat and light on the sheets. Light makes you wake up and drift back to sleep and feel at all OK.

SHOWALTER: There was a very small survival rate at the very beginning. I think it was 5 percent - and even less of a chance of him not suffering from brain damage. And over the course of two weeks, he came back fully. And he's, you know, better than ever at this point.

INSKEEP: Did you actually talk to him, even though you would know that he probably couldn't understand what you were saying?

SHOWALTER: Yeah. Yeah, I did. I talked to him. I would stay up all night and, you know, just little things - you know, I remember my brother's cell phone was still on and charging. And I didn't read them, but all of a sudden - occasionally, he would get text messages from my dad, text messages saying that he loved him. And (sobbing) yeah, that's about as sweet as it gets.

INSKEEP: I hear you.

SHOWALTER: Sorry.

INSKEEP: It's OK.

SHOWALTER: (Laughter) We went from talking about Boogie festival to - but that's this record. You know, that's the idea of what "Hard Love" is. You have as high as it gets, and you have as low as it gets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKING ACID AND TALKING TO MY BROTHER")

STRAND OF OAKS: (Laughter) If you want it, you got it, the sun and the moon...

INSKEEP: Well, Timothy Showalter, I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you very much.

SHOWALTER: This has been great, Steve. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: He performs as Strand of Oaks. And the new album out today is called "Hard Love." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.