In Heaven is Strand of Oaks’ eighth album, but in many ways, it feels like a new beginning. That this much had to be true was apparent before it was even an idea in the mind of its creator, Tim Showalter, who ended 2019’s Eraserland with the spectral and astonishing ‘Forever Chords’, effectively closing the chapter that began with his 2014 breakthrough, HEAL. “[In Heaven] is the first record that I can listen to that I made,” he says a few minutes into our two-hour-long conversation. “I can’t listen to my old albums because I hear somebody that’s in a lot of pain. I love my old records, but I don’t love who I was when I was making them because I was often pretty lost and sad. And it’s the first time where I can hear myself trying to be happy.”
Fans may have wondered where Strand of Oaks could possibly go next after Eraserland, but when the first song on the new record comes on, it only makes sense that it feels as gigantic as ‘Forever Chords’. Out today, In Heaven might be his most expansive and resonant collection of songs to date, and it’s also the first Strand of Oaks album to be recorded since Showalter moved to Austin, Texas. But though it finds him determined to leave a lot of things behind, so much of the magic of the album is in the way it brings together different elements that have marked his work in the past, even recalling some of the whimsical fantasy that set him apart during the Pope Killdragon era. He holds on to his love for the people and the music that have kept him going up until this point – from the rock icons he repeatedly mentions to “some Sri Lankan indie rock band” he hopes to discover – but highlights his renewed perspective, resulting in the Strand of Oaks record with the most cosmic, selfless, and complete framing yet.
And though it might be his most consistent project, In Heaven naturally remains in a perpetual state of flux. Recorded with Eraserland producer Kevin Ratterman and featuring Cedric LeMoyne on bass and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and Bo Koster on guitar and keys, the album journeys through loud, anthemic rock, psychedelic freakouts, ’80s-inspired synths, subtle Americana, dramatic ballads, and at least one straight-up pop song. Sounds grow and then fade into the ether; words tumble out in a cryptic, stream-of-consciousness fashion, then rejoice in a climactic, profoundly simple chorus. Faced with insurmountable loss and uncontainable joy, Tim Showalter looks to the universe for inspiration, to the patterns he and not even science can explain, and realizes all he has to show for himself – and all he really needs – is a sense of humanity.
We caught up with Tim Showalter to talk about the story behind every song on his new Strand of Oaks album, In Heaven. Listen to the album and read our track-by-track interview below.
Before we get into the actual song, I wanted to start off by asking you about the title. In an interview you did about Eraserland, you used the word “galactic” to refer to the kinds of feelings that you were starting to delve more into. And with the immensity of a song like ‘Galacticana’ and the album as a whole, it feels like you’re ready to fully embrace those feelings. Just in terms of language, what do you think draws you to those kinds of cosmic terms when thinking about existence?
That’s an amazing question. One of my heroes is Mark Hollis from Talk Talk, and he’s kind of like a guidepost for me when I create. I remember seeing an interview of him and they asked him what inspired Laughing Stock, and Mark Hollis just said, like, science and the migration pattern of animals and these huge forces that are not necessarily emotional; they’re kind of beyond emotions of heartbreak. And I think that’s where that term “galactic” comes from, where I was faced with some really insurmountable pain in my life leading up to this album, some very tragic losses – my wife’s mom was killed in a car accident, she was hit by a drunk driver, and around that exact same time, my best friend, my kitty, my cat Stan, was diagnosed with cancer. And I had death just in my life, it was surrounded by death. Whether it was an instantaneous death through my mother-in-law or this slow, drawn-out death that was just heartbreaking with my best buddy, my kitty. And I can’t… When you’re heartbroken or you wake up and you’re sad in the morning, because like, maybe somebody dumps you – that I’m used to, I can manage that. But I realized I can’t come to terms with the un… You can’t change death, you can’t fix it. And you’re just forced to face it.
And confronted with that, I only could go galactic. I sing about science a lot on the record and strange scientific terms and cosmic ideas, because the only way I could comfort myself and process this loss is by thinking in galactic terms. Like, my mother-in-law is not here anymore and she was this wonderful person, and I hope that string theory and I hope the fact that we’re all connected through matter and her wonderful spirit just dissipated into the universe and maybe becomes carbon elements that feed a new star. What’s more beautiful to think, that people that you love, when they pass on, they then go on to feed the galaxy and feed the universe of new forms of existence or planets or…
I don’t mean to sound like too much of a stoner here, but it really made me feel safe in my feelings again. That idea of galactic, it’s like a safety mechanism in my mind that I have to go big in order to deal with things that I cannot – I cannot fix it, I cannot bring her back, I can’t bring back my cat. Even in the past experiences I’ve struggled with, I’ve been able to kind of fix it. Like, I had a severe alcohol problem, and I stopped, and then I didn’t have an alcohol problem anymore. But I can’t… I’m trying – you know, my wife, that was her best friend, her mom. It was her best friend in the whole world, they talked every day. And now that that’s gone, I’ve been trying to fill that role and I’ve been trying to be a good person and a husband. But when I take that moment to sit down and think about that pain when I was writing these songs, I just kept going into the stars for some reason. I kept going outward. And I think that’s why where the sadness happened, that kind of became beautiful in a way, because it’s that circle of existence that happens: we’re not here, we’re here, and then we’re not here again. You know, it’s extremely simple when you break it down.
You also led with this as the first single from In Heaven. Was that because you felt like it encapsulated all these ideas that you wanted to explore on the album?
Yeah. I never realized that Eraserland starts with “I don’t feel it anymore,” and that’s how that record feels. And that’s exactly how I was feeling at that moment, I was very lost. In this record, I say, “I believe that ecstasy happens when we all get together,” and it’s the opposite feeling. And I literally say in the first song, “I don’t want to drag you down.” That’s not my intention on this record. I want to try and lift people up to whatever ability I can. I literally wrote ‘Galacticana’ – and this is a little window into how big of a dork I am – but I write songs like ‘Galacticana’ and I have this fantasy in my mind of like, those videos you see of Glastonbury when people are holding up giant flags and the flares are going off and they’re just listening to like Spiritualized or Pulp or something. And I had that because I was missing people so much when I wrote that song, I was fantasizing about those experiences of human connection. My church, I guess, is shows, that’s my spiritual home, so if churches have hymns or whatever, this is my hymn to shows.
I’d like to return to that idea later on, but I wanted to touch on two things that you mentioned. Part of what makes this song so resonant to me comes down to your vocal delivery – the way you sing each “together,” that line that you mentioned, has a slightly different tone to it. And I love the way your voice kind of strains towards the end of “You just hope the good ones last forever.” What was it like getting that vocal take down?
It was so fun singing that song. It’s one of my favourite vocal takes I’ve ever done. I like to play like make-belief when I make music and records, and this may sound wild, but it’s true. When I was singing that song, I imagined Tina Turner singing it, and I love Tina Turner, I love ‘Private Dancer’ and ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’. I was trying to channel Tina Turner’s mojo when I was singing that song, and I just move a lot when I sing, and Kevin Ratterman, who we make records together, he was watching me through the window of the control room and he said something like, “I’ve been making records for like 25 years and I’ve never seen someone feel a vocal take before.” Because I was just so into it. And that one moment where I’m talking about “It feels safe to walk around in leather,” I just had that Tina Turner face and I was hoping that she could feel me somewhere out there, kind of channeling her.
And the song itself feels universal, but it still includes those personal details as it goes on. To get back to the chorus of the song, “I don’t want to drag you down,” it feels like it could be addressed to the listener, but it also adds another layer to the lines about seeking togetherness. And tell me if I’m wrong here, but it’s like there might be a cost to that kind of naivete, the kind of hanging out that you sing about. Is there a duality to that in your mind?
I think the second verse, when I say something like “Laughing as a self-defense, trying at my own expense together,” feels kind of like my whole biography as a person. I’m one to always – maybe a defense mechanism, I’ll make fun of myself before anyone else can, so it saves me from maybe embarrassment. I was kind of bullied a lot as a kid and I still feel that in my heart, like I have to make the joke, I gotta be the big, loud, funny person to kind of get ahead of that. And “crying at my own expense” – I feel like I’ve spent the last 10 years divulging the most personal details in my life. I’ve grown because of it, but at the same time it does get kind of tiring after a while.
I feel like I’m a very introverted person that makes up for it by being overly extroverted, but it’s still a hard dance because I still am kind of a shy person. But I’ve just learned how to play this character of me and be extremely social, almost to the point where it doesn’t need to be that social. And I’ve gone through bouts of oversharing and not quite taking the time to think about before I speak. And I think that’s kind of what that line is, so I totally agree with you, the duality of that. Like, the greatest joy of my life is talking to people, but then I’m also the kind of person where, if I am out with people for dinner or if I talk to fans after a show, I lay in bed in the hotel room and I go through the conversations in my head and think, “Oh, why did you say that?” It’s a very anxiety-ridden thing, but if you don’t take that risk, then you’re just by yourself and life sucks. [laughs] So it’s worth it to have moments of feeling that you’re embarrassed or put yourself out there too much. I’ll take that all day long if that means I get to actually connect with people.
This song really solidified the impression to me that this is going to be a more upbeat and joyful record than any of your previous releases. It’s about your move to Texas from Philadelphia, and it really exudes that confidence of a fresh start. How early on in the process did you start writing this song?
This song was a relatively late addition. I don’t quite remember where it landed in the order of songs, but every song on the album, the lyrics come at the very end of a song. So I make a very finished demo where there’s drums, bass, guitar, synthesizers, everything that needs to be in the song, and then I’ll have this language-less melody that will exist for the voice. So this song in particular, I think it’s going to take a while to know what everything I’m singing about means, because I feel like I give myself little mythologies. So when I say “resonator,” I feel like that’s me, because I’m very loud. I feel like just keep making noise and I keep taking up a lot of oxygen in every room, and I thought of myself as The Resonator, you know, like if I was like a comic book character, they’d be like, “Oh, here comes The Resonator! The big loud one’s coming here!” [laughs]
And then the song just quickly evolved into… I’ve written many love songs from my wife, Sue, but I feel like this song is a love song for her in all capacity. It’s going to be pretty hard for me to write a lyric that sums up my love for my wife more than “She’s my Easter.” That’s the greatest description for my wife. I’m not religious, but there’s no other way to describe the love I have for her. Like, she’s a resurrecting force, she has a way to save me constantly – save me from darkness, save me from loneliness, save me from my own self. And this was a song where I’m trying my best to save her.
The last chorus is extremely emotional for me because it’s I’m trying to be as hopeful as I can in the face of all this darkness. You know, it’s like, “Can I stop the boat from sinking?” Because I felt helpless of saving this situation and not knowing if I was up to the task, and that line is how I felt for all of those times we’re dealing with such sadness, I just was trying to stop the boat from sinking. And seeing hope ahead and just trying desperately to get there. And part of that was Austin. It was a move, but part of it was also just us as people. Like, “Can I save us from this? Can we pull out of this darkness?” And I think the song was me just trying to beg the universe to see if I could.
Would you say the whole record serves a similar purpose?
Yeah, I think it does. It just sums up everything I was trying to be. Because I’m not necessarily prone to be like a caring person – I’m a caring person, but I’m not a caretaker personality. I love people, I love talking to people, but sometimes my ability to be empathetic for other people’s emotions – I just don’t feel tuned into that sometimes as much as I should. And this song is me tuning into that, but also being overwhelmed by the responsibility that those feel when they’re actually in a caretaker position, and they’re like, “I’m trying to take care of this person.” And “trying” is the only word you can use because it’s never a win or lose thing. You just can try your best to take care of somebody. And this song is so special to me – all of them are, but this song just felt like I was trying to smile my way through, trying to find hope. I have “survive” tattooed down my whole arm, and I’ve spent most of my life trying to survive, trying to just fucking get through the day. And this was the time where I was trying to thrive. You know, I was trying to truly live and be happy with life.
I didn’t know what these songs were going to be about, and I was writing these lyrics furiously in some kind of fugue state of like, hearing the song and hearing this kind of fake language. And I remember just crying and as I was typing half these lyrics because I didn’t know where they’re coming from. And this was one of those songs right where, with each progressive verse and chorus, it just kept growing more emotional and more cathartic, and by the end of it, I couldn’t believe that that song came out. I know where it came from, it came through my subconscious that was thinking that for years, but it just came out in this – not just ‘Easter’, the whole record, they just came from somewhere else. And I know every songwriter has always said that, you know, “It came from the ether,” but it did. Like, there’s no other way to explain it. I don’t know the source of the lyrics, and this is the first time I’ve ever made a record where I don’t know the source. I don’t know where I pulled them from.
The song also features guitar and vocals from James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins, and fans will be quick to make the connection to the line “Singing Pumpkins in the mirror,” from HEAL. How did that collaboration come about, and what did it mean for you to have him on the track?
I mean, everything. My first moment that I knew music was magic and I knew music meant something different than what I just heard on the radio as a kid, is I saw the ‘Today’ music video when I was maybe 12 years old. And I remember seeing James in particular, he was in a dress and he just looked beautiful. It was a world that was far beyond what I knew in my little town I grew up in, and I got on my bike after I watched that video and I just rode around on my bike trying to remember the song. I’ve had James Iha in my mind since I was 12, you know, it’s like I do this in part because I saw that video and I saw James. So him being on the song, we have a mutual friend in Los Angeles, and I’m just naive enough – I think naivete is kind of good sometimes where I don’t get scared of certain things – and I thought, “Well, this song kind of sounds like The Cure a little bit and I’m pretty sure James like The Cure… So I’m just going to ask him if he wants to be in the song.” [laughs] And he said yes.
And then in the process of making the song, because it was in the pandemic and we couldn’t be in the same room, he was asking what he wanted me to have him do. And my only response to one of my heroes was – I just said, “I want you to have the most fun you’ve ever had in the studio.” We just assumed he was going to be giving us a guitar track, and he sent the file over and it had multiple guitars, synthesizers, glockenspiels, vocals. He truly had a great time, and we were just so humbled. This sounds cheesy, but if you put a lot of love in your heart and you send that out, the universe kind of answers back. And we had Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket play guitar in the whole record, and Carl did his own part for ‘Easter’ and didn’t know that James was doing his part. And when we put them both together, they fit perfectly. What you hear is James not knowing Carl was on the track and Carl not knowing James was, and those two guitar parts, that’s both of them playing most of the time, and they just enter intertwine perfectly. And Kevin and I both looked at each other like, of course this worked out, because this is just how this record felt – it just felt like there was a lot of good stuff coming back, too.
That was just magical, and I just got to hang out with James this past weekend. I was playing some music festivals and I’m playing my entire set and James is standing side stage and I’m playing a guitar solo, giving James a thumbs up as I’m playing the solo. [laughs] Life is crazy and beautiful sometimes.
This is the longest one on the album, and it’s this slow-burning, contemplative track that has all these different parts to it. On first listen, it kind of comes into contrast with ‘Easter’, but I think the sequencing makes a lot of sense. What did you want to achieve with this juxtaposition between the two songs?
That’s actually a huge discussion we had, and we thought we were going to put ‘Hurry’ later on in the record. But then we realized together, Kevin and I, that that moment where it gets just noise in the middle and it’s this blanket of sound, we wanted that to happen early because we viewed that moment as like a portal opening. Like, you enter this place, and then you’re kind of in this other place for the rest of the record, perhaps the heaven element of the record. And I wanted that to be very early to kind of set the tone that like, “Now we’re here, and for the next however many seven songs, there’s no going back to Galacticana.” I always have these moments and it’s very dorky, but when Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz opens up the door and it’s colour, I feel like that’s this technocolour moment on this record.
Lyrically, there’s also this common throughline with ‘Easter’, which is about abandoning “the current world,” and here there’s this proclamation that “This world’s not meant for me.” But listening to those tracks side by side, it kind of gives new meaning to the line, like maybe “this world” is just “the current world” from the previous song, and it shows you’re leaving that behind.
I didn’t think about that till now but, but it’s so true. At first, it was my wife that pointed out that line, because it seems extremely sad, like “This world’s not meant for me.” But I actually never saw it as sad, I thought it as this beautiful thing that who you feel like you’ve become as a person, at whatever stage of life you’re in, is not permanent. You can change it. It’s not me saying that – it’s actually an extremely happy lyric for me, saying that like, I don’t have to be this drunk person, I don’t need to be this loud rocker all the time with the tattoos and all that. I can be a gentle person, I can be a more compassionate person and a caring person, and I guess just embracing the softer nuances of life. And that’s me telling that mantra over and over again, like “This world’s not meant for me,” there’s a new world.
And I say, “Till our bodies go back to the water, till the fire burns to the sea.” It’s like you’re stopping some kind of cycle that never – it feels like I never could end who I was. I always just came back and I was like, “I’m just this person and I can’t change it.” And it’s like, “No, that doesn’t have to happen, I can be whoever I want to be right now.” I barely fit it into the singing, but I have that one lyric where it’s like “cerebral compulsiveness instinctual loneliness and worry.” And I think we’re all born with this inherited anxiety, but I think we can break the pattern at any moment, and we don’t have to be held hostage to this script that we thought was written for us. I’m 39 and I dress however the hell I want now and I talk to people without caring if I look cool or not, I cry a lot now in like sincere ways. [laughs] I like whoever I’m becoming, but it’s definitely not who I thought I was. And it feels really nice to realize you’re not stuck in something.
4. Horses at Night
It’s interesting that you said the lyrics generally came in at a later stage, because with this song… To me, it feels like each verses sort of moves through different people and things that are important in your life and are connected by this, like, universal force. And as I was listening to it, I could almost imagine you trying to find the right melody to bring all this to life, but it seems like the perfect one was there already there.
Yeah, the melody was there. And this was actually the first song I wrote out of all the songs on the record, I wrote this at the very end of 2019. So what this song kind of provided was this template on which all other songs would be judged, if they were allowed to be on the record or not. Going back to that galactic sense, it had to be honest and deal with pain, but it also couldn’t dwell in pain. It had to realize that this happened, but there’s so much bigger things at work. And I truly felt like ‘Horses at Night’, I’m pretty sure it’s one of my proudest moments as a songwriter. I feel like lyrically and in the way that the arrangement happened, it’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do my whole time as Strand of Oaks. And at one moment when we were in the studio, I just started getting teary-eyed when I was playing a synthesizer. It’s so weird, but I realized this is the sound I heard in my head in like 2005, of these elements of ’80s NeverEnding Story movies mixed with Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd, and all these intersecting loves I have in my life kind of all happened in this song.
I also think the third verse is maybe my favourite verse I’ve ever written because it’s just so bizarre and for some reason touches me deeply. And I was very worried when I wrote it that people would think, “Alright, well he’s finally lost his mind. He’s finally gone off the deep end.” [laughs]
What were you worried about specifically?
Like, how I was singing this song and then all of a sudden it pivots to… You know, I actually did scientific research for the third verse because I had this image – I was on acid once a few years ago and I kept thinking like, “Everything I see is the past, everything you see or we see is a reflection. And the sounds we hear, the sights we see, is just light reflected and sound reflected, but it’s always in the past.” So I wanted to research how that works, and I was researching about refracting light, and I may not be scientifically correct, but I was trying to think about death and my mother-in-law and for some reason, Jimi Hendrix came for the first time. And he comes again, but I thought about, “When was Jimi Hendrix’s last show?” I didn’t know that, and I found out it was in Germany and it was 50 years ago when I was writing the song, and I thought, “Maybe in some beautiful way that image of him or maybe the sounds he made are refracting into the universe. And 50 light-years away there could be aliens that are just as lonely as I am –” this is crazy [tears up] – “and just as sad. And they hear Jimi playing, and they get stoned, and they feel really good. The same way that I do.” And for some reason, that made me feel okay with death, hoping that maybe my mother-in-law’s voice is out there in the universe, and there’s grandparents and people that I love that aren’t here anymore, you know, they’re out there.
It just was this beautiful, very healing moment for me to realize that – and I know it’s Jimi Hendrix and aliens smoking weed, it’s crazy, but it truly just made me feel better when I wrote it. Even in the song it says like, “They’re just songs, and this should be fun.” All this shit should be fun! I acknowledge that in the midst of this cosmic turmoil, and I felt like I did something I’ve wanted to do for 20 years on this song.
This was the only song where I played the guitar and sang all on the same take. So it was me playing and doing it and we had to get the tape correct, because there’s no editing. It all had to be correct. And it’s harder than you think to get the right take, but this one took a while to get. We had so much fun with the synthesizers because I’ve loved keyboards since I was a kid, and I loved rave music and all that stuff. Basically, I should have been born in Manchester and been around the rave era of late ‘80s, that’s like my dream. But I got to use these dream keyboards, like I use this one called the Selena, and it’s a string synthesizer that Pink Floyd used on Dark Side of the Moon. God, this song, I don’t know why it defines who I am more than any other song I’ve ever written. It’s like the truest form of how my brain works in a song form, I guess.
What you’re describing is obviously such a rare moment in a songwriter’s career. And although now you feel like this might be the most special and definitive song you’ve ever made, I assume you’ve had similar feelings in the past – I remember reading about ‘Forever Chords’ having a similar impact on you. How does the way you feel about this song compare to those other moments in your discography? Because some of that came with a sense of finality, whereas maybe here there’s more hope.
Exactly. When I said a few times I think ‘Forever Chords’ might be the last song I ever write, I guess it’s true in some form, because when I made ‘Forever Chords’, I made it in a room looking at my heroes, My Morning Jacket, their loving eyes and their support. And I felt like I climbed to the top of the mountain I’d been climbing for a long time, and it kind of ended this era of Strand of Oaks. I felt like everything moving forward was the future. And I feel like In Heaven, and especially ‘Horses at Night’, has that same feeling that ‘Forever Chords’ did. Exactly what you said; it’s not a finality, it’s the future. It’s looking ahead and understanding that like, I like to be alive.
And I don’t know if I could necessarily say that with confidence in the past. I like to be here, I like myself a little bit more and I want to live a long life and I want to consider that maybe we are just [laughs] – I’ve had friends that have pointed out this particular line, like “solar orphans in maternity wards,” and it just kind of feels like all of us sometimes. You know, growing up, I felt like an alien. I felt like I was accidentally put on this planet, like I should have been somewhere else because I felt so strange and I just process the world maybe differently. And I think a lot of people feel that way, like “What am I doing here? Did somebody make a mistake at the factory and sent me here?” It takes a lifetime to figure out why we’re even here. In those galactic thoughts, I guess, that’s where the song lives.
On all my records I have this centrifugal force of a song, and this is the one all the others orbit around. And I was really thankful that this song came so early because if it had come too late, it wouldn’t have informed the rest of the songs.
This is a detail, but at the end of the song, I can faintly hear a recording in the background, but I’m not sure what it is.
Actually, we took a loop of a four-track, and we had kids playing in a playground, we had this wind instrument that I think exists in Norway, that when the wind passes through it creates a subsonic instrument almost – it’s this very wild art installation. And then we took me just shredding on the guitar, and we made it into a one-second loop. I kind of wanted the end of that song to be that exact transmission of maybe what the aliens would have heard if they tuned in and heard me, you know, on their spaceship radio.
5. Somewhere in Chicago
I love the sequencing of these three tracks together, from ‘Horses at Night’ to ‘Somewhere in Chicago’, which is your tribute to the late John Prine, and then ‘Jimi & Stan’. In terms of the timeline, when did this song start to take shape? Was it shortly after he passed?
I think there’s probably a phone memo in my phone, the day that he passed. I don’t remember particularly when I found out, but it might have been in the afternoon. And I just didn’t go to sleep that night, I just kind of sat at this desk I’m sitting now and I had my guitar and I was trying to play. I couldn’t believe that this world didn’t have John Prine anymore. He felt like an uncle to me, you know, it felt like he was a part of my family. Because I grew up an hour outside of Chicago as a kid, so Chicago was my city, and John moved there from Kentucky, and that kind of was his city too. But we all kind of talk the same – people from our part of the world will smile and say something deeply tragic happened. There’s this way of psychologically processing things where my dad will be talking about a really tough experience and I’m like “Well, you know how it goes, I really miss my best friend” or something like that. It’s like we acknowledge the pain but we also acknowledge that we got to just get up tomorrow.
But the way John Prine talked – I live in Texas now, but I don’t know, I can’t relate to cowboys that much, I didn’t grow up with cowboys. I grew up with Northern Indiana cornfields and Chicago and factories. And the words of John Prine – he was just so human in himself, and I think I use that as a template for Strand of Oaks. And just like ‘Jimi and Stan’, I was so sad about losing John Prine, but I was so lucky that we had John Prine in the first place. So I just dreamed of what John would be doing. And John talked about heaven a lot, especially on his last record, and I kind of wanted John Prine’s heaven to be him just walking in Chicago, whistling and probably smiling, just having a great day.
And arrangement-wise, I ended it originally where I just said, “The master calls back everyone,” in this kind of contemplative, existential way. And then Kevin was like, “Hey, John deserves a happier ending than this. Let’s give John a better ending.” So we changed it to that more upbeat, just “John’s on a walk somewhere in Chicago.” And we faded out the song, just kind of picturing him in his mailman uniform walking around and maybe having a cigarette with Bill Murray or something, you know. [laughs] I hope that stuff happens.
6. Jimi & Stan
This was beautiful and heartbreaking as a single, but in the context of the album it just hits even harder, and it fits into this world that opens up with ‘Horses at Night’. Do you remember when that image of Jimi and Stan hanging out together first occurred to you?
‘Jimi and Stan’ I wrote two days before I left to the studio. We even had our whole tracklisting set out, and I just wrote ‘Jimi and Stan’. It’s why I always tell bands that are going in the studio, “Don’t ever turn the faucet off, don’t think your record’s finished. There’s always more songs.” I mean, the last track on the record, I wrote in the studio, so it was such a late addition. And I think this is actually one where I didn’t even fully demo it out, I just strummed my guitar and had some chords. My wife says sometimes I do Disney melodies [laughs], where they kind of feel like they’re a showtune or something, so this is one of my Disney melodies of like, imagining an animated character going [sings dramatically]. It’s probably a lot of the Paul McCartney love I have, that kind of grandiose ambition.
But I had that melody, and then I think I literally just wrote, “Jimi and Stan in heaven, making friends and going to shows.” That’s my personal heaven, of going to shows and making friends. That’s all I want. And I don’t know why I said Jimi, I think because I had already said Jimi in ‘Horses at Night’, that Jimi was already this character in the record. And I just had this… It is a cat, and I know we’ve all had cats, but again, the introspective person I am sometimes… There were moments through the very difficult and wild years of my life where I would come home from tour and I would just talk to my cat, you know. He would be there and he was so nice and I would hold him and I would just communicate with him. And he just was pure love. I think humans inherently let each other down because we’re flawed, but when you have a pet, it’s just pure love. They just look at you and it’s like, “There’s no nuance here, I just love you.” And this cat was that for me.
I’ve said this story before, but we found out – he was bleeding in his mouth one day and we found out it was a tumour in his lip. And when we took him to the doctor and found out it was incurable, two or three days later, my wife’s mom was killed. So we had this knowledge, and then we have that. We lost Sue’s mom instantly, and then that death was kind of put onto this cat, who was struggling to stay alive. And I feel like, the most valiant effort of a living creature, is he stuck around for months. He stayed with us for three or four months. We took care of him, we had to give him so much medicine. And it was like, seeing this thing that was just slowly disappearing, as opposed to Sue’s mom, who just was gone. It was terrible. It was the worst… [tears up] It was the worst thing.
I stopped drinking – I was a terrible alcoholic, and I stopped drinking because there was a date. It’s so fucked up, there’s a date that you have to say to say goodbye to your friend, like you literally set a date for the euthanization, so I had this date coming in like a week. I had a fucking date that was like, I knew I’d have to say goodbye, so I stopped drinking because I don’t think I could have made it through that with the amount of drinking I was doing. I wanted to be clear-headed. I wanted to be fully sober for my buddy. And it was just fucking terrible, it was the worst thing I’ve ever done, for some reason. I couldn’t write a sad song about him, though, because why? He was the best thing in the world, and I didn’t want to write a sad song, I wanted to write a song where there was fucking fireworks going off and this wonderful party for my buddy, you know? It seems preposterous, like why would he sing this song about Jimi Hendrix and stuff, but again, just like ‘Horses at Night’, it made complete sense. Because I just wanted my buddy to have the best existence ever. And I hope to be there someday – I hope all the people I love and that we love are there, going into a show together.
We could not make it sad. We had this rule, Kevin and I, when we’re making it, like “There’s no way we can make this song sad. We need to add more timpanis, we need to add more synthesizers.” And the last part of the song, it’s literally 100 of me singing the verse. And Kevin has this puppy Maizy who has the same kind of relationship that Stanley was to me, and she was in the studio with us, and Maizy’s getting a little older and we’ve seen this dog age. And Bo played keyboards on it, he has a puppy that he loves, you could just see all of us channel that energy of the animals that we loved. Kevin was literally – God, when I was doing the vocal take, I looked through the window and he was just hugging his dog. It’s just like, we always get let down by people, but these animals never let us down. And it was just my love song to that whole experience. My buddy.
You used the word “mythology” before, and I think you used this phrase, “constructed mythology,” in a statement about this song. It’s kind of a journey through your constructed mythology. Do you remember what headspace you were in when those lyrics came to you?
Oh, this is the mystery one. I literally just wrote this in one night. There’s no change, it’s the same chords, it’s the same pattern. And I wrote this kind of Leonard Cohen dirge where my vocals were kind of where I’m talking now, and it was this monologue, almost, set to music. And the lyrics, especially this one, I have no idea. [laughs] I think I do now, but it’s this stream-of-conscious pulling from like 1000 different places, some deeply biographical and then others just resting an allegory. It was this moment of, again, furiously typing. And when I say these songs came in a stream of consciousness, the structure of them did, but then after I have the basic structure, it would sometimes take me a month or two to finalize the lyrics. And this one, I just kept working on the lyrics, even in the studio they kept getting revised and edited.
This was actually a song that we weren’t going to put on the record because the way that I was singing it originally felt kind of boring. And I got frustrated during a vocal take, and I just was in the moment of being pissed at myself. I was like, “Well, I’m going to try and sing this, like, if Bono would sing it.” Like, “I have to add some energy into this song or it’s not going to make the record.” And I just changed that into that higher register and that was a complete – I was just joking around and I was kind of mad, and I did that take and released whatever frustration I had. And when it was over, Kevin looked at me and he was like, “That’ll work!” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “That works.” And I was like, “Really?” And it did. It happened on another song on the record where we were sure it wasn’t going to be on it and just this one crucial element changed everything, and then the song came to life and the emotional content of the songs felt like they came to life.
What song do you have in mind?
Actually, perfect, because I think it’s the next song.
Was it the violin?
Yeah, absolutely. We had this very stoner rock kind of guitar that I had written and Carl played, and I don’t think Carl was super psyched on it and I wasn’t either. It was one of those things that you just write and then you think you have to do, so the song just wasn’t lifting. And then we just had this crazy idea with all these synthesizers and everything, we’re like, “We should add a fiddle.” [laughs] And Scott Moore, who played strings on Eraserland, he’s friends with Kevin and we just sent him the song. And same as James Iha, we’re like, “Hey, have fun with this.” And he came back with this – I heard it is as an Echo and the Bunnymen kind of song, you know, like [dramatically] very dramatic, gothic, and romantic. But instead of putting a heavy guitar or a colourful synthesizer, I was like, “I think what Echo and the Bunnymen would do here is add a violin instead of a synthesizer or something.” And it felt strangely futuristic, to have this complete shift of sonics, where you just go with this synthesizer, kind of pastoral ‘Sunbathers’, and then you get this organic fiddle, yet it sounds futuristic in a way. It saved the song, as we referred to it. It was like, “Oh, the song is saved now, we can put it on the record.” Because I love the lyrics, I love that song, but it wasn’t quite up to the calibre yet before Scott put the fiddle on there.
It adds this whole new dimension to it. And about the lyrics… You kind of talked about this a little bit, but for you, this understanding that we’re just carbon – is it liberating or is it more frightening, or both? Does it kind of go back and forth?
Back and forth, yeah. This song takes as many turns as ‘Sunbathers’, in a way, and that line, “I am just carbon,” that’s kind of as simple as it gets. That’s what we’re made up of, and you could have been the curtains behind you or your headphones. And again, not to get too cosmic, but it follows that same narrative, like further in the song I say “eternally locked in tornado warnings,” which is a very Indiana thing. Like, my first thing I was horrified of as a child was tornadoes because we’d get them all the time. I always joke that Wizard of Oz was a horror movie for me as a kid growing up because I saw tornadoes and like, I still have nightmares about tornadoes, the first dream I can remember was about a tornado. And in this record, it’s the first time in my life where I truly embrace the mythology of where I grew up. You wouldn’t think Northern Indiana has a lot of deep cultural wells to draw from, but there actually are, and I think this song deals with all that.
But it’s also kind of like ‘Sunbathers’, where it’s also a mystery. I’m not exactly sure. But I love this idea, I list off – I talk about hills a lot in my music, like I have a song called ‘On the Hill’ and I bring that up in like, “I might have been a mountain, laughing at the lion alone on the hill.” And that kind of goes through these things of like, I could have been this Mount Everest laughing at this tiny little lion, who, the lion thinks it’s the most important thing, and the hill on which the lion stands feels like it’s the tallest hill in the place. And it’s just breaking down the order of things and simplifying it, like, “We’re just carbon.”
9. Sister Saturn
This song takes me back to that line that you referenced before: “Jesus Christ Tim/ What’s the matter, what’s wrong/ These are just songs, and this should be fun.” Because it sounds like the most fun you have on the record, which brings its own kind of catharsis. It’s this groovy, funky song.
Absolutely. I wanted to just have a kind of indulgence in this. Because all the songs, they feel like some of the more entertaining songs I’ve ever written. These songs have a lightness to them that doesn’t exhaust you, maybe, in the way that some of my past records have. But this was pretty deep in the record and I just wanted to be like, “Okay, let’s have some fun right now. I’m gonna put a vocoder on this song, I’m gonna play all the keyboards in the world.” Even for making this record, it was an emotionally taxing thing, and by the time we got to ‘Sister Saturn’, we were just having so much fun. This was a deeply indulgent song for me because I was just like, “Kevin, can we please, I want to have a robot voice in this.” And he’s like, “What are you talking about?” And I was like, “I want to have a robot voice, let’s do it!” [laughs] And Carl was like, “Is it okay if I have a lot of fun on this song?” And I was like, “Have a lot of fun, just do whatever you want.” And his guitar solo is insane.
And the song, the lyrics themselves, they’re like physical lyrics, meaning I like the way certain sounds happen. Sometimes my lyrics are just as driven by the sound that words make. Like, I love that thought of “Sister saturn, sister sun.” And this is a much more feminine record for me. I feel like as I get older, those gender lines kind of disappear. I think it’s nice when you get older because you lose some of that definition you think you have, and you become more human and less gender-specific. I think this song kind of allowed me to have all those elements in there.
And it’s also about me stopping drinking. This is me feeling extremely liberated and so excited to not have these blinders of alcohol in there anymore, and any kind of addiction that one has. This is kind of like the payoff of, like, if you can weather that and get rid of the controlling force in your life, then – I say something about “I’m tired of living for myself,” and I think it’s a really positive song, it’s like, “I want to just take care of other people.” And if that means have people shake their asses and move a little bit to a song, that’s what I wanted this song to do. The deeper meaning is probably in there, but the main meaning was, “We’re at track 9, let’s have a lot of fun right now”. It might be the funnest song I’ve ever made, in a way.
Especially in the context of the record, it feels necessary as well.
Necessary is a great word. Usually people want to try and put tracks like that early on but I was like, “No, I want to wait, I want to wait for this one.” Because this could have easily been in the place that ‘Hurry’ – I think that’s actually what we’re going to do, we were going to have ‘Sister Saturn’ where ‘Hurry’ is in track three, but it actually just felt like, “No, I’d rather open that portal early on, and then have the payoff of ‘Sister Saturn’ later on in the sequencing.”
One of the thoughts I had with this in relation to ‘Sister Saturn’ is that you go from the declaration of “I need you” to the broader “I need humans” that’s on this track. And this is also what I was thinking about at the very beginning of the interview when you were talking about shows – does actually singing those words, “I need humans,” in the studio or to a crowd of people come close to satisfying that craving for human connection?
Yeah. I mean, it was very cute when we were in the studio, we were initially tracking and Cedric LeMoyne, who played bass on the record, we recorded together – all together, actually, and Kevin was on drums – and when we got to ‘Slipstream’, I believe Cedric just looked at me and he was like, “You’re just going for it, aren’t you?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “’I need humans,’ you’re just going for it, you’re just saying it.” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know how else to… There’s no metaphor here, I just need humans. I just really fucking need humans right now in my life.” And what’s funny is the actual lyrics on that song are deeply cryptic, and I have no idea – we were laughing so hard when we were making that song because when I’m like, “non-stop big thoughts sweating to the ice lords”? [laughs] And each verse goes to this journey, but then they always just wrap up back to like, “I need humans, I just need ‘em. I need humans, that’s what I need.”
I do this sometimes in my albums where there’s two different endings of the record. I did a lot of theatre in high school and stuff so I always think of things in theatrical play formats where there’s the finale and then the epilogue, so I kind of felt like this song was the finale, and I wanted it to culminate, this universal message of “I need humans.” And I just wanted to build and build and build and then have it be the end of the record, and then have the following song just be some residual echo of all of the experience that you felt in this record.
11. Under Heaven
I feel like the record does kind of end with ‘Slipstream’, and then with the following song, it’s this unbelievably intimate song for just my wife. It’s kind of like ‘Slipstream’ is for everyone, this is the record’s climax. And then with ‘Under Heaven’, that was a song I wrote in the studio – I just sat down on the piano one night, and the same night that I wrote it, Kevin just recorded me playing the piano as you hear it. It’s just me on the piano. And I’m not the best piano player, but I tried to get through it, and I just had one more thing I needed to say, as if I hadn’t said enough already.
‘Slipstreams’ ends with that “only humans,” but then the actual album ends with “only you.” Because ultimately, she is that force in my life. This record is for her, in all intents and purposes. It’s a record for her out of love for her. And it was kind of like a little secret I wanted to tack onto the album. I think the song’s only a minute and a half long – you know, I have guitar solos that are 10 times longer than this song. [laughs] But I just wanted to say one last thing, and I didn’t want to end with this epic song. Because I ended the last record with ‘Forever Chords’, and I wanted to end this with an extremely simple statement.
And in a way, I’m singing to my wife, but I’m also singing to anyone listening to it, saying like, “only you, you’re the reason I” – I could still be making records and no one could be hearing them and I’d still love the songs, but then if you make eight records you become more and more aware of your fanbase, too, and you grow to love your fanbase. You grow to love the people who are there at your shows or buying your records. I’m just saying this as I’m processing now, but ‘Under Heaven’ is about my wife and her experience, but I guess the first line is “All of us living under heaven.” You know, it’s all of us too. The people listening are the reason why I’m still getting to make my dreams come true and writing songs.
There’s this sense to me in this song of the self becoming slowly diminished, because it starts off with “all of us” and then it’s “you and me” and then just “only you.” That’s what’s left in the end. And you said it was about having one more thing to say, but to me it feels like it’s more about all that can’t be said. Because it’s just this presence, this you or us. There’s no extended metaphor here. Like you said, it’s this echo.
Yeah. And ultimately, she’s the reason I’m able to be Strand of Oaks. Because she has a job, and, in times of struggle for me and when my band wasn’t necessarily taking over the world, she was the one taking care of me, that kept saying “Pursue your dream.” And she would be the one in the office working and paying the rent and buying the groceries and everything while I was trying to get anyone to listen to my music. And now that we’re somewhat on the other side of that, there’s just never going to be enough time in my life to say thank you to my wife. I would need to live like 10 more lifetimes to say thank you. And added on the weight that she suffered such a loss, I just wanted it to be this final embrace for her.
Simply because the piano ballad is kind of a rare thing in the Strand of Oaks catalog, I feel like people might subconsciously draw comparisons to the song ‘Cry’, even though it has a completely different purpose and it’s also the centrepiece of that record [Hard Love]. Were you conscious of that possible connection at all?
I think I completely forgot about the song ‘Cry’ up until the fact that you mentioned that. I should listen to that song. Like I said, I don’t listen to my old records and I don’t play that song live usually, but that’s actually amazing, because that song, that’s a real tough time in our marriage. And this song, it could not be more opposite of that. I think it’s grown-up me talking to my wife instead of just selfish, running around, idiot me, whatever time that was. It definitely feels like a different person singing this, but to the same person. And I loved her just as much as when I wrote ‘Cry’, but it feels like I just have evolved, maybe, more since then.
It definitely comes from a different place, even musically. It’s a comforting, stripped-back, fitting end to the album.
Strand of Oaks isn’t necessarily the most peaceful band in our history, and I wanted it to end with a moment of some kind mindfulness and some peace. I want that song to fade out and then maybe people are done listening to the album and they’re like – I want them to feel good. And I always want that with my records, but I wanted people to walk away and legitimately feel good and excited about being alive.
Strand of Oaks’ In Heaven is out now.