Strand of Oaks on How Alice Coltrane, Ram Dass, Beastie Boys, and More Inspired His New Album ‘Miracle Focus’

    On his last Strand of Oaks album, In Heaven, Tim Showalter was caught in the midst of cosmic turmoil. After relocating to Austin, Texas, getting sober, and experiencing profound grief, he made a record that was essentially about trying to be happy and convey vast, intangible feelings, an effort that rendered it one of his most transcendent and cathartic releases to date. Like In Heaven, his new album, Miracle Focus, seeks to create a space for joy and spiritual reflection, but finally reaches that place in a way that feels – through movement, meditation, and pure inspiration – natural and almost effortless. He still struggles with explaining the record: “How do you explain a place of bliss?” he says at the start of our conversation. It’s inexplicable, but it’s there, resulting in a vibrant, rhythmic, and bold record that holds plenty of surprises even for the most devoted Strand of Oaks fans.

    Showalter has been Strand of Oaks for two decades now, but for a couple of years before Miracle Focus, the Indiana-born singer-songwriter got to distance himself from that identity. He committed himself to painting and acting, and when it came to writing new music, he couldn’t help but channel the influences he’d accumulated along the way. On his previous album, you could hear the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and John Prine in between songs that explored personal loss. This time, there’s Alice Coltrane, Hilma af Klint, Beastie Boys, Freddie Mercury, and Ram Dass, all helping to provide tools for Showalter to build a new kind of infrastructure and language around the project. Free from expectations, he could go somewhere else entirely, yet that somewhere just so happens to feel true to the vision he’s held from the beginning.

    We caught up with Strand of Oaks to talk about some of the inspirations behind Miracle Focus, including Rodney Mullen, Alice Coltrane, Hilma af Klint, Beastie Boys, and more.


    Rodney Mullen

    I know very little about skateboarding, but I understand that Rodney Mullen’s influence goes beyond skateboarding. I’ve heard him described as a kind of artist in his own right. Do you feel the same way?

    The process of making Miracle Focus was very long, and purposely so, because I wanted it to gestate. I viewed the writing process as architecture instead of pulling things from the ether and hoping some inspiration randomly comes. I started building this infrastructure, my creative foundation for the record. In the past, I just amalgamated a lot of music and ideas, but this one in particular, I found my inclination towards a general filter – I called it the miracle filter. It came from so many different places, and Rodney Mullen is a perfect example of focus. I didn’t skate, either. I always wanted to skate – I did BMX riding, mediocre, as a kid, but as an adult, I started finding and revisiting skate culture because there’s something extremely focused, DIY, just pure expression, that was deeply influential to me.

    All you have to do is watch very early Rodney Mullen street contests, when he was 17 or 18. What you’re seeing is something as foundational as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington when it comes to the art form of skateboarding, because he’s doing these 10-minute routines of connected tricks, but at the time, he was inventing 2 or 3 tricks in each routine that are foundational to skateboarding since then. He just pulled these things together out of complete inspiration. A lot of Miracle Focus is the self-discovery of meditation, connectivity, and mindfulness. I would watch Rodney Mullen skate – and speak, too, he’s such an inspiring speaker. It’s pure inspiration to hear him talk, and watching Rodney Mullen encouraged me to dig deeper to the core of it all. If you liberate your mind from many things, you can express yourself in extremely efficient ways. There’s a TED Talk by Rodney Mullen that, even if you know nothing about skateboarding, is incredibly helpful to your daily life.

    I actually came across a quote from him because it was sampled on the latest Bleachers record. It’s from the Tony Hawk documentary Until the Wheels Fall Off, and he says something to the effect of, “I wish I could relate the intangibles to you. My guess is that we’re all built the same.” That feels very much in line with what this record is about.

    Yeah. You know, in history, we’ve called people magicians and things – we attach these terms to people. But in reality, seeing him, he’s a conjurer of magic in that way. How else do you create something that does not exist and cause a seismic shift in a worldwide movement? He would just practice for 10 hours a day. He was just focused, like the great painters and artists.

    Hilma af Klint

    Painting was a big life change for you around the making of In Heaven, and you cited Hilma af Klint as an inspiration for that one. Going into this record, how did you allow yourself to channel those influences or the creativity that seeped into that area of your life?

    The timeline is so long with Miracle Focus that even during the years I was doing interviews for the last record, I was already in that culture of what was next. What I realized was that the time I painted – I was 38, and I’d been in a pattern of a character and a story that kept retelling the same cycle of my whole life being 24/7 music. What happened was that opening myself up to art began this process of stopping those patterns that I was continuously involved in. I could have listed 50 artists, but something about Hilma af Klint is that she taught me a way you can amalgamate whatever works to get to the place you need to go, which is that inexplicable place that Miracle Focus represents. I don’t know if it’s God – there’s a quote I love that says, “God is the wisdom in the universe.” If that is what Hilma Klint was tapped into – she obviously was – it’s providing a gateway for whoever sees her work to find that in their own lives.

    I have a song on Miracle Focus called ‘Future Temple’, and that was one of her first gallery exhibitions – I don’t know if that’s exactly what it was called. But when I was painting, even when we spoke last, I realized that each large painting I did was the equivalent of an album, as far as experiences transferring from my heart onto the canvas. When I did this painting for two years, I was not writing songs because I realized I can’t multitask with channeling. I thought I could write songs and paint, but I can’t do both.

    So, I devoted myself to painting and educating myself in art. What it did was it brought a conceptual realization to my life that I didn’t know I had. When I write songs, I viewed it as a task: start a song, finish it, write lyrics, make parts. With painting, I then approached my songs as I would painting. When I look at a painting, I don’t know where the end is – I’ve painted pictures where I went well past the ending, or I wasn’t fully focused on the task at hand. All this shifted my entire approach to songwriting. Looking at painters like Hilma af Klint, Gerhard Richter, Basquiat, and Keith Haring – all of these individuals who made their whole life art. Everything Basquiat did was his art project. Everything Keith Haring did was to exalt the power of artistic expression, whether it be his fashion or his art. I think that’s what painting brought to Miracle Focus, where the album was just part of the building, just one floor of the building.

    A few of these influences I’ve listed are similar – people that showed me a way to divine energy that I never quite grasped, maybe, from religion. What I realized is that I’m an art-minded person, and that’s my gateway to some form of a blissful experience. I have prints of Hilma af Klint I’m looking at right now, and they take me there. The beauty is living in that inexplicable place. The language and message that Basquiat tries to deliver – I see it, I know it, I feel it, it rearranges me, but it rearranges me to such an extent that I couldn’t write a paper on it. I just know that feeling is in my heart that I hopefully will carry with me the rest of my life.

    Mayans MC co-creator Elgin James

     

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    What did you learn from him personally and from being on the show?

    I never was aware how bad I needed something until I met Elgin James and put on the television show. Obviously it was awesome, every moment I was on set was the coolest thing ever. But I realized I needed a few things in my life at that moment, which Elgin provided. I needed a mentor, someone I respected as a human being. And I also realized how much I longed for collaboration. When I met Elgin, we just had dinner, and we spoke for like three hours, talking about records and joking. Unbeknownst to me, that was my audition. Then I was just told out of the blue that I was now on this television show, and I had never acted before. That experience led me, just like painting, to the new mind. It allowed me to be in a place where I desperately – and still, I’m struggling with it – want to extricate myself from Strand of Oaks and let it be something I do, but not be me. When I’m just Strand of Oaks, it consumes me in a negative way with ego, anxiety, fear of failure – it’s been 20 years I’ve been Strand of Oaks, and I look for things now to take me away from that.

    Being on Mayans, I saw Elgin – I use the word hero a lot, but I can’t believe I get to be friends with this person. I didn’t have a big part in the show, but I was just there making lifelong friends with focused people who were part of this vision that Elgin had. I don’t think it’s that common on TV sets for that amount of camaraderie and love to exist. They always say, on a television show, it’s top down, and Elgin was the top. I am in Strand of Oaks, it’s my band, so I have band members and people I work with. But it’s just me, there’s nobody above it. To be in an experience where I would do a scene correctly, and Elgin, this big, strong guy, would come over and pat me on the shoulder, I was like, “I haven’t had anybody pat me on the shoulder since I played basketball 30 years ago.” I don’t know what that did to me, but I just wanted to make him happy, and everybody on set – we’d work 14 hours sometimes, and I just knew how hard Elgin was working, and I wanted to honor him in my own work.

    As I was on Mayans, I was also writing Miracle Focus, and Elgin was writing Mayans. The most amazing thing is we just text all the time. We have this spiritual antenna that goes up when one of us needs each other. I’ll just get a text out of the blue, and I needed that text so badly. When he was writing the finale of one of the seasons, he used the song ‘Hurry’ as this big montage, and he didn’t intend for that. But one night, at about 11 o’clock at night, he called me and said, “I need to change this, and I’m gonna build it around ‘Hurry’.” Mayans and Strand of Oaks just had this connectivity that I felt like I was there in a new role for me to be supportive. I’m not old, but I am 41, so internet lingo I don’t catch on, but I’ve recently learned people say “main character syndrome.” [laughs] I thought that’s such a poignant phrase that I suffer from very often. I was so happy not to be the main character, to be in this supportive, listening, quiet capacity – and also be uncomfortable.

    I haven’t been uncomfortable as a band since I was 15. I’m almost too comfortable playing live concerts because I’ve learned how to do it. It helped me write Miracle Focus because I was nervous to try something new, and I thought, if I can walk into a major television show and not completely suck, which I don’t think I sucked – I don’t think I’m gonna win an Oscar anytime soon, but I didn’t suck at it – that gave me the courage to go for it with music. Like, “I just stunt-drove a car on an expensive TV set. I think I can finally embrace the record I’ve wanted to make since I was 20 and have been scared to do it.” Elgin is a completely unique force in the creative world, and whatever led me to having him as my friend is a blessing that is impossible to sum up. There would be no Miracle Focus if there wasn’t Elgin James.

    Was there a specific moment of that sense of connectivity that fed into the world of Miracle Focus?

    The first season I was on Mayans, I was painting halfway through, and then writing the songs. I work in metaphors a lot in my mind, like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign – I view my life as that, so I build mythology. But on the television show, if you’ve seen pictures of me, I look like a biker. It may have been some protective spell that I built over the years to maybe not disguise, but add armor to, potentially, like a scared kid that I may have been or an awkward person. I’ve built this exterior, and then I played that exterior on a television show. Nothing is without intention with Elgin. My name was Hoosier, and that’s a term for someone from Indiana. And I, in a way, played myself – it was me, but with the biker vest on. And then at the end of the show, I was killed. It was a wild ending, but I was killed at a merch table in a punk rock club, which was intentional too. I felt that was a gift from Elgin, to say, like, “You could be done with that. You’ve been that for a long time, and I just did you a favor.” I’m not saying anything’s done, but I’m just saying the necessity to continue to regurgitate the same person, I felt freed from when I walked away from this. I was like, “I’m liberated from expectations of me, from the metaphor.”

    Charles Mingus’ ‘Myself When I Am Real’

    My music listening habits had plateaued for a few years – in a scary way, I could have just listened to the same records forever and been fine, this is my comfort zone. Through friends and exposure, I felt like I was granted access into another level of music listening. Through work and my entire life of digging deeper into music, I felt like I was given some key card that opened the door and that allowed me to see there is a whole other level of music consumption that I wasn’t aware of. It might be the same way that my grandma from the South would hear a hymn that she loved, and it affected her in a way that even with my favorite records I didn’t know, like, “How could that song affect you so deeply?” I believe that I opened my heart up to that next place.

    This song, ‘Myself When I Am Real’ – first of all, the title alone is just paradigm-shifting, to really think about that. My favorite instrument is piano – I wish I could have the ability to express myself better, but I love Keith Jarrett, I love Bach. This Charles Mingus song is again working in the world of the inexplicable. I think it’s the human experience from beginning to end. There’s bravado, there’s loss, there’s death, there’s complete joy. It feels like within the movement of the song, he keeps returning to this bravado – it almost feels like a matador at times, like, “I’m here, and I’m standing against existence.” Then it seeps down into chaos, confusion, and bliss, and then you rise back up again. I listen to that song with such active listening, where I almost have a Tai Chi-type movement that I do to it. I’ll have my headphones on at night when no one’s watching, and it’s not a dance necessarily, it’s just the energy moving with that song – I’ve almost choreographed movements, and those movements then became something very similar to yoga. I found a rhythm in the music beyond a danceable rhythm; this galactic rhythm, this bliss rhythm. I found myself moving to this song, stretching my arms, finding places that emotionally the song speaks to.

    I’m a 41-year-old, somewhat in-shape person, but I’m not very flexible. I don’t put enough self-love into my own body. When I stretch, I realize: Wow, that’s where sadness lives. I think that’s where the loss I’ve had in my life lives, or this is where something pent up is. I know this is very in space, whatever I’m explaining, but that’s the power of this Mingus song and many others I’ve discovered. Even now, I can think of the whole song and how I’ve found release. Art can take me far to the center, but still, the language of my heart is music. The vibrations that come into my body with music can touch me at a level deeper than anything. Even if it’s not a mixtape, even if it’s a song and someone hears it and they get 5% of the experience I’ve taken from this song, it’s a completely meaningful endeavor.

    Alice Coltrane

    I realize that my whole life, as long as I can remember, from the first song I ever heard – I think it was off a cartoon called American Tale, and it was about a little mouse. I remember my mom bought me the album. I was probably five years old, and I just ran around the table for like two hours, I kept telling my mom to keep playing the record. Something whipped my soul into exhilaration with music, and it never changed. That’s why so many of my songs on my albums are tributes to other artists or honoring other artists. I realized, and I’d said it before, that music is my church. But I kind of said that as a tagline, even, something clever to say. But when I heard the song ‘Om Shanti’ by Alice Coltrane, I realized this is what I’ve looked for in my listening life. I’m hesitant to talk about this stuff because I don’t have a definition, but even though I didn’t know the words Alice Coltrane was singing, I realized they were a language to speak to God with. And God – I don’t know what that means. Again, this is the inexplicable part. But Alice Coltrane gave me that gift through her music.

    I meditate a lot, and I listen to her record Turiya Sings. It’s just her and an organ, and she’s singing kirtan songs. I’m studying, but I don’t know exactly what she’s saying. I just know these words are vibrating through me in a way I didn’t know I had the capacity for. Forgive me for talking about meditation, because sometimes I feel like talking about meditation is like someone explaining their dream to you. I promise I’m not trying to be pretentious. If anything, I hope to give some kind of hope that even if you’re this stressed-out middle-aged dude, you can find peace. That’s kind of the point of my album, and that’s what Alice Coltrane got me to shoot for, to arrive at. She says Ananda a lot, and Ananda is universal bliss, universal consciousness, universal connectivity through everything, like the symphony of the universe. I felt like I was invited into that room through the music of Alice Coltrane. She lived such a life and faced terrible tragedy with the passing of her husband, and she brought all of that into her music. And she brought the world – East and West, Detroit soul, Detroit gospel, American music and world music – she bridges all of these things together in such a harmonious way. I realize that the record I made, Miracle Focus, is stylistically very different, but my goal was the same. I’m not saying I necessarily achieved it, because I don’t think it’s something you can achieve, but I wanted to make my music a service rather than a product.

    When the day comes and I pass on to whatever is next, I hope that Alice Coltrane is played at my funeral to lead me to the next phase. My friend, who meditates and really works at the practice, summed it up best: meditation is preparation for death. Not in a gothic or dark way, but it’s just preparing for the inevitable. Songs like ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ really make that statement true. Loss is coming in all our lives – things I spoke about with In Heaven, but when I wrote In Heaven, I felt like I was trying to paint in the dark. My heart was trying to tell me something, it was these impulsive releases of emotion and maybe spiritual thoughts, but I had no structure to work out. From that point until now, through the help of Alice Coltrane, it’s like she turned the lights on for me. I can now transfer that understanding into what Strand of Oaks is, and I truly believe in the most organic way possible. Maybe not for listeners who are like, “Why am I listening to an Italo disco synthesizer record all of a sudden?” But for me, when the lights were turned on into this place of creation, I had no ability to shift – that was the river I was on, and lyrically and stylistically, that’s where my heart went. Which is also cool because Alice Coltrane has probably the coolest synthesizer sounds I’ve ever heard as a connoisseur of synths. If this is divine already, she’s also playing an Oberheim OB-X? Oh, my heart!

    Ram Dass

    How was your understanding of spirituality shaped by Ram Dass, and how did it become an integral part of Future Temple?

    I have an inclination – I don’t know if it’s a gift or a curse – to sniff out bullshit. It might just be how I was raised – my dad is a guru at sniffing out if people are authentic or not. He was a car salesman, but he has great communication skills and is able to read people, and I learned a lot from him. In a way, it’s benefited me because I don’t waste a lot of time on things that aren’t worth it, musically or with other people. I can quickly tell if a situation isn’t connecting with me. With Ram Dass – Dick Alpert – the thing that really pushed me over the edge of opening up to what he was talking about is the fact that he has the same background. He was a leading psychologist and therapist, and I actually studied to be a psychologist in school. I majored in psychology, I’m very interested in it. But it’s analytical – you’re constantly analyzing, mapping out all the roads of potential “Where is this coming from?” and it’s a never-ending highway and road system of your mind. I have that, but someone as intellectually gifted as Ram Dass – to be able to have that mind and through every single scenario of why it’s full of shit, and at the end of it still find peace, still find, “I don’t know why I believe in this, but I do, and it helps, and it feels extremely real.” I appreciate his ability to translate bliss into logical sentences. He was able to do that and express it in a way that felt like he was speaking of my own experiences, just more eloquently.

    I have a small place where I meditate, and there’s a picture of Ram Dass on the left and Alice Coltrane on the right. On the left, there’s Hanuman, which is Ram Dass’s central force that he speaks about, like the servant to God and all that. On the right is Ganesha, which I associate with Alice, this strength and stability in the universe. And I think about how those two really shaped the gateway opening for me, because Ram Dass is also hilarious and impulsive. When I first heard him, I thought, “Man, this guy’s oversharing. He’s saying way too much information.” I’ve always done that, and I think with the best of intentions. There’s the obvious – his words are so beautiful, and the way he speaks feels like listening to John Coltrane’s saxophone. It’s just the way his voice vibrates in me. But it’s more that he helped become my translator for what I was experiencing, similar to Alan Watts or others, but Ram Dass felt like a friend – he feels like a friend.

    Ever since I was little, I worry all the time – I’m always worrying about something, whether small or large. Ram Dass helped me find tools to deal with that. For example, I was doing solo shows in Europe last year or two years ago – I can’t remember – and they were big theaters because I’m pretty well-known in Belgium and the Netherlands. I was by myself, so there was a sold-out big theater waiting for me that night. Within the same night, I found out we had gotten a new kitty that was such a dream. But about an hour before the concert, I found out that this kitty had some terrible disease and wasn’t going to make it. I have this in my head right before going on stage. And then, right after I found out that information, I spoke with my grandma because it was her birthday – my grandma, who recently passed away, was in late-stage dementia. So I’m speaking to her, dealing with this tidal wave of emotion, and I have an hour to go on stage and somehow entertain 1,200 people. I just thought, how do I do this? In the past, I almost sociopathically had an ability to disconnect and then do it. I didn’t want to do that this time. I remember my mind was in a really wild place, and I was alone in my green room, and I just sat with it.

    I said certain things to help me get centered – it’s easy to listen to Ram Dass when you’re stoned and think it’s cool or talk about meditation with friends around a campfire, but this was truly a time to see if this practice works, stuff I’ve heard Ram Dass talk about or what Alice Coltrane sang about. I did that for about half an hour, and it didn’t take away my situation or disconnect me. What it did was it connected it all, and I felt like I was dancing with it all. After meditating, I was tuning my guitar and getting ready to go on stage, and I felt this thing come over me. It just said, “You need to be a vessel of peace and love, to push that out and send that signal. That’s your purpose.” And I was able to do it. I was able to live with all of that stuff going on, but also fully embrace the moment of the situation, the beauty and joy that a live show can bring. That’s what opening my heart to that was able to do.

    Beastie Boys

    Given the spiritual grounding of the record, this might be an even more surprising influence than someone like Alice Coltrane. But it’s clearly emblematic of the fun, joyful quality of the music.

    Absolutely. I don’t want to do a disservice to the wonderful art that influenced me for a long time, but I find it interesting that my favorite band when I was 13 years old was the Beastie Boys. [laughs] It was just so fun, and they said bad words sometimes! My older brother loved them, and then I kind of got serious. I don’t know why. When I was like 17 or 18, I just got real serious. Not saying it was a bad move, but I took things so seriously, and I thought that’s what brought validation to whatever I was doing – the seriousness of it. MCA, Adam Yauch, really brought to a major band the idea of consciousness and meditation, especially after Check Your Head. But the majority of it – and I again, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my own record, because these talks are so serious, but the music itself is, at least from my opinion, kinetic, fun, joyful, goofy sometimes.

    Life is short, and I am of the age where I think I’m entering my “don’t give a fuck” era that  I’ve seen other people kinda enter when they’re like, “I’ve lived enough to be like I’m gonna do whatever I want.” I’d like to keep making records, but I made Miracle Focus for so many pure reasons that the result of how it “does” – I already feel fine with it, because I’m like, “Holy shit, I actually did it.” I can’t believe I did this album, this thing that I wanted to do. I wanted to make this this fun manual for perhaps a more positive existence, but I don’t want it to come across like I’m sitting in a fancy yoga studio, dressed in all white. I wanted it to feel like a headphone rave that you put on by yourself, you light some incense, and you just go away for a little bit. That’s how I made it.

    I think we need more Beastie Boys in this world right now. It just felt like they swung so so big, and sometimes it was like, “What are you all doing”? But it was something that helped me recharge my battery, because I’m eight records, and just like any long-term relationship, you gotta do stuff to keep it interesting. When it comes to songwriting, you gotta do the same – switch stuff up, find that new form of motivation. I just owe so much to their artistry and their their pure devotion to – fun is not a big enough word for Beastie Boys, but think it’s fitting. I feel good when I listen to Beastie Boys, and I kind of hoped some of that feeling good moved into my songs. Production-wise, I can’t even list the times where they do things where I’m like, “You guys turned that synthesizer up that loud?” But it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. When I was making Miracle Focus, writing it and producing it = with my friend Kevin, we did the same shit. We can’t hesitate if we’ve committed this deep into what we’re trying to do with this album. If we’re going for it, we have to go all the way for it, and that’s what Beastie Boys really taught me.


    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Strand of Oaks’ Miracle Focus is out now via Western Vinyl.

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