Note: A shortened version of this interview appears in this week’s Other Paper. Pick it up for free at newsstands or visit TheOtherPaper.com.
Strand of Oaks put out my favorite album of 2010, Pope Killdragon. The group’s second full-length, it’s staggeringly beautiful and more than a little bizarre. The band is essentially the solo project of Philadelphia’s Timothy Showalter, who will play the support slot for Joe Pug at the Rumba Café on Tuesday (along with local act Dolfish). Reached on the road recently via email, Showalter answered questions about how the album’s songs–which touch on subjects like Dan Aykroyd and a 12-foot giant–came into being. He also talked about his decision to include “Giant’s Despair,” an instrumental doom-metal track, on the album.
How did you end up writing a song from the perspective of Dan Aykroyd about the death of John Belushi? It’s not typical folk-song fodder.
Actually, a friend of mine from Scranton, Pa., was putting together a Dan Aykroyd compilation (for some unknown reason) and asked me to contribute. Like all things Strand of Oaks, I took a funny idea and somehow made it into something really sad. I was staying up late thinking about Dan and suddenly began to sympathize with how he must have felt after losing John Belushi.
Your first album, Leave Ruin, was a little easier to tie directly to your life. You endured a catastrophic house fire, and the first album track was “End in Flames.” Pope Killdragon seems to blend your own experience with a created mythology, and the line between the two is often blurred. For example, “Sterling” seems to be as much about your grandfather as it is about JFK. How did you end up merging the two?
I spent a lot of time writing the lyrics for Leave Ruin. I was very new to songwriting, so I thought in order for a song to be solid, you need to labor over it intensely. When it came to Pope Killdragon, I tended to write the lyrics in one pass. “Sterling” was written in probably 15 minutes. I had just finished walking around Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) and felt the need to write that song. I would have to stereotypically include herbal influence on some of the songs, as well. But a lot of the lyrics are the result of my growing into adulthood. The pain on the record is not as clearly defined as some of my previous songs. Often I wasn’t sure about where the source even came from. With “Sterling,” I knew I really missed my grandpa, but I was also sad about this historic hotel right down the street getting torn down. I don’t think I’m smart enough to preplan metaphors, so I feel that merge came pretty organically with most of the songs.
“Giant’s Despair” was quite a departure for you. Those are some monstrous, metal guitars. Did you have any trepidation about the song when you recorded it and/or decided to include it?
I wrote this riff about a day before I went to record. It was the first song we tracked because I was so excited about it. I really would love to make a whole record that sounds like this. I was most proud of the crazy, pitch-bent synth bass. When we were recording, it sounded like the giant turtle from The Neverending Story coming to life. There were many discussions on whether this would be appropriate, but when I considered the overall strangeness of the album, it found its place just fine.
You recently released the demos from Pope Killdragon as a free download. How and where did you record those?
I recorded the demos right after my wife and I moved to Philadelphia. I was desperately missing Wilkes-Barre and wondering if quitting teaching was a good idea. It was a pretty vulnerable time. I really like how the demos came out, but I still lack a lot of confidence in my recording abilities. I have a very primitive setup. I only had one synthesizer to use, so that presented a nice challenge with getting the most out of a few sounds.
Was it obvious as you were recording them that a cohesive album was forming?
It was actually the opposite. I had to constantly fight the thought that I was crazy for thinking the songs were going to be my next album. Once all the songs were finished, I started to realize that there was a narrative forming. I have had the name Pope Killdragon floating around for about six years–just this wild character that kept popping up in my mind. I’m glad I finally got to put it to good use!
“Alex Kona” is more than nine minutes on the demos. Was it painful to cut it down to three minutes, or did that come about naturally?
I suppose you should refer to the herbally influenced section above. I just started sound-collaging the song until it grew into something like 20 minutes long. In retrospect, I like the demo version of “Alex Kona” more than the album’s, but I cut the collage in order to make room for “Giant’s Despair.”
You used Kickstarter.com to raise funds for the vinyl version of Killdragon. Were you surprised how quickly the support came? It was fully funded in a couple of days, right?
I still can’t believe how nice that whole experience was. We honestly just wanted to reach the original goal, but we met that goal in about seven hours. For an insecure guy like me, things like that really help validate what I’m trying to do. The Kickstarter campaign really set things on a great path that I feel like I’m on right now. It felt like the dark clouds were beginning to lift a bit.
Has all the buzz garnered some label interest? Would you like some label help, or are you content to do all this on your own?
We’ve spoken to some amazing labels and continue to do so. It all boils down to what is the right fit. There are some definite frontrunners right now, and it’s pretty cool just to be speaking with them. My main goal is to keep making records, and whatever setting allows me to do that best is fine by me.
Lately you’ve covered songs by Phosphorescent (“Wolves”), Beck (“The Golden Age”), Joe Pug (“Hymn #101”) and Damien Jurado (“Ohio”). Can we expect to hear those or other covers on this tour? How do you decide what artists/songs to cover?
I’ve pulled out “Ohio” a few times. It’s hard for me to do covers live because I have a terrible time remembering lyrics. It is pretty amazing to see Joe play “Hymn 101” every night. That song is an absolute masterpiece. Most of the songs I cover come about pretty natural. They’re usually just swimming in my head and the guitar parts are easy enough for me to pull off.
What’s your setup like on this tour? Just guitar? Keyboard?
This tour is just me and my spaceship of guitar pedals. I’m finally getting a tone I can live with, so it makes performing solo much better.
Have you started thinking about your next record yet?
Yeah, I started to demo before I left for SXSW. So far it’s going really well. The songs are growing into something much different than Killdragon. Hopefully I’ll get to recording this summer. I can’t wait to move on to something new!
Strand of Oaks and Dolfish will open for Joe Pug & the Hundred Mile Band at 9 p.m. Tuesday (April 26) at the Rumba Café, 2507 Summit St. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door ($2 surcharge for ages 18-20). 614-268-1841 or columbusrumbacafe.com.