Clocked In: A conversation about bagging groceries and driving school buses with Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter

By
Dusdin Condren
Photo by Dusdin Condren

A couple weeks ago, Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter had just returned from a European press tour. “I’m just hanging out, cleaning the house,” he said, speaking on the phone from his home, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll Tuesday! Or, wait, it’s Wednesday. Shit. Sorry.”

“I didn’t sleep for like four days,” he confessed, attempting to justify not knowing what day it was. “I didn’t have to play shows while I was over there, I just had to talk to people, so I figured I’d just stay up and party, and rage it out. I think I had a mixture of lack of sleep and alcohol psychosis. I was having a hard time deciphering between dreams and reality. Was I dreaming or in the park? I didn’t know. But you gotta do that sometime… it keeps the beast alive.”

Showalter’s beast, Strand Of Oaks, is alive and well. He was overseas promoting his new album, Heal, out today via Dead Oceans. Unlike previous albums Dark Shores and Pope Killdragon, Showalter abandons metaphors and sci-fi concepts on Heal, where he sings about pain and love and the joys of being lonely in a no-frills kinda way. The new album’s noticeably heavier — more rocking — too, and Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis even drops in to rip a solo on early single “Goshen ’97.”

This Friday, Strand Of Oaks will play a WXPN Free At Noon show. In the meantime, here’s an interview with Showalter as part of a new column, “Clocked In,” which focuses on the past and present work experiences of Philadelphia-area musicians. Before he became Strand Of Oaks, Showalter held various jobs, from Kroger bag boy to second grade teacher. He told us all about them.

What was your first paid job?

Well, I always worked for my grandpa, doing construction jobs. But my first paid job was at a Kroger grocery store, in Indiana. I was part of a union. It was real. I was paying union dues at 15 for a bagging job. I was fantastic at it. I’m not very good at a lot of things, but if it’s ordered, and I have an exact purpose, I love it. And I loved making efficient bags for the ladies.

I actually quit this job; this doesn’t sound true, but it’s true. It was summer, in Indiana, and there was a tornado warning. The sky was turning yellow and pink and that’s a sign you need to get underground immediately. The tornado was there! So I had this mean old woman that was my boss, and she told me to go get the shopping carts in the parking lot so they wouldn’t blow away. I was thinking, “Fuck you, Cheryl! I quit! I’m not going out there to get the carts!” I definitely quit that job on account of a tornado almost killing me. We all went to hide in the freezer, and after that, I just rode my bike home and that was it.

Have you ever been fired from a job?

Nope. I’ve never been fired. I like working, so I always try to do a really good job no matter where I work. I quit a job after one day once. I was on a roofing crew, when I was 17, working with all these 30-year-old coke-heads. I was there for like six hours and they were just the craziest, meanest guys I’ve ever met. I was out in the sun, not getting paid much, and lifting plywood on a roof. They were doing bumps by their trucks, and I was like, “Nope, I’m not doing this, this is not what I want to do.”

That sounds like a bad scene. What sort of construction work were you doing with your grandpa?

One of my best summers ever was when my grandpa and me built a seven-stall storage garage, which took most of that summer. He was a farmer, and a typical midwest kind of guy. One day we had to put the trusses up on this garage, which were like 14 feet, to support the roof. We had to put up 7 or 8 of these, and my grandpa was like, “Make sure these are all put up when I get back in a few hours.” I didn’t know what to do at first, but I eventually rigged up a wench system with a Ferguson tractor, and I found a way to stabilize them and nail them in. That’s how I got my grandpa’s respect. I had to put up 14-foot trusses.

Was he impressed?

He was super-impressed. He let me take one extra water break that day. You’d think working with your grandpa would be this easy experience, but it wasn’t. It was 14 hour days, and we’d start working at about 5:30 a.m., to beat the sun. I would work all the time, so I’d work with my grandpa in the morning, and a lot of summers I had two jobs. I’d do construction all day, and then when I was 16 or 17, I worked at this place called Hollywood Connections. I was in charge of the snack area, and I had no idea how to make the snacks. I got no training, and I had no idea how to use the cash register. I worked there for two months and I had no idea how to do the job.

What sort of snacks?

There was a little pizza grill, and nachos, and things like that. I kinda learned how to make the pizza, but I’d tell people I’d make them this super-pizza and just put everything I could find on it. I didn’t know what I was doing! I had just finished working out in the sun with my grandpa for 8 hours and I was exhausted. It was a good way to meet girls, though. That part was fun.

Preparing people’s food incorrectly is bad. I used to make salads and desserts at this fancy restaurant in Virginia, and I once burnt salt on top of a crème brule instead of sugar. I didn’t notice, sent the dish out, and the customers were upset about it.

Oh, man. Luckily, I never worked in food. That job was the closest, but it doesn’t really count. I never worked in restaurants or learned how to use a cash register. I did all manual labor through high school, then in college… well, first, my dad had a car dealership. That was my favorite job ever. I would wash cars for my dad and do minor detail work, like fix bumpers. People there called me an “aqua technician.” It was so fun. I never got to hang with my dad because he worked 70 hours a week, and this job was great because we got to hang in the office, like two men rather than as father and son.

I’d sit in the back of the dealership and play my stereo really loud and wash and detail cars. One day, this dude showed up; I think he was friends with my dad or uncle. His name was Pete, and he had this huge collection of antique cars. He asked me to wash them and do full details. He said the only rule was the I had to drive them around. So, one summer, when I had just got my license, I was driving around in a ’69 Corvette to the movies, with girls. I drove a ’53 Cadillac, a ’71 Camaro. I’ve toured the world as a musician, but if I could just go back to Indiana and cruise around in the summer, in a white ’71 Camaro… I’ve never had more fun.

Where in Indiana is all this happening?

Goshen. Northern Indiana. There was nothing to do. It was like ’50s style. You’d cruise Main Street, but there was nothing going on. Summers were spent working and driving. Then working more and hanging out in someone’s yard. It was fun. I miss summer. When summer comes, I miss being in Indiana.

Eventually, you went to college. What were your study and work plans?

For the first two years, I went to a community college, so I still worked at my dad’s car dealership. I studied elementary education and psychology. Then I moved, super-randomly, to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. There I got a job at a daycare and worked the before-school shift. I’d get up at 4 in the morning and work until 10 or 11, and then take college classes, and then go back and work the afternoon shift at the school. I didn’t sleep for about a year and a half.

So, in a strange way, working at this daycare and not sleeping prepared you for your current sleepless rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Yeah, I don’t sleep still. From that point on, I taught at the daycare, then graduated college and substitute taught briefly. Then I got a job as a second grade teacher at an orthodox Hebrew school in Wilkes-Barre. I spent half the day with the kids, then half the day with the rabbis.

Backing up for a second – what college did you go to?

I went to three different schools. I spent one semester at Eastern University, in Philadelphia. It was only for about three months, which is how long it took me to realize I couldn’t bring girls up to the dorms. It was a Christian school or whatever, and I said, “Nope, not staying here.” Then I went back to Indiana and went to University of Indiana, South Bend. I was there for the rest of my freshman and sophomore year. Then I ended up at college in Wilkes-Barre, and that’s where I graduated from.

What is it with you and this attraction to Wilkes-Barre? Who moves there?

I was engaged to a girl in Indiana when I was 19 or 20. She dumped my ass – harsh dump – and I randomly met a guy in Philly when I was visiting, and he was from Wilkes-Barre. I went to visit him and then I just stayed for 10 years. I didn’t want to be in the same town as that girl, so I ran away from Indiana. I loved it there, and eventually got my job there. It was very random. He was just the only guy I knew who didn’t live in Indiana, so I went. It’s weird that I’ve had almost a 14 year relationship with Philly now. I’m not from here, but almost half my life has been spent in and around the city.

I still can’t believe that, of all the places to run to, you ran to Wilkes-Barre.

I think I’m the only person in the history of the world to do that. People I met were really surprised to find out that I wasn’t from there. People would always be like, “Wait, you didn’t move to Wilkes-Barre, did you?” I’d try to tell them I was from Indiana, but nobody believed me. Nobody moves there. But I did it!

Unlike many of the young people profiled in New York Times articles, it sounds like you went to college with a clear post-graduation work plan in mind.

I definitely wanted to be a teacher; I have a lot of teachers in my family. I was a good teacher because I taught at a really good school, with very small classes and amazing students. I probably couldn’t cut it at a public school, where the teachers have to do more paperwork. There are so many crazy government requirements that you spend half the year teaching a kid to take a test that, if they don’t do well on, the school loses funding, you get fired, and everyone’s screwed. In a private school, I didn’t have to deal with that. We could just learn and have fun, and there were only 10 kids in the class. All I did was teach and there was very little testing. Kids loved coming to school and they weren’t stressed out.

At this age group, you didn’t teach just one subject, but a few different ones, right?

Reading, writing, arithmetic, all of it. Second grade is really fun because it’s a really big year for kids. You don’t learn how to read, but you really dig into reading comprehension. And this is the year multiplication is introduced. To see the children come in as babies at the beginning, and then leave completely different, was a great feeling. Those kids were the best. It was very fulfilling. I also taught some older kids when I was there, and it’s crazy to think that they’re now in their 20s.

Now they’re old enough to attend your concerts.

Yeah, they’re opening for me. Or I’m opening for their band. They’re fresh out of Bard, getting 9.1′s on Pitchfork now.

They’re Parquet Courts!

Exactly. They’re playing nerdy art-pop and I was their teacher.

Did you find a way to bring your passion for music into the classroom?

All the time. Another funny story: I was the bus driver at the same time I was the teacher. It was good extra-cash; I got paid a lot to do it. I picked up the kids in this 15 passenger van and took them to school. They wall wanted to listen to Miley Cyrus, or whatever Disney star was big at the time, and I said, “No, we’re gonna listen to Mogwai.” I turned them on to post-rock! They must’ve thought I was insane. For an hour every day, we’d just listen to tunes together on the bus.

In class, I’d always have my guitar. We’d always write songs together; we wrote an annual Thanksgiving song. One was “It’s Thanksgiving Time,” another was “Woah, Woah, It’s Thanksgiving.” I have recordings of those somewhere. We always had music.

On Fridays, if they did well on their spelling or math tests, we had a pet hamster that we’d put in this ball that would roll around the room. At the end of the day, we had this thing called “rock and roll,” and I’d play music and put the hamster in the ball. He’d just roll around the classroom and we’d listen to rock music. That was a good time for the kids.

The rite of passage was, after you graduated form my class, you had to call me “Papa Show.” They had to call me “Mr. Showalter” when they were in my class, but afterward they could call me “Papa Show.”

Were you teaching up until the point when the music thing happened?

I moved from Wilkes-Barre to Philly in 2009, because my wife was getting her master’s at Drexel. I made the decision to do music, but the world didn’t take notice. It was a struggle. It still is a struggle. And there were some lean years in the Showalter house when I was trying to make records and play house shows. There were many days when I’d go to the ATM and buy gas and find out I had literally no money. I would have little part time jobs here and there, but I haven’t had a full time job since 2009. It’s been mostly music, to the dismay of my checking account and my wife’s mental health.

You seem to be doing better now, steadily touring, releasing albums regularly…

I’m doing better. A lot of people associate DIY musicians with punk bands playing basements. I always thought of myself as being a DIY musician who wanted to make records that sound really good and didn’t just play basements. I didn’t want to be an amateur, or stay in the basement. And presenting yourself as a legitimate musician takes a lot of money. Strand Of Oaks has had to follow the “spend money to make money” philosophy. I’m still awaiting the make money part, actually. I’ve done good with breaking even, which is a big accomplishment. I’m proud of that, but hopefully soon I can make some money and take my wife on vacation.

At least now you can take her on tour with you.

The problem with being a musician and being married is that you can’t afford to take your wife on a proper vacation, but here I am in Paris having cognac with Neutral Milk Hotel, and I have to tell my wife on the phone, “It’s not vacation, this is work! I’m at work right now!” That’s a difficult conversation to have: “I’ve been smoking a shit ton of weed in Amsterdam because I’m at work!” I owe my wife big time.

Not to jinx you here, but let’s say your music career goes to shit: What job will you pursue? Teaching?

I think about this a lot. I’m a history buff, so If I could work at the Liberty Bell – I’d probably have to cut my hair – that would be great. “Oh, you want to learn about George Washington?” Actually, I was at a Valley Forge park the other day, and I walked up to this park ranger and asked him, “How do I get your job?” I’d love to be a park ranger and be outside all day. I’d love to clear the trails at some park, just give me a chainsaw and a four-wheeler. That would be my dream job.

Strand Of Oaks plays WXPN’s Free At Noon concert this Friday.

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