If you think you know Strand of Oaks, prepare to do a double take. Trading the guitar for atmospheric synths, Spacestations shows a new vision for the band.
For the past year we've been told time and time again that the band we need to bring in is Tim Showalter's Strand of Oaks. We've heard it from people like Sharon Van Etten, Family Band, and the WXPN family, so when curator Chris Ward (Johnny Brendas, Pattern is Movement) made the suggestion, we were happy to take him up on it.
An affable, long-haired and bearded Philadelphian-by-way-of-Indiana, Showalter came to Miner Street Recordings along with Ward and Buried Bed's Eliza Jones to record "Spacestations" over two days in the cold week between between Christmas and the New Year.
If you think you know Strand of Oaks, prepare to do a double take. "Spacestations" features none of the guitar work that drives Showalter's past releases. The song is full of synthesizers, tape flange, and massive performances: to call it a departure would be an understatement. Ward, a venue promoter by day and the drummer for one of Philadelphia's most intriguing art-rock exports, Pattern is Movement, seemed more than happy with the new direction. "We should be taking risks, we should be taking leaps. That is the whole point of art," he says. "Tim is a special dude. He has a unique take on rock and roll, and folk - a way of getting you hooked listening to his lyrics, in a way that I feel most songwriters don't."
“I've been glued to my guitar for 10 years now,” says Showalter, “but I've never felt comfortable as a guitar player, or playing any instruments for that matter. I'm much happier as band leader.”
On first impression, Showalter may seem the quintessential folk guy, but he's quick to point out his teenage techno roots (if not somewhat humorously). After quitting his day job teaching second graders, he made the commitment to music, releasing the first two Strand of Oaks records: Leave Ruin and Pope Killdragon. He followed them up with touring, originally playing solo shows, but more recently experimenting with band arrangements. Along the way, he's become a favorite of many more established artists, as well as a small but ever-growing base of passionate fans.
“Tim has a way of getting you hooked to his lyrics in a way I feel a lot of people don't. And underneath that is a pretty unique take on rock and roll and folk.”
It was clear the session would be an opportunity to do something different, as terms like "analog synths" and "Phil Collins' drum sounds" came up repeatedly. "I've been glued to my guitar for 10 years now," says Showalter, "but I've never felt comfortable as a guitar player, or playing any instruments for that matter. Maybe to not have to do those things is a good thing."
"Spacestations"' most distinguishing feature is the huge amount of space provided by the song's sparse arrangement. There's not a single guitar strum anywhere, and Showalter, who normally plays almost everything in his recordings, only sang. It's something he hopes to do more. We hope this episode of Shaking Through will be a turning point for him, one that shows him he can go in any direction he'd like and we will all eagerly follow.
When a song is this simple, all the different elements get room to breath. The result is an astonishingly “big” song. And nowhere is it bigger than lead vocals.
Showalter, Jones, and Ward started Day 1 recording the basic track to tape, with Ward playing the house drum kit and Jones on the Roland Juno 6 analog synthesizer. Showalter's job was simple: to guide them through their performance with a hushed "scratch" vocal take.
The absence of guitars meant the drums could be massive. Heavily compressing and gating the drums was engineer Jonathan Low and McTear's half-joking attempt to satisfy that Phil Collins reference. A prototype pair of Samar ribbon mics, provided for the session by Joel at Ecstatic Electric Audio, was placed
a few feet of the drums with the "null" (the side of the mic that doesn't pick up sound) pointed at the set.
Tracking basics normally takes several passes, but not in this case. “We had them play the song 3 or 4 times,” laughs producer Brian McTear, “even though we knew we got it in the first take.”
Showalter sang into Joel's UM75, a 75th Anniversary Edition of the Geffel UM57. It was a super smooth, classy microphone, running through an A-Designs Pacifica preamp with an LA2A compressor. Jones sang back-ups through the same chain.
All elements complement each other. It's what makes this a great mix. Everything fits without being redundant. Everything has it's place to shine.
By the time tracking was finished, Jones had performed the majority of the instruments on "Spacestations." All her sounds were relatively transparent in nature: that analog Juno 6 synth pad, the hundred year old upright piano, and a Korg MS-10 synth bass. Even at strong levels, these sounds would preserve a lot of space for atmospheric reverbs and effects in mixing.
Low ran the voice, synths, and Jones' tack piano all through the same effect chain, one that looked more like a guitar setup than a typical studio effects loop. It included a Roland Space Echo, an Electro-harmonix Memory Man and Poly Chorus (both heavily chorusing in and out of pitch), and a pair of tube amps with the reverbs turned all the way up.
The flange effect on the drums was achieved with real tape flanging: one signal recording to two tape machines simultaneously, as the vari-speed on one is adjusted periodically. The effect is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "Cashmere" or Tears for Fears' 80s hit, "Shout." It causes that sweeping effect on drum fills from the middle of the song through the end.