POPE KILLDRAGON is not your average folk record. Yes, the second album by Strand of Oaks—the performing name of Philadelphia's Timothy Showalter—is, at certain points, a finger-picking, meditative affair. But it begins with a wash of Blade Runner synths, and there are unearthly chants that haunt "Alex Kona," and fuzzed-out, bong-rippin' riffs clomp their way through "Giant's Despair." You'll note, in some of the song titles, a preoccupation with medieval fantasy alongside Showalter's brutal self-examination, which deals with deaths in his family and the collapse of his religious belief system.
It's a significant change from the first Strand of Oaks album, 2008's lovely Leave Ruin, which reflected a more straightforward approach to songwriting. "I feel like if [people] can get into the Pope Killdragon record," Showalter says, "they're saying that I can do whatever I want now, because that record is all over the place. Now I've got stoner metal guys telling me they're drinking cheap beers and head banging to some of my riffs. I'm like, that's what I like to hear! I look like one of those dudes anyway."
Showalter played intensely fragile solo sets at this past Pickathon, but now he's touring with members of the currently on-hiatus Philly band Golden Ages. He's also working on the third Strand of Oaks album, to be finished in December or January. "My last record was very stark on purpose," says Showalter. "This one, I just want to—I love records that absolutely fill the speakers sonically, from left ear to right ear when you put on headphones. Tentatively, it's gonna be called Dark Shores, so it's definitely not going to be a happy record, but it's actually going to be a lot more hopeful than the last [one]. I keep telling myself, 'I've got one more! One more of these heavy records to make,'" he laughs.
Like Pope Killdragon, the songs on Dark Shores deal with personal aspects of Showalter's life, juxtaposed with more fantastical stories. "The songs are getting stranger but still just as autobiographical," he says. "I have one song in the new one: It's me when I was in kindergarten with my best friend, and we're climbing this tree exactly like we did when we were younger, except these Terminator robots come! And kill my friend, and I'm running away through cornfields from them. I don't know why that happened. I could have just easily finished the song as this quaint little story of childhood memories, but it just had to go that direction. In a strange way, it kind of explains what it's like to grow up in Indiana."
With its balance of the surreally allegorical with the painfully plainspoken, Strand of Oaks' music is captivating in a way that feels utterly truthful. And, thankfully, Showalter is a long way from the personal turmoil that spurred him to take songwriting seriously a few years back. "You can quote me on 'super shitty'—that's kind of a perfect way to describe it," he says of the period. "It was just this six-month time where everything went bad. But I like to joke around a lot, I'm kind of a goofy dude, and I think the only way I can get certain darker feelings out is by writing songs. I don't purposefully set out to write a sad-bastard loner-folk record, but it's just kind of how my voice works with the guitar and the instruments I put alongside it. It just kind of leads to that kind of music."