For years, the misery manages to find Timothy Showalter of Strand of Oaks. His wife's affair turns out to be the saviour of their marriage, he experiences problems with alcohol, and almost loses his life in a car accident. Always making music becomes his survival mechanism. But when his band split up two years ago, Showalter thinks it's okay. The seemingly inexhaustible rocker is about to put his guitar down for good. A text message from a half-forgotten friend - who happens to be in My Morning Jacket - ensures that there is now a new Strand of Oaks record after all.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Alysse Gafkjen
Eraserland it’s called, that record. In the mind of Showalter, it's like a deserted beachfront amusement park. “With the slogan: where we can all start again.” Starting over, that's pretty much what the American himself did, without forgetting everything that preceded the present. He wrote songs on Eraserland that he never thought he'd write, as well as songs he'd been looking for for years. From cheerful to melancholic and from Springsteen to Slowdive: all kinds of worlds come together on the album, but each and every one is given the space it deserves. The former tear-away translates the peace in his head into a record that breathes, in which the things that don't happen are just as important as the things that do.
It's in large part thanks to the people Showalter made Eraserland with. Previously, Strand of Oaks was a glorified solo project in which Showalter taught session musicians in the studio the parts he had written himself. This time, it was different. In fact, without the people Showalter collaborates with on Eraserland, the album would never have happened at all.
In the first sentence of lead single 'Weird Ways' you sing: "I don't feel it anymore"and "I turn my back to the meaning of life." And you're talking about a scene that doesn't feel like yours anymore. What do you think was wrong with you? “I have often asked myself that. The pattern of my life has always been to respond to things with music. The good and the bad. If I had the best or worst day of my life, I would write a song about it. Then I would make a record or play a show to process it. And to put it very simply: that fire went out. On stage I didn't know what I was doing anymore. I felt like an actor playing Strand of Oaks.”
And then your band fell apart. “The problem was that a lot of the people in my band aren't really young anymore. We are all 30, 40 and have been making music for over twenty years. You have to ask yourself whether you want to go on tour for another nine months, put relationships on hold and lose all connection with your home life for so long. My bandmates didn't want that anymore. My drummer Mike now has become a great manager. My guitarist got married and I believe my bassist lives somewhere deep in the woods. By the end of 2017, we had toured more or less non-stop for seven years: we were all exhausted, had fallen into a rut. I always think it's funny to talk about that as a musician, because it just goes to show that it's actually a job like any other. It's not special at all. You do something day in and day out and suddenly you have lost track of time: what happened to those seven years? I was 35 at the time, but had hardly any friends, hobbies or interests outside of music. Of course, this is still my dream, but it's a strange sensation when what has always been your escape from real life – a special place you could go to – has become your job. You still want to love it just as much, but sometimes you can't."
“Besides, I was simply very depressed, and I didn't even know why, because it wasn't because of a heartbreak or an accident or all those other things that happened to me. My body was just depressed and everyone around me figured it out before me. My wife, my friends, everyone I work with. That hit me hard. Anyone who has ever seen me play knows that I never fake anything. I love to play, but people now saw that I was losing the fun in it. That was scary.”
"It's a strange sensation when what has always been your escape from real life – a special place you could go to – has become your job"
You have said that your previous record was the first moment when people were waiting for new music from Strand of Oaks after your surprising breakthrough. Were those expectations paralyzing? “I still love Hard Love, but the problem that many musicians have is that people are only now hearing what you lived and wrote two years ago. Hard Love had been finished for a year when it came out and then I still had to tour with it. I was playing an album that was about someone I wasn't anymore. In the time after I wrote the album, I had gotten my life in order. I had a great year with my wife and had started making art. It was so strange to go back into the world of Hard Love again. I like those songs, but it was bizarre. I didn't want to fake things, I didn’t want to evoke the wild aggression I didn't need anymore. I'm a kid of the nineties and I just hate phonies, anyone who isn't real.”
In 2018 you played along with Songs:Molina, a tribute to Jason Molina. There you also kind of crawled into someone else's skin. “I did all kinds of things that year that I normally wouldn't do, like Songs:Molina. I wasn't sure beforehand if it was a good idea to do that, it's that sensitive. Jason's music is extremely important to me, but I can't really listen to it. I just don't need that extra misery in my life. Give me Grateful Dead or anything else that cheers me up. In the end, I'm really glad I did: it gave me the chance not to be Strand of Oaks for two weeks. I could just play nice rhythm guitar when the other band members or guests took over the vocals for a while. In the summer, I did some festivals with RUV, a band from Enschede (The Netherlands, ed.), and My Morning Jacket. I learned so much about working together and dealing with other people. I really needed that, it made me less lonely.”
I can imagine it's strange sometimes: Strand of Oaks isn't quite a solo project, but neither is it really a band. “It has indeed become like that a bit. Strand of Oaks started in 2003 as the project of me and some friends. Those friends moved, or I moved, but I kept writing songs and those were Strand of Oaks songs. I can be jealous of bands with multiple members, because sometimes it gets lonely. Fortunately, there is also excitement in playing with new people, as Neil Young has often done, for example. Every song sounds different every time. And I just can't use My Morning Jacket as my regular band.”
You did make Eraserland with them. A text message from guitarist Carl Broemel is pretty much the reason the album is here. Do you remember what he sent you? “Nothing special really. I think he was just thinking about me, he said I should let him know if I ever wanted to make music. I'm always a bit intimidated when I talk to Carl, because I think it's kind of cool that I get to be friends with such a guitar god. So I didn't even tell him I wasn't feeling well and didn't necessarily want to make a record. Like I said, sometimes the people around you know you better than you do. What you don't see, others will see. That's kind of the story of Eraserland, why it almost wasn't there and why it finally came. I think it's a wonderful realization that it actually had nothing to do with me. When I gave up, other people took me in tow.”
“Unbeknownst to me, Carl had called the other band members. Six hours later my manager Ryan called me in confusion: “Are you going to make a record with My Morning Jacket?” I said no and he replied: “Their manager just called me, they have a studio booked.” I hadn't asked for it at all, but it just happened. If they hadn't booked that studio, I wouldn't have made a record for years. Or maybe ever again. The worst part was that for the first time in my life I didn't have any songs on the shelf. Normally, I always write music, but now for the first time I had stopped completely. I had to write songs. Not only that, I had to write songs that were good enough for the best band in the world. Take Bo (Koster, ed.), who is a keyboardist in Roger Waters' band. I can't just shove anything under his nose."
“The motivations I started working with were very different than usual in the music industry. It sometimes seems everyone has to become a pop star, your next hit has to be bigger than the last and you are expected to sell out a bigger venue on the next tour. I still hate that. Nick Cave, one of my heroes, wrote a letter to MTV in 1996 rejecting an award nomination. He wrote: 'My muse is not a horse.' That was so recognizable. I don't write songs because I can or must, not to become popular. I write because it's the only way I can express myself. When I start to think: 'This radio hit must have a huge chorus' or 'people must be able to sing along to this riff', it destroys all forms of creativity. When I was writing songs for Eraserland, I wasn't concerned with what people would like at all. I just thought, ‘I have to write music that's so good that my four friends want to play with me.’ When I did, I made the most honest music I've made in a long time, maybe the most honest music I've ever made. The songs came so fast too: within two or three weeks the whole album was finished.”
You didn't write the album on guitar as usual, but on bass. What effect did that have? “My father-in-law is a session bassist, so I got that thing from him. I've always played a bit of bass and now I wanted to make music in a different way. I was tired of everything, including the guitar, I think. The bass made sure that I made less noise for the first time. I first found the basis of a song before I came up with the riff and the eight hundred synthesizer parts that I wanted to incorporate into it. Eraserland is my first record that is open, where I didn't feel the pressure to fill every space with sound. That's also thanks to the people who play on the album. Any one of them could have played too much, they could all be in those instructional videos for their instrument. "This is how you play every note on the guitar, piano, bass," and so on. But what they did was the opposite. Patrick (Hallahan, ed.), who plays drums on the record, told me that he has never played so few notes. And he was so happy with everything he had done. And me too! Normally I used to say, 'Just play every note you can play, life is wild and crazy.' A song like 'Vision' could have had so many elements, but instead we left everything out. I found that songs feel much bigger when there is less. I always thought you made songs great by putting 40 guitar riffs in them. But that's not how it works! That's not how the great ones do it at all."
With 'Wild and Willing' there is even a song on the album that is almost a cappella. “Actually, that song nearly hadn’t been on the record at all, a completely different song was already finished. I was still recording some vocals and asked Kevin (Ratterman, ed.), the producer: “Can I grab that acoustic guitar over there and just try something?” I sang the song in one take and played it on the guitar on which Jim James turned out to have written the first three My Morning Jacket records. At the end I asked Kevin through the microphone: “Was that okay?” I heard him shed a tear and say: “Yeah, that will do.” We could have given that song an extensive arrangement afterwards, but it says so much more without it.”
A few years ago you were on tour with My Morning Jacket. Did you already have a thing for their music before that? They've been around a little longer than you. "Absolute. I first saw them in 2001, I believe, when I was still in college. When we went on tour together, there was an immediate connection. We're all from the same part of the country: I’m from Indiana and they are from Kentucky and Ohio. We were raised the same way and have the same outlook on life. During the tour we became friends, but during the making of the record we became brothers, forever connected.”
“The collaboration with My Morning Jacket also makes Eraserland sound more like Strand of Oaks than I could ever have done on my own. I wrote the parts, but they gave it depth in their own way. Tom (Blankenship, ed.), the bassist, at one point, waited until thirty seconds before the end of 'Forever Chords' – so that's eight and half a minute in – to do one of the most beautiful bass lines I've ever heard. He waited and waited and waited and just knew that at that moment he wanted to play. Of course I hear different things in the record than most people will hear, but when I hear that bass part it becomes clear to me how important this was to them.”
You have described that song, an epic of more than nine minutes, as the ultimate Strand of Oaks song. "It's either the last song I'll ever write or the first song of a new era." “I wrote it on the toughest day of the process. I was alone in a coastal city where I wrote the album. In the summer about a hundred thousand people live there, but in the winter only a thousand remain. You’re alone. I cycled along the boulevard past shops that were boarded up. The ocean reminded me of death, it felt like purgatory or the apocalypse. I'm from Central America, so I didn't see the ocean for the first time until I was eighteen. I think I cried then, I thought it was that impressive. When I'm close to the water, something still happens to me now. I think it's because the tide is so ignorant. It doesn’t know anything about good and evil, or about wars. It just happens and keeps happening.”
"I thought for a moment: maybe I should just walk into the sea and disappear."
“I wrote ‘Ruby’, arguably the happiest song I've ever written, there on a surprisingly warm February day when I could take off my coat and go looking for shells like a little kid. But the day I wrote ‘Forever Chords’, it was snowing. And - not to be dramatic - I thought for a moment: maybe I should just walk into the sea and disappear. Thank goodness I didn't, but I did think about it. When I came back, I wrote that song. In the last verse I ask: 'Are we looking for answers? Or just filling in the holes?' That quest for understanding and meaning is the reason for the existence of Strand of Oaks. Then I sing about what that eventually became: 'Major to minor and a slow beating pulse and forever chords, you learned as a kid.' That's what a song should be to me. And I finally wrote it. I may have been close with 'JM' or 'On The Hill', but this is the song that all my previous songs have led to. This moment. I did it. And in the end it's just two chords for nine minutes.”
Isn't that a crazy feeling? You're glad you finally wrote that song, but you may never be able to match it. “I thought I was going to be struck by lightning when I finished it. Like, "This creature has accomplished its mission." I haven't written any new music since Eraserland. At the moment, it doesn't really matter to me. The album hasn’t even come out yet. The most important thing for me is that I got to make this with my heroes. I think people will hear that this album invites them in a lot more than my previous albums. I was mostly yelling about myself and who I was. It was necessary then, but this album is the opposite: it sounds like five people helping me.”
The album is called Eraserland, but it doesn't sound like you've just erased everything behind you, rather like you've developed a new relationship with yourself and your past. “My wife came up with the name of the album. I actually wanted to call it Land of the Dead, but she wouldn't let me. Good point, Sue. She then came up with the idea of Eraserland, a kind of deserted amusement park on the beach, with a pier and a ferris wheel, where we can all start over. The album is like a suicide note to my ego: I'm breaking up with myself. Not necessarily in a positive or negative way, I just realize that we are not as stuck in our lives as our bodies sometimes make us think. It's not necessarily about a longing for the past, a kind of nostalgia: it's not about being a child, but about being different. The realization that you can turn the tide, do things very differently than you always did before. You are not obliged to be yourself: you can be anyone, until you are no longer there.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.