Strand of Oaks :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Timothy Showalter is still figuring Eraserland out. His sixth full-length under the Strand of Oaks banner, the record emerged from a cloud of depression, isolation, and confusion about whether or not music still made sense. The first line puts it all out there: “I don’t feel it anymore,” sung right at the start of opener “Weird Ways,” clearing the air with a sigh. Over and over again in Eraserland’s tender songs, which are equally indebted to folk, country, new wave, hard rock, and kosmische musik, Showalter dismantles the rock & roll mythology he’s devoted much of his discography to celebrating. Check out the record jacket, die cut so that removing the first sleeve causes Showalter, draped in a shining gold jacket, to disappear from the album cover. It’s a vanishing act.

But Eraserland is as much about arriving as it is departing. It’s a project made possible by friendship. When Showalter was at his lowest, dejected over his feelings of failure regarding 2017’s hedonistic Hard Love, he received a call from Carl Broemel. The discussion led to Broemel, and his My Morning Jacket bandmates Patrick Hallahan, Bo Koster, and Tom Blankenship, joining Showalter in the studio. The songs came fast and were cut live. Kevin Ratterman produced. Emma Ruth Rundle and Lacey Guthrie sang, Jason Isbell added psychedelic guitar touches, and Scott Moore provided strings. Eraserland existed before Showalter knew what to make of it, which suited him fine. On the road, where he gave up booze and all drugs beyond weed, the messages in the songs continued to reveal themselves, fitting for the nightly rebirth touring requires. “I am the eraserland,” Showalter sings. “I can start again.”

Aquarium Drunkard: The more I listen to Eraserland, the more I feel like it’s both about the power of music and its ability to lift us out of situations, but also its limitations. Do you feel like it reflects that duality, that music can help us, but it can’t fix everything for us?

Timothy Showalter: I think the second part more than the first, actually. I think, naively, “it’s all bad, but music is good” was kind of the catch-all for my life and my records. I think the theme of Eraserland, or one of the themes at least, is how that kind of destroyed me, thinking, “My life can be completely falling apart, but luckily, I have an ability to write songs about it, so that makes whatever’s falling apart OK.” I staked too much of my own personal well-being in the escape pod of songwriting, only to realize, “Oh, I am fuckin’ empty.”

AD: As somebody who makes their living playing music, were you afraid you just weren’t going to be able to do that anymore?

Timothy Showalter: I didn’t know if I wanted to make music anymore, but I didn’t know what the alternative was. I didn’t know if people even cared if I made music anymore. The way the industry press cycle works, the air [of Hard Love] was let out by people’s reception of it, whether it be press or just listeners. I had a very big fear that I blew my one chance after [2014’s] HEAL. I wrote “Goshen ‘97,” and I got a chance to play in front of people, and that was it. It was like, “You got invited into the party for a little bit, and then you’re not anymore.” That was horrifying for me, because I don’t know how to do anything else. I was a teacher for a while, but I don’t know what to do with my life. I have no idea if it’s not based around music. I still don’t. Every day it’s scary to me.

AD: Do you feel like Hard Love compromised what you want Strand of Oaks to be?

Timothy Showalter: I didn’t fight for a lot of things over the course of the record. I should’ve fought to have my best friend in Akron, Ben Vehorn, work on the album. We made HEAL and Pope Killdragon together. I made the best records of my life with my great friend Ben, and I didn’t fight for Ben enough. I was tempted to work with a very expensive, very talented, and successful producer, and that was not what Hard Love should have been. And in consequence, that was it. I started making Dark Shores with Ben, and I pulled that [EP] for the same reason, to go to another producer, and that failed, and then I went back to Ben and made HEAL, and it was a great success, and after, I did it to Hard Love.I kind of broke his heart.

I don’t talk to him anymore, one of my best buddies. That sucks. That sucks more than the record not doing well. I care very little about people, in general…I mean, I love people, but it doesn’t mean a lot to me if certain friends go away, cause I didn’t think they were going to be friends for life. But there’s a few that hurt, and I know I did them wrong. Ben’s one of them. And that was the thing: I didn’t fight for it. I wrote “Radio Kids” because my fucking label said, “Oh, there’s no songs fit for the radio,” so I literally wrote “Radio Kids” saying, “Here you go.”

AD: So with Eraserland, did you feel like you had to move in another direction?

Timothy Showalter: That’s what was so pure about Eraserland, no one knew I was making it. Nobody knew! I barely knew. Success, for me, is not the goal. Name any band that just formed last week on Instagram and they’re bigger than me probably, and playing ahead of me at a festival somehow. I don’t care about that. I truly don’t care about that. What I care about is being able to stand by my work, and I could do that with Pope Killdragon and HEAL, but I can’t necessarily do that with Hard Love. I can now with Eraserland again. Hard Love is the oldest fucking story in the book: people got involved that shouldn’t get involved. It’s like, I’m not going to go in and tell certain people how to do proper emails, or how to code a website, so don’t tell me the vision of my record. It will fail! Because I won’t believe in it. It’s always tough for me to talk like this, because I don’t want to do any discredit to the people I’ve worked with. It’s not their fault at all.

AD: It just sounds like the process wasn’t centered in the right place.

Timothy Showalter: Exactly.

AD: “Weird Ways” sounds like it was trying to capture both that emptiness you felt, but also how, for whatever reason, you’re just wired to feel a certain way when you play a riff on your guitar. Going out on tour for this record, was it easier to connect to the feeling of joy with your instrument?

Timothy Showalter: Very much! In the past, shows were ten percent of my life. The rest was partying. It was fun. Capital fun. But I don’t remember any shows. I remember all I’d talk about was all the fun times I’d had, and I never talked about the shows. Now it’s like, for this Eraserland tour, I don’t drink anymore. All I do is just smoke a shit ton of weed, which just makes me want to play music and not talk to people, and not go to a bar, and also, not impress anyone. When I smoke weed, it’s great cause I don’t give a shit about being the guy talking to everybody and trying to make people like me. And that was so awesome for the Eraserland tourI mean, I didn’t have any fun on this last tour, and that’s fine. Shows quickly became ninety-eight percent of my life, and the other two percent was going to sleep and making sure my vape pen didn’t run out.

My God, the shows, too. We went to places I couldn’t believe. We closed every night with “Forever Chords.” That was a huge deal for me. I was insecure about ending shows quietly before. I’d think, “I have to close with a ‘tear the roof down’ kind of song, I need to make sure that people had a good time.” And then instead, we just closed with “Forever Chords” and it ended in a whisper and we walked offstage. To save my voice, I didn’t go out into the audience anymore after shows. When I don’t drink, the introverted side of me comes out.

I had to walk away feeling really, really fulfilled, and then I would just go to bed and watch weird YouTube clips, try to find BBC documentaries, and go to sleep. It served me much more. I played one of the biggest shows of my career in Belgium, and it was this life achieving moment, and then after work, I just kind of sat in the green room while champagne was being popped around me, watching a YouTube documentary or a rig rundown about pedals or something. My tour manager came down and was like “What’re you doing?” and I was like “I just want to go to the hotel. I’m gonna go to sleep.” I felt good. I felt so much better than staying out until six in the morning.

AD: Was it a more lonely experience than previous tours?

Timothy Showalter: Yeah, deeply. Insanely lonely. And that’s alright.

AD: You had to figure out how to be OK with that?

Timothy Showalter: Yeah and that’s alright. It’s a different kind of loneliness, and that can be scary sometimes, but I was kind of alright. I called my wife a lot. The only problem was if a show didn’t go well.

AD: Because there was nothing to retreat into after?

Timothy Showalter: Yeah, I mean, if I was going to go snort cocaine somewhere after a show it didn’t fucking matter if my amp didn’t work. [Laughs]

AD: In “Moon Landing” you cite some pretty mythic rock figures: Chris Cornell, Malcolm Young, and Bob Weir of the Dead. It’s a very personal song, but it’s filtered through these character studies.

Timothy Showalter: That song is kind of indebted to what “Estimated Prophet” is about, the idea of chasing something, chasing this golden figure.

AD: Cornell is one of the great rock singers, but he’s also an example of someone who struggled deeply. Do you feel a kinship with him?

Timothy Showalter: We have the same birthday. We were both born on the day of the moon landing, all those events [feel like they share] this spiritual connection. Malcolm Young and Cornell, they’re like two totem poles. They were both absolutely perfect at what they did, and then they were gone. I heard somewhere that AC/DC wants to tour again and was like “That’s the worst idea in the world!” I’m fine if Brian’s not in the band, because Bon’s been dead for forty years, but Malcolm? You can’t do it without Malcolm. I don’t even know if rock & roll exists anymore without Malcolm Young alive.

I wrote that song at the beach. It just happened so fast. Leonard Cohen said that “Hallelujah” originally had thirty verses, and “Moon Landing” is like that. It’s a three-chord song—my typical, lazy songwriting—and I just looped it. In my headspace, there’s a twenty-five-minute version somewhere, just me talking, stream of consciousness, just coming out.

I have an unnecessary tendency for self-mythologizing on my records, but I like it. In “Moon Landing,” I quote myself. It quotes a song from Pope Killdragon, and weirdly, Pope Killdragon, this character I’ve created, is on this record a lot. The song “Eraserland” was preliminarily called “Pope Killdragon II.” He was there a lot, whoever Pope Killdragon is. Now I sound real crazy, but he was there.

AD: What does that character allow you to do that being Tim doesn’t?

Timothy Showalter: I think he’s an omniscient narrator. It’s like in cinematography when you have the God angle, that’s what Pope Killdragon is. I can step away as the narrator, step away from biographical terms, and just have this other, powerful presence that I’ve invented take over.

AD: You sing on this record “If you believe you can be loved, you’ll outlive your past.” Post-Eraserland, how does that lyric sit with you these days? Are you figuring out how to live that line?

Timothy Showalter: I think in some ways, because I’m not committing slow suicide through substance abuse anymore. That’s the first step of it…but I don’t know. There are things that I can’t even access, but that line, when I wrote it, and that whole song, I’m still scared because…I remember I watched a “making of a record” documentary and Paul Simon was at the mixing console listening to the song “Graceland” and he said [something like] “This is as good as I’ll ever do anything”.

I kind of have that feeling. It’s not bragging. I just think as far as everything coming together, that felt like “Is this all I’ve ever worked for, this song?” Everything after “Forever Chords,” for me as a songwriter, will be something else. I hope I can do another one like that. But I wonder [about] someone like Roger Waters and “Comfortably Numb.” How do you top that? Who does? Except Bowie, because he did Blackstar right at the end.

AD: He went out purely on his own terms, but he also spent his entire career reinventing himself. That’s something you’ve done with Strand of Oaks, but do you feel like there could be other names for what you do?

Timothy Showalter: I think it’ll always be Strand of Oaks. Maybe if I get more friends that play music, that I’m not paying, something fun [could] happen. But if anything, I’d like to play bass in a band. I’ve been obsessively listening to Circles Around the Sun. I just wish I could play a fucking tambourine in that band. That’d be the happiest new project for me. I’m just starting to write new songs for whatever comes next, and it’s fun to do, because I was worried after Eraserland that it was the best I could do. I hope not. “As good as I can do” meaning I’m using the same chords I’ve used since I learned “Disarm” on guitar. There’s nothing new. Is this the culmination of the “Disarm” chords I’ve been playing the last twenty-five years of my life? It might be.

AD: I really appreciate getting the chance to talk to you after this record’s been out awhile. I mean, you don’t listen to a Bob Dylan album that came out forty years ago and think to yourself, “I bet everybody had every element of this figured out a month before and after it came out.”

Timothy Showalter: Yeah! Greil Marcus knew it all with this advanced copy. “I have Blood on the Tracks! I figured it out!”

AD: It takes a lifetime sometimes.

Timothy Showalter: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the press cycle happened six months after the record came out instead of how it works? Sometimes I’ll do interviews a week after I mastered a record, and it’s like, “I don’t know what this record is! I have no idea!” interview/j woodbury photos/ash ponders

Deeper listening: The Lagniappe Sessions: Strand Of Oaks covers Michael Hurley and Moby

Second Session: Strand of Oaks covers Phish, Primal Scream, and the Stone Roses

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