Strand of Oaks’ Eraserland is nothing short of a triumph; unmotivated to create, Tim Showalter was in the throes of depression when, more or less out of the blue, Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket reached out to suggest a collaboration. Showalter recently told me over the phone, “…when I get down, the last thing I need is sympathy. It doesn’t trigger me to want to be productive. What I literally need is a project,”and that’s exactly what he got (in addition to a record) by working with Broemel and the rest of the MMJ crew. Before he headed into the studio with them, he isolated himself on the Jersey Shore to write this collection of songs, and the result is a beautiful reflection of the convergence between solitude and community. We talked about all of that and more, so read up on the full conversation below. It also goes without saying that you should grab tickets (assuming you don’t already have them) to see Strand of Oaks at Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight, and snag a copy of Eraserland, which is out now on Dead Oceans.
BYT: So first of all, a big congratulations on the record being out! Let’s take it back to what I understand to be more or less the inception point; was it a happy coincidence that Carl reached out to you? Or was he aware that you’d been going through a hard time?
TS: That’s a mystery for me as well. I’ve tried to answer this question a bunch, and each time I do I really don’t know. I think it’s okay that I don’t know whether he was prompted, because we’ve known each other for a while, but we’re not necessarily the kind of friends where I’d call Carl and say, “Hey, I’m feeling really sad,” or something. Now I would, because we’ve become better friends, but at the time, not so much. So I think it’s either complete serendipity, or another person that I know said, “Hey, hit up Tim and see how he’s doing.”
It was what I needed to get motivated again, though, because when I get down, the last thing I need is sympathy. It doesn’t trigger me to want to be productive. What I literally need is a project or something to be like, “Okay, now I’m back to life again,” and that’s exactly what happened with him just kind of proposing some form of collaboration. Within the day, he’d booked the studio and all of the people involved. That was perfect, because usually I’m the motivator, but…I don’t know about other people, but when I get sad, everything becomes a mountain to climb. It shouldn’t, but even things like, “I have to do the dishes, but they’re there…” Probably just a basic form of depression, but to me it definitely affects my job a lot. It’s not that thing where you assume, “Oh, I’m sad. That means I’m going to write the best music of my life.” It’s like, no, sometimes when you’re sad it’s hard to do anything, and the last thing you want to do is try to put it into words or communicate it that way. I just needed a project, and that’s what I got out of Carl. And then I got a record!
BYT: Right! So that was sort of the first stage, but let’s talk for a minute about the next one, which was going out to Wildwood and writing. I think a lot of people would label that as an insane idea, like, holing up in a Jersey beach town in the dead of winter when you’re depressed. But I actually think it makes a lot of sense; personally, as someone who’s struggled with depression and anxiety, I feel the most at ease and balanced when the outside weather matches my internal state of turmoil.
TS: That’s so true! Sometimes you need to be in a Cormac McCarthy book or something; I’m in the personification of my mental state right now, of bleakness and all of that. That’s the first time anyone has communicated it that way, and it’s perfect. It truly was like that. The weather and the feeling of that beach is like a character in the record, and it’s just as important as the musicians on it. The other thing that helped was that I was completely, absolutely alone to be able to be my own free self. Like, “I’m going to go for a four hour walk on the beach at midnight and just try to think of this lyric I’m trying to get,” or something along those lines. The title of the record fit so many different definitions, but the way that Wildwood felt in the winter feels like Eraserland. When I think of what Eraserland means, it’s that; the empty boardwalk and the empty amusement pier and all of that felt like a place I could go and get wiped clean. Like, “I’m in purgatory, and if I can find my way out of this, I think it will be…everything won’t be figured out, but I’ll at least be closer to what I’m looking for.”
BYT: So with all of the time that you spent out there those few weeks on your own, did you have any big revelations that didn’t necessarily make it onto the record?
TS: Yeah, it was around Valentine’s Day, and my wife was coming to visit and I wanted to get her a present. I went out, and I may have had some other controlled substances that made my brain see amazing-looking things. (I’m trying not to bring that narrative into the record, but there was some help when it came to that.) I created this almost biblical creation story that was based around our love, and I called it “Broken Shell and the Feather”, because in my brain, I kept thinking about how my wife was the feather and I was the broken shell. I was gathering all these things on the beach, and then I found this piece of driftwood, and everything started coming together in this story. So then, unbeknownst to me (because I don’t remember pushing the button, but I guess I did) I had my phone memo recorder on the whole time, so there’s this two hour immense mythology that I made for her. [Laughs] I edited it down, but that was sort of an addendum to the record that was just for my wife and I. It kind of weirdly informed the rest of the record on top of that. And then when she got there for Valentine’s Day, she was like, “You’re going a little stir-crazy…” because I’d made this huge altar where I’d glued all this stuff on, it smelled like sandalwood and patchouli, and I even painted it. She was like, “You could’ve just gotten me a card,” and I was like, “No, no, I wanted to build a creation myth for our love.” [Laughs] I guess that’s what you get if you’re married to me. There were probably a lot better gifts that she wanted, but that’s what she got. [Laughs]
BYT: That’s amazing. [Laughs] So yeah, going from that environment of being on your own to the point of stir-craziness, what was the transition like moving into the studio with these other people?
TS: It was so nice. Even before I knew them personally, everybody in My Morning Jacket…they just exude love when they’re on stage. From a fan perspective you can just speculate like, “I bet these are really good people.” There’s just something about the energy. And I’d known them casually, but then when we got in the studio, it just became that much more apparent that like, “These are instantly people that I’m going to grow into a better person by knowing them, just by being in their presence.” And the music is so good because they do it so well, but I think what I benefited from the most was their friendship. What I needed the most at that point in my life was community, and to not feel so alone, and whenever I hear the record now, I just hear a huge hug. It just feels like this really inviting atmosphere that was created. And what’s great is we worked for fourteen hours a day, but I don’t remember ever working. I just remember having a great time, you know? Any other job I’ve had in my life, if somebody said, “Hey, you’re going to work for fourteen hours for nine days in a row,” I’d be like, “What? I’m not gonna…” But it was so…I don’t want to say “easy”, because it wasn’t easy, but it was just extremely pleasurable. It was real work that we were doing that showed results.
BYT: Absolutely. And you do hear all of this on the record itself. It’s the sort of convergence between what someone can do alone and then also the magic that happens when others join in and elevate that to an even greater potential.
TS: Yeah, and I didn’t have any songs written, so I maybe subconsciously wrote songs for them, to be good enough for musicians of their caliber to play. A lot of those song were written with that community in mind, because I was in a place where I didn’t want to look inward, which I had done in the past. I looked extremely inward in the past, very detailed. I think this was the first time where I was a lot more universal. There were things that might have been going on in my life, but I found (especially going out on the road now) that people really connected with these specific stories and found them in their own lives. It’s been really rewarding to talk to people after shows, especially that song “Forever Chords”, the last track on the record. That seems to be the one that…I mean, it’s definitely my most emotional song to perform, but for everyone else at the show, you know, it’s like…it’s the last song we play, and it’s like, here’s this purging moment where we can kind of maybe cleanse ourselves by fire and walk away from the concert ready for whatever else is next.
BYT: Yeah, I was reading about how that was an especially emotional one to record, even!
TS: Yeah, we had a very quiet dinner that night that we recorded it. [Laughs] Usually you’re joking and kidding around, but there wasn’t a whole lot left to say since we put it all down in the song.
BYT: So when you wrapped the record, what was the feeling? (You know, apart from relief and being proud.)
TS: I think it was summed up in that we’d finished the tracking with the album musicians, and Bo [Koster] was flying back to Los Angeles to continue touring with Roger Waters, and he sent me a text that was just a quote from Rick Rubin. It said (and I’m going to paraphrase) “The second you love something you do, it’s a success.” That summed up everything. I was like, “I did it, and we did it.” And because of that, it was the first time that I’d ever felt like I’d completed something that was so close to what my original vision was and it actually happened. And because of that, there was this contentment that happened. I was like, “You know what? I don’t care how this record does. We did it. And we did it to our fullest abilities.” And then you can just love it for what it is, and not what you expect it to be. That’s when it gets dangerous. All things in life are a gamble, and you can’t predict anything except for loving what you create. Then everything else…you know, luckily everything’s been going extremely well, but even if it wouldn’t have, I’d have said, “That’s fine. I have Eraserland. As long as I have these files in my phone to listen to, I’m good.”
BYT: Exactly, and that’s become so easy to forget in this age of immediacy, you know? Where suddenly everyone has a sounding board to voice their opinion online or whatever.
TS: I know, I know. And it’s good. I mean, most of the time it’s good. But it’s also like, where there used to be a handful of trained professional critics who were able to manufacture an opinion…I like the idea of music writing because I’m a fan of it, it’s just that now there’s a hundred million music critics out there. Like, “Mmm, I don’t know about this.” I’m like, “Who are you?! And why am I reading this? Why am I able to see this?” I care that people listen to it, but it’s dangerous to open yourself up too much. There’s a point in your life where it’s like, “Time to log off the ol’ internet for a while. Call a friend or my mom. I’m gonna feel a lot better if I do that.”
BYT: Yup, 100%. Alright, and finally, moving forward, obviously you want to give this record a chance to breathe and focus on these shows, but what’s your mentality overall in terms of creating again in the future? Have you given it much thought at this point?
TS: I understand that some bands have a song that’s like four years old and they’ll be able to put it on their record, but for me, even if I have extra songs left over, they’re in the Eraserland file. It’s cool for me to release a record, because it’s a physical and spiritual release from that era, and then I’m able to move on to the next segment. So I think my brain is like, you know, now that Eraserland is out and we’re touring, the house is in order, I’ve been able to start jotting down some freeform writing of what I want to start working on next. And that’s been a surprise, because I did worry, like, “Am I going to be able to do something again after this one?” But it’s coming already.
Featured image by Alysse Gafkajen