Music

On ‘Eraserland,’ Strand Of Oaks Returns From The Brink For The Best Album Of His Career

Alysse Gafkjen

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“It’s not as bad as it seems.”

On the opening track from Timothy Showalter’s sixth career album as Strand Of Oaks, Eraserland, the above line rings familiar. It’s more than just the fact that he’s used it before, placed prominently in the chorus of the brutally honest Heal tune “Shut In,” where he offers the comforting phrase to juxtapose the details of past bouts of depression. No, it’s more than that, as those words are the same that might have been uttered by parents after a first heartbreak, by an employer in a cold conference room while softening the blow of a passed-over promotion, or by a lover delivering the life-changing news that they are moving across the country. It’s meant to provide solace, whether we tell it to ourselves or hear it from others, the reality is that in the moment, how it seems is all that matters. When pushed to the brink of disaster, it’s impossible to get away from our own perception. Words of solidarity fall dead and flat like leaves off a tree in winter.

When Showalter sings this line, it sounds like an earnest reminder from a man who’s been pushed to the edge and keeps surviving. During the process of his breakthrough 2014 album Heal, he outlined how a near-fatal car crash, an unraveling marriage, and substance abuse struggles led him to new lows, only to find a way through the darkness via music. After a record that piggybacked on newfound success, 2017’s Hard Love, Showalter sank like a brick to even deeper depths, where his future in music was as uncertain as his own survival.

The day before we speak by phone, news broke that Talk Talk leader Mark Hollis had died, prompting Showalter to post a confessional reflection to Strand Of Oaks’ social media. “I’ve mentioned before how I escaped to the beach in Wildwood, NJ in order to write the songs for Eraserland,” he wrote. “Well I also was either running away or confronting a very dark and pretty hopeless bout with depression. It’s hard for me to process or really understand how low I had gotten but it’s safe to say I’d never been more lost in my life.” The post goes on to detail how Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden album soundtracked a moment of clarity, where he realized that despite emotional pain he was experiencing, he was going to be okay. In short, he could finally understand that it wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed.

The story of Eraserland is present in the album’s lyrics, even if Showalter didn’t know it when he was writing it. The first line on the record, on the gorgeously sprawling career-highlight “Weird Ways,” is “I don’t feel it anymore,” and by the time the ending rolls along on the expansive and shimmering closer “Forever Chords,” Showalter’s declaration “I hope it never ends” feels earned. It’s not just that some friends noticed his withdrawal and reached out to collaborate musically, specifically a number of the members of My Morning Jacket (Carl Broemel, Bo Koster, Patrick Hallahan and Tom Blankenship), in a move that facilitated his return from personal disaster. It’s also about regaining a lust for music, and for life, on his own terms. When Showalter swears that “I won’t go down so easily,” on the mammoth “Visions,” he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

In the below conversation, Showalter outlined the crisis that led to the best album of his career, as well as the power of the music of Talk Talk and his affinity for lookalike Jason Momoa. The conversation has been edited from clarity and length.

I saw this morning you wrote a post on social media about Mark Hollis passing. Reading it, it brought up something I think about a lot, how music has the power for both the creators and the listeners to literally save our lives.

Yeah. That was something heavy. I dunno, I think I’m fully embracing sincerity. That might sound strange, but after 20 years in the indie rock scene, I’ve noticed sometimes sincerity is overdone, or sometimes it’s destroyed by cynicism. I don’t really know how to use social media, obviously, but I think the thing I’ve been embracing recently is trying to be my true self on it, to understand it for what it is. It’s an emotional tool, but also for me and my fanbase, it’s a community. That’s what I didn’t really understand until recently. It’s really a wonderful way to connect and fight the seemingly insurmountable loneliness we’re all facing on a daily basis.

Going back to Heal, through your lyrics and definitely, through interviews, you’ve been an artist very open about speaking about your highs and lows. And social media is a new part of this. Are you someone who is drawn to other people’s openness, or where do you think that comes from?

I just don’t think I have different levels, and I really respect people who have the ability to keep private, sacred places for themselves, and then have more of a public persona. Heal feels like such a long time ago for me, but I was new to being interviewed, and I think that led to the realization that I didn’t need to give so much away all the time. Especially for the sake of the people around me. I did the opposite for Hard Love, where I went far away and pivoted and had only a few things I’d talk about.

What happened during the Hard Love years? There’s this idea that you’ve presented where you were feeling that music might be over for you, or even life might be over for you. What led you to that point?

It was a rough year for a lot of reasons. Way too much of me was tied into being Strand Of Oaks. Whether that’s the image or playing shows or the oversharing we were talking about or over-giving or chaos — it all started dangerously affecting me. I had so much wrapped up in Hard Love and I had this vision of a lot of positive things. In my head, I pictured some kind of Manchester ’88, everybody-loves-everybody, everybody-is-on-the-level thing. It was this very naive version of utopia, with guitar solos and people dancing. All of that I was convinced I’d see with Hard Love, it just didn’t happen. Hard Love was finished in 2016 and I wrote this record naively thinking Bernie was going to be President, we are pushing forward, this is the time and we’re entering the Golden Age. And we all know what happened.

The political situation wasn’t the only thing that affected me, but it definitely did. I have a tendency to get way inside my own head, and I put out this thing that I believed in — I truly did — and I just saw it dismantled, with people like myself getting really isolated and sad and angry. Then I had to go out and play a party record that was meant for liberation and feeling good.

That compiled with the fact that I wrote the record about a person I was two years before it came out and I just wasn’t that person anymore. I did a lot of work to clean myself up and my life up, to really straighten up the house as people say, and work on my marriage and my family, all leading to the release of Hard Love. I saw that flame going away. So that Facebook post you mentioned, that was me coming to terms with that a bit. In the bio to Eraserland, it doesn’t whitewash it, but maybe I was afraid to delve into the fact that I was very depressed. Not like Heal where I was like “I’m heartbroken but I love the heartbreak,” the kind in your bedroom when you are 20, where sad music is so sexy to feel bad to and feel like you are in pain but you still look so good and you are young. Then, suddenly, you are 34 and you don’t want to be sad anymore. You’re running away from it. It consumed me.

It wasn’t the romantic kind of consuming, either. It was just sad. I started eating a lot. I wasn’t doing drugs or drinking, I was just gaining weight and giving up. I saw the mojo leave. And I still had to play shows, and though I say a lot that music saves, playing shows saves, too. So when that gets lost for me, I realized I had nothing to fall back on. I’m the kind of person that when things are good, I call my parents a lot and connect with friends. But when things are bad, I retreat in. I go deep, and this was deeper than ever.

It’s difficult to realize that, but everyone else did around me. There were signal flares going up so high, and it was so beautiful, their way of helping me wasn’t just checking to see if I was okay, it was making sure to get me active. It was getting me into the studio and making a record, because words of condolence or compliments, I’m impervious to that. I’m at my most happy when I’m engaged. But at that point, I had stopped practicing, I’d stopped writing songs, it was just me shutting down. It was this constant imagery of a cell phone battery being empty. That was me. I felt like I had nothing left.

Eraserland was something I’d never experienced before, because I’ve always been the catalyst to start something. but this was the first time I had absolutely nothing to do with a record starting. I didn’t set dates, I didn’t call anyone. My manager called me and asked me if I was making a record with My Morning Jacket and I was like ‘I don’t know’ and he was like ‘Well, you are, you’ve got studio time blocked out in March.’ And that still didn’t hit me completely. Luckily, the thing that got me motivated was that I panicked. I had nothing to present to this band that is like the Pink Floyd of my generation. They are going to play with me and I have nothing to give them. So, that was the saving grace, was someone else starting my engine. It became about the pressure, but I like pressure. Some bands talk about stage fright, but I don’t have stage fright. I have f*cking life fright. Bring on the stage, I’m a better person when I’m put under pressure.

One of the things I love about Eraserland is this commitment to not make it a lyrics album or a sonics album. The record works if you zone out to it and don’t really think about it, but it also works if you engage deeply in what is being said. I was going to ask if it was about finding the right words to do the music justice or for the music to do the words justice, but it sounds like it was something different entirely, where you needed to find the songs to do the opportunity justice.

Yeah! That’s how it started. And what’s amazing is that because of that expectation I put on myself, I was able to step out of my own head, which I feel like I was living in way too much for Hard Love. I felt like I was working in sensory deprivation, where I was writing so much closer to the core without any thought about whether it was a good chorus or whatever. I still don’t know where the lyrics came from, because they are so much about me… they’re biographical, I guess, but it’s something deeper that when I practice the songs, I don’t know where I fit in them. Heal was a journal to a degree, but this feels like a journal that someone else wrote. It was me that wrote it, but it’s not a me that I knew at the time.

I can be partial because there are so many people who helped create this record, but I do love Eraserland significantly more than any other record I’ve ever made. I never listen to my other records. Ever. To the point where I have issues remembering the lyrics. I have a clinical distaste for them. But I want to listen to Eraserland, just to hear and remember ‘oh that’s when Bo did that’ or ‘that’s when Carl did that.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever get there again, but I have for this one.

I saw Kacey Musgraves do an interview a few weeks back, and she was talking about this idea that you need to suffer to be an artist. It’s how she lived her life for a long time, maybe staying in bad relationships and letting herself hurt, because she thought that hurt made better art. But getting away from that, she was able to make what she and many consider this creative breakthrough on her last album. I thought about that a lot listening to Eraserland, because it feels like an album about trying to push through suffering.

That’s a beautiful way to think about it and it makes a lot of sense, because her record is so amazing. If I could add to the same thought, it’s that all emotions are circumstantial. It’s all fleeting and sometimes the depression lingers longer and sometimes the joy does. It’s like gas that you can’t really hold onto. It dissipates. Especially when there’s chaos. My thing was chaos. I thought you had to just destroy everything to find art. Not just suffering, but manic behavior. And then, I think what the true outcome is, if you can step away from the fleeting emotional matter of your life and if you could find a way to clear it out, that’s when the technicolor of existence happens. That’s when I’m not so focused on what’s making me happy or sad or what’s my enemy or what’s putting me down.

I was at the beach recently and I love the ocean and I know it’s been said by a million poets but when you go to the ocean, it has zero care. It does not give a sh*t if atomic bombs are dropped or babies are born. It just keeps going and it will still be going when we’re gone. It’s the most calming thing in the world to me. You could see it as a pretty strong metaphor for death. When you go, the waves roll back again. But I think you reach a moment of clarity.

Going back to Talk Talk, I think Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, they hit something deeper than I’m sad or I’m happy. I was explaining to my friends about what some of the songs on Eraserland feel like, and moments like the end of “Forever Chords,” and it feels like you’ve seen the most beautiful sunset ever and you’re so overwhelmed and you think “everyone I know is going to die and I’m going to die and everything dies and everything is born again and then dies.” It’s all there and I don’t know what to think about it because it’s bigger than what my brain is capable of. It’s so much easier to have conversations during Heal because it was concrete things. I got in a car crash, I got sad, blah blah blah. And this one, including the depression I was in, it was beyond that reach. That was the most confusing and intriguing part of it. I don’t know what all of this is.

Going through this process, does Strand Of Oaks feel more alive to you? Are you more excited about the future of the project?

I’m very excited for different reasons. I want to play these songs well and want to put together a great band. I want to do those things well. I’m excited to make it pure again and not worry if I can put “sold out” before all the shows. That’s another dangerous element of indie rock right now is that everything is pushed to get bigger so fast and become pop stars. I can’t do that. It’s not that I’m fragile, but it’s like Nick Cave said: ‘My muse is not a horse.’ If I start thinking about things like festivals, it will destroy me again. I was way too connected to that side before. I’ve been telling the people that I work with that I want to go out and play shows and do this, but it has to be for the right reasons or else I don’t need to do this forever. I’ve traveled, I’ve done it, I’ve had the wild experiences. Now, I want to take all that energy and play really transcendent shows, or try to at least.

I’d love it if my band got bigger because that’s one more person in the audience that I might be able to put in a good mood. That’s amazing to me. But I need to keep it back, so the point is creating and not making an industry, I’m just not built for that. So I’m trying to put my foot back into writing again. I don’t want to wait too long to put out records. I don’t want my life to be centered around two-year record cycles. I don’t want ten songs to define me for two years, and then ten songs define me for the next two years and suddenly I’m 70 years old.

These are great questions. When are you going to pull out something easy, like ‘how did Strand Of Oaks get its name’ or ‘when did you first hear My Morning Jacket?’

I’ve got a bad question. You want a bad question?

Yes.

Has anyone confused you with Aquaman?

Oh my god! I’m an old timer now in the music world, and I’m so f*cking sick on being compared to fill-in-the-blank bad singer-songwriter. I think that’s the biggest compliment in the world when people bring that up. Jason Momoa is like the most handsome dude. It’s like god sculpted that guy. I watched his show Frontier, I’m scared of zombies so I can’t watch Game Of Thrones. I think it’s great, that guy seems like a really cool dude.

Eraserland is out now on Dead Oceans. Get it here.

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