The idea that great art only comes out of suffering remains an ongoing debate. Timothy Showalter unintentionally makes a case for its beneficial results with Strand of Oaks‘ sixth album, Eraserland.
He feels that surfacing from the depths of depression led him to the best representation of Oaks and reaching his full potential as a songwriter who regularly plows the fertile terrain of self-examination. Still, Showalter emphasized during our conversation that despite the artistic success of Eraserland, he embraces the change to a more pragmatic outlook of his sense of self-worth.
His friendship with My Morning Jacket gave him the necessary spark to reach a clearer understanding of his life and career. Hearing about Showalter’s condition, Carl Broemel contacted him and related that keyboardist Bo Koster had a two-week break from his tour with Roger Waters. He already booked session time at La La Land Studios in Louisville. The act of kindness forced Showalter to be active in ways that weren’t exclusively negative.
The two MMJ members were joined by bandmates Patrick Hallahan and Tom Blankenship. Jason Isbell also contributed to the album. Last March an ad hoc grouping of Isbell, Amanda Shires, Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), Koster and Blankenship joined Showalter for a live performance of “Ruby,” the new album’s second single, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
On the band’s website, Showalter offers his take on the experience. (Go to www.strandofoaks.net for the full text.)
“This record wasn’t supposed to be here…they believed I could and pulled me back from the brink. At last, the songs came–and quickly morphed into everything I’ve ever worked toward as this band.
These ten songs are about existing and continuing on, a testament to the hope that even if we feel like we are disappearing, there is that glimmer of light. You may not come out the same person you started as, but that’s okay. I’m glad this record is here now for whoever chooses to find it.
Welcome to Eraserland, where we all can start again.”
I find him in a forthcoming and affable mood that made the constraints of keeping to his interview schedule extremely difficult. (“If questions about Phish get brought up, then I’m gonna talk for even longer.”) After a quick catching up on Dead & Company, we jumped into the deep waters that surround Eraserland.
JPG: I met you a couple years and we discussed your desire to see Dead & Company perform. Did that ever work out?
TS: The problem with Dead & Company is that they choose to play Philly exactly when I always have shows. And, unfortunately, the Philly show last year got rained out. (He’s referencing the band’s June 2 show at BB&T Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey that was cut short due to a rainstorm.)
It’s been really fun and interesting to watch that evolve. It feels like John Mayer’s having more fun and maybe that overwhelming sense of the catalog…just seems like he’s enjoying himself a lot. Probably after we’re dead and gone, John Mayer’s grandkids are gonna be whatever the Dead is in a hundred years, if we still exist.
It’s beautiful music. It’s the same as people were playing Rogers & Hammerstein musicals still. It’s not the original cast. With the best music, and especially music like that, it’s meant to be eternal. You can complain all you want but you still want to hear some form of it live. You’re going to enjoy it.
JPG: I had no problem with your jamming ways on Hard Love. Maybe some people did. The new album, Eraserland, seems like a reaction to that and is more concise. And I have no problem with that because I feel that if you like an artist you follow that person through whatever they do, especially if a particular direction can be changed on the next album.
TS: That’s beautiful. That’s an amazing way to look at it. Unfortunately, I’m too hard on myself. I don’t care about criticism or compliments because I have that internal narrative in my head. I give my own show criticisms after every show. I don’t need to read a newspaper about it because in my head I can go back to every….I don’t know why, I’m such a space case in every other part of my life but when I play a concert, it’s so sacred to me that I know every note that I played when I walk offstage and every note I didn’t want to play or how I didn’t communicate with the rhythm section at this point or…and then the good things.
But, it is just that idea of with Hard Love it was a reactionary thing, especially live, where if anyone saw me during the Heal tour it was a pretty wild event. It was more about the impulsiveness…it was almost performance art. I was purging myself of…whatever, but unfortunately for me, as a pretty self-critical person, I was like, “I wanna play guitar better. I know I threw my guitar on the ground during this song and I was rolling around on the ground because I was feeling it but with “Hard Love” I want to actually learn. I want to be a better player!”
The issue with Hard Love is I’m a manic guy, so I went way too far into that and I kind of removed myself from that connection with the audience because I really did just want to be better. That’s what happens when you start listening to Trey [Anastasio]. You’re like, “Damn! I’m never gonna be that good but I could be better!” So, that’s what “Hard Love” was.
Then…it’s a long story but to put it frankly, I got sad. I got really down.
JPG: I understand that. There are days when it’s hard to surface.
TS: Surface is a good word. I could relate to that completely.
JPG: So, you were below surface…
TS: Way below.
JPG: You say you don’t respond to criticism, but it didn’t get the same adulation of Heal, still, did that affect you or did you feel something was missing or you just didn’t feel right?
TS: I think I didn’t feel right because it was…obviously, I’m a lead singer and lead guitar player because I probably desperately want everyone to love me. (laughs) That is an inherent personal thing that I have. I don’t know what it is, if it’s a good thing or bad thing, who knows? But, my main thing was I got too wrapped up in…I put too much of myself into the identity of the band. Because of that, I equated my career going off track and I just thought it was my career going off track but in reality it was me, as a person, not the fucking band. It was me and my mental health. I just couldn’t make that separation because I was way too deep until it was too late and I didn’t want to do it anymore. That’s where I was.
It seems like it was written in a movie but it’s true. At that lowest point, that’s when Carl Broemel from [My Morning] Jacket reached out at the time I needed it the most. They’re nice guys, and I don’t know if they were aware that I was down. They may have been because it’s a small community. Regardless, they did.
I don’t know if you feel this way when you get down but the one thing, it’s like the Indiana farmer blood in me…be active. No idle time. That’s a true statement. If I don’t have anything going on I twirl downward fast.
I think as friends and people that I love, everybody involved with the record — the Jacket guys, Kevin Ratterman who produced it — I think they realized that the best thing for Tim right now is to get him doing something, and let’s make this record and get together. They booked the studio time. They figured all that out. I didn’t do any of that, and I’m always the one doing that.
JPG: If you’re not feeling active and positive and in the mood to make a record, you can get that call from Carl, tell him what he wants to hear, hang up and go back to bed. So, there must have been something within you to move forward, even a little bit, to put a few words together as the first step towards song lyrics, even if they’re not very good. It’s a start. Is that how it went or were you coming out of it around the same time and realizing that the band is one thing but it’s not you as a person?
TS: Yeah…(pauses) That’s a good question. You always know when you ask a good question if I don’t immediately have 10,000 words to say. It’s a compliment if I stumble. (slight laugh) Oh no! My brain is thinking!