Spotlight: Strand of Oaks
photo by Alysse Gafkajen
Timothy Showalter was one text away from throwing in the towel when My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel reached out, simply to check in.
“I was really down—I lost that drive that had kept me going in music,” says Showalter, who has spent over a decade recording cosmic, rocking Americana as Strand of Oaks, as he surveys the bleak period leading up to his sixth LP, Eraserland. “Frankly, I was looking at jobs and saying, ‘Maybe I’ll be a gardener or a park ranger or just more sad.’ It was pretty dark but, luckily, you meet people when you tour. So, one day, I got a text from Carl asking how I was.”
Sensing his friend was in need of some encouragement, Broemel jumped into action, recruiting three of the four other members of My Morning Jacket—bassist Tom Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan and keyboardist Bo Koster—and booking some studio time. Before he even wrapped up his text thread with the guitarist, Showalter had already received a call from his manager asking if he was making a record with the Jacket.
“I didn’t have any songs—I was so down that I just stopped writing, which was a huge red flag for my life,” the singer/guitarist says. “But if one of the greatest bands of the past 20 years was willing to play with me, then, as down as I was, I couldn’t ignore that light and that opportunity. I basically wrote the songs for them, and it allowed me to not be so neurotic in my process. I was able to step out of my head and, as often happens, I ended up writing songs for me that I didn’t even know I needed.”
A gregarious personality, the Indiana-born, Philadelphia-based Showalter was originally interested in sports, but juvenile rheumatoid arthritis squashed his early hoop dreams. He moved to Pennsylvania to pursue a music career while working as a teacher and, over the next few years, dealt with a staggering number of blows. His wife cheated on him while he was on tour, his home burned down—forcing him to sleep in a local park for a period of time— and he was involved in a near- fatal automobile accident.
Showalter battled depression, finding enough pockets of hope and inspiration to channel his turbulent twenties and thirties into a series of folk-driven, indie albums. In 2014, he dropped his Dead Oceans debut, the appropriately titled HEAL in the wake of his Christmas Day car crash, helping him score prime opening spots for Jason Isbell, Iron & Wine and My Morning Jacket. Yet, despite his critical success and big-name fans, Showalter still struggled to truly break through.
Once he started writing the album that eventually became Eraserland, Showalter faced his inner demons—as well as his blessings—head on. With the exception of opening invocation “Weird Ways,” the post-punk-influenced psychedelic songs were composed in the order they appear on the record, tackling one subject matter at a time.
“Sometimes your brain hits you over the head, and most people have the ability to find that voice through contemplation and meditation. But my brain goes so fast and it’s filled with so many swirling, chaotic things that, oftentimes, I can’t hear that voice. But, luckily, I tapped into it.”
Showalter spent time alone writing in the barren beachside community of Wildwood, N.J., where his wife has vacationed her entire life, during the dead of winter. At one point, he hopped a fence and wandered around an empty amusement park, channeling his inner Bruce Springsteen, and admits that he doesn’t remember even writing “Forever Chords”—the song just came to him. Through- out, the ocean served as an immediate source of inspiration.
“It’s so beautiful but horrifying,” he says. “There’s something about being around the ocean—you don’t feel emotional because the ocean doesn’t care. It’s been there since water was invented, and it just cycles. And there’s something so basic about that which allowed me to step away from both the sadness and joy, and find something that is universal. It wasn’t emotion. The line of existence that we are all in is so thin. I look at my wife sometimes and I just can’t believe that this person is alive and that I am able to love her.”
When it came time to record the LP, Showalter and the members of MMJ hunkered down at La La Land Studios in Louisville, Ky. with producer Kevin Ratterman and vocalist Emma Ruth Rundle. The sessions were joyous; Isbell ended up lending his services and the ensemble let loose on some sprawling, Crazy Horse-like cuts, as well as the 16-minute bonus track “Cruel Fisherman.”
“People are really shocked when they meet me for the first time,” Showalter says with a hearty laugh. “They think they are going to see the prince of darkness but, at my shows, I’m in it, man. I’m smiling, I’m joyful, I’m loving that experience. Because, now that Eraserland exists, the load has been lifted for me and I can connect again. There are a lot of hardships, but if you treat it correctly and approach it correctly, you can get out of the rat race of ‘I have to be bigger.’”
The Strand of Oaks visionary has always viewed his music as a “purging mechanism” and, while his concerts have long had a spiritual, improvisational quality, in recent years, he’s become a latter-day Phishhead after checking out the Vermont Quartet for the first time at Wrigley Field in 2016. The communal feel of the jamband scene—or “our scene” as he puts it—has since rubbed off on him in a major way and he turned his The Late Show taping into something of an all-star hootenanny featuring Isbell, Koster, Blankenship and Amanda Shires. A few days later, members of Band of Heathens joined him at SXSW and, despite just meeting, their connection was immediate. It’s all helped him turn from making “inward” to “outward” music.
“I have this romantic vision of Eraserland as this pier or an amusement park,” he admits. “It’s this cleansing, ego-death experience that you can go to. And when you leave, you’re not better or worse; you’re just different. That’s the thing with age— I’m not looking for the quick answer anymore. Healing is a lifelong process because we don’t choose to be born into this world, and we basically have to just come to terms with that for the next however many years we’re given. I love the people that I love and I’m dealing with the pain that we all acquire over our years. I’m trying to find a balance of all that and stay connected.”
This article originally appears in the June 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.