Words by Tommy Johnson
The reconfiguration of a guitarist pedalboard is a relatively mundane procedure. What’s also true is that talking about such is not the liveliest of conversations. Tim Showalter is fully aware that diving into such talk will ultimately lead him down a path that will surely bore the recipient on the other end. I for one don’t see that way; years of being around musicians has given me a deeper appreciation of what goes into the process of choosing what goes on the board.
Showalter, who goes by the musical moniker Strand Of Oaks, is gearing up for an extensive tour with an accompanying band in support of his latest album Eraserland, which dropped at the end of March via Dead Oceans. The board is nearly complete with how Showalter wants it to be, but also admits that he has a nice collection of other pedals. One in particular is needing to be placed with the others. “I always call it the ‘X Factor’ pedal, which I like to have that may not play but it does something insane that I might do once a show. That’s what I am working on today,” Showalter disclosed during our phone conversation.
Had you talked to Showalter just a couple of years ago, he would have been hearing an individual that saw his life collapsing all around him. He given up writing new material and began questioning anything. A timeline of events started to line up one after another, which weighed down on the singer/songwriter’s mind. With Showalter feeling the lowest he’s ever felt in his life, an unexpected text from My Morning Jacket’s own Carl Broemel came through. Broemel explained that he and other members of the band carved some time to record at La La Land Studios in Louisville. They were concerned for their friend and felt that coming up to lay down some music would help. Before the trek up to the studio, though, Showalter took a short trip to Jersey Beach for two weeks to find inspiration to write. His daily walks on the beach alone started as attempts to break off the overwhelming sense of fear. Soon thereafter, Showalter began noticing that he shouldn’t be too caught up defining rules of who he should be or what we will become.
The recording session for Eraserland was beyond anything Showalter could have dreamed of. The album itself showcases a much more focused vision and sound from the musician. Swooning folksy instrumentals come alive with Showalter sounding as confident as he’s ever been. As you will discover during our conversation, the time in Louisville also gave him a better sense of peace. Something that was missing for entirely way too long.
OS: From what I was reading about you, the last tour for 2017’s Hard Love drained you. Everything culminated into you talking about not wanting to write music anymore. Now here you are a couple of years have passed, you got that excitement again.
TS: It was a necessary reset that I didn’t know that I needed. I liked the record, especially when I’m playing live. There’s going to be songs that record I will play for the rest of my life. I think it was a mistaken identity problem for me; my emotional issues and perhaps depression I tied way too much into the band. So it became a schizophrenic approach to things where I was “Oh I guess it’s just me not enjoying playing music and songwriting.” I should have dug one layer deeper and been like, “No as a person, I’m having some serious mental stability problems.” I addressed them by finally admitting that there was a problem. It wasn’t easy for me to do, because I like to work. I like to be active.
OF: Did it ever get to a point where you thought about harming yourself?
TS: I think like many, I had that point since I was young. I had a real bad disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, when I was little. I was thirteen and in physical therapy, every morning trying to get my ankle to work; my joints froze, my pelvis fell out of place. And I was on basically the precursor to oxycontin… it was a struggle. I have talked to other people, and it made me feel better because I wasn’t so alone. Like you are on the Enterprise, and that’s life, and there’s an escape pod that your mind reminds you of; you live with that voice.
I think this record addresses that for the first time. What I’ve written in the past, it addresses things that are circumstantial. I wrote a record called HEAL… that’s a circumstantial hope. I want to heal, but your psyche and your being in existence is not a wound that heals. It’s not something that if you think you are going to get better or there’s a beautiful flower-filled pasture that you are going to find – that’s almost idealistic. I’m not looking to heal anymore; I’m looking to find existence tolerable. I don’t think that’s negative… it’s fucking great and that’s why the last song says I hope it never ends. I don’t want it to end, and I have times in my life where it almost did go beyond of control. I got in a terrible car crash…a truck was bearing down about to hit us, and I looked at my wife and said, “It’s okay.” and in my brain, I was saying, “This is it. I’m done.” and then I wasn’t.
OF: I was going to ask this question in the beginning, but didn’t feel like it wasn’t going to be the best thing to do. You are doing a lot of press for the new album, do you have a problem talking about recalling your feelings?
TS: I do love to talk. I get in trouble all the time when we are on the road because the band is “Where is Tim?” I strike up a conversation with the person at the gas station. Fifteen minutes later, I’m still there. “Oh, your mom was like that?! So was my mom!”
Hey, by the way, I saw your number. Are you Midwest?
OS: I do. I also lived in a small rural area…very country. My family still lives over there, and it’s nice to visit. I do love the Midwest, but the bigger the city, the happier I am.
TS: We are very similar in that regard. What I am finding out is that I’m very fortunate to have that Midwest way about me. I’m curious, and I like talking to people. Some people will think it’s corny, but I think it’s on our favor that we have that kind of culture.
OS: Was any of your family involved with music?
TS: No, no. My mom could have been if she hadn’t had any of us kids and had to work as a doctor’s secretary. She has a voice that’s like Joni Mitchell and Carol King; she comes and sings with me sometimes. My dad and my two brothers do it as a joke. There’s a piano at the house, and my brother – no musical background – with both hands plays Charlie Brown’s Christmas. He says, “Isn’t this funny?” I say, “No it’s not!”
OF: Oh no, he’s that guy! Don’t put that guy on the phone. (Laughs)
TS: He always jokes, “This is ‘Down By The Sea’ from [Led] Zeppelin on the guitar, right?” “It is…good job. I can’t figure that out.” It’s funny!
OF: So what got you into wanting to play music?
TS: I was a sports guy before I got arthritis. I was then adopted by the theater kids. That opened me up to music and dressing weird…all the great stuff that in a small town like we both grow up in that was the outlet. I was just young enough, but I do remember the coolest kids that were my older brother’s age in the early 90s, and they were the Jane Addiction’s kids. They were wearing drug rugs, 3XL Flaming Lips shirts. I think that’s what got me going that path.
For me, there was so little going on in my town that had to be what Stand Of Oaks is now. There weren’t people to make a band, so I had to be that from the get-go. If I had been in Philly or Chicago, I would have most likely played bass in a math rock band [laughs]. I would have loved it because I would have been in a band, but it’s shaped me. It has much to do with who I am now, a revolving cast of characters and my thing that I am making that a lot of people are involved with.
OS: It could be a spot of inspiration, as well. Playing with different musicians, they can touch spots within you that you didn’t get.
TS: Eraserland broke the mold in a lot of ways, too. It was a scary thing. Am I writing songs good enough for Patrick Hallahan to play drums? This is Patrick! Bo is in Rogers Waters’ band. Again-that thing to get over with. I’m a small kid from Indiana, and this band sold out Madison Square Garden. Yes, I’m a pretty good singer, but I’m not Jim James [laughs]. I don’t think there’s a limit to what that guy does vocally. There was a lot to get over with, but the results are for the first time I can listen to a record that I made. It’s a really good feeling, and it was necessary. I have put out five records that were mostly me that would have a drummer come in and do some drums parts. It was a pretty lonely creation that also led to my last two albums sounding so saturated because there’s never a stopping mechanism. With Eraserland besides vocals and random keyboard parts, it was all live.
When I was in that studio, I’ve never been happier in my life. My wife came to visit; spring was happening, I’m making a record and getting to hang every morning with Tommy [Blankenship] with coffee. If that could have been my Groundhog’s Day moment, that would have been fine.
OS: Was there any reluctance to go to Louisville? Was there a moment where you said that you should do this?
TS: I had to get over the first day of recording that if I belong there or not. First and foremost My Morning Jacket, to me and a lot of people my age, this was the band. I saw this band in 2001 when they were first starting, and I saw them rise, and I loved it. So I had that moment when it was a fill that Patrick did and he puts his arm up telegraphing to the band members where to the end the song. And I know the band enough to know this is Patrick doing that thing and this is to my song! I fucked up the take because it was so overwhelming… and then it wasn’t. Afterward I not only have my favorite that I have ever done, but I have friends for life with me now. That’s limitless in value.
OS: How did you get involved with the members of My Morning Jacket?
TS: We toured with Jacket on the Waterfall tour; we were the opening band for a bunch of shows. I pride myself and my band members whoever they are on being nice people, and we had such a great connection with the crew and band. Their sound guy immediately did our sound, no questions asked. Their lighting guy – he should have been taking a break before Jacket went on. They wrote a whole program for us. Down to the guitar tech to Jim James… it was this unbelievable organization.
OS: The Midwest mentality was coming out.
TS: It is! It was incredible. The gifts that the band has given me… at first, it taught me how bands should tour. And then on top of that, how we work together. The one thing that I haven’t said yet, but I feel responsible about…Jim doesn’t get mention enough. I wrote to Jim before I said yes before going into the studio, asking if it’s okay. I asked for his blessing. Jim within seconds wrote back, “I love you. I love these guys. I can’t wait to hear what you guys do.”
OS: I imagine Jim was taken back by asking if you could record with the band.
TS: He said, “Of course it’s cool!” He was what you expect of him to be. He was so nice about it. I think that it was perfect timing for all of us. It might be lightning in a bottle or it might happen again. I don’t know. I can’t in my life right think that far ahead. As of right now, I am living in the present and I’m so happy that it happened and we got to make it.
OS: You have said that this new album is a rebirth. For you, it’s a rebirth as well.
TS: Exactly! I spent too much of my life not being in the present for good things to happen because I’m thinking what’s going to happen in a year. Everything now is tour by tour. I can’t wait for the US tour. I can’t for the European leg and everything else that happens.