Today, Tim Showalter returns with Eraserland, his sixth album as Strand Of Oaks. It almost didn’t happen. As the touring behind 2017’s Hard Love was coming to a close, Showalter found himself defeated. After the wild journey from his 2014 breakthrough HEAL to its follow-up, something didn’t click. Unsatisfied with his band, with the project overall, with himself, he entered into in a bout of deep depression.
Then he got a call from an old friend and a musician he’d looked up to: My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel. The other members of the group besides singer Jim James — keyboardist Bo Koster, bassist Tom Blankenship, and drummer Patrick Hallahan — wanted to offer their services as backing band for a new Oaks album. The only problem was Showalter didn’t have any songs.
He embarked on a writing retreat, secluding himself on the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey in the dead of winter. In a few weeks, he emerged with the songs that would become Eraserland. He met the band in Louisville and they recorded the material in a matter of weeks as well.
If Eraserland came together quickly and serendipitously, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from listening. Without feeling burdened, it is perhaps one of Showalter’s heaviest albums — one that charges headlong into middle-age questions about the life a person has chosen and the ripple effects it’s caused, about the life they might choose to live going forward. There are songs that catalog that defeat and depression from which the album was birthed, and songs that reopen the world afterwards, offering the route to the next chapter.
There’s more cohesion and consistency to it than its predecessor, and many of its compositions sit right alongside Showalter’s best work. It also sounds great; people will call it heartland rock, naturally, but teaming up with MMJ was a natural fit that brought out a muscular yet spacey vein of Showalter’s songwriting.
We caught up with Showalter to get the stories behind each song on his great new album, from inspiration to recording anecdotes. Now that the album is out in the world, you should spend some time digging in — several of its songs are more rewarding and evocative each time you listen. And below, Showalter’s stories may provide a sort of first listen companion.
1. “Weird Ways”
STEREOGUM: As a mission statement and lead single, “Weird Ways” felt like such a perfect reentry point. Like opening up the album with sort of a rebirth moment. Do you think of it that way? Where did it arrive for you in the making of the album?
TIM SHOWALTER: In my time at the beach, which was basically a writing retreat, that was the last song I wrote. It was towards the end of my time there, before my wife and her family came, and I was breaking down my gear — and then I just wrote one more song. I felt like I was in this rush to write it because I needed to get the apartment clean before her parents came. But I had one thing left I needed to say, after three weeks and many more songs than are on the record.
I wrote it so fast. It was just another song, I had no idea about its impact on my catalog. We got to the studio, and it was kinda far down on the list. I always have my marquee songs I really like, hence my past mistakes like “Passing Out” not being on Hard Love. But then “Weird Ways” was the first song we tracked. It had this weird life, it was the underdog. The original, it was like two minutes and the refrain at the end was a four-bar “There are colors.” Since it was the last song I wrote, I think it actually encapsulated the entire experience of the album. I think I was summarizing the record, and then it’s the first song on the album. It’s like I’m calling my shot before the album happens.
STEREOGUM: There’s a poetic element to the idea that the end became the beginning on an album that almost didn’t happen. When you talk about how that refrain was shorter — that feels like such a crucial moment early on the album, like such a great marriage of My Morning Jacket’s disposition and yours. Were there times like that in the studio, in which one of the Jacket members urged you to rethink a piece of a song?
SHOWALTER: “Weird Ways,” from the demo, is the least familiar on the album. Kevin Ratterman, my producer, he and I didn’t talk about it, but how we developed the arrangement on the album was like the curtain coming up. And the curtain comes up for everybody pretty much individually. You initially hear Carl’s ethereal little slide, then Bo comes in with the keyboards, Patrick comes in with the snare, and finally Tommy comes in when everyone kicks in.
It’s beautiful in a way, because yes it’s introducing their instruments, but it’s also introducing how each member individually — and this is the theme of the whole recording process — was there for me and embracing me. It starts out extremely alone, it’s just me with an acoustic sounding extremely lonely. With them and Lacey Guthrie from Twin Limb, by the end it feels like there’s 500 people in the room around me.
This was the first time [My Morning Jacket] and I recorded together. In the midst of the tracking, I really messed up a take. And I was the worst one to mess up a take because I had very little responsibility — I was just tracking ghost vocals and rhythm guitar. So whenever I messed up when we’re tracking a six and a half minute song live, I felt really bad. Just like, “Who is the amateur in this room!? It’s your song!” But I did, I messed up.
It was my first and only deep crisis of conscience, where I had the inevitable, “What am I doing here? This is where Jim should be and … I cannot sing like Jim …” I didn’t express it to anyone else as it was happening but luckily I got over it fast. I saw things within the studio. I was communicating with one of my favorite bands in that way.
A key moment arrangement-wise in that song was the “There are colors” refrain. Originally it was a falsetto and a low part. On demo, it just wasn’t there. The song really didn’t take off until I was doing the vocals and I told Kevin “I wanna do a Liam Gallagher part.” He was like, “What does that mean!?” There was this high part and low part and then I did this middle part like “That’s what Liam Gallagher would’ve done there!” It added a heft that wasn’t there.
STEREOGUM: I really like this image of you starting alone and all of them entering and kinda lifting you up. The story that came with Eraserland’s initial announcement was that you were feeling pretty defeated, then got a call from Carl.
SHOWALTER: The worst I felt is when Carl originally contacted me. That was at the end of the Hard Love tour. I was done. I was very depressed. Unbeknownst to me, I was equating it to my music because I’d become so tied to that identity as that’s who I was. I was thinking, “It’s the band, I don’t want the band to go on anymore.” But I think I didn’t want to go on anymore. I think I was done, in a lot of ways.
So the beach happened because they all booked studio time and Bo had two weeks off from the Roger Waters tour to be with us. All of that happened, and I legitimately didn’t have songs. I love Wildwood, New Jersey, and I love it in the winter. It was by [my wife] Sue’s encouragement that I should go. I do get really calm when I’m by the water. The beach happened [because] like … your final exam is due and you have nothing.
I love a challenge, that was part of what got me out of my funk. I had an opportunity and I had to rise to this. If you had told me when I was driving a school van in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 2005 listening to Z, in 13 or 14 years they’d be my band … I would’ve thought you were insane! Then it happened. Even if I was sad, even if I felt like I didn’t want to do it, I had to do it. That’s the beautiful thing about this record, I had nothing to do with it starting.
I was thinking about Talk Talk — that music doesn’t feel emotional to me. It feels like something … geological. Something deeper than emotions. When people are like, “I can’t wait to cry, I can’t wait to feel sad,” I had lost all of those. I know I’m in a bad place when I don’t feel happy or sad. I just feel empty. That’s the scariest thing. I think that’s why the music and the lyrics came from something else. They don’t feel deeply emotional to me. That’s what’s difficult with explaining some of the lyrics. For me, it’s like, how do I explain: You’re looking at a sunset and it’s gorgeous and you realize everything dies.
I think I may have felt insecure about tapping into some of these emotions [in the past]. I felt a lot more comfortable explaining heartbreak or debaucherous times, and maybe those were a way of me padding a space between these even darker, more galactic feelings, that, when you finally get to them, can be horrifying. Just my wife, my parents, the thin line of existence.
I don’t know what it means to say “a weird way to say goodbye.” I love the way those words flow together. I love that idea of “There are colors in the places you can’t find.” I think that’s what I was just saying. The geological foundation of living. I found those places. At first it might be a concerning line. It probably was at the time. I’m really proud of that one.
The record is called Eraserland. We’re literally erasing the amount of stimulus I might’ve given on HEAL and Hard Love, and starting with a vocal and acoustic guitar.
2. “Hyperspace Blues”
STEREOGUM: There’s a distinct arc to the album. Hard Love had more discrete sounds from song to song. Eraserland has these towering, emotional tracks that kind of trace this journey. But, on our way, right from “Weird Ways,” we go to “Hyperspace Blues.” Now, you’ve mentioned you wanted to move past the kind of party monster image from the last album cycle. But this song definitely seems like it’s about drugs. Tell me if I’m wrong.
SHOWALTER: [Laughs] Well, the second verse… This is all I’ll say: If you know, you know. But I love “Hyperspace Blues” because it served such a functional purpose in my daily process at the beach. My favorite thing to do on the beach — thank God the police never found me — I would take my bike, and the beach is frozen in the winter, and I’d just ride my bike forever at night.
It’s the most freeing experience, because the Jersey Shore is so wide, and you can just ride your bike forever and I felt like a kid. I felt like I was absolutely alone in the universe. I had music on, it was pitch black, and I had no consequences — if I fell off my bike it was sand, I wasn’t going to get hit by a car. It was a sensory deprivation tank almost. It was like hyperspace. I think that played into it a lot. That’s the song I’m most excited to play live.
STEREOGUM: It certainly sounds built for that.
SHOWALTER: It’s that idea that, the times in my life where I’ve felt the best, honestly, is when I have no connection to what I perceive to be the things that distract me from truly enjoying life. Things like sex drive and complications and anxiety and worry. That feeling of the freedom of riding my bike at night, I had no thoughts of that stuff. I was living in this indefinable world.
That’s what the “blues” is: “I have to leave this. I can’t be here. This is where I wish I could exist forever, not being tied to anything and being liberated.” But it’s a fun song, and I wanted to have fun on this record, too. There’s a lot of levity with whoever it’s addressed to. “All is forgiven/ You’re as light as a feather” — I think I’m talking to myself there. I think it’s a funny line.
How do I say it … there’s a bit of trolling on Eraserland. I’m trolling Hard Love a little bit on Eraserland. It’s deeply referential but the idea of like, “Somebody put me back together!” It’s kind of like me responding to that whole situation. Trolling myself, Jesus. I’m definitely living in hyperspace at this point.
STEREOGUM: The way I hear albums is often informed by the artwork. So I hear Eraserland as taking place in this glossier place than the other albums, but also blue and nocturnal, a little bit surrealist. So it took me a bit to hear “Keys” this way, but it kinda sounds like this middle-aged, drunk on the beach in the middle of the night meditation that’s like the older, weathered cousin to like, MMJ’s “Xmas Curtain” or “Steam Engine,” partially thanks to that beautiful slide work Carl can do.
But there’s also something so poignant and universal about this sentiment, just being with your partner and saying “We’re done, let’s just get out of here together.” Did you two actually talk about that idea, you abandoning music and going off to start fresh someplace?
SHOWALTER: Very much. That is a very autobiographical song. Those are all conversations we had. I think “Keys” might be the best love song I ever wrote for Sue. I’ve written a lot of love songs for her but this truly sums it up.
I really like that song because it’s chords I’ve used before, and I really didn’t want to write that song when I was playing the chords. I had a melody that was a really atypical Strand Of Oaks melody. Then I put it away and I was actually trying to hum an organ part I was going to put on, but that became that wandering melody in the verse.
STEREOGUM: That’s why it had this amble to me, this feeling that this conversation was taking place late at night in a bar on the beach. The vocal performance also sounds very, very raw.
SHOWALTER: It’s one thing to capture the band live, but then to also capture the the band take and the vocal — though My Morning Jacket does it, again, that’s Jim James vs. Tim Showalter. [Laughs] The cards are stacked against me. So, we tracked vocals after the band left, in another session. It was just Kevin and I in the studio. You can hear it on the last chorus, where I say “I’ll buy us a trailer down in the Keys,” which to me is so bittersweet. I was just zooming through the vocal takes and I got to that part and I started crying. It got me, completely.
STEREOGUM: It’s one of my favorite lines on the album, just in how it’s delivered. “I’ll be that bartender with boring stories.” It’s so powerful because of how melancholic but conversational it is.
SHOWALTER: Maybe that’s why it’s so beautiful. It’s not the most life-or-death “JM” type lyric.
STEREOGUM: It’s a small image any husband could say to his wife.
SHOWALTER: When I got to that second verse, and I choked up, and I go “Ah, sorry Kevin.” And I couldn’t see him so I go “Kevin, are you there?” I said it three times, and it turns out he was crying, too. [Laughs] We weren’t in the same room, couldn’t see each other, but it hit us equally as hard. Then we went to the second take, and I do break up a little bit again, and we kept it. I was happy that Kevin didn’t push me to do a more refined take in that moment.
STEREOGUM: “Visions” is one of the heavier, more harrowing songs on the album.
SHOWALTER: That was … yeah, that’s a dark one. It’s so dark, I had to put a funny line in it.
STEREOGUM: The “Shit! I took an eighth” thing?
SHOWALTER: Yeah, as a writer I had to break that. It was going further and further into darkness. “Visions” is a crazy song because I wrote that chorus melody before HEAL. That melody has existed for like six years, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to find that chorus a home. It wasn’t until I did the verse, and a two-chord for the pre-chorus … I think the song feels heroic in a way, simply because I felt so happy I finally found a place for this chorus to live.
It’s one of the few songs on the record that touches on the depression I was in. It’s interesting. I think back to a lot of the songs I wrote and “Visions” introduces something I never had before, and that’s hopelessness. For me, there’s a few lines that nail it home, to the truth. “2017 tried its best to take the magic from me.” “Magic,” that’s self-referential — that’s what I say in “Goshen ’97,” “The magic began.” That’s a code word for music, and how music has saved me. I felt like the year, and all that was wrapped up in 2017 — my career, my band, the world — it was gone. The whole song is hopeless at that moment but what’s cool is the music is heroic, and I think the music saves the lyrics. The arrangement is trying to save the person who’s singing.
I was so into that arrangement. If this would’ve been Hard Love me or HEAL me I would’ve added a thousand more things to that fucking song. Harmonies on the chorus. That song is begging for a guitar solo! It’s begging for Slash to show up and step off the train tracks! We didn’t do any of that.
5. “Final Fires”
STEREOGUM: That and “Keys” back to back is pretty intense, and then –
SHOWALTER: We did that on purpose. And I think I can be the journalist here, I can do the transition! We set up the track order as a slight “fuck you” to how records should be set up. This was Kevin and I just having a lot of fun with arranging. Track order is so essential on Eraserland, more so than on any other record I’ve done. “Visions” … it’s a commitment to get to track 4 and end “Visions.” Then moving to “Final Fires,” it literally feels like you’re opening up the champagne bottle. It’s effervescent. “And congratulations, you got through ‘Visions!'”
STEREOGUM: What’s cool to me about this song is it captures the aesthetic of the album pretty well. You think it’s going to be kinda new wave-y in the beginning with that intro, then it’s like this rollicking, breezy rock song dressed up with some synthetic sounds.
SHOWALTER: The intro is in a non-key, almost. The way I wrote the synth arrangement, Bo was like, “What key is this in!?” I said, “I don’t know how to play the piano that well so I was putting all 10 fingers down.” That song was really fun and quick to write.
That’s why I’m excited for people to hear the whole record, because there are moments that are fun. This feels fun in a way that not even “Goshen ’97” did. More awareness I may have earned in my life, and understanding that every year you live you realize everyone’s as completely as fucking lost as you are and everyone has problems and there’s an enormous amount of confusion in everyone’s life. In the past, I would’ve written a whole record like, “I think I’m crazy!” And now I can sum it up in one kinda funny line in the beginning of “Final Fires,” “Oh I guess I should dye my hair now.”
6. “Moon Landing”
STEREOGUM: So there’s more hope or levity in the middle passage of the album. “Moon Landing” feels like it would’ve sat here on the album regardless, a kind of mid-album funk freakout. And you have Jason Isbell playing on it. Was he actually in the studio?
SHOWALTER: No, no. Jason and I go way, way back. He’s a wonderful person. I think Jason knew I was having a tough time. He reached out and was like, “If you need anything on this record let me know. I’d love to be a part of it.”
We always had that in the back of our mind, like I have Carl Broemel and then I also have the opportunity to have Jason Isbell. We were thinking of where to put him. My God, Jason plays slide guitar amazing, he could’ve done something amazing on “Keys.” Any song. But Kevin and I are pranksters, perhaps, so when we were in the midst of finishing tracking with Jacket we were like, “Where are we gonna put Jason?” And I just said… “Moon Landing.”
We had this absolute groove song so we sent it to Jason. I kept telling Kevin, “You have no idea what he can do on a guitar. Do not think in the lens of Americana.” So we got it back and it was weirder and crazier than I could’ve ever imagined. It’s more indebted to Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” than an Allman Brothers song. It’s fucking crazy. I felt so pleased in such a tiny, tiny way, that if anyone didn’t know the depth of Jason’s playing, I could have a small part in showing he could do anything.
Since HEAL, I’ve had songs that are sort of the gravitational center of the record. “JM” was that, and “On The Hill” was that for Hard Love … and “Moon Landing,” in a different way, feels like it’s gluing things together. Especially lyrically. There’s a lot of lyrics to unravel.
STEREOGUM: When it first starts and you’re just talking about Malcolm Young, and then it jumps through these references, it has this stream-of-consciousness feeling to it. But by the time you get through this whole thing, in a strange way it does feel like these thoughts coalesce.
SHOWALTER: I think it was a purge song. I was purging all of this, in a different way than “Visions.” I had so much I wish I could’ve retracted, or said again, or wish I could say to people in a different way. It’s all in there. Some of it’s more cryptic than others. It’s the opposite of HEAL; I don’t mind if different interpretations can be taken.
I started the song with Malcolm Young, as a fan … in life, there are certain moments that are perfect. I think Malcolm Young was perfect in what he did. It’s something that cannot be emulated, it’s something about the way he played, and that’s the impact of him being gone now. No one will ever play rock ‘n’ roll rhythm guitar as flawlessly as Malcolm Young did. It’s book-ended with the last verse, with Chris Cornell. I always took a lot of pride in [having the same birthday] as him. And we were born on the same day the moon landing took place. Another monumental perfect thing, Chris Cornell’s voice.
Another Rosetta Stone moment is when I say “Bobby’s singing ‘Prophet’ with the futuristic eyes,” it’s Bob Weir singing “Estimated Prophet.” The lyrics in “Estimated Prophet” had a huge impact on the lyrics for “Moon Landing.” Chris Swanson, who started Secretly Canadian, told me the best thing ever: “Some songs are for the people, some songs are for the heads.” This is one of those for the heads, I think.
STEREOGUM: Well, one of the songs for the people. The pop song, man. You’ve had some big, anthemic songs but I don’t think you’ve ever written something as effortlessly catchy and warm as “Ruby.”
I loved what you said when this came out as a single. There has been nostalgia, especially on the last couple Oaks albums, but there was a pang with it. And “Ruby” is this more contented remembrance. And then there’s that refrain at the end where, like “Weird Ways,” it really strikes me as the exact sound of Strand Of Oaks playing with My Morning Jacket.
SHOWALTER: In the midst of everything, I did feel good at moments at the beach. I did get excited, have moments of great levity. “In a few weeks I get to go to Louisville and make this record!” At the beach in Jersey in February, some days are going to look like The Road, and then other days are for some reason 50 degrees and sunny. At one moment, that happened, and I felt so good.
I put a filter on happiness. I always have to put some line in there that cuts down this good feeling. And I didn’t want to put any stoppage to it on “Ruby.” I don’t think Ruby is anything. It’s just this amorphous good word. It feels so nice to say.
Musically, “Ruby” is probably my proudest moment, because there’s a lot of strange key-shifting. The chorus is in a different key than the verse, the refrain is in a completely different key, and it all fits together. In my own mythology, in my own mind, I was like, “I’d love to write a song where Paul McCartney might think it’s OK.” Like, he doesn’t think it’s great, but Paul McCartney might be like, “Oh, that’s an interesting melody you put there.” [Laughs] He wouldn’t tell me it’s a great song, he’d just maybe perk up a bit.
What really nailed it is it for a long time existed as just the chorus and verse and it was last minute when I shifted into that “Ruby, won’t you slow it down.” That, to me, along with “Keys,” is one of the prettiest moments in my career. Then the waltzy piano outro was just another idea that was on the demo, that had no connection. That was Bo — I don’t think he knew, I didn’t intend for that outro to be on the song. So we finished and he just went into it and I was like, “Whoa, whoa the song’s over!” And Bo was like, “Oh, I thought this was part of it,” so I said, “Well, now it is!” So it ends in this 6/8 time signature. Man, it was fun to put together. In four minutes there’s like five different themes put together.
8. “Wild And Willing”
STEREOGUM: After “Ruby” the album definitely goes into a sad and ruminative place for the final stretch. It begins with “Wild And Willing.” Now, you write self-referentially a lot, you write autobiographically a lot. On this particular album, I feel like there are more lyrical references to being in a band and being on tour. Is that something — compared to say, “Keys” — that you worry people aren’t going to connect with as much? Or do you trust that at this point people have been along for the ride and will take these as little memoir glimpses?
SHOWALTER: With Eraserland, there are references to band and musician and it does seem like a closed society in some ways. I kind of feel the opposite. That I’m finally understanding that my language is my life. I can’t talk about a sailor or someone who makes dresses, because I can’t do that. My point of reference, my entry, is always what I do.
In “Wild And Willing,” I think it does feel a lot more inviting and welcoming because, yeah, I’m referencing being in a band but the way I’m presenting the lyrics is, hopefully, a lot more universal. “Wild And Willing,” that is the one song that should not be on this record. We had this other great song we made in the studio, that’ll probably come out at some point. But I got to this point where we had recorded that song and I was doing vocals and I asked Kevin, “Can I do something just for posterity?” We had the vocal mic set up, I grabbed what turned out to be Jim’s guitar — which is beautiful, because it’s like he’s on the record in a way, this was his main acoustic at the beginning of Jacket. “Wild And Willing” is the first and only take.
We could’ve had the vibe-y song in there, but I wanted this to be a statement. Have this just be voice and guitar. I didn’t even do that on my so-called folky records! This is the most stripped-down I’ve ever been. I told Sue, “‘Wild And Willing’ is my version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow.'” The Wizard Of Oz is my favorite movie of all time. That’s my Judy Garland moment.
Again, I’m trolling myself — that’s a modern word, hopefully the kids will come out and high-five me for the trolls — but it’s got this other sad line, “I saw them last year and they played too long.” That may have just explained Hard Love. That’s just me thinking and maybe being spot-on for how people perceived me for a year or two. “Did they have to play a jam for 30 minutes?” It seems throwaway but it’s real sad for me. I’m like, “Fuck! That’s me! I didn’t do it right!”
STEREOGUM: This final one-two is the most powerful way you’ve ever ended an album, in my opinion. And this title track is a weird song. It has this synth-gospel thing going on almost, and these big breaks and this dramatic outro. It’s one of the most interesting Oaks songs, I think.
SHOWALTER: “Eraserland” the song is, for anyone that knows — that’s Pope Killdragon, who’s come back after 10 years. He’s speaking to the Virgin Mary, who was the heroine of Pope Killdragon. In my head, on the beach, I thought about the world and myself and what happened in the 10 years since I wrote Pope Killdragon and I brought him back. I never thought I would. If “Visions” was hopeless, this is… It’s a dark song.
STEREOGUM: This is another one of the line readings on the album that really just levels me: “Mary, should I have some kids/ Build a house where no one lives.” But I don’t know if I hear it as hopeless in the same way as “Visions” because when that huge synth break arrives, it’s very cathartic.
SHOWALTER: I think the song itself is like four vignettes. Some are global, some are extremely personal. It was the self-assessment moment: What would I say if this angel or patron saint came back and talked to me? And she was like, “The last time I hung out with you, you were trying to write Pope Killdragon, and then you made an anthem record, and then a debaucherous record, and what the fuck happened to you? Who are you?” Mary just maybe represents me having a frank conversation with myself and having to be aware that 10 years passed. What do I have?
As opposed to something like “Wild And Willing,” where I just forgot about it, I was pretty adamant about not putting “Eraserland” on the record. It wasn’t called “Eraserland,” it was just this song. I included it for some reason in the demos, and this was Patrick, I think he was the reason this is on the record.
STEREOGUM: That would’ve been a “Passing Out”-level mistake, leaving this off.
SHOWALTER: Well I took his advice. We put it on the record. On the demo it was kind of looped. I just sat down and piled a bunch of shit on there. When the band got it, it just went to a place I had no idea it could.
I love the fact that it’s another strange turn in the tracklisting. That should be the end of the record. “Eraserland” should be the last song, and in a way it is. The one thing that was beautiful about the song “Eraserland” is I didn’t have the name of the album until one time Sue visited us in Louisville and I told her, “I think I’m going to call it Land Of The Dead.” And she was like “…You can’t do that.” Me, in my own head, I always think everything is a doom metal project.
I do strangely say “erase” like five times on the record. We came up with “Eraserland,” and this song didn’t have a name, so I made it the title track. And with that we had that outro without any vocals. Kevin said, “You need to say one more thing in this song.” That’s when that refrain [happened], and we were very specific about how to put those words together, because it’s “I am the Eraserland,” not “I’m in the Eraserland.” It feels more powerful, it’s a declaration. I think that’s an extremely different statement.
It’s also a reference to “Goshen ’97,” “I don’t want to start all over again.” This is me saying to that, “I can start again.” I can do whatever I want. As deep and low as I got, I don’t have to follow that prescription. I can change this. Then, the absolute necessity of that is having Emma sing on this.
STEREOGUM: Right, the song is strikingly beautiful and has this effect coming after all these other tracks. Then you have Emma Ruth Rundle come in, and her voice is just totally otherworldly.
SHOWALTER: The first thing I did in the studio, a day or two before the band came: Kevin was just finishing mixing Emma’s record On Dark Horses. He was like, “You need to hear this.” I was like, “Oh, OK, this is maybe not the best thing to show me right now because we’re just starting a record and it’s like ‘Oh great I’m feeling real good right now.'” But he showed it to me and I was like, “WHO IS THIS.”
When I was doing the vocals, Kevin was like, “I wanna have Emma sing on this song.” We called it the Eraserland Vibe. It wasn’t that we were searching out people, they found each other. Emma came in and me being a dork I was like, “I heard your record and it’s like the spiritual sequel to Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.” She high-fived me and was like “We’re going to be best friends.”
Emma’s around my age, and I realized maybe she was having a lot of the same feelings. I saw so much of myself in her. Those that know Emma know she can sing huge. And I love that both of us were singing in our lower register. Usually when people think about quote-unquote duets, it has a formulaic approach. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but this was very genderless. There’s no beginning or ending between me and her when we sing. It sounds like one person. You can’t really put your finger down. I think that fits the symbolic nature of what the song is. I can start again, I’m not anything. It was just in the stars, how those situations happen.
10. “Forever Chords”
STEREOGUM: Those things you were saying: I’m nothing, I can start over again, it’s two voices melding together. That’s a pretty clear resolution, a logical place for the album to end. There’s this way to me, like you said, in which “Eraserland” is the ending, and “Forever Chords” is this gigantic epilogue. Sonically speaking, it brings in the MMJ element one more time because it reminds me of “Dondante” a bit, this spectral and sprawling thing, big but not loose, with like an orchestrated build.
SHOWALTER: “Forever Chords,” truly, going back to that word geological … it’s the core of the earth for my being. For the hundreds of songs that I’ve written, it’s the one song I hope people listen to when I’m gone. As it stands right now, it’s my proudest moment lyrically, and for what the band did. It’s scarily at the top of the mountain for my abilities.
STEREOGUM: You had said you thought it might be the last song you ever write.
SHOWALTER: I thought it was. Sue had visited for the weekend and after she left I wrote it on a Sunday and it was absolutely just the worst weather you could imagine. Just gale force winds and snow and fog and there’s these rock jetties that go out into the water. I walked out to the end of one. They’re very long and slippery and the waves are crashing. I wrote “Forever Chords,” I was listening to it, and I walked out and thought, “That water looks warm.”
That’s how bad it was. That’d be real easy to just do this. And I know it sounds dramatic, like in a movie, but I did think, “I wrote ‘Forever Chords’ and it’s saved on my computer and I could do this.” I didn’t write that for the Jacket guys. I maybe wrote that as a goodbye note a little bit. Luckily it wasn’t. But it’s kind of everything. It’s just two chords, C to E minor. Those are forever chords. Music is my language. Forever chords, that means more than C to E minor. I say it in the song. “Major to minor in a slow beating pulse.” That should be on my gravestone, that’s my mission statement in life. There’s so much to unravel with that song.
STEREOGUM: You’re talking about the finality of that song, hitting this low point. What do you think ultimately brought you back? Was it something that day? Was it recording the album?
SHOWALTER: I think the song explains it. I don’t want it to end. I think I’ve felt that way my whole life, I’ve had that nagging voice since I was a teenager. I think a lot of people do. You think you always have this escape pod from this shell you’re put into and that escape pod is ending it. It’s been a constant demon in my life. Deeper than a car crash, deeper than a heartbreak, deeper than any of that: I don’t want to be me, I don’t want to be in this world. I think the song is me answering back. I don’t want it to end.
I think another gravestone lyric is “If you believe you can be loved/ You’ll outlive your past.” If I never write a lyric again… There is a lot of finality to “Forever Chords,” which is scary as a songwriter. Did I just do it at 36? Is that it for me? Because I just summed up what I thought for 36 years.
And that’s just lyrically. As much as I just said how much the lyrics mean to me, musically and sonically, it’s just as important. What the band did, how we made that song what it is. That song took 10 times longer to create than any other track on the record. But it’s so beautiful and all credit goes to Carl.
We did one take of it and Sue was in town and it was really heavy. Carl said this great thing that’ll stick with me forever. “Guys, we can work on this song for two weeks, but we only have five takes until the magic’s gone. We cannot play this song to death.” Carl hit it right on the head. He was like, look, we can talk about it, we should talk about it, but if we play this song 10 times in a row it’s gone forever. Each take was sacred. As a musical piece, it’s two chords. But every measure was deliberately executed. That’s a symbol of the rest of the record.
Hard Love — I’m not saying this is wrong, but I had a very impulsive approach to that record. It was meant to feel loose. This is the opposite. This was structured. It was incredibly taxing on all of us. It had to be perfect, and they did it perfectly.
A little bit of the skeleton key for this song was “Videotape” by Radiohead. The finality of that song … we mixed the whole record and had “Videotape” as the AB point. That was our sonic companion. Getting cymbals sounding that way. “Forever Chords,” yeah … I love that song. I’ve written a lot of songs. I feel that way about “JM,” and certain songs I’ve written but this…
And epilogue is a perfect word for it. I start the record with “I don’t feel it anymore.” And I end it with “If you believe you could be loved.” That’s a journey, between that and that. The arrangement was even that we had to end on the major chord of the two, the C and not the E minor. It ends on a hopeful note. It ends uplifting.
STEREOGUM: I’d like to think it’s a mountaintop that just opens up the possibilities for the future. You said all this stuff, and that clears the way forward.
SHOWALTER: Maybe that’s what I was hoping to do. I say it in the fucking song. I can start again. Whatever finality I think there is, there’s the ultimate finality of death, which is coming for all of us. Until then, there’s no finality to your existence.
Eraserland is out now on Dead Oceans. Purchase it here.