words: Bruce Hamilton
photos: Lissy Elle
When I called Ed Schrader at his diner job for this interview, his immediate enthusiasm had me wondering if we had a rapport in real life prior to this conversation. In reality, I had only been a merch table gnat at a couple ESMB shows over the years, including a show they played at SUNY Purchase, a small public college that we had both attended. I was sold on their minimal post-punk grooves and meditative chants, pulled off with sincerity and a snot-bubble, and I felt a tractor beam-like pull to the merch table. I wondered what kind of recorded music would come from a talkative shirtless man with a floor tom and his equally-witty bassist sidekick. Ed might have handed that Party Jail CD to me, but the live show sold it to me.
Riddles, the follow up to Party Jail and the third record under the Ed Schrader’s Music Beat name, is the logical extension of the previous two records (the first being the brazen Jazz Mind). With the help of Purchase/Baltimore buddy Dan Deacon (producer, arranger, and co-writer), Riddles is Ed Schrader’s Music Beat in high definition, taking the sparse rhythm section that comprised the band and ramping it up with keys, woodwinds, and electronic instruments that I won’t pretend to be able to identify. Ed’s trademarked lyrics, mystic and concrete all at once, are given bigger choruses; as paradoxical as it sounds, they’ve got more room to breathe amongst the new arrangements. Riddles is its own payoff.
Ed was not shy. He began rattling off answers to questions I hadn’t asked yet. Our planned half-hour ended up just shy of the two hour mark. Here is an abridged version of that conversation.
The Grey Estates: Seeing Ed Schrader’s Music Beat was a paradigm shift. I had heard a few ESMB rumors at Purchase like "I heard Ed was a journalism major here." I heard a rumor that you and Dan Deacon met at Purchase...
Ed Schrader: When I went to Purchase, I was about twenty-three, twenty-four, and just got my associates degree. So I was a commuter, I was a returning adult student. I didn't know anybody. I didn’t understand what irony was. One day, I was sitting by myself, and Dan comes over is like, "Hey, man, there's a bunch of us sitting over here, you wanna sit with us?" He invited me to a party: That's where I met Jimmy Joe Roche and Dina Kelberman. Dina Kelberman always looked out for the weirdos. She always looked out for the bird with the broken wing. Whenever they were doing a collaboration, she would always go out of her way to include me. Dina was the first person I showed music to. I made “I Think I’m A Ghost” as a supplemental sound byte to go with an audio soap opera I was working on called "A Family Affair." I was just making episodes of this and sending it to Dina. They were all to entertain Dina. She saved every little thing I made and has hard drives full of stuff.
The Adult Swim single wasn't the original version recorded at Purchase, was it?
No, the original recording was me with a spoon banging on a sink in the bathroom. You can slightly hear a person knocking on the door asking to come in. I visited Baltimore and showed it to Dan and he was cooking something and he stopped what he was doing and said, "Ed. This is amazing." I had some cool weirdo friends in upstate New York who said, "Yeah, this is groovy, man" but when I showed it to Dan and Dina, that was the first time someone was like, "You're making art. This is art." I'm like, "This is art?" "Yeah, man, you're not just a weirdo, you're....a weirdo, but you're also an artist." Them validating me meant so much to me because I looked up to Dina and Dan so much. So for them to love what I did was so touching that it drove me. It gave me the fire to become who I now am. I'm just eternally grateful to both of them. And Future Islands, too, for always supporting me.
At what point did you decide to beef up the arrangements for Ed Schrader's Music Beat?
I grew up listening to REM, the Pixies, Patti Smith, the Police, Blondie, pop music. I would write these pop songs but it would just be a drum. When I started, I had a metal CD rack with a contact mic connected to it. I would essentially be trying to make a Huey Lewis and the News song on a drum, but other people would listen to my songs and say, "I can hear a guitar in there. I can imagine the drums, the bass." The concept of expanding things started percolating in my mind.
Meeting Devlin, that's when I started honing things and that gave me the opportunity to turn the sound fragments and performance art pieces into actual pop songs. That said, when you listen to Jazz Mind and Party Jail, it's still pretty basic, bare-bones, which I think gives some beauty to those albums, but with Riddles, it's like, this is our third album, people have heard the guy screaming about rats, banging on the drum. They've heard the acapellas and all that. Time to step up our game. Let's try to make that pop album we've always wanted to make.
Originally, we were just going to go into the studio and do that ourselves, then Dan listened to the demos and we were going to get coffee one day and he was like, "Who are you guys gonna have produce the album?" and I was like, "I don't know....how about you?" and he's like, "Are you joking?" and I said, "No, for real, do you wanna do it?" and he goes, "This is probably gonna take up most of my time to be crazy but you know, what the hell, let's do it.” It was so casual the way it started. We were just two friends hanging out, going to get coffee.
Dan's really good at corralling a group of people. He's an organizer. He's someone who can mobilize people, where I'm kind of the court jester.
The pop elements -- the expanding of the instruments -- were always suggested within the space of the songs, but working with Dan was the first time where it was like, "Okay, well, here’s our opportunity. He's got all the tools at his disposal. It was like he was going to do whatever he needed to do to make this the album you want. When Dan started hearing the songs and hearing the concepts of the songs, he realized that these need to be done with a different type of respect than the usual jump-into-the-studio, knock-it-out-in-two-hours, slap it down with duct tape, call it a day. But this is the first album where we got comfortable in the studio. Going into the studio to record an album always felt like eating a five-course meal and you ate one course in a different room with a blindfold on. A counter to the way one naturally performs music. You go in the studio and it's, oh, sing in front of this thing, now we're gonna filter this, now you're gonna put on earphones and you're not gonna be able to see Devlin. When we recorded at Dan's, it felt like we were on holiday. We were just at our buddy's house. He took a broom closet, emptied it out, soundproofed it, and that was the vocal booth. Granted, that vocal booth was about 110 degrees and I had to take off most of my clothes to do the vocals. The question was why I decided to expand those sounds?
The subject matter of this album -- my stepdad passing away, it's about David Bowie, and it's about Devlin's brother who he lost. I want to give the proper efforts to this album and I want these to be fully realized songs to pay homage and respect to the subject matter. It's also about politics of what's going on in Baltimore. I've shown people I can make an album on a low budget and have it be evocative and interesting, or at least my mom says so.
Dan was hanging out with me one night and he watched me do karaoke and I was performing a Billy Joel song and he goes, "Dude, you just nailed that!" and I did a song by Sting and he goes, "I didn't even know you could sing like this. You've been singing out of your nose for the past twenty years. You can actually sing. Why don't you do this kind of music? When I walk into your house, you're listening to uptown girl, you're listening to Elton John. Why doesn't your music sound like that?" and I'm like "I never had the tools." And he's like, "You do now, baby!"
This is after you and Dan had decided to work together on Riddles?
Yeah. Dan wanted me to get up to a different level. He wanted me to sing. "I want you to really develop your voice, I want you to take singing lessons." And I'm like, "Singing lessons?" At first, my ego was a little bruised because like every rock singer, I thought I was perfect. But with Dan, he would take the songs he heard me sing at karaoke and we'd do that. And then Dan was like "Now change the words" then all of a sudden he would start playing random chords and he's like "Alright, now change the notes" and next thing you know, we started making a song. You can give me a cup of coffee and a notepad and say the color purple or green or blue and I could write you a song. That's what I love to do. It's almost like What's My Line. I love taking bits and pieces of nothing and making something out of it.
That was the first time I had someone pushing back with me with lyrics. Usually, when we went into the studio, I had a fully formed song, and I'd go in, knock it out, and that was it. I never had anybody talking to me or telling me and it was really hard for me emotionally, left me vulnerable to that experience, so once I shut off the ego and allowed myself to be vulnerable, and to let someone else be included in the process, that's when things really started to blossom. But for me to get to the place where I had to shut out and let someone talk and open my mind and take advice, to get there, it took about the first two months of recording. We had some moments where we didn't think it was going to work. A couple moments where I walked out. A couple moments where we were screaming in each other's faces. It was like a football coach and a quarterback.
Is Devlin is the offensive coordinator?
Devlin's definitely the offensive coordinator. He's recorded and played bass for Dan before, Devlin can keep up with the best of them. Our process, specifically for our band, in-and-out, boom, get it done, style. There's a lot of beauty in that, but for this album, I think him and Dan really sat down together and plotted out things a lot more and thought more about space and time and texture and wouldn't just settle for an okay take. Dan and Devlin would push each other until they got the perfect take.
People have gotten used to us being a team, like Hall & Oates style, doing it our way, so it was hard for both of us -- much harder for me, because Devlin's classically trained, easier for him to make that step -- but for me, I wasn't classically trained so Dan would teach me about notes and pitch and he was giving me lessons. Dan almost had to deconstruct the way I thought about being in the studio and break me from my old habits and my ego with the patience of a saint.
Around [the time of recording of Riddles], I was also processing a lot of personal, emotional stuff, the death of my step-dad, my actual dad, and Bowie, all happened around the same time. As ridiculous as it sounds, -- he was an iconic pop star -- for me, he was always such a big part of my life because he was such a beacon of hope.
I lived in upstate New York, I didn't have any friends, and I was in my basement listening to the Pixies. When I went to college at Brockport, when I was working as a dishwasher, putting myself through school, most of the kids at Brockport were Phys Ed majors and dancers. And you have some philosophy people. But there was one kid on campus with a Ween album, and then another kid who liked Dylan, so I buddied up with those guys. That was a very classic snapshot of upstate New York. When I came to Baltimore, I realized, "Oh, everyone here is a nerd. I don't have to be afraid anymore." I remember going to my first Wham City dance party and it was a bunch of librarians kicking back, having a good time to They Might Be Giants, having a few recreational drinks in the meantime, some other things. It was the first time I didn't feel like someone was going to give me a wedgie. I didn't feel like I was going to be messed with. It was just a place of safety within the collective. It was a message of support in a time where I felt alienated. I guess Dan has always been good at letting me know that you can be yourself and I'm not gonna judge you. And that's why I think he's such a good leader. And I hope he runs for mayor someday. And President. I'll be putting up the posters for him. He's changed my life profoundly.
When I first met Dan, I was a grumpy indie rocker. I listened to Built to Spill and smoked cigs and I hated everything. I think I became a tough guy, grumpy person as a defense mechanism because I was such a weirdo that I became this Simpsons comic book guy like, "I've seen it all." And honestly, when I turned off all the curmudgeon stuff and I just allowed myself to be myself, I started to feel younger, like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I feel younger now than I do when I was in my twenties, when I was so pretentious and full of myself and not open to the world and what was around me. But I also think the death of my stepdad and the death of my father, it made me come out of my head. It was simultaneously while Dan was recording us. The sessions were almost therapy in and of themselves. We were having fun, cutting loose, but at the same time, in the song, we were confronting these heavy things that were happening in our lives that we hadn't confronted yet and I feel like music was the only way I knew how to start that process.
While listening to Riddles and Party Jail and Jazz Mind, I noticed that you seem to be fond of kings, knights, princesses, crypts. What draws you to language about ancient relics and the monarchy?
I think that some of it comes from when I was a little kid, I was obsessed with Egypt. The romance of that turning into dust...there’s something tragic and ironic about something of great opulence whittling down to nothing except grains of sand. For me, I like to look at things that are bigger, like Bowie or science-fiction or pharaohs or kings and the kind of fun, Dungeons and Dragons mythological aspect of that because it makes you believe that maybe we're not just dust. Maybe there's something beautiful beyond here. It gives you hope that there's something beyond a 9-5 job and going home and watching Seinfeld, which is also great.
The thing with kings and stuff like that, my stepdad, he was obsessed with Camelot, and he would listen every single morning - oh my God - to the Introduction to Camelot. I know all the words to Camelot. And this was a tough guy who played baseball, drank beers. He was a Ted Danson, salt-of-the-earth guy, but he for some reason was obsessed with Camelot and John F. Kennedy. I always remember growing up and seeing pictures of JFK around the house and I would hear Camelot and I never really knew the details of what Kennedy did, what the Bay of Pigs was, or who King Arthur was, but they were these mystical things that he worshipped and admired. I felt like if I imbued myself with those things, maybe I was trying to connect with him in some way. Growing up, I emulated my step dad. I wanted to be like him. Well, at least the good side of him. And I think that those things I cherished and gravitated towards because those were things he idolized, so if I can be the things that he idolizes, maybe then he'll approve of me or he'll embrace me fully as a son. That's maybe some of it. Well, that's the deepest I've ever gone in an interview!
It's in "Gem Asylum," it's in "Right." (Also, “Dunce,” “Riddles,” and “Dizzy Devil”)
“Gem Asylum” is about a fictional cult and the ability of a cult leader to mesmerize you before you realize that you're crazy. I feel like my stepdad had that ability. He was a tyrant, he was nuts, he was aggressive, he could be a cold bastard -- but he had this way of mesmerizing you and he would tell you a story and he was enchanting and interesting -- and the next thing you know, you'd be carrying two garbage bags of jagged bottles down a highway on a 40 degree day. He would engulf you into his life so much that nothing seemed strange or weird, everything seemed like "Oh, this is what Tom says and that's what goes." He was the last word.
You got this enormous tour coming up...
We're going to Europe, too!
After the US tour, we're taking two weeks off and then around May, June, we're going to Europe for four weeks, touring solo. We've always been a little bit bigger in Europe for some reason. I don't know why. But for some reason, French, German, British fans really go nuts when I sing "Rats." We're like an exotic cheese that they only get once in a while. That's why I think we're bigger in those places, whereas in America, they're like, "I've had cheddar before, I'll have cheddar next week, these guys will be back in Chicago." I love it because I'm not the type of person that can normally afford to take trips to Europe, so being a musician, it gives me a chance to see and experience things that I'd never be able to otherwise. This new album, at least texturally or emotionally, imbues a little bit of that European experience. We became different people after traveling to Europe. In America, you can dress how you want and do what you want, but you might get someone fucking with you. I'm not saying that doesn't happen in Europe, too. It does. Just the idea of being a man is different in Berlin than it is here. I can walk around Berlin wearing a dress, nobody would bother me. But I feel like if I do that in America -- I “can” do it, quote unquote -- but some frat guys might jump me or something. And I'm lucky, too, because I'm not experiencing racism. I'm not experiencing what it's like to be an immigrant struggling. As much as I'm a weirdo and an outsider, I also recognize that that pales in comparison to the experience of being a black person in Baltimore. Having a security guard follow you around when you're minding your own business. My broader point was that it was eye-opening for me to be a foreigner, for me to go to places where nobody spoke English, to feel like an outsider. It took for me going to Europe and feeling like an outsider to understand -- or at least, have a slight understanding -- of the type of crap somebody has to deal with everyday, feeling like an outsider all the time, in their own country, where they were born. It almost took me going to Europe to really understand what somebody in Baltimore is feeling, probably on a daily basis.
I was gonna ask about Baltimore anyways. You mention "scene-a-phobia" in Dunce...
It's just about somebody who lives in their own bubble, their own music scene, and doesn't go to a hip-hop show. Or maybe the hip-hop guy that doesn't go to punk shows. Or maybe the punk guy that doesn't go to an indie rock show. We can all be cultural relativists in our own ways, we all live in our own bubbles. The character in that song is like, "I got this scene-a-phobia, tricks my swatch"...it's kind of about me when I first moved to Baltimore. I wanted to constantly be the grumpy indie rocker at a Modest Mouse concert, and I didn't realize there was other music around me and that there were other genres, other experiences, that were different than mine. “Dunce” is the grumpy, curmudgeonly character that's all reaction, pulse, anger, responding inappropriately to negative experiences that he's had. It's representing the grumpy, reactionary side of myself when I first moved to Baltimore and I just wanted to live in my own bubble and not be open to things and it took Dan melting that wall for me to do that. It's pointing a finger at pockets and scenes around the country where it stays bro-y or a like a frat party. You don't see any female bands or anybody besides white dudes at some shows.
And that's spread across the record?
Are you talking specifically about Dunce?
Yeah, is it a thesis statement for the rest of the record, as far as a character is concerned?
Oh, yeah. It starts with a grumpy, curmudgeonly guy, then through the record, you watch them walk through this different fire, and it resolves...by the end of it, you have Culebra, a euphoric song with a dark cloud over it, there's always a dark tinge in the background.
So you consciously escaped "party jail"?
Yeah, man, I think my foot's out the door. I think it's still possible for me to get the fuck back in. It's funny, because my friend Reba Mitchell, she came up with that term. The whole term describes when you're on tour, but you end up staying at the weirdo's house who does cat tranquilizers and wants to play you all of their demos and makes you watch every episode of Ren & Stimpy. Party Jail is a metaphor for getting stuck in that nightlife, getting stuck in that immediate gratification sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll and next thing you know, you're 35 and you're like, "What the fuck am I doing? Oh my God, I'm a mess!" That's also party jail.
But I realized what I was doing with cigarettes and the other stuff and alcohol and snacks and sweets -- I was constantly inundating myself with pleasure and numbing myself and not allowing myself to have silence. I always used to have the radio on all the time. I couldn't be in a silent room. I now cherish those moments of silence and stillness. I feel like I was running from my past, and now that I'm dealing with it, I find I'm able to slow down -- not with my talking. In general, just breathing and saying, "Hey man, it's okay to make a mistake, you're not perfect, it's alright, you're not gonna hit a home run every day, but you're gonna go up to bat tomorrow and try again." Forgiving myself, and letting myself know that my past, and where I came from, doesn't have to define me. The things that hurt me and that I'm a victim of don't need to define who I am. I'm gonna decide who I am. And that was a big thing for me.
Where are you taking the Music Beat after the US tour and the European tour?
We're talking about doing a tour with Dan when we get back to the States and perhaps going overseas and doing shows with him there, too, because Dan produced the album, so we were thinking of doing a tour where we collaborate, like Grateful Dead style, where everyone's onstage. And Dan does his thing, cause I can't play Dan's music, I'm not Phillip Glass, I can't keep up with him. Maybe I could bang on the drum. But we're getting rid of the drum, too. We're eliminating that for now, at least. We just want to do something. The band, in general -- do you mean in general or literally what we're doing?
I meant in general, but if you wanna touch on the live setup, that'd be great. I'm assuming it's not the tom and the bass anymore.
I love the idea of two opposite forces coming together to make something unique and interesting. And we got that with Dan. So we're talking to Dan about doing the next album with him as well, Eno-style. We did out Actung Baby, now we gotta do Europa. I want to keep raising the bar. I want to make things much more pop -- as pop as possible -- but still burying as much weirdness underneath the surface. I want to get the point where it just sounds like a Roy Orbison song. But when you look beneath the surface, you see a thousand ants crawling. I guess I want my cake and eat it, too. I want to make pop music that's edgier than the punk stuff I made, but is universal enough that your Uncle Bob can listen to it. In a nutshell.
I think the psychedelic lyricism is part of why Riddles sounds like a bunch of individual riddles, because you have to listen to it over and over again. Even though it's got that pop veneer to it, you still keep that psychedelic side. How intentional is that?
When I was in my teens, I was a giant fan of the Doors. My mom, when she was pregnant, my dad used to put the Doors on headphones and put 'em on her stomach. Maybe some of that sank in. I remember the first time I heard "Crystal Ship," I almost cried because it was so beautiful. I'd go to the movie theater and I'd wait for my buddy to get out of his job because he worked at the movie--he'd let me go see a movie for free or whatever. There was a woman that worked at the theater named Kathy. One night, she invited me over. I had never smoked weed before. This was about 1998. She gave me a little bit of weed and I thought "Eh, this doesn't do anything for me. I don't know" then all of a sudden, I'm in the hot tub, I'm sitting there, and she puts on "Crystal Ship" and a tear rolled down one side my face and I realized I'm in the middle of a song and I'm like, "Oh my God, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard" which was amazing. It left such an indelible impression on me. And I went out and got the Doors Greatest Hits and then it kind of stopped there.
If your Uncle Bob asked you for a description of Riddles, what would you say?
I would say it's if you Coldplay and dropped them in a pit full of bulldogs in the middle of Escape From New York, and then gave them a guitar and a drum sampler and said "Figure it out." or if you took one-third U2, one-third Crowded House, and one-third Public Image. With a dash of Suicide, who I've never really listened to, but people say we sound like. And my Uncle Bob would say, "Who the fuck is Suicide?," and I'd be like, "That's why we're doing this album, bro." Punk broke, and we're fixing it. Thanks so much for your time, this has been so much fun. I feel like I owe you money for a therapy session. Who do I invoice?