Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, a two-piece band of bass, a single drum, and equal parts tuneful singing and Aflac-Duck-style screaming, are fresh off a six-week tour as the support act for local rising stars Future Islands and are awaiting the release of their debut full-length album, Jazz Mind, on underground, avant-loud standard-bearers Load Records domestically and Upset the Rhythm in the UK.
Ed Schrader, who bangs the drum and sings, cites a coerced a cappella rendition of Montel Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” at a local rock show during his high school years in Utica, New York, as the moment he began his career as a performer. “The school bully was there, and he’d heard me sing the song in gym class,” Ed recalls. “He was like, ‘Get up there and sing it, or I’ll beat you up.’ Before that I hadn’t done any music or any performance or anything.” That night Ed was asked to join a Smashing Pumpkins tribute band, which he did. “But,” he adds, “they didn’t like me because I danced too much.”
To talk about the genesis of ESMB we have to start with Ed’s one-man, audio sitcom, “A Family Affair.” Let it be known that a great idea can strike anywhere.
In 2004, Ed was between semesters at SUNY Brockport and had recently decided to abandon an allegorical detective novel he had been piecing together during trips to Tim Hortons. In need of a new creative project, Ed bought a cheap audio recorder and began recording short episodes of a sitcom/soap opera based on the family problems of a hometown friend, Andy. “I would have a conversation with Andy that I was just using for new material, you know,” Ed says. “And then I would dramatize that conversation right afterward and add things — like David Bowie showing up.”
An uncomfortable living situation had Ed taking frequent and long walks around Brockport ad libbing episodes of “A Family Affair.” He eventually sought to expand the format of the show — to make it “more like an opera” — and episodes began to include songs sung from the point of view of the characters. This was the beginning of the body of work that was to become Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, and several current live staples made their debut on “A Family Affair,” including “I Think I’m A Ghost” and “Night Vision.” (I can’t imagine the teenagers and 20-somethings who sing along to these catchy songs would ever guess that they are about a mother’s struggle to come to terms with her new life as an empty-nester.)
Soon, Ed was recording songs independent of his sitcom. He remembers, “I would walk around, press record, and just let whatever crazy thing come out of my head. That’s how ‘Gas Station Attendant’ was written, just walking by a gas station and going, ‘Uhhhhh, gas station attendant!’” Guess where he was when he wrote his song about checking email.
So by the time Ed had moved to Baltimore in 2006 he had already amassed a huge catalogue of short, weird songs, but hadn’t yet considered playing them out. In fact, that idea didn’t occur until he was on tour with percussion-heavy instrumental jam group Teeth Mountain. The original plan was for Ed to open with a long improv comedy routine, but crowd reaction got worse and worse, until eventually it was just “this awkward thing every night.” When the group hit Iowa, Ed stole a drum from Teeth Mountain, and his comedy set was edged out by drum and voice renditions of his songs. Ed was able to learn how to play drums with practice and help. “By the time I got back home I had a full set I could play. I was like a musician,” Ed says.
2009 saw the release of Ed’s first solo 10-inch record, The Choir Inside, on the Wham City label. “That whole album was pretty raw,” Ed says. “The vocals I would record in the alley. Every night, when I first moved to Baltimore, I would go to the Dunkin’ Donuts near the CopyCat [in Station North], and on the trip there and from I would record a vocal track. And for some of the percussion I used a Starbucks cup, put a little reverb on it. I’ve always wanted people to be like, ‘Where’d you get that sound?’ But they’re not. They’re like, ‘You should have used a real drum.’”
Devlin Rice joined Ed on bass a year and a half ago, taking what was at best a compelling performance art project and making it something you could move to, something almost pop. “I want to be a pop musician; that’s always what I’ve wanted to do,” Ed says. “Most of the time [my solo performances] would go really great because people respond to, like, a drum and somebody yelling, but it didn’t have the focus and the structure that it has now. If I was solo it would be like Michael Stipe by himself, off in outer space. [Devlin] is like the rest of R.E.M.”
He’s not kidding about the R.E.M. comparison (they’re one of his favorite bands, alongside David Bowie and the Police), and he’s serious about wanting to reach the widest possible audience, too. It’s this potent mix of eccentricity and ambition that has gotten Ed so much attention in such a short time.
Last week, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat played to a sold out Ottobar, opening for Future Islands. The crowd reaction was priceless. Some were well aware of Ed’s music, others were new to it, but unfazed, and yet others, recently won over by Future Islands’ latest well promoted record of angsty, slowburning synthpop, On the Water, looked to each other for answers, confused as to whether these two well groomed guys vacillating between explosive screamfests and spare, melodious ballads were to be taken seriously. “Is this guy real?” I heard from behind me.
On stage, Ed didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy making jokey patter and walking like a chicken in slow circles around his drum, hamming it up for a hung jury. And that’s ESMB’s key ingredient: Ed’s bullet-proof self confidence. He doesn’t stumble over a crowd’s initial hesitation, and even as he’s given his music more structure, he’s never been tempted to compromise his vision. For Ed, it’s not about making concessions to the opposition; it’s about staying on message. And that message hasn’t changed since he began performing. Really. He’ll even occasionally still break into “This Is How We Do It.”