When Ed Schrader gets going on a story, he really gets going. The front man of Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and former talk show host and pasta chef tells long tales that weave in pop culture references and self-deprecating humor, and sometimes veer off into tangents and exaggeration. But he’s never not engaging, amusing or revealing.
Ed Schrader’s Music Beat is officially releasing its third album, “Riddles,” tomorrow, and it’s a step forward in just about every respect. With production and co-writing help from electronic musician Dan Deacon, Schrader and bassist Devlin Rice forged a new sound that folds electronic loops, keys and new structures into the duo’s post-punk aesthetic. With his lyrics, Schrader delves into deeply personal territory, writing about the passing of his step-father, with whom he had a complicated relationship; his reflections on his own life and the hope that people break away from their screens. It’s a natural evolution, and one that both Schrader and Rice say was a necessary one.
Ahead of tonight’s album release show, I talked with Schrader (Rice joined part-way through) about the difficult relationship he had with his step-dad, a life-changing trip to Puerto Rico, the way Deacon helped push the band’s sound in the studio and more. And because we’re both “Frasier” nerds, I asked about the recent passing of John Mahoney, too.
Baltimore Fishbowl: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about–it’s still fresh, in some ways–the death of John Mahoney, who played Martin Crane on “Frasier.” What were your thoughts?
Ed Schrader: The thing that was most surprising about it was like Mark Hamill tweeting about it. Mark Hamill’s Twitter is really weird, he’ll just go on these strange rants where you’re like, “You’re mad about that? Why are you even thinking about that?” It’s kind of like the Twitter of a 15-year-old who also happens to be Luke Skywalker.
But he tweeted about it–he was just like, “He was a father to all of us.” And I saw one of the comments, [Darth Vader voice]: “But I’m your father.” [laughs]
It’s funny, “Frasier” got me through a dark, rough time. Growing up, for me a family was always something that was–like I would go to my friend’s house growing up and I would be like, Oh, you guys have like a sitcom family. Everyone gets along. You come in the house, and people ask you how your day was, and there’s a snack waiting for you. I would get home and it’d be like, “Go walk the dog!” or “Fix this thing over here!” I’d have to keep it together.
I grew up in a situation where, being the youngest of seven, especially with three step-sisters, a step-brother, my actual sister and my actual brother, four dogs, two cats, my step-dad and my mom, I was definitely the low man on the totem pole. So I think that can kind of explain a lot of why I’m like, “Hey, please notice me!”
BFB: And you and your step-dad had a pretty difficult relationship, right?
ES: For sure. There was definitely a lot of things that we mutually loved, like baseball and music and comedy. He would sit there and knock back a 12-pack of beer, put on Roger Miller, put on a Johnny Cash album. And he’d be good until about the 13th beer, and then he’d start spinning a little bit and I’d have to help him over to the couch.
And anybody who has a drinking problem or a drug problem can get kind of nasty at that point. Knowing how to deal with that or process that as a 12- or 13-year-old, that can be kind of heavy. It can definitely be a lot to juggle mentally. I dealt with it the best way I knew how, but I guess what I didn’t realize, in the midst of all that chaos, and absorbing a lot of what he was putting out there–some of it was negative, some of it was positive.
He was just a very intense person. It was like being in a room with Winston Churchill all the time and he was wasted. He was like a witty, brilliant, intellectual person, but he could also be very mean, very spiteful and very petty. And he could be a bully as well. You loved him, but you also feared and hated him as well. It’s kind of this constant dual thing.
And when people said, “Oh man, how are we going to deal with this president? I’m going to have to move to another country,” I said, “Hey, I already know how to deal with a guy like this. This is nothing new to me. I got this, I can handle this guy.”
[Old-timey boxing announcer voice:] “The question is can Trump handle Schrader?” [laughs]
BFB: Your step-dad passed, and you wrote a song about it for the record, “Tom.” Where were you when you found out? What was your reaction when you heard? And how did that translate into the song?
ES: I was in Puerto Rico. Normally the only way I can afford to travel anywhere is by doing music, and luckily enough being a musician, you get to see things you normally wouldn’t be able to see. ‘Cause in the past, I’d always worked in restaurants and was kind of broke. So my partner and I, we scrounged together enough money to get tickets down to Puerto Rico, and we ended up getting some $200 round-trip deal, it was a really good deal.
We flew into San Juan and we went all around Puerto Rico and backpacked and hiked. We went to all the non-tourist areas. I really fell in love with the whole place.
We were just about to hike this really big mountain. I found out it right before we went into the rain forest. I realized that, because we were on a limited budget, I couldn’t afford to fly back until the date on the ticket, which was like a week from that time. That was a stipulation of the ticket. It would have been like $1,000 to get to Utica. Before I left, I knew he was a little bit sick, but it was like, Oh, he might have pneumonia, but we think he’s gonna be OK. And I don’t hear anything, so I’m like, He must be OK. And then suddenly I get a voicemail from my mom being like, “He passed.” I was not expecting that voicemail. And I didn’t really get to talk to her at all.
It was really crazy. Usually when something like that happens, I go in my head and I get kind of numb, I don’t really process it right away, like most people. But we started driving up the hill into the rain forest, and this Phil Collins song came on that Tom really loved, and that really got me, got the water works going. And I’m the kind of person, I’ll cry once every 10 years, which is bad, I need to work on that. That’s something I’m working on now, so I can be more emotionally present, as some would say.
It was this Phill Collins song called “Do You Remember.” He used to play that on a loop. When he listened to a song, he would play it 10 times in a row. We were right about to go in there and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the funeral.
And what was funny is we decided to sleep on the beach the night before. And apparently he died right around 2 or 3 a.m. And I just remember, when I was sleeping on the beach, looking up at the stars and thinking to myself, “Wow, this is the most mystical, weird moment of my life. I’m laying on this beach, it’s 75 degrees, the stars look beautiful and I feel like I’m in a Van Gogh painting or something.” Looking back, I’m like, “Oh wow, that’s right when he was passing.” And I definitely felt some intensity in that moment, too. It was very strange to find out something that intense in a place that’s not home and to be so far away from where it was happening.
BFB: And you also wrote a song about your trip called “Culebra.”
ES: That song’s not really about him as much as it is about the dual tension of a place like Puerto Rico where you have a thriving tourist industry that’s constantly bringing in this influx of people who are on vacation and they’re in vacation-mode. But then you have people who are living their day-to-day lives trying to get by and are struggling with a lack of resources. Then you have the remnants of the old sugar plantations, and you can still feel a residual tension from those times.
It was a time when I was definitely thinking about class and thinking about the repercussions of a capitalist system, and how it’s unfair. When I was in Culebra, you would see people in their condos, they’re in another dimension, but they’re not even looking and seeing the people who are struggling around them.
I can’t not notice class tension wherever I go. I’ve been washing dishes my whole life, I’ve been working really rough jobs. I put myself through school; it wasn’t easy. I still owe about $40,000 in student loans. I washed dishes, I was a janitor, I cleaned out dumpsters–think of a gross job, I’ve done it. And I guess I’ve always had some bitterness towards rich people who don’t have to go through that. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized you can’t judge somebody because they’re rich. That same logic turns on itself the opposite way and it doesn’t make sense. That’s not going to help anybody, hating on rich people.
But I can undersand and actually relate to that kind of class tension, and I notice that. That’s why later on, when the hurricane happened and you looked at the aftermath, and America’s response to it, it exposed that whole situation and exposed the class element present there. You look at our capitalist-oriented country and all the wealth that we have and all the rich millionaires walking around, and somehow we can’t even get a can of food to Puerto Rico on time so somebody can get fed when there’s a state of disaster.
BFB: It seems like, on a lot of the songs, you’re looking back but also talking about aging. There are a lot of references to dust and rust and that sort of thing.
ES: Hmm. Well, the song “Rust” in that sense isn’t about aging. What I’m talking about there, I’m talking about Rust Belt cities, like Detroit, Rochester. And in some ways, Baltimore is in the Rust Belt too. I say that in a very warm way–it’s not in the pejorative way. When we tour those places, those are the places that have a lot of heart. And you got a lot of people in those types of cities, they want to do stuff but they don’t have the same resources as kids that live in L.A. and New York and London, but they’re trying to do their thing. They have a little DIY space, they got the house going.
I associate the Rust Belt with those early days where we would kind of play wherever we could get a show, and oftentimes we’d end up playing somebody’s house in Cleveland, and they would get us a hundred bucks and some food. They just put it together and did it themselves, they didn’t need Pitchfork, they didn’t need Facebook, they didn’t need Instagram. It was just a fun show–it was just a bunch of kids in the basement freaking out and putting it together themselves without any help from anybody.
BFB: In “Tom” there are references to your childhood, and there’s a line in “Dizzy Devil,” “I wish it was the nineties.” Was it a matter of looking at growth as well as looking back?
ES: It’s more about the frustrations of all the technological gadgets that people have become addicted to, like Facebook, Instagram and all these things that are immediate quick-fix gratification things. “People like me. Oh, nice.” When I think about the ’90s, I think about basement shows that we’d play in the church for $5 and 80 kids would show up and everybody would freak out. And that was the real shit, the real thing.
I feel like people, a lot of their energy gets sapped out of them on Facebook and on Instagram, and then half the time they skip going to a cool event or going to a protest, or they skip going to something that’s important or like a cool movie that’s playing at the theater. Instead they’re getting like this quick fix on the internet.
“Rust” is about getting back to the real stuff. Maybe we had it right before. It wasn’t a perfect time by any means, I don’t mean to say that. But I think what I did like about the ’90s and the hardcore scene in upstate New York and the punk scene, is kids just put it together and they supported each other.
You paid five bucks, there were six bands, everybody helped haul each other’s equipment. There was this sense of camaraderie. We didn’t need anything else, that was it. You had real conversations. People weren’t looking at their phones, they were looking at each other in the face and talking to each other, having passionate interactions. I want to get back to that. That’s what the rust is. When I say “rust,” it’s like break it down, take it down. Take down Facebook, take down Instagram, take down Twitter. Get rid of these things and get back to what’s real.
Not literally, but put it down. Take two days and shut your phone off. Take two days and turn off the computer. Go walk down the street, talk to your neighbors. Make a real connection.
BFB: What about those other references?
ES: There’s definitely an element of existential pondering happening for sure. I’m definitely looking back on my childhood, and there’s a lot of personal history in there and there’s a lot of reflecting. And yeah, when you reflect and you look at things in retrospect, you can’t help but think about who you were and where you are, which inherently brings about thinking of age.
Specifically, running through it, with “Tom”–it was written when Bowie died, and it has some references to “Ashes to Ashes” in there and Major Tom. My step-dad actually liked that song, “Space Oddity,” which is kind of funny. But it’s like, Oh, when you were 40 years old, that’s when you first married my mom and moved to the neighborhood. He had been a fully functional adult who was a school teacher and drove a truck. And I think of myself, I don’t even have a license, I’m washing dishes for a living. I still, in a lot of ways, feel like a child, and kind of act like it sometimes too [laughs].
And then I look at someone like Bowie. Bowie was like an icon by the age of 27. When I was 27, I was working as a janitor at Lord & Taylor. So when I say I am running to him, “I feel lost and adored,” I feel like it’s that aspect of having a father that was always missing and having a hero to look up to. I think I replaced my step-dad and my actual dad with people like Bowie, with different heroes. I would get obsessed with different people. I would get obsessed with Sting for five months, then I would get obsessed with Bowie, then I would get obsessed with Ricky Gervais. It’s like I was always trying to replace my dad in a way.
So when I say that I am running to him, I’m looking at the ideal of what we think of as a father figure or an icon. You try to be that yourself, but when you look beneath the surface at most of these people–like David Bowie was a troubled person who struggled with addiction, whose life was certainly not perfect, it definitely had a lot of challenges. And then my step-dad obviously, he struggled with drugs and could definitely be a prick, and was not a perfect human being by any means. It’s funny–you know when somebody dies, we tend to look at things through rose-tinted glasses?
ES: And we go back and reflect, and we look at where we are now–I remember when he turned 40 years old, he was obsessed about, “When JFK was 40, he was president of the United States, and I’m just a school teacher.” I was like, “Hey man, there’s nothing wrong with that. You should be proud of that, that’s one of the greatest jobs there is.”
But it’s funny because I was listening to a Lou Reed song the other day, and he’s talking about, I was too old to be Shakespeare now, and I’m never gonna be James Joyce. And I’m like, “But you’re fucking Lou Reed, man!”
It’s funny how we always do that. And you get to that age–I’m 39 now. That’s an age where you take stock of where you are. And when I say, “I wish it was the nineties,” I guess I’m saying, “Hey, I wish I could be 17 again and I could start over with everything I know.” [laughs]
BFB: With “Kid Radium,” was that a commentary on Baltimore? There are references to East Baltimore Midway in there and this idea of people from outside the city not wanting to go there.
ES: My partner has a farm in East Baltimore Midway, and she does educational programs with the kids and they have a community garden and people have plots there. And I lived over in the Compound for awhile, which is over in East Midway. You interact with the community and you get to know people in a very real way, you get to know people one-on-one, as individuals. And they get to know you as an individual.
It’s much more poignant when you see bad things happening and you do have that personal connection with neighborhoods and people versus living a hundred miles away in the suburbs and watching on the news.
For example, obviously, the Freddie Gray situation. I noticed when I would go back to upstate New York, certain family members would give their two cents about what they thought. But you could tell they were basing that whole perception just on like Geraldo and CNN, that they didn’t have a real sense of what it was like to be in that situation or to grow up in the disadvantages of living in a situation where you have a lack of resources, where you’re constantly struggling just to have the most basic things that most people take for granted. Like a roof over your head, like a good school to go to, like three square meals a day. People in the suburbs take that for granted, they think that that comes with the tap water.
I saw a lot of people from the outside making judgments about something that was happening in Baltimore without really doing the homework of reading into it and listening to both sides and understanding and making quick snap judgments. And I think those snap judgments are dangerous, because you make these broad, quick assessments about a whole city. There’s this whole language of vitriol on the internet that is very toxic and I think comes from lack of knowledge, lack of exposure, lack of interaction.
We let people disseminate opinions about other people to us. We do it on the left, too. We all kind of stick in our own cliques, in our little bubbles, and I think sometimes it’s good to step out of those bubbles and step away from that vernacular and just really try to connect one-on-one.
The problem is we don’t get a chance to do that when we’re tied to our screens all the time. And that’s kind of what the song “Dizzy Devil” is about. We’re pointing fingers at each other. We’re the judge, jury and executioner before we even hear the case. When I was talking about this relative who made all the judgments about Freddie Gray being like, “Oh, you should have seen the rap sheet that guy had,” it was him kind of validating the treatment Freddie Gray received, but there’s nothing that can validate the way that man was treated.
BFB: With this album, it seems like you guys were striving for a fuller sound, and you brought Dan into the fold. What was the impetus for that sound? (Here’s where Devlin jumped in.)
ES: With “Jazz Mind,” I had already written 12 songs that I had been performing as a solo artist around the country with a few other kind of crazy one-minute numbers in there. I would just bang on my drum and perform by myself. And then I met Devlin, he helped me to flesh those out into something that was more reminiscent of Nick Cave or the Birthday Party or Joy Division. I would say Joy Division on a very, very small budget. We did the best with what we had at the time.
And “Party Jail,” same thing, we knocked it out in two days. And I love that Hüsker Dü, Minutemen kind of “get it done” mentality. I think that’s a good reflection of where we were at at those times.
DR: We kinda felt like we had hit a ceiling with our setup, and we wanted to take it from a completely different angle, like not having to worry about writing songs with the idea that it’s gotta be performed live first.
ES: We’ve done all the screaming and angsty punk-y stuff–I’ve gotten most of that out of my system. There’s still some in there, but I’ve gotten most of it out. Devlin and I both were like, This album has to be something different. But we really couldn’t figure out what that thing was.
We ended up recording the album in Dan’s apartment. He took one of the closets and converted it into a sound booth, putting up foam and everything. And it was about 120 degrees in that thing. I was very cranky at first, because I was used to doing it my way. I was used to calling the shots. Devlin and I were used to doing everything and controlling the ship. Handing over the wheel to another captain was not easy for me.
But once I realized that Dan knew what he was doing and he had our best interest at heart and that his goal was to take us to the next level, that’s when I was like, “OK, I need to chill out with my ego, I need to bite my tongue and I need to sit back and listen to what people are saying to me and do a little bit less talking,” which is not easy for me because I love to talk [laughs].
Dan would be like, “What about putting a piano in here?” I’m like, “A piano? I’ve never done that before.”
“Why not give it a try and see how it sounds?” And then he would play a couple bars of it, and I’m like, “Oh wow, this is cool to groove to.” Next thing I know I was loving it and being like, “I’m gonna step back and look at this more as a collaboration.”
DR: I think we’re both incredibly proud of the record, mainly because it helped us grow as musicians–having the ability to take our time with the songwriting process instead of standing and looking at each other and just being like, “OK, what about this part?”
I always thought about it like those foam gel caps you get at the dollar store. You put ’em in water and they turn to dinosaurs. It’s sort of like that. We had these song ideas, then we brought them to the studio and brought Dan into the mix–having that experience allowed me to create more melodic content and then also really allowed Ed to sing the way we all knew that he could.
Losing the drum, I think, really freed him up. It was the culmination of a couple things. But we didn’t know the record was gonna sound like this. We were just like, “We’ve gotta sound different.” And this is what came out.
ES: And then next thing you know, we were making some of the most interesting music that, I think, as musicians we’ve all ever made, because we were coming together. Like Voltron instead of being off in our own isolated islands.
Music as a form of expression can be very cathartic, and it has been for me. On this album, I’m talking about all kinds of things, like abuse, dealing with death, dealing with existential, heavy stuff–things that I don’t normally talk about so candidly in person or in a song. I found myself talking about and singing about things I wasn’t even talking about in real life, things that I wasn’t even bringing up with my friends or family. I was noticing myself in the recording booth suddenly singing about them. Being like, “Well, this can’t be too bad. It’s the beginning, at least, of healing.” And not to sound like Dr. Phil, but that was a very new thing for me, because I was always so used to being cryptic.
And ergo “Riddles.” I was saying, at this point, riddles aren’t doing me any favor. When heavy things happen in your life, you don’t need jokes, you don’t need irony; you need time for quiet and introspection and self-medication, you need to kind of step away and to be present. I think it’s important to be present in those times. It’s very easy to go into your head, but I think you have to stay out of there.
When I showed Dan the songs, he’d be like, “This song is really cool, but I don’t know what you’re saying, man. It’s super cryptic and it’s like 20 pages of lyrics. Maybe we can just cut it down to one page instead of 20.”
With that kind of feedback, I think it definitely was helpful to have a real friend who was real with me, who wasn’t pulling any punches and was totally honest. Because if Dan wasn’t involved in the lyrical process, the lyrics would have been overly verbose and overly prosaic. Once I let him do that, as hard as it was, that’s when we started to really have fun. We got really into the joy of collaborating.
BFB: Was there pushback when Dan presented these ideas?
We had a natural aversion to it at first. We knew our formula for how to do write, and we could make a quote-unquote good song. I think Dan was like, “OK, these songs are quote-unquote good, I want to make them effing awesome. I want to take them to the next level and it’s going to take some work. It’s gonna take you doing 100 takes of one vocal line. It’s gonna take you standing in that booth for seven hours. Are you guys ready for that? Because I need you to be ready.” And it was like a coach, and he was pushing us hard. He pushed us hard. And I think he pushed us out of love, because he wanted to see us be the best people we could be.
And Dan’s always been like that. I remember when I first moved to Baltimore, I was like, “I don’t know what to do with myself.” He’s like, “You’re a talk show host. You’re a natural with people. I’m telling you, you’ve gotta have a talk show.”
I’m like, “Oh, this guy’s crazy. What’s he talking about?” I remember there was this band coming to town called the Parenthetical Girls, and they had a show. Dan was like, “Hey, when they come to town, why don’t you interview them and you can have a little talk show?” We were at the bar, and I was like, “OK, sure, whatever.”
Then about a week later I get an email from the Parenthetical Girls being like, “We’re coming to town, can’t wait to be on your talk show.” I’m like, “Wait, talk show?” Then suddenly I had to find 40 wooden chairs and a mic stand, and write 20 jokes and come up with questions. And I did it, and that’s how “The Ed Schrader Show” started. So I feel like Dan sees who you can be and challenges you to go there. And I feel like he’s a great leader and a great friend that way, and a real asset to the city of Baltimore. And I hope he runs for mayor! [laughs]
I love him and he changed my life profusely. He’s the reason I moved to Baltimore. If we had to pay him for the amount of things that he did for the album, and the time that he put in, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. He gave so much, and we have a lot of friends like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ed Schrader’s Music Beat plays a sold-out release show for “Riddles” tonight at Metro Gallery, with Wume and Smoke Bellow.