The Beat Goes On
A revealing talk with the Ed Schrader's Music Beat frontman
In school and all the way through college, Ed Schrader felt he was too weird for the normal kids and too normal for the weird kids. (J.M. Giordano / June 25, 2014)
Schrader's band has a new album, Party Jail, out now on the UK label Upset The Rhythm, and they have a release show at Floristree on June 26, but all of that seems secondary during our interview at Red Emma's on a Tuesday afternoon last week.
Mostly during our four hours together, Schrader talked and I listened. The conversation touched on everything from city politics and the hollowness of the New York City music scene to urban farming and the sitcom Frasier. Ever the showman, Schrader peppers his answers with quips and witty asides. But a great deal of our time was spent talking about a difficult past and a recent self-realization.
In school and all the way through college, Schrader felt he was too weird for the normal kids and too normal for the weird kids. Even with the friendships that came by living in a city like Baltimore, which he describes as a "Wild West in terms of art because you have a blank canvas with no pretension and a sense of community," Schrader's many projects thrust a zany showman caricature into the public sphere. And that's how friends and peers perceived him.
"I taught people to treat me like I was Woody Woodpecker. I'm just this goofy guy that you can just kind of fuck with and I'll just let it roll off," he says. "When people would talk to me, I felt that they were talking at me like I was a character, in kind of a patronizing tone."
Although he helped launch the city's most well-known artist collective, Wham City, hosted his own web talk show, and founded Ed Schrader's Music Beat with bassist Devlin Rice—which is successful enough to sustain him—things didn't really fall into place until earlier this year, when, Schrader lost both his estranged father and his stepfather—a man who was a historian and teacher, who took his stepson to baseball games, but also was physically abusive, something Schrader says "derailed" him but also "emboldened me and gave me the balls and the swagger that I needed to get through a really tough life."
After his stepfather died, Schrader returned home, outside of Utica, New York, and went through his things. Despite all the pain and difficulties of their relationship, Shrader realized he would never again get to go to a ballgame with his stepdad or "bust balls" or see him shave while listening to the same recording of General Patton, and he wept.
"And it was like, where is this coming from? And it felt really crazy for all of this stuff releasing out of me and I feel like I had finally acknowledged that I loved this person," he explains. "And I think by doing that I also found that I could find a place of forgiveness, and within that forgiveness there was a release. And with that release, I feel like I kind of ungrounded myself. In a sense, I had been grounded since I was nine years old in some kind of emotional sense."
It's the time the 35-year-old says he became a man, more emotionally present, and realized the constancy of his projects over the years—comedy, the talk show, podcasts, music criticism and a sports column for City Paper—were "a coping mechanism," blinders for his adolescence and a device to get the affection and acceptance he always wanted and needed.
The biggest thing going forward was committing fully to music.
"That's when I started realizing I want to do what I do for the craft of it, for the beauty of the craft, and for the honor of continuing the legacy of those who came before me, and attempting at least to maybe add something to that beautiful world of music that's meant so much to people."
And he seems to be suceeding. The two Ed Schrader's Music Beat albums and steady touring have caused people to see beyond the character.
"Now the tides are turning and people are interacting and perceiving me as an artist, and that means so much to me, especially in my peer group," he says. "Some of my friends were those same people who I think didn't completely take me seriously."
Party Jail still offers the range of shouted throat-shredding punk and lower register, surrealist pop—all clocking in around two minutes per song—found on the band's 2012 album Jazz Mind. But there's a lot more exploration of the gaps in between.
"The first album was like a really good cheeseburger. And everyone loves a really good cheeseburger, but I think this album was more like, ‘Here's some beef stroganoff! I can cook!'"
This is also true of the lyrics. Everything on Party Jail was written and recorded before Schrader's recent revelation, and several of the songs are loosely autobiographical. "Laughing" offers a stand-in for Schrader in his teens —for most people, really—with a female protagonist who "don't know what to do with her passion." "Pink Moons" jumps back to a time when Schrader worked at a country club and would skinnydip in the pool after the place had closed. There are signs of the daunting journey ahead, which Schrader likens to the experience of The Hobbit's Bilbo Baggins before he leaves the Shire.
There's also a political bent to many of the songs, whether it be music scene stagnation ("Signs"), the quagmire that is Baltimore's government bureaucracy, or firing shots at the political right ("Cold Right Hand," "Pilot").
Mostly, though, Schrader talks about music in broader terms, its ability inspire and build community. Music—Elton John, Enya, the Pixies, R.E.M., Weezer—was an escape when he would go to school wearing hand-me-down clothes and shoes that were falling apart and the other kids would call him "a fag" and when he would return home and risk facing the wrath of his stepfather. Joining a Smashing Pumpkins cover band as a kid helped him realize there were other weirdos out there.
Now, he talks about seeing some of his friends, such as Dan Deacon and Sam Herring of Future Islands, perform and how they give every ounce of energy to their audience. He talks about the Baltimore scene's need to reach out more instead of "preaching to the converted." There could be a kid in Midway East, where Schrader lives, who might be into a noise show, but nobody is making an effort to engage that community.
"To me, DDm exemplifies when Baltimore can be great. Here's a person raised in Baltimore, went through the trenches and the negative experiences and still came out as a great, loving artist making a great impact," he says of the scene-crossing, club-influenced rapper. "We need to make a nourishing environment that creates where people like that can thrive."
"And he, to me, is an example that maybe musicians shouldn't feel obligated to be Bono," he continues, referring to the rock star's global charity efforts. "but you should, in the back of your mind, think of the importance of that."
The hope for Schrader is that, if even on a small level, he can do the same thing.
"I want it to be more than just a nice pop song. I want people to feel fucking nuts and leave and just go out in the world and let their freak flag fly," he says. "Like the hippies did and what John Lennon pushed for. He's an example of what you can be; you don't have to be this. Stop fighting against the Tea Party, stop fighting against these institutions and make your own thing—not an institution—but make the thing you wish was there."