Among Ed Schrader’s Music Beat frontman Ed Schrader’s many side hustles—formerly a talk show host and sports columnist for City Paper, currently a curator of the “Frasier Pic O’ The Day” on Instagram, a member of the band Chartreuse with Kevin Sherry, and a soon-to-be podcaster—his most compelling is designing curious T-shirts. His Cats on the Lake shirt, illustrating a fictional event in which cat owners bring their pets to the Inner Harbor to sail unattended, has been something of a local meme for a few years now, and now he has a new one promoting a phony lecture titled, “What if Jabba Never Died?”
The Cats on the Lake design began as a flier in 2006, which Schrader made on a lark as a commentary on “edgy” design while living in the Copycat Building.
“There was a real sense of competition between bands and artists [there],” Schrader explains over email. “The posters were a show within themselves that either translated quickly or became like so much white noise, drifting past our senses and blending into the abyss.”
According to Schrader, Cats on the Lake’s unassuming style seeks to reinterpret the type of flier so blasé no one even notices it: “People care so little about [boring fliers] that they are pretty much invisible.” So, Schrader embraced the low expectations for these designs and reduced the whole thing to absurdity, making advertisements for nonexistent events because “no one is gonna read these flyers [anyway], right?”
Cats on the Lake promotes a fake community event. A handsome likeness of a tabby’s face looms above a clip-art sail boat surrounded by some no-nonsense Times New Roman, manipulated by basic alignments and typographical emphasis which reads, “3rd Annual CATS ON THE LAKE...August 11th...Bring your cat to the inner harbor this Saturday and say Bon Voyage to a friend!...<remember> cats set sail at 10:30am!”
Let’s unpack Cats on the Lake for a moment because this is where the charm of Schrader’s designs reveal themselves, when you close-read them. Notice that “Cats on the Lake” is not a new event. It’s the third annual. It has been successful enough two years running that it’s happening again. And note that this is not an event where you sail with your cat. An unchaperoned cat vessel doesn’t seem likely to return, which adds some ambiguous Roald Dahl-like creepy humor to the project.
“I tried to convey a ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’-like sense of humor but left that touch of darkness to sweeten the sauce,” Schrader says. “Does the cat come back ‘the very next day?’”
The enigmatic Cats on the Lake flier became an equally puzzling T-shirt about two years ago. “It started as a gag gift for Dan Deacon, who owns the very first one,” Schrader says. “Everyone would ask where he got it [and] things sort of escalated from there.”
Schrader makes and distributes the shirts with his friend and Chartreuse bandmate, Kevin Sherry. It’s a local operation: “Kevin prints each one himself on a homemade rig in Remington while we drink Gatorade and watch “Hell’s Kitchen,” Schrader says.
“Our little shirt has become quite popular beyond our expectations,” Schrader adds, and declares Cats on the Lake “the clarion call of a generation to retreat further into the folds of irony only to be crushed by the Akira of my schmaltziness.”
Just in time for the holiday season, Schrader introduced another shirt design, “What if Jabba Never Died?” in December. Featuring a coloring-book style illustration of Jabba the Hutt and his cohorts, it invites you to a lecture that presupposes the “Return of the Jedi” villain survived. The text explains that it’s part of the lecture series “The Universe of Possibilities,” hosted by Dr. Steven Holesapple, and by attending this lecture, the flier audaciously, ambiguously claims, “you can answer your own questions with it.” Also, there is pizza and it’s free! With a student ID, of course.
Through the detail provided, you can imagine the awkward audience the flier entices, and the rage that typifies hypothetical musing concerning “Star Wars.” You imagine Dr. Holesapple laboring over a home computer, putting together this strange flier, and then pasting copies of it around dormitory hallways in the hopes of sharing his important philosophical findings with anybody ready to find some answers to this very big question.
The Jabba shirt is a send-up of nerd culture, but like Cats on the Lake, there is a kind of loneliness to its design. “I just like the idea that a universe exists where your biggest problem is the fictitious death of a fat blobby thing from T.V.,” Schrader says.
But whether its a no-humans-allowed feline boat party or a professor who wants to eat pizza and wax poetic on the demise of a fictional giant slug, Schrader’s surface-level silly shirts are more than simple gags.
They’re also high-concept art pieces, and exercises in heady, hilarious world-building and purposefully poor design: “My shirts are about the ambiguity in meaning we experience [and the] unintended bits of humor that surface when someone is making something they just don’t give a shit about.”
Cats on the Lake and What if Jabba Never Died? t-shirts and totes are available at catsonthelake.bigcartel.com and at Hunting Ground in Hampden. Ed Schrader’s Music Beat plays The Metro Gallery on Jan. 22.