Live and on record, Baltimore duo Ed Schrader’s Music Beat–singer/floor Tom drummer Ed Schrader and bassist/singer Devlin Rice–come on strong, elemental, like a force of nature. On last year’s album debut Jazz Mind (Load) and a smattering of splits and singles, a winning formula emerged: rudimentary melodies slathered with Gorilla Glue, slogans hammered into the consciousness through magic repetition, canyon deep, Calvin Johnson-reminiscent vocal turns from Schrader. What’s amazing is how much Schrader and Rice are able to wring from their set up, how convincing and varied the results are: from the Fugazi bungee punk of “Sermon” to the insomniac gloom of “Traveling” to the Modern Lovers pop of “My Mind Is Broken.”
Schrader has his fingers in a lot of pies–he’s got a talk show, does some comedy, and runs a restaurant called Pasta The Gathering–but arguably, the world would be a better place if he dedicated his life to filling it with deadpan, echo-saturated non-sequiters. Via email, we broke bread with Schrader on R.E.M, working with Matmos, the nature of control, and last year’s Jazz Mind.
How’s the tour going, so far?
So Michael Stipe and Mike Mills show up to the gig in Athens, Georgia, and I’m really pumped thinking finally we’re gonna become best buds and go to a Waffle House or something. The height of the evening was seeing my two favorite bassists of all time standing side by side in line to use the pisser, each one not knowing who the other one was. Devlin exchanged some witty banter with Mills about having to pee; I asked Mills cheekily if he’d ever been to Germany, referencing a German film playing at the bar, and he responded “Oh yeah.”
We talked about Bowie’s new album and I commented how the two characters in the film looked like two permutations of him: Man Who Sold The World Bowie and Modern Love Italian waiter Bowie. I was trying to play it cool; I mean, I could quote “Texarkana ” line for line, that’s probably one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. I think I may have played it too cool, because they bounced right before we started. I was devastated, but hey, there’s always next time. I just didn’t want to crab their style, and I know that Michael is really shy and kind of wanted to respect that. So: guys, if you’re out there, I’d still love to go to the Waffle House and you’re mainly the reason I’m a musician with a maladjusted ego.
Wow. Did that seem real when it was happening, or was it one of those things where you were sure you were dreaming it as it happened?
Well, my step-brother used to work at University of Georgia and I’d visit him, so occasionally you’d see one of the R.E.M. guys nocking around at the diner or a coffee shop; they’re really humble, accessible dudes, they handled everything so gracefully. Nevertheless, it’s still like seeing Winston Churchill.
What was your earliest foray into music as a performer?
Honestly, it started with me singing Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” for a talent show in 9th grade. A Smashing Pumpkins cover band called Astrosmash heard me and thought, “Hey, this guy could lend an awful lot to our band that covers the Smashing Pumpkins,” and they made me lead singer. We had a dozen or so practices and then they kicked me out because I was doing dance moves.
You probably should have quit, preemptively, on general principle: “Astrosmash” has to be one of the 200 worst band names, ever.
Well, at least it wasnt “LOL” –the first band I assembled in 1995–or Jefferson’s Cabinet, my feeble attempt at a being a Syracuse, New York, hardcore band. I suppose it was really the only game in town, so I kind of had to play ball. This was long before I figured out that you could take a floor Tom and a reverb peddle on tour.
What are some of your favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs?
That’s a tough one; I guess it’d be that “Today” number. It was the first video I’d seen where the dudes looked like they wouldn’t kick my ass or give me a wedgie if I saw them in an alley. “Cherub Rock” was the first song I ever sang with a band, so it holds a special place in my heart.
Can you tell me a bit about the making of Jazz Mind? What has the record’s life been like since it came out last year? One thing that stuck out about it when I first heard it is how succinct it feels despite being both diverse and relatively brief; there’s a current of cavernousness that carries through, but there’s pop, there’s goth theatricality, there’s experimental grit, there’s white-hot aggro, and so on. And it all felt sincere, it all worked.
Thanks! Well, essentially I had been writing and performing solo (floor Tom/reverb/vocal) and struck a record deal with Providence label Load Records. At the time, it was just me and a drum. Three months down the road, I was lucky enough to run into Devlin Rice who at the time was playing with Nucleur Power Pants. The songs were always catchy, but rather silly albeit pregnant with compositional possibilities; Devlin sensed that and was excited to channel that on the low end in a very restrained approach that enhanced the sparse tunes into something more crunchy yet accessible in a rock of ages kind of way. He really was the Niles to my Frasier. Additional instrumentation came from Randy Randall of No Age and Matmos, who painted a majority of the scene scapes that accompany most of the more restrained pieces (“Right”).
The record came out as SXSW was kicking off, so it was a bit eclipsed in a sense – not the greatest PR move on my part. We were worried at first that it would kind of disintegrate under the heels of Pacific Rim press monsters into oblivion and go unnoticed. We are not all that sexy and lack style to a degree that’s rather offensive. It seemed like we were making an album for that weird guy in your high school who carved elves. Yet somehow it has had this weird, sleeper effect on the public: like folks bought it but set it aside, like that dessert flavor coffee your mom thinks you like but then one year she accidentally gets you some nice shade-grown shit and you’re like, “FUCK YEAH, MOM!”
Who produced the album, and where? There’s something timeless and flash-framed about the sound, like the music was being bronzed as it flowed out of the two of you.
Chester Gwazda and Twig Harper produced the album. We started catching all the raw stuff at Twig’s place (Tarantula Hill) and Chester reined it in and polished things up a bit later on. Twig burned lots of mugwort and made us espressos and we just had a good time; it was like a holiday.
We also enjoy what we do – recording was a day off from work. You just have to kind if “be there” when you’re in the studio; Brian Eno talks about that, and I think it lends to a more fruitful outcome. If it feels like you’re punching in, its time to order a pizza. This is supposed to be fun. My buddy Bill Seth picked the track order of tracks; he’s really good at that. He used to make these epic mix tapes for us with Wu Tang/Big L and somehow segue it into The Rentals and Mike Patton.
Hey, you were involved in the Marriage of Two Minds sessions, right, the Matmos album? What was that like, and what was your take upon hearing the finished record?
Marriage of Two Minds was such a magical experience! I thought I was just going over to Drew and Martin’s for dinner; next thing I knew I was blindfolded in a room with all these instructions, and I just kept thinking how much I wanted an espresso. I blabbed about green triangles, which for some reason kept popping up in my head. I suppose if I thought about it, I could find the line of thought which led to the song like the guy in The Murders in The Rue Morgue -but with my attention-deficit disorder, I’ll leave well enough alone and call it an act of mysticism.
A few months later, Matmos had put together a boiler plate soundscape based on the session and I weaved some lyrics based on my ramblings. We performed it “live,” which was amazing! It gave me a chance to be more theatrical and sport some cool goggles; I felt very Big Science. I loved the way the song came out, and am very proud to have been involved.
The two songs on your Famous Class split with Future Island carry on with that sneakily deadpan style Jazz Mind established, that thing where you aren’t going for strict repetition but the music comes across as hypnotically repetitive none the less. “Beautiful Transvestite” is actually somewhat complex, but when I think about it later, I remember it as being basic. Is that insidious simplicity – where all the tunes are short and outfitted with nagging refrains – something you strive for, something you struggle at? What is your song workshopping process like?
I always start with a hook or a punchline, if you will, and then build around it. Once you’ve got “Uptown Girl,” the rest is easy. I guess it’s weird because the way I perceived music growing up was a really cool dude in a room being cool, and the rest of the components would just materialize.
The first show I went to was a Michael Jackson impersonator, but until my sister clued me in years later I thought it was the man himself; I guess a couple flags should go up when you see “Michael Jackson Live at Chuck E Cheese in New Hartford, New York!” That experience left an impression on me, as did the video for “Billie Jean” where the sidewalk glows; if you can just be really cool or rather emit something true, an orchestra will show up, it’s magic.
As far as the composition goes, you have a lack of classical training – you know the tune – combined with an appreciation for people who actually know what they’re doing, like Elton John or Peter Buck. The result is a guy trying to sound like his heroes with a limited knowledge of the components. I also drink tons of coffee! I used to xerox R.E.M. lyrics off the computer at the public library where I hung out. I’d take them home and put on Murmur or Monster and see how Michael kind of took these weird thoughts and gave them an intoxicating physicality through delivery. I have a feeling he starts with a hook, yet he is a man of mystery. “Moral Kiosk” shifted my brain the first time I heard it.
Does this style of songwriting carry over to the next Ed Schrader’s Music Beat album? What can you tell me about it, so far?
It’s gonna be a bit like Elvis Costello and The Attractions meets XTC meets Current 93 meets Big Black meets Reckoning meets Patti Smith. It’ll be more pop for sure. It’s a bit ADHD, I guess, hopefully in a good way.
When you’re playing shows, do you ever imagine or pretend that you’re a performer or entertainer you grew up admiring? If so, who?
Honestly, when I do that, and I occasionally do, I either pretend I’m Elton John/ Michael Stipe or Baltimore satirist Brian Nicholson (@ownyouryogurt).
Lately, though, I feel pretty good just being Ed.
There’s one theme that pops up again and again in your songs: that of control, your protagonists under the control of nature, addiction, other people, sound. The implosion of control seems to create a hardship or disorientation but there seems to be a push to make the best of the circumstances, whether its gorging on sugar or a plague of rats or a brain sprained by music. Is control something you think about a lot?
“I Can’t Stop Eating Sugar” is about any detrimental habit that feels good in the moment – and I say “detrimental” through a filter of Catholic guilt, which if you’re Italian you can’t escape, even if your mom’s a semi-hippie. It’s “Losing My Religion 2013,” baby! This could be dating bikers, eating twinkies, or porn addiction. We remove ourselves emotionally with quick fixes, not seeing the pure ecstasy in simplicity: true love or a nice salad. But it’s fun to be bad sometimes; I smoke a few cigarettes a day.
The obsession with control is something that’s always haunted me. I think we are a bit addicted to it as Americans. “Do The Maneuver” is a love letter to an evil temptress. Nothing wrong with a little bondage or a few bad relationships.
I think we’re searching for something in the call and response of masochism; if you get out of the quick sand or can compartmentalize it, you’re doing alright.
What is “Sermon” about? It’s one of my favorite songs by you guys.
“Sermon” is about red tape – fighting the big wigs or City Hall. Maryland has many instances of this, most notably the Kirk Avenue MTA Bus Depot (run by the state) placed in the middle of Kirk Avenue where families live blowing out diesel 24/7. If that bus depot was in the suburbs, it’d be shut down in no time. It’s the state pushing around folks who don’t have monetary influence; it’s criminal. Enjoy your bonus, assholes.
Tell me about the ideal audience for an Ed Schrader’s Music Beat show.
People who don’t throw stones! Well, that happened only once, in 1996; Utica, New York can be tough! I guess I’d like to high-jack David Bowie’s audience; maybe we can open for him.
Ed Schrader’s Music Beat play 285 Kent with Ceremony and Give on Saturday, August 17.