Riding the Snake
Baltimore polymath Ed Schrader goes all in for music, to expectedly unexpected results
Published: March 14, 2012
Ed Schrader is a man of many hats in Baltimore. There’s comedian Ed Schrader, whose output came in traditional standup, David Bowie impersonations, and serial podcasts with Schrader lending voice to a cast of characters, including the aforementioned Thin White Duke, in radio plays and sketches.
Oft forgotten is journalist Ed Schrader, a former music and book critic for this very newspaper and former columnist for b, the then daily tabloid newspaper produced by The Baltimore Sun.
And of course there’s host Ed Schrader of the eponymous Ed Schrader Show, a web-only talk show/variety show hybrid that featured Schrader as the slick-talking David Letterman or Johnny Carson to guests from various parts of Baltimore’s art scene.
Chief among them these days, and the one where Schrader himself is focusing all of his efforts, is frontman Ed Schrader, the drum-pounding, face-contorting, vocal-twisting singer of Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, his minimalist postpunk duo with bassist Devlin Rice.
Though he had previously dabbled in music, it was only recently he decided to proverbially push his chips toward the middle of the table on songwriting.
“I’m going to do the occasional dabbling into comedy,” Schrader says via telephone as Rice drives them to a show in Dubuque, Iowa. (Rice is the only one with a driver’s license.) “But I think from here on in, for the rest of my life, I’m a musician. Me and Devlin, we’re in this together, and it’s a team, and it’s a band.”
As Schrader remembers it, he decided he wanted to dedicate all his time to being a musician while walking down Falls Road at 3 a.m., stoned, on his way home from his job washing dishes at Golden West Café. “I was just like, What am I doing, man?” he recalls. “It was like that scene in The Doors where [Jim Morrison] is in the desert, and I’m like, Man, I’ve gotta ride the snake and set up some shows for this tour.”
Schrader’s first forays into music evolved out of his comedy routine around 2008, when he took a drum onstage and began working songs into the comedy he performed opening for Teeth Mountain. Encouraged by his progress, he started writing in between tour spots, evolving into an act with just a drum and vocals sung like either a crooning, doleful David Bowie—one of his idols—or a crazed madman. He put out two releases, the last of which came out this past year on Fan Death Records, that mixed music, comedy, skits, monologues, and genre throwbacks.
Around 2010, before practicing for a gig at a rave, Schrader asked Rice, with whom he shares a Mount Vernon house alongside Dan Deacon and members of Future Islands, to pick up a bass and play along.
Schrader describes that rave show as the moment he found a perfect foil. “We had practiced the songs,” he says, “but I definitely didn’t stick to the script at the show. Because I can be unprofessional in that sense sometimes—I’ve gotten better at sticking to the script. But I was kind of going off on these tangents here and there and just going a little crazy, but I was like, Man, he’s keeping up with me. And I had never played with anyone that could keep up with me step by step.”
For Rice, who was already familiar with the songs Schrader had written after hearing them on the 2008 Wham City Round Robin tour when the bassist was playing with Nuclear Power Pants, coming up with bass melodies was fairly intuitive. “I was familiar with a lot of his songs from those two weeks of watching him perform,” Rice says. “So when he asked me to play, I didn’t find that it was a hard task to put a melody to them, because I already thought in my head that the melodies were already there.”
With their first album as Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Jazz Mind, due out March 20 on Load Records, Schrader has his first release that is entirely music—a batch of 11 tracks they co-wrote. Some are furious punk bursts of sound; others gloomy, plodding postpunk; almost all clock in under two and a half minutes.
It is, Rice and Schrader insist, their ideal for the pop song form. “If you can’t say it in two and a half minutes, it’s not worth saying at all,” Schrader deadpans.
“We’re just trying to bring the standard pop song down in the amount of times it takes,” Rice adds. “So instead of three minutes and five seconds, just make it a lean two minutes and call it day.”
Schrader chimes in: “People have stuff to do, they have to get up for work the next morning.”
Rice: “They have other Nicki Minaj songs they . . .”
Schrader interrupts, “They have other Nicki Minaj songs they need to hear. These are shorter Nicki Minaj songs, without the beautiful other aspects.”
If anything has carried over from Schrader’s other guises as a performer, it is the ability to create and develop a character and then embody him. Music, Schrader found, lends itself naturally to this type of character building, perhaps more than anything he’s done before.
“It’s also, I feel, where I can show the most complex range of characters and themes and emotions,” he says. “It’s a very thick tapestry. You have a lot more ability as a musician to translate emotion across your audience and ideas, more readily than I could do if I was telling boob jokes in Greenwich Village on a Tuesday night or something.”
In comes Rice, right on cue: “Which happens every other Tuesday.”
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