How Dan Deacon and cannabis shaped new post-punk album ‘Riddles’ from Baltimore’s Ed Schrader’s Music Beat
Musician and comedian Ed Schrader is a master of keeping his audience on their toes.
Since arriving in Baltimore over a decade ago from upstate New York, the musician and comedian Ed Schrader has made a name for himself as an irreverent and multifaceted performer eager to delve into the absurd.
Although you certainly don’t need cannabis to get a kick out of his weirdo humor, it certainly helps. As we learned in a recent chat with Schrader, it has helped him too.
In collaboration with the Wham City arts collective — known best for its ringleader, the electro pop musician Dan Deacon — Schrader has hosted an eponymous live-audience talk show, performed in various theatrical productions (including a rousing stage adaptation of “Jurassic Park”) and held his own as a solo stand-up comedian.
All the while, he has been crafting his own brand of absurdist post-punk as Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. “Riddles,” his third full-length released earlier this month, finds him largely trading in his spastic energy and weird storytelling for astute observations on mortality and empathy. Born out of tragedy, he lost his father and stepfather during the course of creating “Riddles,” the album may be his biggest and most exhilarating release yet, and you can check it out yourself when Ed Schrader’s Music Beat tours the U.S. this Spring.
Initially, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat was a one-man band. Performing shirtless and lit from below by garish stage lighting, Schrader would pound on a floor tom and sing in a nasaly howl.
In 2010, bassist Devlin Rice joined the band, filling the musical space around Schrader’s drumming and yelling with bass figures that were alternately bristling and sweetly melodic.
Together, they released two albums — 2012’s “Jazz Mind” and, two years later, “Party Jail” — featuring songs that felt surprisingly full-bodied. Standouts like the rapid-fire “When I’m in a Car” off “Jazz Mind” is a bass-driven punk track that pays homage to influences like Morphine and the Pixies, while slower songs like 2014’s “Pink Moons” captures Schrader trading in his blistering wail for a playful croon.
The duo’s latest release takes these various templates and expands on them. “Riddles” was co-written and co-produced by Deacon, whose maximalist sonic palette adds yet even another new dimension to Schrader’s work.
“It’s a huge step for us,” Schrader said of the vivid sonic backdrops on the album, which took two years to complete in Deacon’s Baltimore home studio. “I’ve always had an adversarial relationship with recording studios, but Dan made us feel so much at home.”
While new tracks like “Rust” and “Dizzy Devil” maintain the throbbing pulse of the Music Beat’s earlier releases, others songs find Schrader playing the role of a stately front man. On “Tom,” named after his late stepfather, Schrader is accompanied by an array of mournful keyboards that reinforce his somber reflections. (“Are you gonna celebrate that day in ash?” he asks in the song, alluding to the death of his stepfather.)
Even on less heavy fare, like the album’s opener “Dunce,” subtle washes of synth add a degree of sophistication and complexity to the band’s sound, making it by far Schrader’s most accessible work.
None of this is to say that the Music Beat’s playfulness has entirely dissipated. “There’s always a little pun,” he says, “even in midst of the most serious, prosaic (songs).”
Furthermore, Schrader noted another key element of his writing process: waking up, enjoying a joint with his breakfast, mumbling random syllables and sounds into his phone and then heading up the street to the Johns Hopkins Barnes & Noble to turn them into lyrics.
“The words are placeholders,” he explained. “You can build around them, and follow them.”
On this tour, Schrader plans to be leave the floor tom at home, instead focusing his energy on moving around the stage, connecting with his audience to provide “a more visceral experience,” he says.
In a recent Adult Swim performance — a cannabis enthusiast’s Mecca if there ever was one — we see Schrader pouring Elmer’s Glue onto his palm before diving into a rousing rendition of the title track from his new album.
It was perhaps Schrader in a nutshell; goofiness and punk’s bite and the morose song all blurred together. In other words, it was as unpredictable as ever.