Friends with fellow Maryland musicians Future Islands and Dan Deacon, inspired by Paper Rad and singing songs about Winona Ryder’s character on 90s cult classic Reality Bites, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and their new album Jazz Mind isn’t your average punk rock release. Instead it features a track listing that barely breaches the 20-minute mark, occasionally riffs on macho hardcore punk culture and features No Age’s Randy Randall on ‘When I’m in a Car’. All this, delivered in 11 brief blasts of varying drums-and-bass combinations while front man Ed Schrader wastes nary a word in his concise, often funny, eviscerations of life as we know it.
Originally the solo project of Baltimore-based, New York state emigrant Schrader, the band ESMB proper famously formed for a rave in 2009. Enlisted to perform at a misguided Baltimore showcase for clueless suburban audience, Schrader took bassist and new roomie Devlin Rice to fill out the sound. Two years later, the duo still play their concise pop, punk and hardcore hybrid together, they have a new record out on Upset the Rhythm and they can still call themselves housemates, but not for long. As it turns out they’ve received their eviction notice the very morning of their scheduled interview with aqnb. But, in managing a chat across time zones and through a faulty Skype connection, they mark this latest, slightly depressing milestone, with a discussion over everything from Baltimore’s shady reputation to the merits of ‘Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants’ slam poetry.
aqnb: I met someone who lived in Baltimore, DJ Dog Dick?
Devlin Rice: Yeah, Max [Eisenberg].
Ed Schrader: Max, yeah. We’re good friends with him.
aqnb: He was talking about how crazy-rough Baltimore is.
DR: Yeah, he was living on the west side of town, which is definitely a lot more rough than where we live but it’s still pretty rough here.
ES: When I first moved here from Rochester, which is kind of like the middle of nowhere; this sleepy canal town. I moved here from College and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on here? This is crazy.’ It felt like a war zone, which it is in some parts.
DR: It isn’t what it was like six years ago.
ES: It isn’t what it was six years ago but you still have to watch your back. You’ve got to be careful. What’s really funny is that we kind of have this dual thing happening. When I first came here, I stepped out of the car and I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s crazy. It’s like post-World War II Europe or something. Everything’s run down and there are sketchy things happening’. But then you go into a warehouse and there’s a bunch of nerds hanging out. Not even cool dudes. Just like actual nerds who are unabashedly having a good time. That was really inspiring for me and made me feel at home.
aqnb: In an interview you did with Vice magazine, you talk about meeting REM’s Michael Stipe and how his friend complimented you on your missing front tooth. You said that you just didn’t have health insurance.
ES: It wasn’t for fashion reasons; put it that way. It’s a lack of basic necessities.
aqnb: It’s only recently I’ve come to realise how frontier-like the US can be, in terms of social welfare.
ES: It’s crazy. You’re better off going to Peru to get operated on.
aqnb: Doesn’t that happen?
ES: What’s crazy is you’re paying for this system your whole life and you work hard. Then you sprain your arm and you’re in debt like 30,000 dollars.
DR: You’ve got to pay for your hospital visit on your credit card and stuff like that. It is a thing that you perceive as frontier. There are still a lot of parts in America that are like, ‘you’re out on your own and fuck you’. Especially when you go to some of the neighbourhoods, where Max was staying on the west side of Baltimore.
ES: They don’t’ even pick up the garbage in some parts of Baltimore. You have to pile your garbage in some field somewhere and once a year the city comes by and maybe picks it up. There are parts of Baltimore that are like that. Not all of it but there a parts that are that bad.
aqnb: So when you were talking earlier about that rave where Ed Schrader Music Beat began, the ‘suburban people’ who you played to live in a different world to you?
DR: Oh yeah, totally.
ES: That’s a good example. There are a lot of events that attract people who aren’t from Baltimore and then they go back to their nice house. We stay behind and clean up the bottles and used condoms and we usually live in those spaces.
Even when we put on warehouse shows, a good portion of the audience isn’t from the city. A lot of the musicians, visual artist, filmmakers and theatre people live in the city but there’s definitely an element that thinks, ‘what are the freaks up to? Let’s check ‘em out and see what’s going on.’ They get their entertainment and then they go back to their safe house.
aqnb: Are you in it for the long haul, in terms of being a freak? From what I understand you’ve got a fairly menial day job…
ES: I don’t have a job right now. My main job is being a musician at the present time, which probably isn’t the best idea [laughs]. But, as far as being a freak is concerned, I‘d like to have a family and a zip-code some day. Buy milk and have Netflix, which I have. I have Netflix.
DR: …and a zip code.
ES: I have Netflix and a zip code, so I’m half way there to being a normal human. I don’t try to be some kind of transgressive GG Allin-type person. I’d say I try to be more like Seinfeld.
aqnb: I was talking to Zach Hill from Death Grips the other day and he paints a similar portrait of Sacramento where he comes from. He’s pretty paranoid and has a fairly bleak outlook as result. Does living in Baltimore have a similar effect on you creatively?
ES: The atmosphere definitely influences me. There’s such a dark, almost medieval aesthetic here. It definitely evokes something dark. I can understand how it’s the place where Edgar Allan Poe died. There’s that kind of guilty, almost a thick, foreboding feeling in the air that weighs on you at night. I would say that brings out something of what we have in our music.
aqnb: You’re also known for performing with Wham City. Can you tell me more about that?
ES: It’s an art collective that was started by Dan Deacon and Dina Kelberman. It consists of a group of individuals who do music, theatre, comedy and video art. We work together; sometimes our narratives are on the same page, sometimes they’re not. We’re at this point where we’re, more or less, an email thread that exists on the internet. [laughs]
We used to have a warehouse gig called Wham City and we’d put on shows with bands like Paper Rad and stuff like that. It was really nice but then the warehouse got shut down. So now we’re a collective that occasionally comes together to do things like ‘Jurassic Park: The Play’.
aqnb: I’m a big fan of Paper Rad. Does their strong online presence have an influence on Wham City?
ES: Yeah, definitely. Wham City is hugely inspired by Paper Rad.
aqnb: What interests me about Paper Rad and Wham City is that they engineer their own obscurity in a sense…
ES: You mean keeping a level of mysticism by being cryptic but in a good way? Being mysterious and cool.
aqnb: Yeah, like traditional DIY punk would do it with limited releases and zine culture, while online it does the same thing but approaches it differently. You know, Paper Rad only uses html, RGB colours and this crazy website you can’t navigate…
ES: Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. It seems like you’re saying that tradition continues in a different way online and in keeping that tradition and in keeping that limited, it’s controlling that medium in a sense. I think Wham City is into that too, for sure.
aqnb: Is Ed Schrader’s Music Beat into that kind of thing?
ES: We’re pretty straightforward guys. I mean what I say when I put it together. For me, when I started doing music, it was a reaction to what I thought was the excess of music. I was reacting to people that had a hundred pedals and a laser light show but they weren’t saying anything. They were saying so much but saying so little. I wanted to say much less and say much more.
aqnb: Did you keep that minimal approach to recording for the album too?
ES: It’s definitely purposeful. I want to get across the same experience one would experience live as much as possible, while also keeping in mind that the album is a different thing and taking advantage of the intimacy within that medium as well.
I’ve always been a writer. I started out as a writer. I wrote for papers and I do poetry. So, for me, the lyrics have always been front-and-centre and that has something to do with the minimalism.
aqnb: As a writer myself, its’ always been source of great envy that musicians have the capacity to achieve a much more visceral response to their work.
ES: Yeah. I remember in the 90s, you’d go to a poetry night and it would be like, ‘this is cool man, everyone’s going crazy’. But now, if you go to a poetry slam or something, it’s really fucking boring and you just want to get the hell out of there and go get drunk. With music, I feel like you can have a platform and a voice with lyrics that is a lot cooler than just opening up a notebook in coffee shop and being like, ‘here’s what I wrote’.
aqnb: Have you heard of Amber Tamblyn?
ES: It rings a bell…
aqnb: She was in ‘Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants’.
ES: Oh yeah, I had an ex-girlfriend who was into that.
aqnb: She’s written two books of poetry and I saw her read it. Her performance was probably the most effective because she’s an actress but her content was boring. It was all about the delivery.
ES: It’s funny you say that because I was at a poetry night the other night and the thing that stuck out the most to me, was somebody who wrote an essay and was in fact a playwright himself. He had a good sense of the theatrical approach; people that were used to performing in front of a rowdy audience.
I feel like, until you’ve played for three people, then you don’t understand how to tackle an audience properly. You have to go through the gauntlet to build those things. I think those are the strongest people, the people that have walked through that path and come out the other end stronger.
Ed Schader’s Music Beat’s Jazz Mind was out on Upset the Rhythm May 14, 2012