“Dunce,” the lead single of the long-awaited Ed Schrader’s Music Beat record Riddles, is a densely produced (by Dan Deacon), moody alt-rock smash hit. We’re premiering the video for it above, but I urge you: resist watching for now. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, you’re going to need some background to appreciate how bizarre and uncanny the song is. If you’re already a fan, you may still need this. I’ve heard the entire record—which is the group's third and releases on March 2 via Carpark—and it only gets stranger from here.
Before Devlin Rice joined as a bassist and collaborator to form the Music Beat, Schrader performed his songs solo. It wasn’t a one-man band so much as it was a (typically shirtless) guy banging agitatedly on a floor tom while screaming and crooning through catchy, two-minute koan-like songs. The key document from this era is The Choir Inside (Wham City, 2009), which consists mostly of lo-fi a cappella field recordings. With the addition of Rice in 2010, the sound became a little easier to classify, if no less compelling, and the duo cranked out two aggressive post-punk full-lengths—Jazz Mind (Load, 2012) and Party Jail (Infinity Cat, 2014)—both of which were tracked and mixed in a matter of days. (“We had time left over,” Rice recalls of recording Party Jail.)
Schrader didn’t want Riddles to be “another two-piece rock record,” so he tapped minimalist-pop composer and fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon to produce, and eventually to co-write. So began a two-year odyssey of writing and recording that yielded a fearlessly lush record full of both sequenced and live instruments, with lyrics far more introspective and vulnerable than anything they’ve put out to date.
It would be easy to credit the sound on this record—foreshadowed in “Dunce”— to Deacon. And I’m sure many will. It’s got sequenced drums, nimble piano arpeggios, big dynamic shifts. But that narrative is too simplistic. For one, the influence flows in both directions. (The crucial bass riff that carries Deacon’s 2012 single “True Thrush” was contributed by Rice, for example.) Two, it would ignore Schrader’s deceptively broad base influences, which includes plenty of Sting and David Bowie, as well as the emotional crises that shaped the album—particularly, the unexpected death of Schrader’s stepfather.
“My stepdad passing away was intense ’cause here’s a person who I loved and adored and looked up to and emulated but who at the same time was also a tyrant and a crazy person and some days would be the bane of my existence.” Schrader explains. “He was like Venom and I was Spider-Man—if sometimes Venom and Spider-Man would hang out and watch a baseball game.”
That complicated relationship can be felt throughout the record. It’s specifically treated in the track “Tom” and is referenced in the album title, Riddles. “You know, I sing [in the title track], ‘Riddles do me little favor,’ because when something intense happens in your life and this thing that you saw as a solid thing, like a cliff or a mountain, suddenly just vanishes and you don’t know where you are, no song or joke or thing can console you,” Schrader says. “I needed time. I needed silence and space and distance to really process it. It’s like, ‘Riddles? I don’t need that right now. I don’t need irony.’ I needed to go deeper.”
The Riddles sessions got plenty deep. For Schrader and Rice, who was dealing with the loss of his brother, recording somehow became both an escape from the turmoil of their personal lives and a means of confronting it. It changed the way they made music, and “Dunce” represents the beginning of that change.
“[Dunce] was the first song we made together where it was like, ‘This is gonna be different,’” Deacon remembers. “It took a while, maybe especially for Ed, to get used to the studio being a place to experiment, not just to document, but I think once that clicked for Ed, he opened up lyrically and the songs became . . . more about this study of self.”
“Dunce” isn’t totally representative of the music on Riddles—no single track is. But it’s a good introduction to the expanded sonic palette. Plus, it’s a groovy, haunted barnburner. Plus, the video is mostly driving, which is the ideal setting for Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, preferably to nowhere in particular.
With all that said, you may hear “Dunce” and think, “Duh, I get this.” But you do not get this. This is something else entirely.
Catch Ed Schrader's Music Beat on tour:
3/1 Baltimore, MD @ Metro Gallery
3/3 Washington, DC@ Comet Ping Pong
3/4 Raleigh, NC @ Kings
3/5 Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight
3/6 Knoxville, TN @ Pilot Light
3/7 Nashville, TN @ DRKMTTR
3/9 Atlanta, GA @ Mammal Gallery
3/12 Houston, TX @ Walter's Downtown
3/13 Dallas, TX @ Transit Bicycle Company
3/14 San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
3/15 Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/16 Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/17 Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/18 Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/19 Hot Springs, AK @ VOV Fest
3/20 Lawrence, KS @ Replay Lounge
3/23 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
3/24 Boise, ID @ Treefort Music Fest
3/26 Reno, NV @ Holland Project
3/28 Los Angeles, CA @ Zebulon
3/29 San Francisco, CA @ Make Out Room
3/31 Portland, OR @ The Know
4/4 Sioux Falls, SD @ Total Drag Records
4/5 Minneapolis, MN @ Kitty Cat Klub
4/6 Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
4/7 Milwaukee, WI @ Quarters Rock N Roll Palace
4/8 Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
4/10 Toronto, ON @ Baby G
4/11 Winooski, VT @ Monkey House
4/12 Providence, RI @ AS220
4/15 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby's All Right
Param Anand Singh is a poet and musician. His first full-length book, Yr Skull a Cathedral, is forthcoming from Publishing Genius in July.