Erik Schrody has a thin, Abe Lincoln beard, a piercing stare and a B-boy swagger. Around his neck hangs a pendant that spells out EVERLAST in gold and diamonds – a tag the twenty-nine-year-old has answered to since before his days as the front MC of House of Pain – the same moniker that now adorns his powerful solo departure, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. Schrody’s arms are a canvas of skulls and personal graffiti from forearm to shoulder. On his chest are more tattoos: the Chinese symbol for love and another that says SINN FEIN, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Between the tattoos, a bubbly seven-inch scar splits his sternum in two.
He is a large man, Schrody – sharp and personable but also well aware of his intimidating reputation – so when he invites you to place your ear to his chest, the automatic reaction is not to nuzzle.
“Come on,” he says as you inch closer. “I’m not shy about it.”
And so you lean in and hear a deep, resonant ticking, like a metronome keeping time in his chest.
“I find it very soothing,” says Schrody. “I like hearing it.”
This beat began a year ago, the day Schrody completed Whitey Ford, the collection of hard-edged hip-hop and brooding blues and folk tunes that he knew would redefine him. It was that very evening when Schrody’s chest began to tighten. After more than five hours of Schrody laboring to breathe, his co-producer and friend John Gamble asked him whether he needed to go to the hospital. Unaware that his aorta had torn and that his heart was drowning in blood, Schrody said no; Gamble called for an ambulance anyway. Miraculously, Schrody didn’t suffer his massive heart attack until just after he’d been wheeled into the emergency room.
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“They looked at me, tattoos and all that, and probably thought I was shooting dope or sniffin’ coke,” says Schrody, who has had a heart condition since birth. “Luckily my doctor is a consultant at the hospital they took me to, so they got my records pretty quick. If it had taken another twenty minutes, I’d be dead.”
When he awoke three days later with an artificial valve clicking in his chest, Schrody saw his mother and father, who divorced bitterly nine years ago, on either side of his bed.
“And that’s when I knew it was really bad,” he says.
Schrody laughs a wicked, throaty laugh. It is the kind of emotional burst you expect of him, a moment that’s neither lighthearted nor sinister but somewhere, somehow, at the edges of both.
It makes sense that Schrody’s music is as complex and contradictory as he is – able to draw from diverse genres without sacrificing any of their authority in the process. How else to explain the old-school boasting of “Money (Dollar Bill),” just a track away from the pensive, dark folk of the hit “What It’s Like”? Or “Ends,” the cut between those two, a guitar-strummed blues-and-rap morality play?
It is for that track that Schrody will head to Las Vegas to shoot Whitey Ford’s second video. It’s midday, and we are in his manager’s Los Angeles office, and Schrody needs to run a few preflight errands, so we go outside and hop into his Land Rover.
“My doctor said this valve will last my lifetime,” says Schrody as we hit the road. “I told him, ‘I know it’s gonna last my lifetime – can you just give me a roundabout figure how long that will be?’ ”
Schrody laughs again and cranks up the blistering version of John Lee Hooker’s “Blues for Christmas” that he performed last year at L.A. radio station KROQ’s annual Christmas concert. Choosing it had proved a struggle, since Schrody converted to Islam two years ago and needed a song without overtly Christian overtones.
Certainly, Schrody’s heart attack wasn’t his only life-altering event of the last few years. There was his transformation from Irish-Catholic punk to devout Muslim. (“It makes me able to look at myself and say, ‘OK, I’m making progress in life,’ ” he says. “I’ve had my heyday of debauchery.”) Then there was the breakup of a long-term relationship, which he chronicles on Whitey Ford in “The Letter” and “Seven Years.” (“That person gave me all of herself,” says Schrody. “But I was a rock star and had to fuck a lot of bitches.”) Not to mention the dismantling of House of Pain – with their drunken Irish frat-boy reputation – and Schrody’s decision, two years ago, to stop drinking.
“I came to a realization that any time I got my ass kicked, wound up in jail or woke up next to an ugly broad, liquor was responsible,” he says. “And getting beat up or winding up in jail is not as bad as waking up next to an ugly broad.”
Schrody smiles, almost to prove, yet again, that he is a blur of contra-dictions. He will mention “bitches” in the same conversation in which he talks sincerely about his desire to meet an educated woman and settle down. It’s as if the posture he has struck all these years is in a standoff with the perspective that a near-death experience has given him, each waiting for the other to blink.
“I think a lot about kids lately,” says Schrody. “That’s one of my obsessions. I’m not rushing into it with the wrong person, but I’ll see down into other cars and I’m always making eye contact with the kids. Being so close to dying and then seeing something so new – it’s just . . .” His voice trails off, his point left to float out the window.
We are winding through the streets and strip malls of the San Fernando Valley, on the very same roads that crisscrossed through Schrody’s first life. His parents moved to the Valley from Hempstead, Long Island, when Schrody was a child, and he has remained here to this day. His sister and her three children live a block away from where Schrody and his mother currently live.
“People always say, ‘You live with your mom?’ ” says Schrody. “I say, ‘No, my mom lives with me.’ ” He laughs. “You gotta straighten them out. This is no Cliff Claven thing.”
It was also here in the Valley that Schrody, after a nasty split with his former label over the handling of his first solo album, started House of Pain with his pals Daniel “Danny Boy” O’Connor and Leor “DJ Lethal” DiMant. When House of Pain sent out the demo for “Jump Around,” Schrody says, the group had a record deal within weeks.
“It’s the ‘Louie Louie’ of the Nineties – that’s what Danny used to say,” says Schrody. “But you know what? If there is ever gonna be a hip-hop hall of fame, that song kinda ensures that I’ll be there.”
What followed on the heels of “Jump Around” was a platinum album, excessive spending and a variety of brushes with the law, mostly on charges of weapons possession. At one point, when DJ Lethal was doing production on the debut record of Everlast’s current tour mates, Sugar Ray, Schrody almost wasn’t able to lend a hand. “Erik was under house arrest,” says Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath. “We wanted to get him to write some things for us, so we had to go to his house. He said, ‘I’m having this coming-out-of-house-arrest party – do you want to play it?’ It was our first show in L.A. after being signed.”
But it was less Schrody’s indiscretions than an ever-widening rift between him and O’Connor that began to drag the band under. “There was drug use that I didn’t approve of,” says Schrody – and, ultimately, House of Pain fell apart at the release party for their third and last record, 1996’s Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.
“That was probably the meanest thing I ever did,” says Schrody, “because I did it to be mean. And I regret that. We were just about to do ‘Jump Around’ and I turned around and said, ‘Yo, enjoy it, because this is the last time we’re doing this.’ And then we finished the show and I just walked out.”
The speakers are now blaring Tom Waits as Schrody maneuvers his way through the Valley. He stops to replace a cell-phone battery, pops into Tower Records to pick up albums by Faith Evans and the Cardigans, and then is quickly on the move again, clearly enjoying the ride. He is at the beginning of a new life that began with Whitey Ford and was saved on an operating-room table in Los Angeles. Schrody has reconciled with O’Connor and is close with Lethal, who now does time in Limp Bizkit. There are, in fact, no peaces that Schrody feels a need to broker in this life chapter.
Schrody loops back to his manager’s office, and suddenly it crystallizes that he has come full circle. He climbs out of the truck, his feet planted squarely in the heart of the Valley. New album, new sound, new life, same locale.
As he says goodbye, the man who plays up his intimidating reputation one minute is speaking the next minute about being frightened to make his pilgrimage to Mecca because secular tattoos are forbidden in Islam. He leaves you with one final contradictory image: a hulking man with stern eyes who suddenly looks helpless as he speaks of his first solo post-operation trip out of the house. That day, on a visit to a mall, Schrody snatched a two-year-old boy off a second-story railing after the boy’s four-year-old brother had tried to balance him there.
“For all I know, that’s the only reason I’m alive,” says Schrody. “I think about that all the time. For the rest of that day, that kid on the rail would bring tears to my eyes. Something in me says that if I wasn’t there that day, I would have seen on the news that some little kid died in the mall.”
He pauses for a long time.
“I’m not saying that I saved his life,” he continues. “I’m just talking about timing. The timing of John calling the ambulance and then them finding what’s wrong with me. I use the word subtle a lot lately. Life is so subtle.”