David Schuler opens his new record with a spoken word piece that could very well be lifted from The Butterfly Effect. “If who I am today went back in time right now, whatever I say to the younger me could potentially have such an effect that the younger version of me may never make it back to this moment,” speaks voice actor Victoria Hogan over a blanket of songbird chirps and a windy soundscape.
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Its timelessness not only funnels explicitly into the record, aptly named Space and Time, but frames Schuler’s own personal journey through and with time itself. “Time definitely accelerates. There’s no question about that. It’s weird. I was just talking about this. I have such clear memories of summers when I was a kid or even as a teenager,” the singer-songwriter tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “And it felt like those summers never ended. They were lasting forever. Or it felt an eternity for Christmas to come when I was a little kid. Now, it’s all such a blur. It’s almost May in 2021. How. It’s so hard to wrap my mind around. The more distracted we are, and the busier we are, the shorter sight we have on our time. We lose it, and we don’t get any more of it. It’s finite.”
Known onstage as The Bad Dreamers, Schuler mines immense personal tragedies to cope, process, and extend a helping hand to the many people still in the throes of their own catastrophes. With “One Way Ticket,” he falls to his knees in the aftermath of his father’s death last February. Two months later, he began scribbling out lyrics that would soon piece together into one of pop music’s most soul-crushing and provocative moments this year.
Schuler, whose resume boasts work with P!nk, John Legend, and New Politics, tinkered with the lyrics in the coming months and didn’t record it until August. “It’s usually a much faster process for me. Typically, when I get the idea for a song, I’ll dive right in and won’t come out the other side until it’s finished,” he says. “There’s basically one lead vocal and some background. That’s like 30 different days of recording. I couldn’t get through it. I’ve never had an experience like that.”
Around the time of his father’s passing, the acclaimed producer also underwent a terrible breakup and lost his dog in a freak accident. Everything snowballed, from suffocating misery to crushing oblivion, and the album morphed into “something entirely different” than when he began writing in 2019.
“Initially, I didn’t think I found healing. I was writing about those things, and in the moment, it seemed to magnify how much it hurt. Now in hindsight, having finished the material, I’m so glad I did,” he reflects. “There was a point where I had written it and maybe demoed it, and I was like ‘there’s no way I’ll ever get through this. I can’t look at this and actually finish it.’ I thought it would all live as notes on his phone.”
Themes of faith and religion also began to emerge through the process. Having grown up in the Catholic church, as a youngster in Rocheseter, New York, Schuler’s parents were not necessarily religious folks. “Maybe spiritual would be the word. My sister and I were brought to church more for the community aspect of it,” he says. He began to seriously question Catholicism after witnessing William Friedkin’s groundbreaking 1973 film The Exorcist for the first time. “My whole world exploded when I stumbled upon horror films,” he adds, citing another iconic feature, John Carpenter’s Halloween, as one of his first transcendent cinematic experiences.
But it was The Exorcist, starring Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn, and its deep probing of religion and faith, that “struck something in me. It was something I was both terrified of and wildly fascinated with through that fear,” he reflects. “To this day, I still am. I feel both politically and religiously homeless currently. I don’t know where I land anywhere.”
Where faith in and of itself is wholly personal and immensely emotional, religion is nothing more than “the business of faith and the politics of belief. It’s wildly different everywhere you go in the world, the sort of dominant religious overarching powers. They are two very different things, and it’s weird. You’d think they wouldn’t be, but it’s strange to think that religion gives birth to war and murder. Who’s to say we’re not all lined up for the same outcome in the end. It’s so perplexing.”
On “Georgetown,” directly referencing the town, just outside of Washington, DC, in The Exorcist, Schuler honors the landmark film both in the lyrics and accompanying visual. He originally had intentions to “pay more direct tribute,” but he soon realized it would be far too costly to execute such a high-scale endeavor. So instead, he switched gears to “use an exorcist in a different context. I’ve always wanted to explore a bit of dark comedy through music videos and storytelling,” he says.
“What I’ve always wondered about ‘The Exorcist’ is they make no play for whom the main character is. When the film opens, we meet Father Merrin, and he’s technically ‘The Exorcist.’ But we don’t see him again for another hour and a half later. We get an even balance of character development for each of the characters,” says Schuler. “My theory is that the main character is actually Father Karras. He’s very much on the border of having no faith. His mother’s dying, and he has a very complicated relationship with her based on resentment and love. He’s into boxing, and he’s constantly going on runs and working out. It seems he’s clearly running from something. Then, he’s thrust into this family’s life through Regan’s mother. I don’t think it’s at all ironic that where we find him in his life is the point that he’s introduced this case of possession. It finally forces himself, ‘Is what I’m told to believe in actually real?’ We watch the film and go through that existential crisis.”
The video, finding humor, perhaps unintentionally, akin to The Little Hours, imagines a “hypothetical conversation Father Karras has with demons. At the end of the film, he asks the demon to take him and then he takes his own life. It seems like a heroic moment where he saves this little girl. I’ve always wondered if it was an opportunity for him to end his own suffering.”
This isn’t Schuler’s first rodeo in upending spirituality and possession-inspired work. Last fall, he released a short horror film called The House Call, co-written with and starring Julie Piage, in which he draws parallels between demonic entities and mental illness. “We’d been batting around that idea for probably the better part of 2019. It was probably an amalgamation of a few different stories that we conceived of,” he says. “I’d always wanted to explore something possession-related, but I wanted to go at it in a more pragmatic, psychological lens.”
Through the film’s brisk 13 minutes, he angles the story “from the perspective of a psychiatrist or psychologist looking at possession and what that is. Julie and I had always had questions about possession versus mental illness and disease, such as schizophrenia. There are so many parallels between the two, symptomatically. We were maybe not the first to explore that and pair it with the ‘70s horror themes I love ─ but we felt like we had a unique way to go into that sort of story.”
Start to finish, The Bad Dreamers’ Space and Time drowns the listener in 1980s neons and bursting, colorful synths. The follow-up to his debut, Songs About People Including Myself (2018), Schuler’s sophomoric effort sifts through his trauma, and ultimately he manages to find peace within the music. Woven through the saxophone-bound “She’s Really Not That Into You,” the sparkling “New York Minute,” and smoldering closer “Holier Than Thou,” his musicality has reached new peaks and allows him to come out the other side. Pain will always be crucial to his journey; he’s just better at handling it these days.