An Interview with Oliver Schroer
by Oliver Schroer
Let's go back to the beginning. Was fiddle your first instrument?
Well actually, I first took recorder lessons when I was six years old. It was a curious thing, because my teacher was a family friend, and I didn't actually realize that I was being taken to lessons. We would end up at my teacher's house, and my Mom would happen to have the recorders, and it was like "Hey what do you know, here we are again. Sure, lets play some recorder." Then one day I realized it was a premeditated plot. I felt so betrayed! Officially, I started violin lessons when I was 8 years old. My parents just informed that on Monday, I was going to start the violin. "Whatever...!"
What musical tradition were you reared in?
My parents were classical folks. My Dad was a hardcore German classics guy. When we moved out to our farm, there was a neighbour who used to play Johnny Cash really loud on his sound system, about a half mile away. This drove my Dad crazy, and one day, he set up both speakers facing the offending farm and blasted the poor guy with Beethoven. My Mom was a lot more open-minded and would listen to the kid's music, as we went through our various phases. I remember coming home in high school and finding my mother vacuuming while blasting Pink Floyd. "Hey Mom, how can I rebel if you keep listening to my records!"
So folk music was not a large part of your musical upbringing?
My parents had one record by Theodore Bikel, and some Georges Brassens. My Dad also had two 78s. There was 'Blueberry Hill' by Louis Armstrong, and 'Gone Fishin' by Satchmo and Bing. Apart from that, it was mostly classics. My older sister and brother later got into Simon & Garfunkel. We had one family friend, though, a guy called Jack Grunsky. He was about 10 years older than me, and he played the guitar and sang. He was into Kingston Trio and other stuff from that era. He would come up to my parents farm (his Mom was my recorder teacher) and sit on the fence, play his guitar, and have all the girls (like my sister) fall madly in love with him. He always sang a special song for me - 'Puff the Magic Dragon', and of course, it goes without saying that he was my hero.
What happened to Jack?
He went to Europe and became a recording star there, then came back to Canada years later and established himself as an excellent childrens musician. I was at a music festival some years back, and I noticed he was on the programme. I went over to check it out, and when I heard that voice, I was taken right back to being 6 years old again. We ended up doing some shows together, and on one concert, we actually played Puff the Magic Dragon. It was a real highlight for me!
How about the radio? Did you listen to that growing up?
Well, you know, the kids in our household did not actually turn on appliances. In fact, we didn't even think about turning on appliances. I think this is a European immigrant kid thing. That included TV and radio. So driving to Toronto with my older brother Andree for violin lessons was about the first time I heard the radio. I was about 11 years old. I still remember endlessly trying to figure out whether the music we were hearing on the radio was live or pre-recorded.
So, then, what was your first closer contact with popular music?
My older brother's friend Mike came to visit for the Christmas holidays. I was 12, I think. He brought along two albums - 'Abbey Road' by the Beatles, and 'Second Winter', an odd three sided album by albino Texas blues ace Johnny Winter. Those albums blew my mind. Especially the Beatles.
What about the violin during this time?
Well, I have to say, from about the age of 13 I began losing interest. Not in music, per se, but in classical instruction. It was too rigid, not enough fun. I found devious ways of getting out of practising. I got a cassette player at a certain point, and I made a tape of my cales, exercises and arpeggios. When my Mom told me to go upstairs and practise, I would go into my room, and play the tape. I never told my Mom 'til last year! The last significant thing I did on the violin at this point was to learn the 'Orange Blossom Special'. I did it on a dare from someone in high school. (I got it from a Mason Williams Band record.) I used to play it so much that some guys in our school actually threatened to beat me up if I didn't stop. I didn't realize that there were other tunes, though.
Where did your musical life go after that?
Well, my Dad gave me a guitar for my 16th birthday. What a dream! That same summer I went on a student exchange to Quebec. (French was a big thing for me, and I was motivated because I had a massive crush on my young and beautiful French teacher.) So I was to go to Quebec for 2 weeks and then dude was supposed to visit me. Turns out the guy was a music freak. He turned me on to many, many bands - Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pharaoh Sanders....the list goes on. It seems like every 3 days he would buy a new LP and then listen to it on his special rocking chair. He would start the chair at one end of the room, and rock passionately to the music until he arrived at the other end of the room. Then he'd pick up the chair and start over again. When I came back to school from that summer vacation, I was suddenly one of the hip music kids in school. My ears had got so much bigger.
Still playing the guitar, I presume?
Yeah, it became semi-permanently fused to my body, actually. I began really checking out the Johnny Winter again. That album had some really raunchy electric stuff on it. How did he get that buzzy sound? I couldn't figure it out. I actually tried to put bits of paper in between the strings to get the buzz. I had of course never heard of overdrive, or amplifiers. (They were, after all, in a category with appliances!) In the mean time, another friend introduced me to James Taylor. So now I had this weird mishmash of stuff I was listening to and trying to learn. By grade 13, I actually had some status in school as a guitar player. I used to play at parties and try to pick up girls that way, but of course I was way too shy ever to talk to the girls. All I did is play the guitar.
Did you have a strong sense at this time of becoming a musician?
Actually, no. I never dreamed that would happen. I thought I was going to be a lawyer or an academic, Lord help me.