ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, MAY 13, 2003
WHEN JOEL KROEKER shows up at the Straight office gripping a backpack, it’s easy to mistake him for one of the bike couriers who frequent the place. With his short, dyed-blond hair and pierced right eyebrow, he’s got that alternative vibe that hard-core couriers favour; the slim 30-year-old also looks in good enough shape to be cycling all over town.
But Kroeker’s livelihood doesn’t involve dodging cars and unloading packages. He just got back from Toronto, where he taped a Bravo TV special with Randy Bachman, and in a few days he’s heading back East to shoot a video with director Stephen Scott, whose credits include the latest clips by folk legend Gordon Lightfoot and CanCon hitmakers the Trews.
And from an educational standpoint, Kroeker’s a tad overqualified for the deliveryman role. Before taking up residence in Vancouver three years ago, he earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and popular-music studies from the University of Alberta.
Kroeker’s schooling in the ways of the pop tunesmith seems to be paying off. He recently released a 12-song CD, Melodrama, on True North Records, the Toronto-based label headed by long-time Bruce Cockburn manager Bernie Finkelstein. The album was produced and mixed by Danny Greenspoon (Great Big Sea), and features unsung Canadian guitar genius Kevin Breit on all but two tracks.
“Danny and I started talking,” recalls Kroeker, “and he said, ‘Why don’t you make up a fantasy list of all the players you’d want?’ So I made up this list, and Kevin was right at the top, ’cause I love the way he plays. He is just incredible. And Danny just has these contacts, I guess, so we ended up getting basically everyone on the list.”
Bachman is another worthy picker who gets his licks in onMelodrama, playing lead on the catchy pop-rock ditty “With Me”. Having spent years as a youth in Winnipeg, gigging in bands that covered BTO and the Guess Who, Kroeker was happy as hell to meet the Prairie rock legend in 2002. That’s when Bachman came across one of Kroeker’s demo tapes and decided he wanted him on his next album, the just-released Jazz Thing.
“I did some demos of solo guitar, chordal jazz-guitar sorta stuff,” explains Kroeker, “and he heard some of that. He called me up and wanted me to play on his album ’cause it sounded like Lenny Breau, he said.”
When he’s not making guest appearances with other artists, touring to promote his own music, or zipping off to Hogtown to meet with industry contacts, Kroeker keeps busy at his residence near 1st and Commercial. He’s got a home studio in the top floor of a house there, where he works on soundtracks for documentaries and short films–when the funky neighbourhood allows him to.
“There’s a lot of screaming in the middle of the night,” he says, “but that’s okay. It’s the kind of place where, if you have to go to the grocery store, you just step out of your apartment in your pyjamas and nobody really blinks an eye. So I like that.”
Kroeker recently signed on to compose and perform the soundtrack for a feature film to be shot in Montreal, starting next month. But don’t expect him to abandon the concert stage anytime soon. He’s always ready to play, whether solo or accompanied by a band.
“I like to go back and forth between the two,” he explains, “so I don’t get bored. But I really like playing solo and just being able to be spontaneous. I just did a tour across the country with Hawksley Workman and played the whole thing solo. He had the full band with him, so I was trying to deal with the rock audience and make enough noise that they didn’t notice I was up there by myself.
“But that was a fun challenge,” he continues. “I’d just sample things that I’m playing and create these textures, which is what I’ve always enjoyed doing. What really gets me off is minimalist, textural sort of music: Brian Eno and Steve Reich and John Cage, all those guys; Daniel Lanois type backgrounds and stuff.”