People in a concert crowd know when it’s Hal Schrenk on drums.
“Friends say they can hear me grinning,” he said.
Not see, hear. Emotion goes acoustic.
Schrenk has been named the drummer of the year in the Saskatchewan Country Music Association six times in the last seven years. In addition to concert gigs, he does studio recording. He was the drummer and percussionist on Falling Down, a CD by the Saskatoon band Chester Knight and The Wind that won a Canadian Juno Award in 2000. Schrenk also scores commercials and film. Among the artists he is touring with this summer are country gospel singer/songwriter Amanda Hagel, blues singer Crystal Shawanda and country singer Codie Prevost. Schrenk’s own group, the Buzzardline, with bassist Jesse Dawson and guitarist Matt Smith, is billed as three piece dirty rock.
Wherever he plays, good time follows. He is more spirited than a family picnic at the cabin with your uncle Freddy Fondue.
“Follow what you love,” Schrenk said. “Stay excited. Do what you want to do.”
Music is his ticket. So is graphic design. Schrenk, a freelancer, is contracted to make promotional posters and billboards not only for entertainers, but for restaurants and folk festivals. He crafts holiday cards. He does custom stationary. Executives ask him to make their annual printed report sing with photos and fonts.
Doing graphic design takes eyes. Playing drums mean hands. The link for Schrenk is ears. He listens. In his home in Saskatoon across the street from a city park, he listens to rock and to country, to modern rap and classic symphony, not preferring one style of music over another, just listening to see what works and why. For graphic design, he talks with a client. He hears their pitch and pictures their plan, later sketching his idea onto a cereal box or a used envelope. He turns hours of listening into stop-and-look visuals.
Whether the medium is music or art, his goal is the same: He wants an image to have identity. He hopes a song leaves a memory. The challenge is to make something last, not be flavour of the day.
“With music I think shapes, colours,” he said. “In design I think rhythm.”
In conventional thinking, music is rhythm, design is shape and colour. Schrenk is different. His style is layered, but the results are clear. People hear it in his music. People see it in his graphic art. They feel it.
“Make it look like it’s simple,” he said. “That’s not easy to do.”
Schrenk grew up in southern Saskatchewan, in Assiniboia, with his brother Clint and sisters Rhonda and Janet. This was before cable TV. The town had two channels. Hal liked to watch reruns of black and white movies. Better yet was seeing tap dancer Honi Coles on variety shows. Honi was smooth. Honi’s soft-shoe made Hal a rhythm pal.
When Schrenk’s parents, Art and Shirley, drove the Schrenk family an hour north to Moose Jaw to watch the annual Saskatchewan Air Show, everybody’s eyes were on the sky. Not Hal’s. He was finding Popsicle sticks on the ground. He was making a squadron of stick planes.
In school, he rolled small strips of white paper into tubes, filled them with flour and sold them as cigarettes to other kids for a nickel.
One Halloween he was given a plastic pumpkin to collect trick or treat candy. Using two Bic pens, he played his plastic pumpkin like a drum.
Busy hands. Creative mind.
Schrenk joined the Assiniboia Community Marching Band. By age 10 he was a drummer in the Polka Dots, an oom-pah band for weekend dances in Elks Hall. Because he didn’t yet know how to read music, he played by ear. He listened.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about that,” he said.
Late one summer in the 1970s he came to Saskatoon with his Dad for Woodtick, a festival held on prairie grassland a few kilometres north of the city on Central Avenue. Performers included singer Charity Brown and the pop rock band Edward Bear featuring drummer and lead vocalist Larry Evoy.
“That was my first concert,” Schrenk said. “I thought ‘Oh, man, this is where I’d love to be. If I can just be on stage.’ ”
Music is sound. Art is sight. He discovered one. He developed the other.
In school he painted people’s initials for them on their badminton racket. By junior high he was drawing nature pictures with small dots of colour, using the pointillism style before he knew the technique’s formal name. At the print shop in Assiniboia, a business called Able To Print, he started a silk screen department, doing 200 pillows for the 4-H club.
The more art he did, the more ideas he tried.
Going on four decades later, his sense of discovery continues.
In music, Schrenk has six trunks of percussion instruments, an assortment that includes a shovel, because it sounds like an anvil, and a hockey puck, because there is an internal microphone in the puck; the timbre of a bass drum. He’ll turn a snare drum upside down and play it that way in concert, effecting a sound loose and jangly.
“My skill,” he said, “is expressing and interpreting. That applies to music and art.
“I’m not the face of the band. I’m the conduit. Serve the song. The audience is part of the performance, too. The audience can shape the performance.
“To look at the audience and see them moving to the beat you’re playing, that’s fascinating. They feel it.”
We hear you.