Interview: Olli Schulz

Olli Schulz - Photo by Ben Wolf

Olli Schulz - Photo by Ben Wolf

Olli Schulz is a musician as even-keeled and good-natured as they come. In fact, Schulz, who was born in Hamburg and is now based in Berlin, is not only quick to laugh and make others laugh along with him, but he is true to the stereotypical German mentality; everything about him is incredibly straightforward and uncensored.

“It was never a plan to be a musician,” he admitted right off the bat.

In actuality, Schulz, who is in his late 30s, got his first guitar when he was an 18-year-old.

“I started very late,” he said, referring to the fact that many musicians began playing guitar in their teens, or earlier.

And although he had been active in the music scene, working in a record store and as a stagehand, he never considered himself much of a musician. Yet he found himself regularly picking up his roommate-at-the-time’s guitar and messing around on it, which eventually led to the decision to buy one of his own.

“I would start playing whenever I’d find time, and I had a lot of time,” said Schulz, who quit school early and found himself holding down a rotating handful of odd jobs for the next decade or so. “I wrote songs all the time.”

“And then I was really depressed,” he admitted, referencing hitting a rock bottom of sorts. “So I decided to make something new.”

This something new came in the form of a band, Olli Schulz und der Hund Marie. For this project, Schulz called upon his friend, Max Schröder, and the two recorded an album together. It was at this time that Schulz approached long-time friend and musician Marcus Wiebusch, who also is one of the founders of record label Grand Hotel van Cleef.

“I told him, ‘Here, I got 15 or 16 songs. You wanna hear it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure, of course.’ So he heard the songs and said, ‘Hey, this is great, I wanna release a record with you.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ So then I [made] my first record,” Schulz recalled.

And so it was, in 2003, that “Brichst du mir das Herz, dann brech’ ich dir die Beine,” (loosely translated as: “You break my heart, then I’ll break your legs”), was released.

“It was a little success in Germany,” he continued. “It sold over 20,000 records. That was not bad. And that was the beginning of my musician career.”

Suddenly Schulz, who had struggled to find a purpose in life, saw the puzzle pieces fitting perfectly into place.

Now, a little under a decade since that turning point, he has four full-lengths, two EPs and countless singles to his name. His most recent release however, 2009’s “Es brennt so schön,” is the first that features the Olli Schulz name by itself. While he and Schröder are still friends, Schröder made the decision a couple years back to devote himself full-time to the band Tomte, leaving Schulz as a solo artist.

The music itself is essentially the same, with Schulz frequently playing solo shows. But for recording and live gigs that require a full-band sound, Schulz works with four of the five members of fellow German band, Home of the Lame.

“You know, it’s like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” he said, explaining their arrangement. “They are their own band, they have their own singer, but they are all friends of mine.”

Continuing with the musical allusions, Schulz went on to liken himself to Bruce Springsteen, in that his goal in writing is to establish some sort of variance in sound from album to album.

“He made a lot of different records in his career,” Schulz said. “I don’t like all of his music, but I like musicians who make different [kinds] of records.”

Bearing that idea in mind, he said that he plans to step away from the fuller rock sound evidenced on his last album and move toward putting out an acoustic album next. What will change isn’t the actual musical songwriting process, but rather the sound and feeling that is communicated and the way in which it is presented.

“It’s always the same [process],” he said. “I’m sitting at home on my couch watching TV playing guitar. After awhile I figure out ‘Oh, this melody’s great,’ so I stop the TV or the DVD that I’m watching and concentrate on the music. So I start writing a song. That’s the thing that I’ve been doing for ten years now.”

Schulz, who pens all his lyrics in German, said it was never much of a conscious decision for him, seeing as German is his native tongue.

“The only thing…I can do is sing in my mother language. I could never sing serious in English,” he said. “My mother language is German. I have to do it.”

There is, however, an exception, and that’s when he throws English phrases that he’s particularly fond of into his songs. On his second album, he even has a song entirely in English, called “Human of the Week.”

“It has no sense,” he said, “but it’s really nice.”

The lyrics themselves are what he refers to as “bullshit English.” This is the phenomenon he described as when non-native speakers write English lyrics that typically border on the edge of ridiculous or non-sensical.
“The most German bands that sing in English – doesn’t matter if they’re successful or not – sing bullshit,” he said laughing.

He cited the Beatsteaks and the Notwist as two bands he listens to regularly who are guilty of this.

“The lyrics are terrible, to be honest,” he said of the Beatsteaks’ music. “But they’re great. They’re making great music [and] they have a great singer. [As for the Notwist], I really love this band. But I’m always thinking, ‘This guy is singing so bad English.’ But it’s really charming I think.”

Currently, Schulz finds himself listening to a wide variety of music. Some of it includes older music, like David Bowie (who he is giving a second chance, having not been a big fan in the past) and the Beatles (who he admitted is one of those bands he “rediscovers” every couple of years).

In addition, Schulz said he loves the music being made by artists such as the National, Sufjan Stevens, and Wilco – the latter of which he insisted is the most interesting band he has seen or heard in years.

“I think at the moment, [Wilco is] the best rock band in the world,” he said. “Really. They are perfect. Six great musicians making amazing music. You can watch [for] hours and not get bored.”

And of course, ever the fan of intelligent lyrics, Schulz admitted somewhat abashedly that Vinnie Paz’s most recent solo album, “Season of the Assassin,” is a staple in his current musical diet.

“I’m listening to [American] hip-hop a lot,” he shared, heralding the innovative structure and fluidity of rap. “I like word games a lot. I like playing with words.”

While he insisted he is “too old” to put out a rap album of his own, Schulz’s appreciation of fast, rhyming, tightly-structured and quick-witted lyrics is still evident in strands of his own music.

Now, in addition to being a musician, Schulz is the father of a nearly two-year-old daughter. Staying true to his former self, he still holds down various odd jobs, but these days they tend to align better with his interests and goals. One such gig is working as a radio DJ three nights a week and hosting a talk show, which he likened to a “German Howard Stern, but not so stupid.”

And of course, plans for his forthcoming album are well underway.

“[It] is a really lo-fi production,” he said. “We recorded everything in only one room…and it’s more like a live record without audience.”

In addition to featuring more than 30 songs, Schulz also shared that the album will come complete with a cookbook.

“The book is called ‘Plate & Bowl,'” he said. “And it’s about dinner for a single person who can eat with his dog together.”

Olli Schulz plays tonight at Volksbühne in Berlin. The show begins at 21.00.

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